NW Division Foes: The Minnesota Timberwolves

October 24th, 2018 | by Tyler Crandall

With KAT set to square off against Utah’s bigs for years, this rivalry has legs. (Melissa Majchrzak via timberwolves.com)

Editor’s Note: Tyler Crandall is ramping up for the 2018-19 season by taking a look at Utah’s divisional opponents. Last season, all five Northwest Division teams won between 46 and 49 games, and four of the five made the playoffs. Tyler will preview what may be the league’s toughest division from top to bottom, including a look at how good they might be on the whole and a preview of the four-game Jazz season series. So far he has examined the Jazz-Thunder, Jazz-Blazers and Jazz-Nuggets rivalries, and this week he concludes the series by examining the dysfunctional Minnesota Timberwolves.

Minnesota Timberwolves, 47-35, 2-2 vs. the Jazz

We’ve already previewed the Jazz’s series against the Denver Nuggets, who ended up 9th place in the wild, wild Western conference with a record of 46-36. Now we turn our attention to the team that sneaked into the playoffs with a win against those same Nuggets in the season finale. The Minnesota Timberwolves, by virtue of that win, finished a game ahead of Denver and secured the final playoff spot.

Not only was this an exciting way to end the season, leaving fans everywhere on the edge of their seats, but it was a contest between two teams who really are much better than their 8th and 9th place spots would indicate. Both struggled with impactful injuries: Paul Millsap missed half the season for Denver and Wolves forward Jimmy Butler missed a month with an ill-timed injury.

With Butler leading the way, Minnesota was on its way to the 3rd or 4th seed in the West, a result which may have helped the franchise avoid its current predicament. Fortunately for the Jazz, they crumbled without Butler, exposing a whole host of issues, including terrible, terrible defense. Obviously the Jazz endured meaningful injuries of their own, including two extended absences by Rudy Gobert. While Rudy was around for the early season three-point loss to the Wolves, he was absent for the next game in which the Jazz simply could not contain the Minnesota offense, allowing an offensive rating for the Wolves of over 117.

When Gobert returned, the Jazz caught fire and overpowered the Wolves.  One of these wins was an intense game in which star big man Karl-Anthony Towns was ejected, previewing what could have been a long-time rivalry. To quote Michael Gary Scott, “Oh how the turntables.”

The momentum has shifted in part because of the well-documented saga of Butler’s trade request and the uncertainty around the direction of franchise, including the job security of GM and coach Tom Thibodeau1.

Lineups and Matchups

Like the Nuggets, the Wolves have a high-powered offense and an atrocious defense. Their defense is better with Butler, and it will help them to reallocate the 21 nightly minutes that the departed Jamal Crawford was getting. Even still, it’s hard to hide both KAT and Andrew Wiggins on defense.

Offensively, Wiggins isn’t exactly helpful. Wiggins is primarily an athletic iso-slasher who loves to cut to the basket or isolate for inefficient mid-range jumpers. Thus far in his career, he has not been a net-positive, with a true shooting figure of .526, below league average.

KAT is an incredible offensive star, who is efficient, can pass and make plays, and has range out to the 3-point line. Unfortunately for him, he struggles to get his inside game going while Rudy guards him. Because of this, Minnesota would have to rely on an above-average outside game from Towns and an above-average shooting night for Wiggins to have a hope of overcoming the Jazz defense. As long as he remains there, Butler will continue to be a force on both sides regardless, because he usually is, even with the ever-frustrating Joe Ingles guarding him.

This is a series where the Jazz will benefit from their incredible depth of wing defenders in Dante Exum, Royce O’Neale, Thabo Sefalosha, and Jae Crowder.

However, this is also a possible bad matchup for Ricky Rubio, who struggles against smaller and faster guards like Jeff Teague. The saving grace here is that it could also result in Ricky Rubio revenge games playing against his old squad, including Teague who replaced him and Butler, whose 2017 arrival likely hastened Rubio’s trade away from the only NBA club he’d played for.

What to watch

The drama from last season is too much to forget and it’s really fun to watch. There was a Towns ejection, multiple Teague-Rubio incidents including a shoulder-check, and Butler throwing shade at fellow Marquette alum Jae Crowder on Twitter.

If Ingles, Crowder, Rubio and Gobert –actually let’s just say it for what it is — if the whole Jazz squad can get under the skin of the Wolves, the Jazz have a chance to win games by frustrating their foes.

The Jazz first face Minnesota on Halloween to conclude a four-game road trip. Then the rivalry gets a break until a home-and-home set in late January, and the Jazz host the final matchup of the season on March 14.

Prediction: 3-1, Utah

 

Tyler Crandall

Tyler joins Salt City Hoops for the 2018-19 season, having previously written at The J-Notes. Tyler grew up in Utah watching the Stockton-to-Malone Jazz. He now lives in Brooklyn, NY and is an active tweeter at @tjcranman.

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  1. Pingback: Salt City Seven: Mitchell Gets Going, Gobert Piles Up Double-Doubles & More | Salt City Hoops

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