1500 ESPN’s own Phil Mackey said it best: This Timberwolves team was wrongfully compared to the 2010 Oklahoma City Thunder. That Thunder team upgraded from P.J. Carlesimo as head coach in 2009 to Scott Brooks and won 27 more games the next season. That team had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden as its core.
I too was swept up in this comparison early in the season rather than remembering that Thunder team was a historical anomaly. Inexperienced teams rarely win, but a closer look shows that the two teams were dissimilar.
Yes, the Thunder’s core was about the same age as the 2017 Timberwolves. Durant was in his third year, Westbrook in his second, and Harden was a rookie. They, too, relied on talented and inexperienced players. What separates the two teams is the help those players had around them.
We spent the preseason playing the “What if…” game with the Timberwolves’ supporting cast. “If Shabazz Muhammad can do this…” or “If Nemanja Bjelica can do that…” helped talk us into a moribund unit that was arguably the league’s worst.
The 2010 Thunder bench could make their 3-pointers. They converted on 37.1 percent of their attempts– the third-best mark in the league. The same couldn’t be said for this Timberwolves team. They made just 32.4 percent of their 3-pointers thanks to the inconsistent shooting of Bjelica, Muhammad, and Kris Dunn. Together, they were the fifth-worst unit in the NBA beyond the arc in a time when the 3-ball has never been more valuable.
With Harden, Eric Maynor, Kyle Weaver, and Mike Wilks could hit their shots. Each player shot above 35 percent from deep, which was the acceptable average seven years ago.
Their frontcourt was also filled with useful players. Serge Ibaka came off the bench behind Jeff Green. Think about that. The 2010 Thunder had Harden and Ibaka coming off of the bench. That’s much different than Brandon Rush and Cole Aldrich. Their depth didn’t stop there. Instead of Adreian Payne and Jordan Hill, Nenand Krstic and Nick Collison who were two of their five most efficient players and they rebounded.
These players played behind Green and Thabo Sefolosha in the Thunder starting five. Green would grab a few boards and points where he could as their third-leading scorer. Sefolosha was their perimeter stopper that kept it all together. Thanks to their depth, they were a top-10 defense and third-best rebounding team in the league. They were a more complete team than the 2017 Timberwolves.
In order for this Timberwolves team to have been truly comparable to that Thunder team, they would have needed similar depth. Imagine Zach LaVine coming off the bench behind a defensive wing player as the Thunder had with Harden and Sefolosha. Gorgui Dieng would either come off the bench or have two players behind him that just rebounded and fortified the interior defense behind him. In today’s NBA, those players would also need a jump shot. That’s what Collison and Krstic brought to those Thunder teams.
Considering that Thunder bench was a plus-1 in the plus/minus on the season and this Timberwolves bench was a -3.4, it’s easy to see why Scott Brooks could spread the playing time out. Of note, those Thunder reserves were third-best in the league and these Wolves reserves were last.
What was also interesting about that Thunder teams is that they didn’t have their three young stars averaging 20 or more points per game. Durant averaged 30.1 points per game but Westbrook averaged 16.1 points and eight assists per game. Harden came off the bench to average 9.9 points per game. At one point, the Timberwolves had Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine averaging over 20 per game. That, to me, says a lot about the depth of this team.
That team also played their two stars heavy minutes like the Timberwolves did. Durant averaged 39.5 minutes, Green averaged 37.1 minutes, and Westbrook averaged 34.3 minutes per game. Young teams tend to play their bright, young talent for much of the game. With Sefolosha playing some 28 minutes per game, the Thunder were able to find 22.9 minutes per game for Harden. The minutes were more equitable because they had a number of reliable bench players.
There’s no need to deride Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine when it’s clear the Thunder were a more well-built team. Sam Presti began assembling that team in 2007. By the beginning of the 2009-’10 season, Presti had two years to evaluate the roster. Thibodeau and Scott Layden took over just last April. It’s safe to say that this season was going to be about evaluation and can begin to make improvements to the roster based on those assessments in Year 2.
Brooks had also coached 69 games in 2009 after taking over for Carlesimo part way through the season. He won just 22 games in that time but as a result, they were able to add Harden and Krstic as a result. Those losses were frustrating for a promising team but created opportunities to improve the next season. They didn’t truly hit the ground running. Eventually, they were able to win 50 games and put the Lakers on the ropes in a playoff series.
That’s why this Thunder team was an anomaly. Teams that win 20-some wins rarely leap to 50 wins. Usually, it’s 30, 40, and then 50. The thing is, winning 50 games is hard. You must be efficient, play defense, and crash the glass– things this team struggled with at times. The 2017 Timberwolves were more incomplete.
Instead of treating this Thunder team as the rule, we should have viewed them as the exception. It is fair, however, to expect that this team boosts the roster with players who complement their talents and lessen their weaknesses. Having now had 82 games, Thibodeau and Layden can begin to build a team that can sustain a playoff run again.