When they write the book about the failings of the 2016-17 Timberwolves (please don’t let there be a book), it could certainly go in chronological order with a first and important chapter on the 6-18 start — many of those games close losses against beatable teams.
There would be a hefty section on defense, of course. If there has been a true disappointment this season it is that outside of a handful of games right after the All-Star break, the Timberwolves have not shown a consistent improvement on that side of the ball even though their new head coach, Tom Thibodeau, came in with that as a calling card. Minnesota ranks 27th in the NBA in defensive rating. Last year it ranked 28th.
But if you are looking for a truly maddening and season-defining statistic — one around which you could probably build the thesis for this hypothetical book that nobody would want to read, let alone buy — it is this one, which was tweeted out a few days ago by Wolves radio broadcaster Alan Horton after a loss at Utah:
The Timberwolves are now 24-22 this season in games where they have held a double-digit lead. Horton dug a little deeper and tweeted that league-wide, NBA teams who take a double-digit lead have won 79 percent of the time this season.
Let that sink in for a minute. The average NBA team, when acquiring a lead of at least 10 points in a game, wins almost four of every five times. The Wolves? They barely win more than half the time — 52 percent, to be exact, with two games left in the season. If the Wolves had converted those leads into wins at the league average rate, they would have 12 more victories this season and might be gearing up for the playoffs.
If that isn’t impressive/depressing enough, consider this (also from Horton’s excellent @WolvesRadio feed): the Wolves have lost 11 games this year in which they led by at least 15 points — the most recent coming in a Thursday loss at Portland. That’s the most losses when leading by that much by any NBA team since the 1996-97 season.
These are the ultimate good news/bad news statistics, right? The good news is the Wolves are talented enough to have built 46 double-digit leads. The bad news is they have enough deficiencies to have let so many slip away.
Why has it happened? The aforementioned leaky defense is a main culprit. The team’s youth can also explain some of it. There is an element of “learning to win” that is hard to define but is real.
The team’s depth (or lack thereof) also can’t be overlooked. The Wolves are getting the fewest minutes and fewest points from their bench of any NBA team this season. That shows up in two ways: leads dwindle when the Wolves’ reserves play, and the team’s starters aren’t as fresh for crunch time.
Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns rank 1-2 in overall minutes played in the NBA this season. They have played all 80 games, as has Gorgui Dieng. The Wolves need reinforcements. (Whether Thibodeau trusts those reinforcements to play heavier minutes is a subject for another book nobody wants to read).
Theoretically the two young stars are getting plenty of late game experience that should help in the future. If the Wolves can beef up their roster with a defensive stalwart or two — adding depth and defensive acumen at the same time — there might come a time when all these leads don’t disappear.
The Wolves and their fans can only hope that happens before Wiggins, Towns and co. are overcome by exhaustion, despair or both.