The Minnesota Timberwolves have played 13 games with Jimmy Butler and 13 without him. The latter 13 have been way more fun.
For the second-consecutive season, Tyus Jones is the point guard of the Timberwolves’ most effective lineup. Jones thrived in the 261 minutes he played in place of Jeff Teague last season when surrounded by the other four starters. That group of Jones, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns outperformed opponents (in terms of net-rating) by 24.3 points per 100 possessions. For context, that was the only Wolves lineup to post a net-rating better than plus-8.0 and was far superior to the plus-7.3 traditional starters lineup.
It’s happening again. Maybe not so ironically, Jones is this group’s only holdover from last season’s best unit.
Since Jimmy Butler was jettisoned, the backups (Jones, Derrick Rose, Dario Saric and Gorgui Dieng) and Robert Covington put together a five-man unit that is outperforming opponents by 16.0 points per 100 possessions. Further, the qualitative tenets of this lineup’s success is similar to last season’s: elite defense; limiting turnovers; setting up teammates for clean looks; slow paced.
This new group is the only Wolves lineup that has played over 50 minutes together and is holding opponents to under one point per possession (.902). It is also the only grouping that is tallying twice as many assists as they are turnovers (2.40 assist-to-turnover ratio). They also just play slow, with a pace just a hair over 100 — the second-slowest pace of any five-man group that has gotten substantial run this season.
These features are all quintessential characteristics of Jones. The 21-year-old has turned himself into a stalwart defender at the point-of-attack while also quarterbacking, or at least calming, the offense when he is in the game. His impact doesn’t always pop, with an effect that is more cumulative in nature. That’s definitely what the stats suggest.
I would suggest that this also shows up on the film, particularly on the defensive end. It would be outlandish to say Jones’ defense is All-Defensive Team caliber at this point of his career — he’s still not physically imposing — but he does mirror qualities of two All-Defensive Team players: Butler and Covington.
Butler and Covington are stylistically different; both holding their own in their own sort of way. The difference is in how Butler appeared to revel in the opportunistic nature of the “free safety” role, biding time to make a high leverage play that could swing momentum. Covington definitely makes his impact felt in the steals he tallies but I would argue his best qualities are those that cover up the gaps of his surrounding teammates.
As I wrote about last week, Covington has a wiggling slither to his off-ball game that frees him to evade screeners. Often times Covington wins the defensive possession by not being clobbered by a screen. Other times, he extrapolates that win and turns the slithering wiggle into two points on the other end.
That wiggle is awareness, the steal is vision. Covington has both, and that’s rare. Jones is beginning to show he does too.
Butler focused in more on his vision to take chances. Yes, the Wolves defense stunk at the beginning of the season but Butler was raking in the NBA version of a “pick-six” while he was still in a Wolves uniform. I swear he had one of these interceptions every fourth quarter he played in.
The whole risk-reward calculation of these types of plays is something Jones seems to have taken to. Of course, there is an inherent risk in leaving one’s man in pursuit of a steal but in certain situations, the risk is smaller and makes the pursuit of the reward worth it. Watch Jones here leave his man, similar to how Butler ditched his in the above clip, so as to prey on the unexpecting big. Neither Marvin Bagley (in the Butler play) nor Jakob Poeltl (in the Jones play) knows that Butler or Jones are even taking a risk.
If the risk isn’t recognized, was it ever really a risk at all?
“It is [a heat check,]” said Jones when I asked if going for that steal is the defensive equivalent of coming down and pulling up after you’ve hit your last few jumpers. “I know if I wouldn’t have got it, Thibs would have been mad,” he said with a chuckle.
Jones has, again, had the defensive hot hand this season.
For so many players on the roster, and of course, the team at large, the Jimmy Butler trade date draws a fairly clearcut line of bad before and good after. Not for Andrew Wiggins, though. For the player who was first supposed to be elevated by Butler’s presence and then had his fit alongside Butler litigated, we haven’t been able to really draw any lines into who or what Wiggins is this season — other than inconsistent.
Playing with Butler, Wiggins had a few solid performances early on this season. (The first meeting against Golden State comes to mind.) Then, after Butler was traded, Wiggins played what is probably the worst string of basketball of his career. Sure, the Wolves were winning and Robert Covington was making everything seem OK, but Wiggins was not OK. And then now, poof — Wiggins has looked great since the calendar turned to December (starting with the Boston game). His season-high in points (26) came in Wednesday’s win over Charlotte, but more importantly, he’s approaching career-highs in a consistency of effort.
“It feels good to be back,” Wiggins said after that 26-point performance. “I had a little stretch where I wasn’t playing too well, but it happens. I just got back in the gym and got back to myself.”
What remains somewhat unclear is what the best version of Wiggins’ self is. Many point to completely stripping the midrange game out of Wiggins’ arsenal as an efficiency elixir, but that isn’t necessarily realistic. Could he shoot less from there? Sure. Is it possible, or even smart, to completely delete an area of the floor from anyone’s game? No.
What can happen is that Wiggins’ teammates can do a better job of putting him in places to succeed — areas of the game that optimize the weapons he does have. One of those areas to avoid is late in the shot clock.
