Timberwolves 93, Jazz 97: Marge Innovera

Utah Jazz v Minnesota Timberwolves

Last night’s loss to the Utah Jazz followed an all too typical pattern for recent Wolves’ losses. A malaise-filled start leads either to the other team getting out to a big lead or the Wolves hanging around while the other team lolls about in the doldrums as well. If the lead is a thick one, the other team will hold them at arm’s length; if it’s slim, they will eventually push away. At this point, the Wolves mount a comeback—often led furiously by Ricky Rubio’s wounded competitive spirit—that falls inevitably short.

You can choose to see this global lack of effort as just a lack of effort or you can find root causes for it, such as the way players are not so much playing out of position as out of role, and that there’s not much balance in the offense. Pekovic, in particular, is wearing down, I think, from being the only player on the Wolves who does work in the paint. Williams is a shooter and (on a good day) a slasher who can rebound; Cunningham rebounds, but mostly takes midrange jumpers on offense; Stiemsma is not a force down low; neither is Chris Johnson. I know Love does a lot of his damage from outside, but he will also set up on the block and put in some work there from time to time. But with only Pek there, no one else is wearing teams down physically, which in turn wears Pek down. This little sequence right here both shows how Pek is losing some of his aggressiveness and provides a handy metaphor for the entire Wolves team right now.

And to be clear, I don’t really care how you want to react to this. You can call them a bunch of scrubs and feel either better for the effort you put into your job or worse for caring about this team in the first place. Or you can try to distance yourself a bit and just try to find something interesting to pay attention to. This is what I’m going to do, and we’re going to spend some time looking into how different lineups played in this game for the Wolves, thanks to NBA.com.

Looking at the 19 minutes that the starting lineup of Rubio, Ridnour, Gelabale, Williams and Pekovic played, a couple of things jump out. First, their 3-point shooting was terrible (12.5%), but we know this. What’s more interesting are the advanced metrics, which show that they put up an offensive rating (basically, how many points this lineup was on pace to score if given 100 possessions) of 93.3 and a defensive rating (same thing, but points allowed per 100) of 74.1 for a net rating of +19.2. That’s very good. This lineup, however, also played relatively slow at a pace of just 86.7 (for the season the Wolves’ pace is 94.37, good for 12th in the league).

When you just switch Gelabale out for Barea (a lineup which played the second most minutes at 8 in this game), the pace suddenly shoots to 101.42, just shy of three more possessions per game than the league-leading Rockets. They give a bit on the defensive end (88.2 DefRtg), but their offensive rating positively explodes to 140.5.

Take all this with a grain of salt, though, because these numbers represent small slices of one individual game—I’m not trying to prove anything with them. But I do think it points to an overall general bit of good news for the Wolves: Whether they were playing fast or slow against the Jazz, they were posting positive net ratings with their two most commonly used lineups. Being able to be successful at different speeds is key to a team’s development and the numbers make sense: Barea is a shot of adrenaline, while Gelabale is just kind of sleepy out there a lot of the time. Neither style is inherently better, but both can work if they’re being used the right way.

If you look at the players’ individual offensive and defensive ratings on Basketball Reference (again, the concrete usefulness of the exact numbers is up for debate), you can see that overall the starting lineup was very good, posting net ratings from +5 to +20 with the exception of Gelabale. But the bench: Barea’s -37 net rating is daunting, but nearly as daunting as Shved’s -110.

Returning to the lineup perspective, you can see that the problem really happens here (minutes played are in gray, followed by OffRtg, DefRtg and NetRtg):


These lineups, which were on the floor for 13 total minutes, posted some staggeringly bad net ratings, and a lot of that is down to Alexey Shved, who played 10 minutes, missed 4 shots, and committed one turnover. This is where that margin of error thing that Adelman keeps mentioning rears its ugly head. For whatever reason, the Wolves aren’t running through the finish line in games. They’re putting in just enough work that when the other team is foundering (see Cavaliers, Cleveland and Hornets, New Orleans, recently) they can put them away, but if the other team shows a decent amount of spine, the Wolves are going to get their metaphorical just-enough layups swatted like Kanter did to Pek above.

The truth is that on any team in any game on any night in the NBA, there are going to be players having games like Shved did last night, or even Williams, who was impressive with 24 points and 16 rebounds yet got his milkshake totally drank by Paul Millsap on defense. But on better teams this performance is just noise happening above the margin of error. For the Wolves, it’s happening all up in that margin and it makes the Herculean efforts (Sisyphean?) of players like Rubio go begging. You’re never going to stop players from having off-nights; you just need to be able to absorb those off-nights into the fabric of the team’s system. Sadly, the Wolves are having a damn hard time doing just that right now.

