Can the Timberwolves Compete Without Zach LaVine?

The Minnesota Timberwolves were starting to get things together this season after a rough start. They had won 8 of their last 11 games heading into the month of February and it appeared as if they were ready to take that leap into playoff contention.

However, they were dealt a huge blow to that quest over the weekend. The team announced that the knee injury suffered by Zach LaVine on Friday was a torn ACL, effectively ending his season.

A Breakout Season Cut Short

LaVine was in the midst of taking a huge step forward in his development and production, which also put him in contention for Most Improved Player honors. Just check out his averages through 47 games compared to what he accomplished last season.

Points Rebounds Assists Steals eFG% Win Shares
2015-16 14.0 2.8 3.1 0.8 51.6% 2.6
2016-17 18.9 3.4 3.0 0.9 54.4% 3.3

Obviously, the most impressive part here is that LaVine had already surpassed his win shares from last season, despite playing in 35 fewer games. The Wolves' guard was also posting improved shooting numbers from all areas of the court.

Alas, it all came to a end for now, with his injury forcing him to wait until next year to get back on the court. Minnesota has now lost four straight games and will have a hard time making up for his contributions on both ends.

How The Wolves Cope

The question for head coach Tom Thibodeau is how to make up for LaVine's absence. They have an offensive rating of 109.5 with the athletic guard on the court, compared to 108.9 when he is off the court. That doesn't seem like much, but without his shooting ability, the Wolves must get creative with backcourt rotations.

Andrew Wiggins will almost certainly have to play more shooting guard, while Shabazz Muhammad and Brandon Rush will also see an uptick in minutes.

Rush has started the last two games, and according to Basketball Reference, both he and Muhammad have been serviceable enough to carry the load left by LaVine.

With Muhammad on the court with the other four starters, the Wolves are +7.3 points in just 98 minutes of court time. With Rush in the lineup with the other four starters, the Wolves are +17.4 points in just about 63 minutes. These are very small sample sizes, but it at least offers a bit of hope for the time being.

Rush and Muhammad will likely be used in somewhat of a timeshare on the wing depending on whether the team is in need of offense or defense. Rush has played 24 and 33 minutes in the two games LaVine has missed, respectively, whereas Muhammad hasn't seen his minutes increase that much, with 26 and 21 in his last two (averaging 19.6 minutes this season).

Muhammad's name had also been floated in trade rumors before LaVine's injury, but that's probably out of the question now that his role could be changing.

While both Muhammad and Rush will see more minutes, the real question is will the Wolves' stars pick up the slack on offense left by LaVine?

Can His Teammates Step Up?

According to NBA Wowy, Wiggins is averaging 1.05 points per play (PPP) and 1.03 points per shot attempt (PPS) this season with LaVine on the court. When he isn't, those averages shoot up to 1.12 PPP and 1.10 PPS.

In the two games since LaVine's unfortunate injury, Wiggins has scored a combined 50 points on 45 shot attempts.

Karl-Anthony Towns will also be called upon to shoulder some of the load, which he did on Monday by dropping 35 points against the Miami Heat. While he averaged 1.14 PPP and 1.16 PPS with LaVine around, he also sees an increase in production without him (1.19 PPP and 1.19 PPS).

However, the real beneficiary of this extra opportunity is Ricky Rubio -- his PPP improves from 0.86 to 0.99 and his PPS sees a boost from 1.00 to 1.11 in the same situations as his teammates.

LaVine has missed a total of five games so far this season. Rubio is averaging 12.4 points and 12.0 assists in those games, failing to post a double-double in all but one of them. While his offense alone won't make up for this loss, his production combined with Wiggins' increased usage and an expected uptick in shot attempts for Towns means they'll all be taking an expanded workload for the rest of the season to make up for it.

Take a look at the change in usage rates for these three when LaVine is on and off the court, courtesy of NBA Wowy.

Usage Rate Karl-Anthony Towns Andrew Wiggins Ricky Rubio
LaVine On The Court 28.9% 25.8% 14.2%
LaVine Off The Court 27.8% 33.8% 17.5%

Towns' slight decrease in usage without LaVine will likely change now that the guard out for the season, but the boosts in usage rate to Wiggins and Rubio are evident.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to winning games -- something Minnesota has yet to do since LaVine suffered his injury. Our projections aren't painting a pretty picture for their playoff chances, either.

Monday's loss left the Wolves with just a 2.3% chance of reaching the playoffs and they're currently 4.5 games out of the 8 seed with just 30 games to go. Without LaVine, it appears that what was first anticipated to be an exciting year will end in the lottery once again.