The Timberwolves defeated the Lakers 119-111 on Thursday, giving them a 36-25 record heading into the All-Star break.
Jimmy Butler didn’t have a great shooting night, but he made clutch plays down the stretch and filled up the stat sheet, finishing with 24 points, five rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots in 41 minutes.
Karl-Anthony Towns battled foul trouble and never really got on track offensively, but he still finished with 19 rebounds to go with 10 points, four assists and two blocks.
Taj Gibson (28 points), Jeff Teague (20 points) and Jamal Crawford (15 points), all new additions this season along with Butler, were all fantastic. Tyus Jones and Gorgui Dieng were productive off the bench.
And perhaps the most talented player on the whole roster played 32 minutes — though none of them in the final 10:35 of the game — and finished with eight points, four rebounds, no assists and no steals.
His offensive rating for the game — a measure of points produced per 100 possessions — was 83. His defensive rating was 114. Both of those were the worst marks among the starting five. For the season, his offensive rating is 101 and his defensive mark is 113. Again, those are the worst in both cases of the five starters.
This is the mystery of Andrew Wiggins, made more glaring by the fact that the Wolves are often winning — as they did Thursday — despite him instead of because of him.
While Butler and Towns head to Los Angeles for Sunday’s All-Star Game as rewards for their strong play and the Wolves’ resurgence this season, Wiggins will have an entire week off before Minnesota plays again Feb. 23.
Wiggins has been lauded by coach Tom Thibodeau for strides he’s made this season, but the inconsistencies in his game seem to outstrip everything else. It leaves the praise from the coach — also the personnel boss who factored into the decision to give Wiggins a five-year extension at close to $150 million that kicks in next season — feeling either hollow or intentional, a motivational ploy more than a sincere expression.
Wiggins has been prodded by Butler, including the great quote obtained by our own Jerry Zgoda during a sitdown earlier this year. Butler was asked if he’s the most talented player on the team.
“Who, me? Hell no, Wigs is. Wigs is the most talented by far. I see him do things and I’m like wow, like how? The crazy part is that was at 40 percent. Just think if you’re 80 percent or what if you just go as hard as you can, 100? Wigs is easily the most talented person on this team. … Playing with me, you’ve got no choice because I’m going to get on your nerves every single day until you do what I know you can do, what I expect of you, what we expect of you. Then it’s going to make winning a lot easier.”
But he’s not there yet. He’s not there most nights, or at least enough nights. Statistically, Wiggins has not meaningfully improved in any area this season. He’s scoring less than he did last year (17.5 ppg vs. 22.8 ppg), but that was to be expected with Butler coming aboard. What’s truly troubling is his rebounding is flat, his assists are down a little, his shooting is flat and he’s getting to the line less (and making free throws at a much poorer rate). His defensive rating of 113 is right in line with his career mark of 114. In his last 11 games, Wiggins is averaging just 14 points and has topped 20 just once.
It is fair to point out that Wiggins is still young. He’ll turn 23, in fact, on the Wolves’ first game back from the break next Friday at Houston. But the NBA is an increasingly young league, and this is Wiggins’ fourth season. At the very least, one would hope and reasonably expect to see a rate of improvement at this point.
I’m unfortunately reminded of a conversation I had with ESPN’s Doris Burke not long before the season started in which we both agreed Wiggins was the key to this Wolves’ season. My contention was the Wolves could be a 45-win team without much more from him, but that if they wanted to be truly special they needed a whole lot more. Burke said, “There are moments where you can be seduced by Andrew Wiggins,” and then went into a lengthy “yeah, but” regarding his output and effort on a consistent basis.
The Wolves are on pace for 48 wins, and they’re basically tied for the No. 3 seed in the West at the break. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 95 percent chance of reaching the postseason (though it should be noted there is a whole cluster of teams in the 3-10 spots in the West separated by just four games in the loss column).
Butler has been even better than I imagined. Towns is a gifted offensive player who has made defensive strides and remains a double-double machine. Gibson has been a revelation. Teague and Jones have been a solid point guard duo. Crawford has boosted the bench.
Wiggins has been durable, and he’s had his moments, but he remains a mystery. Solving him was the question in October, and it still is in February.