thibsThe Timberwolves endured their most lopsided loss of the season Wednesday, a 125-97 humbling at the hands of the Cavaliers. So naturally, this is a GREAT time to take a look at the incremental improvements the team has made this season.

Wait, what?

OK, maybe it seems counter-intuitive but Wednesday’s clunker did stand in stark contrast to the Wolves’ recent stretch of play. Before that one, we could draw some interesting conclusions from looking at their pair of preceding 24-game stretches. We can tell the story of Minnesota’s season — and really what has happened so far under Tom Thibodeau in relation to where the team was last season under Sam Mitchell — with two relatively basic statistics: offensive rating and defensive rating.

Offensive rating is an estimate of the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions, and defensive rating is an estimate of how many points they allow per 100 possessions.

In the first 24 games this season, when the Wolves started a disappointing 6-18, their offensive rating was a respectable 109.4. That would be the 14th-best in the NBA — middle of the pack — if it was their overall number. But their defensive rating was 112.9, which would be near the very bottom of the league (28th) if that was their total number right now.

In the next 24 games leading into the Cavaliers blowout, the Wolves went 13-11. Their offensive rating improved a little — up to 110.6, which would be 10th for this full NBA season-to-date. But the real strides came on defense, where the Wolves’ rating in that span was 108.1, which would be 12th in the NBA for a full year.

That might seem like small progress, but it underscores the value of just a few points and a few possessions in the NBA. By getting a little over a point better on offense and almost five points better on defense from one 24-game span to the next, the Wolves dramatically changed their record. Eight of Minnesota’s 13 wins in that span were by single-digits, and four of their last five wins have been by razor-thin margins.

But wait: didn’t the Wolves pull this same reversal last season? Right, they started 14-36 under Mitchell before going 15-17 in their final 32 games. But in those final 32 games, their defensive rating actually got worse than it had been while the Wolves played faster and scored more points.

Overall, the Wolves’ defensive rating last year was 111.0. This year? It’s 111.1. So much for Thibodeau the defensive mastermind, right?

Well, not exactly. The more likely force at play is a young team that got used to having some success while playing a more open style at the end of the season had to adjust to a new coach demanding more defense. We saw the pains of that adjustment in the first 24 games this season and the gains in the next 24.

It’s also important to note the Wolves’ net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) during this year’s 13-11 run was plus-2.5, while it was minus-2.9 during last year’s respectable 15-17 closing stretch. They’ve been better lately than they were even at their best last year.

The Wolves might never be a great defensive team with their current personnel, but they will at least need to be an adequate defensive team to enjoy sustained success. Wednesday notwithstanding, they have clearly made strides in that direction without sacrificing any offense.

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