Time to Tank: The Timberwolves’ Past Points to a Strategy for Productive Losses

Time to Tank: The Timberwolves’ Past Points to a Strategy for Productive Losses

Written By Dane Moore (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo provided by the Minnesota Timberwolves

Andrew Wiggins was getting to the free throw line at will. In back-to-back 29-point performances on April 8 and April 10 of 2015 — game 78 and 79 of the 2014-15 season — Wiggins shot a combined 26 free throws in the two games. This was emblematic of what had become a trend: in addition to his patented midrange faders, Wiggins had become headstrong in consistently attacking the rim. It was this type of play that cemented the assertion that Wiggins had not only been the best rookie in the league that season but that he was finishing the season ascending.

Two weeks after those capstone performances, Wiggins was, in fact, named the 2014-15 Rookie of the Year for his role on the 16-66 Minnesota Timberwolves.

Those two tantalizing April performances came with an added benefit for the Wolves: the fat stats came in losses. Even better: Minnesota went on to lose their next three games, making it 12 straight L’s to end that season. It was this special kind of futility, in conjunction with the New York Knicks winning three of their final 11 games, that gave the Wolves the highest quantity of ping-pong balls for the NBA’s 2015 Draft Lottery. At 16-66, the Wolves were the worst team in the league, one game “ahead” of the 17-65 Knicks.

When the Wolves won that lottery, they drafted Karl-Anthony Towns.

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This brings us to the Wolves current predicament: KAT isn’t a teenager who needs to have a strong individual close to the season to create inspiration for what he could become. Regardless of how Towns ends his fourth season in the league, he is already well on his way. It’s hard to put a cap on what KAT can become; he’s already, arguably, the best offensive center in the NBA.

Somewhat ironically, Towns continuing to ball out these final 14 games of the season could, actually, cap himself. Cap, as in salary cap, is the operative word here. Towns stands to earn an additional $32 million on his five-year contract — that starts next season — if he is voted onto one of the three All-NBA teams. That additional (approximately) $6 million per season will only make it increasingly difficult for the Wolves to put teammates around Towns who can assist him in breaking through his own glass ceiling.

Beyond the salary cap ramifications, Towns’ balling will likely pile up wins that will do the opposite of what happened during Wiggins’ rookie season: The Wolves will lose ping-pong balls. Unfortunately for the Wolves, this element of the equation appears to not be controllable. Towns told assembled media in Denver Tuesday that he “can’t” shut it down after experiencing a knee scare Saturday because he has “too much pride in being on the court.”

If this is true, if KAT has to play, other measures should be taken by a franchise that has to realize the playoffs just aren’t happening this season. Which brings us back to Wiggins. Not 2018-19 Wiggins (who is a whole different thing), but to Rookie of the Year Wigs and what manifested in the waning moments of his first season in the league.

In another bizarre bout of irony, Wiggins was coached by his current coach’s dad that season. To Wiggins’ benefit, Flip Saunders implemented both a productive (in growth) and effective (in losses) tank strategy to close that season. It went something like this: Free the kids.

In those final 12 games of the 2014-15 season, the six players who led the team in minutes were all 26-or-younger — Wiggins (19), Zach LaVine (19), Adreian Payne (23), Lorenzo Brown (24), Justin Hamilton (24) and, randomly, Chase Budinger (26). Of the bunch, the greatest freedoms were granted to Wiggins and LaVine. Both rookies played prominent roles all season but down the stretch they were unleashed.

  • LaVine saw his per game time on the floor (40.6 minutes) increase by 182 percent compared to the first 70 games of the season.
  • Wiggins played 41.3 minutes per game in the final 12 — a 117 percent increase.
  • LaVine’s per game shot volume corresponded to the minutes increase and then some. After taking 7.4 shots per game in the first 70, he bombed 16.3 per night in the final 12 — a 220 percent increase. Nearly a third of those field goal attempts came from beyond-the-arc during the run where LaVine was converting at a very tank-y 30.5 percent rate.
  • Wiggins also took 16.3 shots per night during that run. By his standards, that was only a 121 percent increase in volume.

It can be argued that freeing Wiggins rendered some negative externalities that may be contributing to some shot selection issues that still plague him today. Flip being okay with 182 of Wiggins’ final 196 shots being of the 2-point variety probably wasn’t a great idea. But the process of empowering your rookies in a lost season is hard to argue with. For LaVine, the freedom, it can be argued, inspired a confidence that led to him making 123 of 316 (38.9 percent) 3-pointers the next season.

Under-the-radar, the real ammunition for the tank at the end of that season came from the foot soldiers: Lorenzo Brown was a 10-day contract guy who was eventually signed on to close that season; Justin Hamilton was claimed off waivers 20 days before the 12-game losing streak began; Adreian Payne had only played in 17 games in the NBA before the losing streak; Chase Budinger was still recovering from a knee injury and, as it turned out, was on his way out of the league. Only Payne ever played in a game for the Wolves after that season, yet those four combined to average 108.7 minutes per night in those pitifully wonderful final 12 games of that season.

This new (Ryan) Saunders-led group can make similar moves of productive futility. Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, this season’s rookies, certainly are not the caliber of a prospect that Wiggins or LaVine were but they also can be leaned on. Those two should start — or at least play — as much as reasonably possible. Healthy players who could be a part of the bigger, long-term picture are the only ones who should receive serious consideration for cutting into minutes for Okogie and Bates-Diop.

