Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau, along with general manager Scott Layden, held a season-ending news conference Monday.
After going back and re-watching the recording a couple of times, I’ve pulled out five declarations from the session and attempted to do a fact-check of sorts on it. Here we go:
1) Around the 2:45 mark, Thibodeau says, “We all saw the impact (Jimmy Butler) had on our team and the culture. I believe we were 37-22 with him, and so to change everything to get the team into the playoffs … I believe that (47-35 record) tied for the fifth-best record in the history of the franchise.”
Verdict: True on all fronts. The Wolves were 37-22 in the regular season when Butler played, compared with 10-13 when he did not play. Injuries are a part of basketball, and Butler certainly missed games against some tough competition — particularly during the 17-game stretch he missed with his knee injury late in the year — but the Wolves’ record with Butler projects to a 51-31 record over an 82-game season. That would have been good enough for the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. As it was, 47-35 was tied for the fifth-best record in franchise history. The Wolves have topped 50 wins four times, and they were 47-35 in 2000-01.
2) Around the 3:15 mark, Thibodeau asserts that Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins had “terrific years in terms of impacting winning.”
Verdict: Debatable. Towns certainly did, topping all Wolves players (including Butler) in advanced metrics such as win shares per 48 minutes, value over replacement player and box score plus-minus according to Basketball Reference. Wiggins, though, actually posted a negative (minus-0.4) VORP and struggled in other metrics — both traditional and advanced. The bigger question, I suppose, is whether Wiggins’ output can be considered a sacrifice that contributed in some non-measurable way to victories … or if he was truly a liability, with the Wolves winning in spite of him.
I think the truth leans closer to the latter, but as Thibodeau said Monday when asked about critics of his own style, “I feel like I’m going to study the team harder than anyone else, so I’m going to have a better understanding of the team also.”
3) Around the 4:50 mark, Britt Robson says as part of a question to Thibodeau, “Starters were actually good on both sides of the ball.”
Verdict: True. The typical starting lineup that was on the floor together for 1,131 minutes, accounting for more than one-fourth of all minutes played — Towns, Wiggins, Butler, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson — posted a defensive rating of 104.2. That mark would have been tied for No. 8 in the NBA had it played out over a full season. And that group had an offensive rating of 112.7 — just a tick below league-leading Houston (112.8) over a full season. That five-man group was elite offensively and quite good defensively.
4) As part of Thibodeau’s answer to that question, around the 5:15 mark Thibodeau said, “I thought our bench did a good job for us this year.”
Verdict: Mostly false. There’s a nugget of truth if we just isolate on offense. Comparing bench players only, Minnesota’s reserves had the sixth-best offensive rating (107.7) in the NBA. But the Wolves’ reserves were dead last in defensive rating (111.1), and their net rating of minus-3.4 put them 20th in the NBA. Combine that with the fact that Wolves reserves played by far the fewest minutes in the NBA (1,110, with the next-closest team more than 200 minutes above that), and the Wolves neither had quality nor quantity from their non-starters.
5) Around the 7:00 mark, Thibodeau said, “When Jimmy went out, I liked the way we played a lot defensively down the stretch.”
Verdict: Debatable. For the month of March, when Butler missed 13 of his 17 late-season games, the Wolves had a defensive rating of 110.8 — No. 24 in the NBA for the month and worse than their season mark of 108.4. However, the lineup of Wiggins, Towns, Teague, Gibson and Nemanja Bjelica — often used as the starting five when Butler was hurt — posted a defensive rating of 103.9 this season during their 381 minutes on the court together. That’s actually a little better than the 104.2 mark noted above when Butler was in the lineup. And the Wolves were able to grind out much-needed wins without Butler thanks to their defense — most notably a 93-92 win over Dallas on March 30.
Overall conclusion: The Wolves took a significant step forward this season, but the jump from 31 wins to 47 wins will in some ways be easier than the next jump to the mid-50s and true contention. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but the most critical pieces to the offseason for the Wolves will be evaluating Wiggins’ contribution, role and fit with the team while working to strengthen their bench, particularly defensively.