Kevin Durant Knows About Sacrifice But Do the T-Wolves?

Recently, Kevin Durant went on The Bill Simmons Podcast and among other basketball-related topics, spoke about the Minnesota Timberwolves and their revamped roster that now includes Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford. Part of the Durant/Simmons dialogue is excerpted below.

Durant: So let’s go down the line with that. Now Teague. Can’t really shoot that well but he can play. He need the ball though. And Jimmy. He can shoot it, but he need a rhythm so he need the ball, too. Wiggins: He the same way. He need the ball. They can all score. They all good, but somebody gotta give up something. Whoever give up the most—

Simmons: Blog headline tomorrow: “KD doesn’t believe in Timberwolves.”

Durant: I’m just telling you what everybody else knows.

Simmons: I’m just talking [about] what the internet does.

Durant: Didn’t I just point out their games though? Am I right about their games?

Simmons: You’re right; somebody is going to have to sacrifice

Durant: I’m just saying somebody will have to give up something in their games in order for it to work, and I believe that they will. But Towns needs to be the guy that they get the ball to, I think, because he’s so good. Jimmy needs to be facilitating. Wiggins is going to be the guy [when] you need a basket; he’s going to be the finisher. I think. If I was coaching the team on 2K that’s how I would play it.

Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, this isn’t NBA 2K and the type of sacrifice Durant speaks of can’t be dictated with the flick of a joystick or the press of an “A” button. And while Minnesota is teeming with hope and perhaps now, seething at Durant’s comments, it might be smart for the land of 10,000 lakes to temper expectations as the 2017-18 NBA season draws near.

In reality, KD is just skimming the surface when it comes to the hurdles the T-Wolves will have to overcome on their quest to exceed a Vegas over/under win total currently set at 48.5.

Offensively, Durant is correct. Minnesota has scorers, but his comment glosses over the details; namely, how and where the scoring is taking place. The Timberwolves projected starting lineup consists of five players who take the vast majority of their field goal attempts inside the arc. This doesn’t bode well for a variety of reasons, most notably spacing.

Current T-Wolves Starting Lineup Percent Shots By Zone (2016-17)
Player Restricted Area Paint (Non-RA) Mid-Range Corner 3 Above the Break 3
Jeff Teague 31% 26% 16% 3% 25%
Jimmy Butler 30% 12% 38% 3% 17%
Andrew Wiggins 32% 12% 37% 2% 16%
Karl-Anthony Towns 41% 21% 19% 4% 14%
Taj Gibson 47% 26% 25% 2% 0%

If one were to take the 2016-17 shot charts of Teague, Wiggins, Butler, Towns and Gibson and stack them on top of each other there would be considerable overlap in the restricted area, paint (non-restricted area) and mid-range zones. It appears sacrifices will extend beyond just giving up the ball, but also to preferential operating areas on offense.

Clearly, it would help if someone could take and make more 3s. The departure of Zach LaVine hurts and the T-Wolves best remaining option, measured by career 3PT% (averaging more than two attempts per game), is Karl-Anthony Towns at 36.1%. The scarier part is that LaVine led the team in 3PA last season in only 47 games played. It’s no surprise then, that Minnesota ranked dead last in 3PA with 21.0 per game, a far cry from Houston’s league-leading 41.3 attempts per game.

None of this is groundbreaking news though. The Timberwolves have ranked near the bottom of the league in 3PT% and 3PA for three years running. The problem is the former begets the latter. If a team can’t shoot 3s to begin with, there’s no sense in shooting more of them. The 2016-17 Brooklyn Nets already tried this strategy and the result was a 20-62 record, the worst in the NBA.

Defense isn’t exactly a bright spot either. Yeah, Tom Thibodeau is a defensive genius, but the jury is still out on his ability to motivate this group. Thibodeau’s arrival last season didn’t move the needle at all, as the T-Wolves atrocious defensive attack was nearly identical, in terms of defensive rating, to the previous two seasons under Head Coaches Flip Saunders and Sam Mitchell.

T-Wolves Defense Last 3 Seasons
Season Defensive Rating Rank
2016-17 112.0 27th
2015-16 110.1 28th
2014-15 112.2 30th

To a large extent, NBA defense is more about effort than scheme. Thibodeau can teach the best defensive system till he’s blue in the face, but the player’s still have to go do it. Jimmy Butler helps, but outside of him, Gorgui Dieng and Taj Gibson (albeit a 32-year-old Taj Gibson), there’s no NBA regular who has even remotely shown the ability to exert consistent effort on that end of the floor.

Another glaring issue is depth. Beyond an aging Jamal Crawford, it’s hard to imagine where in the world the T-Wolves will find scoring off their bench. Gorgui Dieng averaged 10.0 points in 32.4 minutes per game last season, but that’s about his ceiling. Tyus Jones is a distributor, not a shooter and Nemanja Bjelica hasn’t shown the ability to convert efficiently outside of 3 feet. Meanwhile, Cole Aldrich has bounced around the league for 7 years while averaging 3.3 points in just over 10 minutes per game. Marcus Georges-Hunt played all of five games last season for Orlando and Justin Patton is an unproven rookie out of Creighton.

It appears Thibodeau’s bigger challenge, even beyond that of coaxing his team into playing (at least) satisfactory defense, might be mixing and matching his lineup in an attempt to find consistent offense when his starters need a blow.

There are numerous other issues at play that make Minnesota’s situation a tenuous one at best, including the power of the Western Conference and Jimmy Butler’s questionable leadership.

It’s no secret that the Western Conference is stacked. All told, the T-Wolves will play the Thunder, Warriors, Rockets and Spurs 14 times in 2017-18. Add two games apiece against Cleveland and Boston and that makes for 18 games against the NBA’s upper echelon. Last season, they went 3-17 against those same teams, losing by an average of 10.5 points. If they were to go 5-13 this season against the above-mentioned opponents, that means they would have to win 70% of their remaining games to reach 50 wins. It just isn’t happening. And while that 5-13 projection might be pessimistic in some eyes, either way, an improvement of 17+ wins for a Timberwolves team as currently constructed, in a Western Conference packed with talent is a stretch.

And if the competition doesn’t pose a big enough threat, then a Jimmy Butler implosion certainly does. Butler’s locker room leadership was questioned on numerous occasions by those both inside and outside the Bulls’ organization prior to the trade to Minnesota. Management as well as teammates (see Rajon Rondo) have made their views known and even former NBA players including Scottie Pippen and Antoine Walker haven’t had pleasant things to say. Bringing a questionable leader into a leadership role where the expectation is that he put a young, talented team on his back in order to cultivate a winning culture is a huge gamble.

The facts are blatantly obvious. The T-Wolves haven’t been to the playoffs in 13 seasons. Their new roster is talented, but balance, motivation and experience are still lacking. Furthermore, they find themselves in a Western Conference that has never had more all-around talent than it has now, led into battle by a player that has yet to prove himself as a capable leader. This simply isn’t a scenario that breeds an overnight success story in the NBA.

Regardless, Karl-Anthony Towns couldn’t help but stoke the fire last month stating, “This is what dynasties are made of.” While that statement might be easier for Minnesota fans to love than Kevin Durant’s comments indicating he’s not buying the hype, Towns is speaking a NBA youngster’s fantasy while KD is speaking veteran truths. The T-Wolves will be improved, but dynasties come from making the playoffs first. Baby-steps Minnesota. Baby steps.