Timberwolves in the woods

Benjamin Polk —  January 2, 2014 — 19 Comments

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.

Benjamin Polk

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19 responses to Timberwolves in the woods

  1. Looking forward to the piece on the defense. I still don’t understand how we swap Kirilenko for Brewer, who certainly seems to me to be providing defensive intensity, and get so much worse playing defense.

  2. Kirileko is an elite Defender and Brewer is a good one.

  3. AK is also always hurt

  4. So I guess Love has to pull some Wilt Chamberlain shit – play 48 minutes a game – and the Wolves will have one of the highest offensive ratings of all time. Cool.

  5. What Kevin Love is doing is ridiculous. Make room Mr. Durant and Mr. James, because this guy deserves consideration.

    John Hollinger, Nate Silver, and Bill Barnwell have me convinced that eventually teams will either progress or regress to the mean of their pt differential. The Wolves have a +4.2 pt differential and like you said are 0-9 in close games. For them to be .500 is masterpiece of bad luck and a tough schedule. If I was a Vegas odds maker, I’d set their over-under win total at 49 which should be enough to squeak them into the brutal Western Conference Playoff picture.

  6. I think 45 was ESPN’s estimated wins to make it into the Western Conference Playoffs. I am not sure what the math was behind the number though.

  7. They’re not different enough on defense statistically to say they’re much worse; opponents are shooting marginally better this season but aren’t getting to the line as much, and they’re allowing roughly the same amount of points per possession. Also, Kirilenko isn’t an elite defender; he’s above average, sure, but his value is in his offensive efficiency despite a lack of outside shooting. Mbah a Moute is roughly at Kirilenko’s level defensively, but he doesn’t offer the same offensive skills as AK.

  8. Sure the Wolves are 4-10 against teams with greater than a .500 record, but the Wolves have played tough and refuse to get blown out of games (discarding the IND game). The road games versus the Spurs and Clippers are two examples of execution problems in the 4th quarter and it resulted two blown opportunities for signature wins. We have lost to the LA Clippers three times, mainly due to execution in the last couple minutes (All three games were close, but at least 2 of them were our games to win). The Wolves are only .500, but with a softer schedule the Wolves can be better prepared for difficult games versus contending teams.

  9. Mbah a Moute has never averaged over a block or 1.2 steals per 36 minutes. Kirilenko is 2.2 and 1.7. He is not the same this year, but he could play D on 4 of the positions as a plus defender. He was 6 steals away from becoming the 3rd player ever to average 2 and 2 for blocks/steals.

    Mbah a Moute is a very good defender, but not in the same level as AK47.

  10. Great article, and I agree that the TWolves are not in a position to contend with their current roster. The question is what do they need to become a contender and how’re they going to acquire those pieces. Is it worth trading Brewer, Mbah a Moute, and/or the rookies for another shooter? Should the TWolves explore trading Ricky for a PG that can score? I guess that’s Flip’s job. Hopefully he doesn’t wait until the offseason before making moves.

  11. I don’t think the question is “is it worth trading” but rather “is it possible to trade” when it comes to flipping those guys for significant help. Unfortunately I don’t think those guys are exactly assets and we have an inflexible roster with regards to acquiring upgrades. I will sing Flip’s praises if he can turn our spare parts into a semi-significant piece (while staying under the cap/tax).

  12. In general I’m also convinced by the point differential argument. But there’s just something about this team that leaves me skeptical. Normally you don’t see such a pronounced and persistent split between the way a team performs in blowouts and how they perform in close games. The Wolves are really good at playing when they have forward momentum and things are going well (and especially when the other team has given up a little), they are consistently bad at executing in late game situations. If they have to have great execution on, say, six straight possessions, they never do it. That makes me believe that they have a problem with consistency, maturity and, as I said, simple overall talent level. I agree that they will progress toward the mean of their point differential, but I also believe that these problems will follow them throughout the year.

  13. Well, Mbah a Moute is not that kind of defender. He is more, as they say, “solid.” He keeps the ball in front of him, plays to his opponent’s tendencies, stays in his opponent’s airspace, never gives up on a play, nails his rotations. And he does these things every single time. And, he can lock down defend three positions. He’s not as disruptive as AK was last year, but I think he’s just as good. Also AK has played in six games this year, so.

  14. I can accept the argument about proper rotations and staying between you man as just as valuable in some cases. The wolves however have zero rim protection; a threat for a weak side block was a huge deal. Teams had to worry about something when driving the lane. A team that already has solid all-around defense I would for sure take someone like Mbah a Moute.

    6 games this year, but he played 64 for the Wolves last year, and that year I think that was more than everyone but Ridnour(wild guess as I am too lazy to look at the actual numbers).

  15. It is also only fair to mention that I was born and raised in Utah and have always been a huge fan of Kirilenko and probably overvalue what he does.

  16. Kirilenko has been injured most of the year which is why he hasn’t played that much. He would have been injured in ‘Sota as well. Besides that, it’s not a question of could we have had Mbah a Moute or AK47. They released him so that we could get Martin, a shooting presence. AK47 was on a 10 mil contract and I don’t think he is worth that much. Especially not with the injury concerns he’s had.

    We did sign Brewer and I was one of the people that wasn’t happy about that decision from the start. Then he surprised everyone early on with the the transition game getting on the receiving end of Love’s outlet passes. Haven’t seen much of that lately because the teams have caught up on it. Now I don’t think Brewer adds a ton to the team.

  17. “Alexy Shved is terrible” is a great tag and could easily be used for 99/100 AWAW posts.

    My favorite Alexy nickname “pouty face” has been spreading slowly and suits him hilariously well. #changethisface #enjoyit

  18. I asked Kevin Pelton in an ESPN chat about Mbah a Moute, and he said his D was fringe All-NBA defense quality. He has huge holes in his offensive game, and that’s why he’s a bench player instead of a starter like AK was. I don’t consider either he or AK elite on D; AK may have been 10 years ago, but he wasn’t last season. Elite defenders are guys like Tony Allen, LeBron, and Paul George. AK’s D was a better version of Brewer’s in that he gets a similar number of steals but blocks more shots because of his height (Brewer’s listed at 6’9 but he’s really more like 6’8).

  19. I guess what is scary to me is that setting aside all the talk of strength of schedule, point differentials and whatnot, this team is more dependent on Love to maintain mere competitiveness than any other team with playoff aspirations are on any other top player. If Love was lost to injury this team wouldn’t last a month without spiraling into the lottery. What they remind me of anything else is a poor man’s version of the LeBron Cavs, where the rest of the team and even the coach basically are like “you, best player! Go out there and win us the game”. When it works, it works. When it doesn’t it looks like a tire fire and the team’s best player gets pissed. It isn’t that the Wolves have no other good players or a bad coach, but there is no system in place or being implemented to make the team itself good. Which is not to say the Wolves are not better off than they have been in years but when people talk about patience and process, I need to ask, “fine, then what is the process?” It isn’t sufficient to identify the need for a process if nobody is developing and implementing one, and if nobody is developing and implementing one, then it makes no sense to be patient while the process is ongoing, because it isn’t ongoing.

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