Unfortunately, it appears that the dubious award for most consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance will continue to reside in Minnesota. With the gargantuan expectations that were placed upon Thibodeau’s arrival, this season may reek entirely of disappointment. However, one would be hard-pressed to believe that that same sentiment would persist in future seasons.
With precocious stars Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine, the starved Timberwolves fan-base should be able to fill their appetite with postseason fervor for years to come. When it comes to the amount of onus each of their nascent talent would have to shoulder, there is a perceived hierarchy. Towns would bear the most, Wiggins would be the 2nd option, and LaVine would essentially be a release valve when defenses hone in on the others. Containing a tremendously multifaceted arsenal of skills on both sides of the ball, Towns seems to have cemented his place in the Minnesota stratosphere. However, contrary to popular belief, has LaVine surpassed Wiggins in the food chain?
A deep-dive into their respective seasons might paint a more muddled picture than one might have imagined. LaVine was heralded solely for his inhuman athleticism and jaw-dropping dunking ability. While he has morphed into a more well-rounded player (we’ll touch on this shortly), he has still found ways to harness this skill-set to benefit his team. He’s in the 88th percentile in transition effectiveness, while shooting a gaudy 67%. After he turns on the jets to exploit a team slow to get back, Rubio’s innate vision and full court passing ability help LaVine make the most of his cheetah-like speed.
However, as mentioned earlier, LaVine has evolved into a complete, dynamic scoring threat. And it all begins with the shooting. LaVine shoots an excruciatingly hot 46% on catch and shoot 3s. On the other hand, Wiggins converts on an ordinary 34%. This allows defenses to cheat off him in order to crowd the strong side, and they have even explicitly chosen leaving Wiggins over LaVine while in rotation. The UCLA product also isn’t merely a spot up shooter, as he’s nailing 1.06 points per possession from off-screen action. A pet move LaVine has incorporated into his game is that he heads in one direction off the screen, dishes it back to the screener, gets the ball back after he traverses through the screen in the opposite direction and launches.
The easiest way to create a breakdown in the defense is by forcing the defensive big to press the 3 point line because the pick and roll ball handler can pull from 3. Well, LaVine is absolutely capable of doing so, as he’s converting 36% on the pull up 3 (which would rank him 12th among players with more than 2 pull up 3PAs). Wiggins is knocking down 35%, but that number shouldn’t carry the same amount of weight as LaVine’s accuracy. It comes from half the attempts LaVine takes and is actually inflated due to his exceptionally hot 3P shooting start. From December 1, Wiggins has converted an atrocious 25% on pull up 3s.
Due to his inability to shoot from deep, Wiggins relies on drives, analytically-shunned pull up mid-range jumpers, and post ups to inflict damage. With regards to the latter, he’s tremendously effective, as he’s ranked 2nd among non-bigs at 45%. Wiggins makes use of a blindingly quick first step and adept footwork. However, Wiggins’ dependence on the mid-range is fairly puzzling. Despite being 7th in attempts in the NBA and having 64% of his shots come from here, Wiggins sinks in a mediocre 38% of them. Contrastingly, LaVine only operates in this space for 24% of his attempts and converts on 41%.
Lastly, Wiggins’ reliance on driving has translated into him foraying into the paint more than anyone else on the team. Yet, Wiggins is posting an inefficient 41.4% on FGA off penetration, while LaVine’s efficiency shines through in this element as well, as he’s at 47%. LaVine superior handle permits himself to escape scot-free to the rim more frequently. His arsenal includes a bevy of hesitation moves and crossovers. LaVine’s soft touch persists around the rim as well. His handle is also lower to the ground, which increases the level of difficulty to disrupt him. Additionally, his potency at the rim paired with his superior efficiency at pulling up from the mid range and the 3 helps illustrate why LaVine is averaging 0.88 points per possession as the pick and roll ball handler. Wiggins, on the other hand, pales in comparison with a mere 0.77 PPP.
However, Wiggins’ entering the painted area more than his teammates do highlight a stark improvement in his game: his handles. His drives per game has ascended from 3.7 to 5.2 to now 6.8. His handle is a lot tighter now, as he’s able to zoom past his defender in one on one situations. Wiggins’ dribbling also effectiveness also translates in the pick and roll, where there’s more of a crowd, as he’s only turning it over on 13.5% of his possessions, better than the likes of Antetokounmpo, Wall, and Westbrook. Aside from first rate speed, he’s becoming more adept at manipulating his defender with his handle. He doesn’t possess as deep of a bag of tricks as LaVine does, but he really has mastered the semi cross-over where he fools the defender to think Wiggins will use the screen before he veers away from it.
This newfound development is key for Wiggins because he has sneakily become a good passer. He’s able to puncture the defense with penetration and his improved awareness allows him to understand where the open man is. Even sans driving, Wiggins’ able to comprehend when the defense shifts towards him and who they’re ignoring. Then he whips the pass to catch the closest defender as far as he was going to be and with his weight leaning in the opposite direction.
LaVine does, however, have him beat in assist % and potential assists. LaVine is certainly capable of creating for others. Muhammad, Aldrich, Dieng, and Bjelica all shoot better off passes from LaVine than from Wiggins. LaVine utilizes his controlled and advanced dribble to lure the receiver’s defender along with LaVine until he strikes with the pass. However, the assist discrepancy is more due to LaVine being off ball when the defense is forced to rotate so that Minnesota can make us of the space he provides and to defenders leaving others to close out to LaVine. Making the easy pass is skill, but Wiggins is definitely superior in inducing that initial defensive rotation, as exemplified by his higher secondary assist tally.
Defensively, they’re both traffic cones in 1 on 1 play. Neither contains the lateral agility to stay in front of ball handlers, and LaVine especially frequents gets out-muscled on the penetrator’s way to the hoop. Both struggle with off-ball defense as well, but LaVine exhibits an inferior grasp on the concepts. He frequently takes bad angles on close outs when the ball gets whipped over cross-court to his man. Sometimes LaVine even closes out to the wrong guy. He loses his man on backdoor cuts and over-helps. All of this directly factors into the offense being able to find a good shot. Wiggins is no stalwart by any means at off-ball defense, as he too has a lot of the mental lapses as LaVine. MIN’s defense is just as bad with both on the floor. However, there’s more promise. Wiggins portrays more of an understanding of when to help and whom to cover when the defense has shifted in one direction.
Given all that about Wiggins’ superior passing ability and defense, I’m going to have to conclude with LaVine being the better player now and for the future. Wiggins’ dishing and defense is not greater enough to offset the dearth in shooting in comparison to LaVine. Additionally, as we’ve seen with Klay Thompson, shooting opens up doors to all other elements of the game. Unlike Thompson, LaVine’s already ahead of the curve at the other facets of the game with a monstrous handle and above average passing ability. So once he learns how to leverage his shooting to make those other facets easier by adding pump fakes, attacking closing out defenders, and becoming more respected as a pull up 3 pt shooter, watch out.