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9 thoughts on “Timberwolves 93, Jazz 97: Marge Innovera

  1. Major thanks for this and your last post breaking down lineups.

    Can you use the Synergy tools for good? What about that spin/dropstep to the middle for the monster two-handed dunk Pek had? It was the closest thing I’ve ever seen to Pek taking his frustrations out on an opponent.

  2. There were some good things about last nights game that still gives hope for the future. Like not giving up at the end of games, like last year, and playing better defense at the end of games to allow them to make a run. But the most positive thing to watch is how Rubio refuse to lose. He was fernictate at the end. Stealing the ball and swarming the ball handlers. I can’t wait to see him on a healthy Wolves squad leading the way willing this team to victory’s. If he would have made that lay up at the end after his steal they might have pulled an upset. I have tickets in late March and I’m looking forward to watching a team that doesn’t have to trot out D-league players and bench players as starters. As bad as this season has been it hasn’t but with out hope.

  3. This is a good example of the eye test matching with the stats. Any lineup with Stiemsma and/or Shved was amazingly bad last night. This has happened with some of their other frantic comebacks that turn into close losses; a bench unit allows the opponent to stretch their lead and/or allow them to cut into a deficit, and the starters try to salvage it.

    Overall, though, they could’ve had that game if they’d avoided being dominated in the paint. Missing layups and allowing the other team to parade to the rim isn’t a winning recipe, and it’s frankly a surprise they were as close as they were.

  4. I guess what I seen from last night was pretty fun. Yes, we lost, but for the first time this year, I can not blame the starters. The bench played horrible if that can even describe it. Barea played the best off the bench but even he was struggling. If it wasnt for the horrid play of the bench, this game would of been put way in the 3rd. But the starters go out and when they come back in they have to play catch up. Rubio and Co. played a ton of mins last night. Shved and Dante really disapointed me with their body language while sitting on the bench. At the end of the game when it was close and everyone BUT them was excited to maybe pull this out, they just sat there with sukly faces crying like little babies.

  5. Teams know they need to stop Pek. And it doesn’t help him when the players around him can’t shoot 3s. Teams now double-triple team him. The guys need to shoot at a higher clip to stretch the defense. Otherwise the Pek plays wont work. Last year Pek was so effective because 1. He had Rubio who knows how to set him up perfectly, and 2. He had Love who really stretched the defense, not to mention taking away the opponent’s power forward or center who’s too busy trying to check him from distance. All stems from our lack of fire power. Other teams just happily gamble with us shooting 3s. They would rather defend Pek. We need shooters badly. We need Love to get into shape… On a positive note at least the Ricky we all know and love is returning to his true form. Aggressive, decisive, and poised.

  6. This is somewhat off-topic, but it’s worth discussing: Darren Wolfson said on Twitter recently that there’s a good chance Brandon Roy is on the roster for the entire season because the team has mostly been focused on buying him out, and he’s refused. I can’t think of a more insulting thing to do to this coaching staff and these players than to have a chance to open up a roster spot for healthy player and choose not to take it. Frankly, it’s appalling that they’re even considering this. I don’t care that Love and Budinger are likely to return before the season ends; they need another healthy perimeter body now, especially after they (did the right thing and) cut Amundson in order to keep Johnson and Gelabale.

  7. Has coach always squirmed his career at missed shots? I can feel the anguish. Like, no other team are as poorly at bunnies. And he is thinking, and I am thinking, we could do it better. I’m sure collectively Pek senses it. So then he dunks it a couple times. OK, then try to get that close every time? By the fourth quarter bunnies become unwatchable. Like coach may develop mysterious symptoms of his own needing hospitalization (Skiles had to quit, like a job one couldn’t stand being there moment to mome.

    Put the ball in the hole. Stay in front of your man. Then get the rebound. Score more than the other team in the easiest possible way! At least stretch toward the basket, and one may find they are there.

  8. I agree about Pek gettign worn down. I kept thinking while watching the game that Williams really is a small forward, just like he says. That just seems to be his game. He might have a bit of trouble on the defensive end with faster SFs, but that would be better than seeing him try to defend stronger PFs like Milsap and Favors. Plus, I think his offensive game is better suited to be a small forward.

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