Suggestion Box: Helping Kevin Martin

William Bohl —  January 24, 2014 — 2 Comments

Kevin Martin

Despite scoring 105.1 points per 100 possessions, the 10th-best mark in the NBA, and despite the dominance of Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic (especially recently) on that end of the floor, it’s easy to spot flaws in Minnesota’s offensive attack. Rick Adelman’s bunch currently ranks 25th in effective field goal percentage (47.9%) and 23rd in three-point shooting (34.7%). Their reliance on getting to the free throw line (only Houston and the Clippers get there more often) is an adequate staple to the Wolves’ offensive diet, but the paradox is still unnerving. The Timberwolves have a moderately successful offense, but are bad at making shots. How can that be?

There’s no simple answer to that question. Corey Brewer is a below average shooter, but he wasn’t acquired to be one. The Wolves’ bench, their recent emergence aside, has struggled mightily for the bulk of the season, for a myriad of reasons. Ricky Rubio has struggled to finish at the rim, which has submarined his overall shooting percentage (and effectiveness). On the positive side, Nikola Pekovic (who should probably get more touches, especially in high-low action with Kevin Love) is doing his usual business – 18.2 points per game on 53% shooting. Speaking of Love, the offense flows primarily through him; he’s 8th in the league in touches per game (and the only non-point guard in the top-10 of that category) and is shooting respectable figures – 46% from the floor, 39% from three – considering his role as a stretch four.

Minnesota’s prized offseason acquisition, Kevin Martin is the poster child for the team’s reliance on getting to the free throw line. Unless he’s earning trips to the charity stripe and knocking down threes, Martin doesn’t bring value worthy of his contract (nearly $7 million annually); he simply doesn’t provide enough defense, rebounding or passing to warrant that kind of money. Lately, he’s had trouble playing to his strengths, as the following chart illustrates:

Time Frame

PPG

Shooting Line

FTAs/gm

3PAs/gm

10/30 through 12/10 (20 games)

22.9

42/43/93

6.5

5.7

12/11 through present (19 games)

15.4

43/31/88

3.4

3.5

It was probably unreasonable to expect his blistering start to continue, but the sharp decline in three point attempts, three point efficiency and free throw attempts are troubling, nonetheless. A knee issue forced him to sit on December 16th, and it’s fair to wonder if the issue has lingered and is affecting his play.

But instead of focusing on the negative, let’s flip the script: how could Kevin Martin be helped? What, specifically, can the Timberwolves do to help him be successful?

1. When he’s open, especially in a fastbreak situation, he needs to shoot.

For starters, it’s very important for the team to encourage Martin to keep shooting threes in transition. Superficially, it’s a tough shot to swallow if it doesn’t fall; oftentimes, Martin fires away without the bruise brothers (Pekovic and Love) in position to offer a chance at an offensive rebound. In that instance, a quick Kevin Martin three that doesn’t fall can feel like a wasted possession. However, since 2009-10, Martin is shooting an astounding 47.6% (130-of-273) on three point attempts in transition (per Synergy). This season, that number’s “dipped” to 41%, but given his track record, everyone should be more than comfortable with K-Mart continuing to fire away when he gets those looks.

2. Use teammates to make room to get his shot off.

In half court sets, it’s important to keep Martin moving. Whenever he ends up isolated, it’s bad news; Martin scores just 0.84 points per 100 possessions when in one-on-one situations, and converts a paltry 31.3% of three point attempts when he does. Running him off of screens, particularly screens from the wide-bodied Pekovic, can lead to the kind of open looks Martin (who turns 31 in two weeks) may not be able to generate on his own. Hand-offs function in much the same way; typically, the person delivering is Kevin Love, and often occurs within the two-man game they play. With Love to draw the attention of the defense, space may be opened for Martin to shoot comfortably.

Other than his proficiency in transition, Martin’s best three-point percentage over the past season and a half comes in hand-off/ screen situations:

Play Type

3PM / 3PA

%

Transition

52/102

49.5%

Screen / Hand-off

60/130

46.1%

All other play types

116/320

36.3%

A few examples of hand-off or screen plays designed to get Kevin Martin desirable looks from three:

3. Readjust expectations on drawing fouls

At the beginning of the season, no one was a bigger fan of Kevin Martin’s new-found propensity to post-up than I was. In particular, it seemed Martin was adept at manufacturing contact and drawing fouls in those situations. However: since November 22nd, Martin’s shooting just 41% and has earned only two trips to the free throw line on post-up plays. It reflects a larger problem in Martin’s game: lately, he’s had trouble earning trips to the charity stripe, a vital part of what makes him effective.

Martin began the season on a tear (averaging more than 7 free throw attempts per 36 minutes through one month of the season) and it was probably unfair to expect that trend to continue. The last time Martin notched as many as 7 FTAs per 36, he was a sprightly 27 year old, way back in 2010. As illustrated in the chart above, however, his free throw attempts per game have been nearly cut in half (down from 6.5 to 3.4) over his past 19 games. Is it a fluke? Is he being less aggressive? Have defenses adjusted to him? Have officials altered their treatment of him?

To a degree, the answer to all of the above questions is “yes.” He’s hearing fewer whistles despite relatively few alterations being made to how he’s used in the corner offense – as a cutter to the rim, as a guy who can run off screens for midrange jumpers, as a spot up three point shooter, and as a finisher in transition. It’s tough to say if the knee is still giving him problems – but he certainly seems more interested in pulling up than driving over the past month. Scouting reports likely include edicts to young perimeter defenders, warning especially of Martin’s wily ability to conjure contact out of thin air. And even Rick Adelman offered a theory prior to the Wolves’ home tilt against the Jazz last weekend, saying, “I don’t want to get in trouble, here, but Kevin (Martin) does seem to have a target on him at times.” One shift in the league’s officiating in recent years is the gradual weening of rewarding contact initiated by offensive players – an important part of Martin’s past success.

It’s still something Martin attempts to do – if you’ve followed the Timberwolves this season, plays like these ought to look familiar:

How can the Wolves help Martin? By refraining from asking him to attack in big situations. Part of the aging process in the NBA is managing the shifts in a player’s strengths; as players get older, their skills evolve. Martin’s no longer a workhorse who can draw cheap fouls seemingly at will; instead, he’s become a dead-eye shooter when he’s granted space by a teammate’s help.

It’s doubtful a veteran of Martin’s standing is letting his current cold spell cast him into panic mode, but he should be encouraged to shoot when he’s open. There’s simply too good a track record to ignore what he can do with a clean look at the hoop. He used to be able to get those on his own; nowadays, it’s the Wolves’ job to help him out.

William Bohl

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2 responses to Suggestion Box: Helping Kevin Martin

  1. Nice article, and I couldn’t agree more with this.

    One of the recent Wolves pre-game shows mentioned that Martin had consciously dialed back his shot attempts once Pekovic began to show he was in mid-season form. To me, that’s the completely wrong mindset to have. If Martin can continue to be an efficient threat from deep, Pekovic should only see more space and open looks down low.

  2. It seems that Martin read the suggestion box! That game was a ton of fun to watch.

    I was all ready to go on a long rant about how the 5th best free throw team in the league hits 65% when it really matters while the 25th team hits 86%. Strange how a win removes a lot of built up anger.

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