Historically, Wiggins has had an atrocious efficiency when he is forced to look for his shot as time winds down on the shot clock. A season ago, his effective field goal percentage (which calculates in the added value of a 3-point shot) was a porous 38.6 percent with four-or-fewer seconds on the shot clock, per NBA.com/stats. This season, it’s worse — 26.7 percent. It stands to reason that if the Wolves would move through their possessions at a swifter pace that the volume of shots Wiggins would take would come in more optimal timing scenarios.
Jeff Teague perpetuates this. Though Teague has many strengths as an offensive player, namely his vision he does overly rely on that vision. From this, hesitation and delay ensue. This draws out possessions and too often leads to a dumping of the ball to Wiggins — the “late shot clock guy.”
In a perfect world, Wiggins is not the late shot clock guy. It should be Karl-Anthony Towns — who had the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA with under four seconds on the shot clock last season — but Towns is a post, making it far tougher to just say go get a shot before the clock expires.
Wiggins will continue to be the late shot guy due to his position and the role he has in the offense. A solution becomes getting into those late shot clock situations with less frequency. If Teague is decisive earlier in the clock it will not only boost the team’s efficiency but by proxy ascend Wiggins’ confidence.
Early in the fourth quarter of the Wolves eventual loss to Portland Saturday night, Gorgui Dieng was doing Gorgui Dieng things on the offensive end: roaming around the paint look for opportunities to set screens to free up his teammates. As it has always been, occasionally in these situations, Dieng will receive a pocket pass after popping off of one of those screens. These instances free up the most quintessentially Dieng element of his offensive game: a midrange jump shot.
Portland’s excellent broadcast crew, headed by ace play-by-play announcer, Kevin Calabro (who actually sang happy birthday to his color commentator, Lamar Hurd, on the broadcast Saturday) called this play and named the Dieng shot.
“It’s Dieng who hits a midrange hopper,” said Calabro after this bucket:
I love it. “Midrange hopper,” so perfect.
For Dieng, it’s fascinating that in a league that is increasingly rejecting the midrange shot that Dieng’s volume from the non-Moneyball areas of the floor has remained status quo throughout his career. Some would call this antiquated on Dieng’s part or poor coaching on Tom Thibodeau’s. But here’s the rub: Dieng is a really good midrange shooter.
Now, yes, any team would die if midrange hoppers were the mainstay of their offensive diet. But as a supplementary piece, it’s fine to get up these shots if you can make them more than half of the time. Simple math tells us that a 50 percent two-point shot is the equivalent of a 33.3 percent 3-point shot. Sure, 33 percent from 3 isn’t great, but it’s better than a turnover. That’s what Dieng’s hoppers are: better than turnovers. For his six-year career, Dieng is a 51.1 percent shooter from 10-to-16 feet. Fine — that’s 34.1 percent from 3.
However, what is fascinating is how this hopper of Dieng’s is being defended this season. It’s a night-to-night mystery: some teams scramble to run Dieng off the shot like they would a 3, others welcome him to pull. Watch how the Moneyball Brooklyn Nets defended these Dieng fires. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t.)
As it always has, it stands to reason that Dieng’s game would likely only be boosted from operating beyond the 3-point arc a little more often. Last season, according to NBA.com’s tracking data, Dieng only attempted 48 corner-3s, making a paltry 14 (29.2 percent). This season he has made 3-of-9 from the corners. More looks like this one would, at a minimum, lead to better spacing. Hop away, Gorgui.
Saturday’s game against Portland injected the purest of gasoline into the Josh Okogie Hype Train. With Robert Covington out, Okogie shifted up the rotation ladder — Derrick Rose into Covington’s starting spot and Okogie into Rose’s minutes. Per usual, Okogie’s energy was so on-point that it polished any of his youthful jaggedness.
Still, a rotation blockade remains. And for the Okogie truthers, unfortunately, the argument for messing with that rotation is faltering. As mentioned above, that second unit has been operating almost flawlessly. Messing with that would be silly.
I maintain that finding situational spots for Okogie (and Anthony Tolliver) makes sense. If for no other reason, giving Okogie even a little situational run allows the scope to widen of what we can come to understand him to be. In just the 26 minutes of run Saturday, it was easy to see a developed comfort in Okogie’s attacking of the rim. Earlier in the year, he would be quick to run into a wall of defenders while on the attack; Saturday, however, Okogie did a great job of finessing his body around the opponent while still moving north-south. Okogie has grown a very powerful first step after he picks up the dribble.
Further, his undying stance of no chill emanates from end-to-end. His first shot of the game was an erratic drive that missed. After crashing to the floor, Okogie sprinted back with enough vigor to effectively annoy Evan Turner. Okogie’s peskiness brought an anxiety to the ensuing Portland possession. This reminds me of Draymond Green.
After the ball popped out of Turner’s hands and into Nik Stauskas’, the Portland possession was broken. In a huff, Stuaskas grabbed the ball and scrambled to the rim — putting up his own Okogie-esque attempt.
For now, that balances out as a net-zero. Give Okogie time to find more offensive polish, and those situations become unilateral wins for the Wolves. Choo-choo!