Timberwolves in the woods
As we speak, the Wolves are sitting at 16-16, three games out of the eighth spot in in the Western Conference. For many of us, this comes as a great disappointment, especially after the team’s strong start. This was supposed to be the year that the Wolves finally fulfilled those years of deferred promises (deferred by injury, by the vicissitudes of foreign contract buyouts, by drafting Wes Johnson). It doesn’t seem to make sense. The Wolves have added Kevin Martin, the perimeter scorer they’d always craved. Nikola Pekovic is learning how to dominate games in the paint. Kevin Love is having a near-MVP season. Most importantly, thanks to the relative paucity of injuries (knocking so hard on basically anything that even remotely resembles wood) all of the Wolves’ principals are able to share the floor (at the same time!).
So what’s happening here? There have been many explanations offered, most of them containing a large grain of truth. Up until just this past week, the Wolves’ schedule had been a gauntlet of road games, back-to-backs and elite teams. Their half-court defense has been inconsistent, their transition D abysmal. Their late-game execution has been awful, accounting for their 0-8 record in games decided by fewer than five points. Their bench has been among the league’s worst.
All of these things are true. But from where I sit, there are fundamental weaknesses in the team’s roster construction that underpin it all. The “our bench stinks” rationale is closest to getting it–hard to argue when they do things like take six shots and commit eight turnovers in a half of basketball–but I’d like to suggest another way to describe the problem. Plus-minus guru Wayne Winston has argued that a few rough-and-ready heuristics are handy in assessing an offense’s production. To put it simply: If a team has at least three three-point shooters on the floor, they’re going to perform very well; if they have more than one non-shooter on the floor, they’re in for trouble. Take a quick look at the top offenses in the league: with the exception of the Thunder (which has Kevin Durant), they all have at least three above-average three-point shooters in their rotation, and most have many more (the Spurs have six!).
Now look at our Wolves. Of the Wolves top three scorers (Love, Pek and K-Mart), two are very good three-point shooters. That’s wonderful, but now things get hairy. J.J. Barea and Ricky Rubio could be described as average but only that–and neither of them are what you might call reliable, floor-spacing spot-up shooters. (I think we all know that Ricky’s percentage is what it is because opponents almost literally beg him to shoot whenever he has the ball.) After that, you’ve got either non-shooters (Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Dante Cunningham) or players who shoot a lot but are terrible (Corey Brewer and Alexey Shved). This is just another way of saying that the Wolves are one of the worst long-range shooting teams in the league, which a glance at their rank (25th) could easily tell you. But it gets even worse from there.
Let’s look at true shooting rate, which factors both three-pointers and free-throws into shooting percentage. The NBA league average hovers between 53% and 54%. The Wolves have six rotation players under 50%, and seven if you count Derrick Williams. Just think about that. Seven of the 11 players who have seen significant minutes are massively inefficient scorers, and an eighth (Corey Brewer at 52%) is merely below average. Winston tells us that two non-shooters on the floor at a time is murder; the Wolves have two in their starting lineup. We all by now know that Rubio is threatening to be the worst shooting point guard in almost 50 years. Shved’s TS% is at .418, about as low as a rotation player can possibly be. Between the two of them, Cunningham and Barea have attempted 39 free-throws in over 1,200 minutes of court time. Mbah a Moute is essentially an offensive void in the half court. We’ve often heard commenters, coaches, players and fans wondering at the strange spells of stagnancy that afflict the Wolves’ offense at certain points of the game. Wonder no more. Too many of the team’s rotation players lack the skills to threaten a defense; when this is the case, dynamic offensive possessions are pretty hard to come by.
Given all of this, its a marvel that the Wolves have managed the 10th-most efficient offense in the league. (The Wolves’ defense is another issue entirely, one that we don’t have the space to cover here.) The reason, of course is that Kevin Love is ridiculously good. Pekovic, Martin and Rubio all have net positive impacts on the team’s scoring, but check this out: When Love is on the floor (which is 71% of the time) the Wolves offense scores 115.4 points per 100 possessions, five points better than league-leading Portland’s 110.1 points per 100. Of the elite players in the league, only Steph Curry and Chris Paul come anywhere close to that number. But when he is off the floor, the Wolves score a very awful 89.7 points per 100, seven points worse than the worst team mark in the league. That is a 25.7 point differential and that is completely unheard of and totally effing insane. I’ll say it again: When Love is on the floor, they have the best offense in the league. When he sits the have the worst, by far.
So we’re not actually looking at a starters/bench problem. We’re looking at a Kevin Love/everybody else problem. I realize that there are some extenuating circumstances here. Cunningham and Barea are both hugely underperforming their career averages. Robbie Hummel has yet to show the shooting touch that we all know he possesses. Chase Budinger hasn’t yet played a minute. But I still maintain that the Wolves simply don’t have enough skilled offensive players–and particularly enough three-point shooters–on their roster to compete with the best teams in the league. So yes, the schedule will turn and the Wolves will have a chance to feast on some of the league’s worst teams. And in a league full of worst teams, that might translate into a winning record and maybe even a playoff birth. But right now, the Wolves are 4-10 against teams with a winning record. I’m not sure I see that changing anytime soon.