LOS ANGELES — The Minnesota Timberwolves need to talk.
It’s a simple statement that is accurate at many levels, even if in some instances it’s too late for some conversations to fix things off the court. The Wolves needed their star players to talk last year to come to an understanding on how to play together. They needed Jimmy Butler to more clearly explain his desire to move on to Tom Thibodeau earlier in the offseason rather than later. They needed (and, really, still do) Thibs and Glen Taylor to talk and figure out how to get on the same page when moving Butler.
On the court, that communication breakdown is a problem as well. The Wolves have the second worst defensive rating in the NBA at 114.6, which is somehow worse than their 110.1 rating from a year ago that saw them finish 25th in the league. Part of it is personnel, as the mixture of aging veterans and young players at times still finding their way hasn’t meshed, but so many of their problems simply come down to a lack of communication, which leads to players not being on a string.
“It’s all about everybody talking and knowing everybody else’s assignments, because you never know who you’re going to guard in transition,” Butler said after the 114-110 loss. “I think the season’s still young, but we can’t use that excuse too much longer because these games come around quick.”
Against the Lakers on Wednesday night, it was painfully obvious at times that the Wolves simply weren’t talking out coverages enough. There was a pick-and-roll where Jimmy Butler went to switch and Derrick Rose fought over the top, leaving a man wide open and then, again because the communication wasn’t there, both players chased back thinking they were the one that had left their assignment. There was a baseline inbounds play late where Andrew Wiggins thought they were switching and let LeBron James dart to the corner uncovered for an uncontested jumper (that he missed), while Wiggins turned around gesturing at the frontcourt for an explanation after the fact. Throughout the game the Lakers could seemingly get a good shot provided they did the bare minimum of moving the basketball and forcing the Timberwolves defense to move and rotate, because inevitable a link in the chain would break.
And still, despite their defensive miscues and allowing the Lakers to shoot 48.4 percent from the field and 44.1 percent from three — L.A.’s second best mark of the season — Minnesota was in the game late thanks to Derrick Rose’s 7-for-9 night from three-point range and some timely Jimmy Butler buckets late. Karl-Anthony Towns, however, might as well have been absent after the first quarter. The All-Star center came out on fire, with nine points and four boards early to take advantage of what has been a mediocre at best Lakers frontcourt, and it looked like we were in for a big night from him.
And then, as has been the case all too often this season, Towns disappeared. He finished the game with 13 points and nine rebounds, going 2-of-10 from the field after the opening quarter and often settling for outside shots after getting manhandled inside by the newly acquired, 36-year-old Tyson Chandler.
With Towns rendered obsolete on offense, the Wolves leaned on Butler and Rose for their offense and it almost worked, but the lack of balance was stark and even if improved, leaning on Rose’s three-point shooting seems like an unsustainable offensive strategy. The Timberwolves need Towns active and engaged throughout the game, and when asked afterwards what the team can do and what Towns can do to have better sustained performances, coach Tom Thibodeau wasn’t exactly forthcoming.
“We just gotta figure it out,” Thibodeau bristled.
That quote embodies the Timberwolves this season. The idea that at this point they’ll just “figure it out” and get the pieces to work together without communicating with each other as to why things may not be working is why this team is destined to fall back into mediocrity. At 4-8 they’re tied with the Suns and Mavs in the loss column and as Butler noted the “season is young” excuse is quickly losing its merit.