(I was intrigued by the possibility of seeing what this current group could do with Robert Covington in the fold, but the ambiguity that has surrounded the bone bruise in his knee muddies the logic of holding out for his return. With every additional day Covington misses, the rationale for bringing him back at all dwindles. Same goes for Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague — who have both admitted they are playing at less than 100 percent.)

Simply playing the rookies may not be enough. If these Wolves actually want to compete in the tanking standings, they need to bring out the foot soldiers. This season’s Brown/Budinger/Hamilton/Payne could be Cam Reynolds, Jerryd Bayless, C.J. Williams and Jared Terrell. None of those fringe guys ended up working out for the Wolves back in 2015 but there was at least a chance of maybe one of them becoming an effective bench piece for a future season. With this group, maybe that’s Cam Reynolds, who made four 3s on Tuesday. His play has been easy on the eyes. This was beautiful.

Unlike in 2014-15, the Wolves do have to use some non-foot soldiers. Towns, Dario Saric and Tyus Jones are all healthy and either certainly part of the future or a possible part of the long-term picture in Jones’ case. This makes things a little more complicated. Those guys have to play. But an infrastructure around them of fringe NBA guys will foster losses — hopefully without creating a culture of losing. It’s a fine line to walk.

Given the previous roster construction miscues, this fine line the Wolves are tasked with walking the rest of the season looks a lot like a tightrope that leads to a plank that plummets its walkers into perpetual mediocrity. A five-year, $148 million deal for Wiggins and a four-year, $64 million deal for Gorgui Dieng is just about as crippling as it gets. Not as if it needs reminding, but Tom Thibodeau — who was the President of Basketball Operations presiding over both the Wiggins and Dieng signings — also traded LaVine to lay the runway for another failed experiment: The Jimmy Butler… experience.

LaVine along with Kris Dunn and the seventh overall pick in the 2017 Draft (Lauri Markkanen) were traded for Butler and the 16th pick in that draft (Justin Patton).

In some more connect-the-dots irony, this actually brings up another example of effective tanking in the Wolves history that they can look to. On April 1, 2017 (the end of Thibodeau’s first season), the Wolves had the eighth-worst record in the NBA. From that point of the season on the Wolves lost seven of their last eight games to close that season. This losing slid the Wolves “above” the New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings in the tanking standings.

A meaningful limbo.

While the Wolves didn’t win the lottery — or jump up at all — that season, drafting ahead of those three teams simply because they had a worse record is a coup in this revisionist history. With the pick immediately following Markkanen, the Knicks took Frank Ntilikina eighth, the Mavericks took Dennis Smith Jr. at nine and the Kings took Zach Collins at 10. Today, Markkanen is far and away the superior prospect of the group. Even back in 2017, maybe Chicago doesn’t do the Butler trade if their return is LaVine, Dunn and Collins. While, sure, that may sound like a good thing for the Wolves now, it doesn’t mean that having that better pick wasn’t extremely valuable. Losing to close the 2016-17 was an objectively great maneuver.

Like the 12-game losing streak in 2014-15, losing seven of the final eight in 2016-17 showed up as productive futility on the floor. Those last eight games were Towns and Wiggins’s best stretches of the season.

  • Towns finally started jacking 3s, making them at a 46.2 percent clip in the final eight games. He also averaged 28.9 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists during the run — the first real sniff of what was to come.
  • Wiggins averaged 28.3 points a game and shot 36.8 percent from 3 while they tanked. Both marks were major upticks from his averages for the rest of the season.

Also similar to the 2014-15 tank, the surrounding pieces were messy at the end of 2016-17. Brandon Rush started and played a bunch (26.9 minutes per night), Shabazz Muhammad got (another) chance and Omri Casspi, who was signed on March 20, became the team’s sixth man. Three loyal soldiers.

A version of this can happen again. Yes, KAT is better than he was back then, but it’s not impossible from him to do his thing and for the Wolves to tally productive losses. Here’s the rub, though: The implementation of this strategy is far riskier for Ryan Saunders than it was for his father or Thibodeau. Flip and Thibs were both the coach and President of Basketball Operations with multi-year contracts, to boot. There was no way losing could have cost either of them their job. For Ryan, it could.

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This is why it needs to come from the top — wherever/whoever that is — to empower this strategy.

Glen Taylor was there to witness a successful tank at the end of 2015 that may have saved his franchise. (Scary thought: What would the Wolves be right now if they had slid to the third pick in 2015 and drafted Jahlil Okafor?) Taylor also witnessed what, at the time, felt like a disappointing 2016-17 season that became a good lottery pick (Markkanen) who turned into a key piece in a trade that was then flipped for what was thought to be a culture-changing star (Butler). Those processes were both extremely productive in theory, they just came with the penance of losing down the stretch.

It’s time for a process like that again. There are 14 games to go. Rather than continuing to ignore the still-bleeding wounds from the Butler back-stabbing this fall — by pretending the playoffs are remotely possible — it’s time to embrace that this is just the reality. It’s time for a good old fashioned tank. Walk the fine line or walk the plank.