Did you win or did you lose?
For the Timberwolves this season, that question has had an interesting answer based on the presence or absence of one player; Zach LaVine.
With LaVine on the floor this season, the Wolves are 16-31. When LaVine has missed games — one early in the year, two more along the way and then the last 16 with a torn ACL that will keep him out for the rest of the season — Minnesota is 12-7.
It has created somewhat of a strange question: why do the Timberwolves appear to be a better team without LaVine, one of their best scorers and a heralded member of the “Big Three” along with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins?
As is often the case, the strange question doesn’t have a perfect answer.
A popular notion is that for as many strides as LaVine has made on offense — he was averaging close to 19 points per game when he was injured, and he has had binges with massive totals — his defense is still far below par. LaVine himself is aware of this, having joked in January that he would play his best defense as a birthday present for head coach Tom Thibodeau. Because of his poor defense, LaVine’s net rating (minus-3.5) is the worst on the team. When a player with such a poor net rating is playing 37 minutes (more than three quarters) of every game, the results might not be pretty.
But as a very good piece in The Ringer suggests, LaVine alone is not responsible for the Wolves’ defensive woes. Rather, when LaVine was added to a lineup with Towns and Wiggins — other young players who struggled early to grasp coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive concepts — it was too much for Minnesota to overcome. The piece notes that the Wolves are even better on defense when Towns or Wiggins comes off the floor than they were without LaVine on the floor.
That leads to this suggestion from author Jonathan Tjarks: There appears to be a network effect going on: The Wolves defense can sustain having two bad defenders on the floor, but not three.
That leads us to a more complicated suggestion that the Wolves more or less just fit together better in their current alignment — with veteran Brandon Rush having taken over the starting role for LaVine. This is perhaps harder to quantify, but anyone who has watched the Wolves lately — with wins in seven of their last 10 games, standout defense almost every night and improved play from several individuals — could make that argument.
Towns and Wiggins were already standout offensive players, but in the 16 games since LaVine’s injury they have been even better. Towns is averaging 28.9 points and 13.4 rebounds (compared to 23 points and 11.9 rebounds before). Wiggins has scored 25.6 ppg (compared to 22.1 before).
Ricky Rubio has been magnificent lately, playing the best basketball I’ve ever seen him play in a Wolves uniform. Since LaVine’s injury he’s averaging 13 points and 11 assists while attempting 10 field goals per game. Before LaVine’s injury? 8.6 points, 8.2 assists and just 6.6 field goal attempts per game. Rubio is looking for his own shot and making enough of them to be a threat. The uptick in scoring from those three players, plus whatever Rush contributes on offense, has more than compensated for the loss of LaVine’s 19 ppg.
But is that sustainable? And does that really mean the Wolves are “better” without LaVine?
I think you could make the case that the starting lineup is better with a player like Rush — a veteran with more bulk who can spread the floor, typically makes the right play, is decent on defense and doesn’t need to score to be effective but can hit open threes — than LaVine.
That could lead us to something I’ve wondered for a while: if LaVine, with his skill set, is ultimately better suited as a sixth man off the bench? In that role, he could still get 25-30 minutes a night while showing off his offensive gifts and hiding his defensive deficiencies.
I still think LaVine is a valuable player. But maybe he and Wiggins are both too isolation-prone on offense to be all that effective together (Wiggins actually has a lower-percentage of made field goals that are assisted than LaVine). That said, if LaVine does wind up coming off the bench, he and Shabazz Muhammad might have redundant enough skill sets to imagine one needs to go.
Then again, all this analysis could just be silly and the real answer for why the Wolves have been better lately could simply be a young team under a new coach is starting to figure things out. I’d be more tempted to believe that if the Wolves hadn’t gone 3-0 in games earlier this season (as well as 9-7 since the ACL injury) without LaVine, but it certainly is possible.
The bottom line is I haven’t seen the Wolves play this well, this consistently, on both ends of the floor, in a long time — and that’s translated into a bunch of wins (the last four of which have come against playoff teams Utah, L.A. Clippers, Golden State and Washington). At the very least, this stretch should give the Wolves something to think about as they ponder their roster construction as LaVine returns to health going forward.