A season of potential and outright promise for the Timberwolves has given way to a string of losses and questions about the future.
If you searched the Star Tribune archives for a sentence similar to that one, you could probably find it from every season starting in 2004-05 through today. This is a franchise that rebuilds so often that it builds self-deprecating marketing campaigns around starting over.
The current incarnation of the Timberwolves remains the most promising long-term rebuilding attempt since the first Kevin Garnett era ended in 2007. That said, there are also some major cracks showing 36 games into this season.
The Wolves, who were 8-8 at one point this season, have gone 4-16 since then to fall to 12-24. Plenty of things have gone wrong at specific times during that stretch, but these three themes have emerged as the biggest reasons for the downturn:
1) A continued lack of three-pointers: Early in the season, the Timberwolves were getting good ball movement and dynamic play from multiple players attacking the basket. That was good, but it also helped hide a deficiency that plagues the Wolves: three-point shooting.
Part of this is a lack of shooters. Part of this is an antiquated offensive design/philosophy. The sum total is the Wolves are 25th in the NBA in three-point percentage and dead last in both three-pointers made and attempted per game. Minnesota makes 4.9 three-pointers per game; its opponents make almost four more per game, at 8.7. So the Wolves are losing a net of 11 points a game, roughly, from beyond the arc. When Minnesota is making shorter jump shots and attacking the basket efficiently, it's not as big of a deal.
But in close games when offense is at a premium, it's a big deal. Good example: last night's offensively challenged 78-74 loss to Denver. The Wolves were 3-for-11 from long-distance. The Nuggets were 8-for-20.
2) The inconsistency of youth: This one is more a growing pain than a thing that needs to be fixed. Young players are going to struggle at times to find consistency. Andrew Wiggins has been in a slump, as has Zach LaVine. Gorgui Dieng, a key contributor off the bench, did not score in 27 minutes last night. When you have a shooting-challenged point guard (Ricky Rubio) and other offensively limited players like Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince logging minutes, slumps from scorers are more pronounced.
3) Coaching: Let's not forget the tragedy that struck just before the season with the passing of head coach Flip Saunders. While it's hard to say how the season would have played out otherwise, the basketball impact of Flip's death is that Sam Mitchell was thrust into a interim head coaching role. Things started out well, as noted by that 8-8 start, but squads don't have team meetings instead of practices as the Wolves did earlier this week when things are going well and everyone is happy.
Mitchell's rotations have been curious at times, and the long-term answer at head coach very much remains in question. Is he the right person to develop this young talent? The next 46 games are presumably the rest of his audition.