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.