Survival in the West: Analyzing the Timberwolves’ Playoff Chances

William Bohl —  February 3, 2014 — 15 Comments

Butch and Sundance

Rick Adelman has, on more than one occasion, and often without provocation, informed the assembled media that his message to the club on that particular day was to “forget about playoff talk; you’ve accomplished nothing, yet.” It’s come after victories, when the coach wants to temper complacency. It’s come after defeats, when Adelman, shoulders slumped in disappointment, chastises his squad, at a loss for their maddeningly inconsistent play.

It’s funny that the Timberwolves’ 67-year-old coach wants his team to forget about postseason talk, because that’s all the rest of us can think about. Minnesota hasn’t been to the postseason since 2003-04, the final season of the Garnett, Cassell and Sprewell triumvirate; the franchise, and the fan base, craves a playoff berth, even if it’s just for appearance’s sake. The Wolves’ disappointing weekend – dropping a game at home against Memphis, and on the road in Atlanta – dimmed their postseason outlook considerably.

But is it hopeless? With 35 games to play, the Wolves are three-and-a-half games out of the final spot in the loaded Western Conference, not an insurmountable gap, by any stretch of the imagination. Their horrible record in close games, and horrible luck in a few others, both feel fluky. The Wolves continue to post solid Net Rating differentials, a historically accurate way of predicting season-long success. Those who believe Minnesota will make it await self-correction, a reconciliation of advanced statistics (which favor the Wolves) and results (which, thus far, have not).

The loaded Western Conference features five teams that figure to be shoo-ins to the playoffs, barring catastrophic injuries: Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Portland, the Los Angeles Clippers, and Houston. The final three spots will almost certainly come from the following group of six teams: Phoenix, Golden State, Memphis, Dallas, Denver and Minnesota. It will probably take 46 wins to make the playoffs in the Western Conference (side bar: the 8th seed in the East will likely have 35 or so). Can the Wolves get to 46 victories? They’d have to finish 23-13 in order to make the (somewhat arbitrary) benchmark I’ve set for them.

How do the Wolves stack up against the competition for the 6th, 7th or 8th seed in the Western Conference? What does the remaining schedule look like for each contender? Are they trending upward, downward, or have they leveled off? If we take a look at each, what can we learn about the road ahead for Minnesota, and their odds for reaching the postseason for just the 9th time in 25 seasons?

Glad you asked…

Phoenix Suns LogoPhoenix Suns

The Suns are a trendy pick to taper off as we progress through February, March and April. Prior to the season starting, most pundits pegged Jeff Hornacek’s bunch as winners of 20-25 games, candidates to tank in order to secure a top-five pick in the next (loaded) draft class. This lingering bias must be the cause for predicting their demise, because nothing on the court has given anyone a reason to assume the Suns won’t be involved once the playoffs begin.

Goran Dragic is the key for them – his health is vital to their candidacy. Snubbed from the All-Star team, Dragic is averaging 20 points per game on 50% shooting – both career highs. Miles Plumlee’s been a revelation as the Suns’ starting center. Gerald Green was a trainwreck off of Indiana’s bench a season ago, but that guy’s gone, replaced by a confident, assertive playmaker with a glittering shot chart and deadly accuracy from the left-corner. And, at some point, Eric Bledsoe should (hopefully) return, giving the Suns’ lineup even more punch.

Phoenix stays at home for 11 of their next 16 contests, and the furthest they have to travel over the next month and a half is Denver. From March 12th through the 30th, Phoenix’s opponents sport a combined winning percentage of just .416. They recently won four road games in five nights, the last of which was a victory over Indiana, giving the Suns a season sweep over arguably the best team in the NBA.

Can the Wolves catch them? Not without an injury to Dragic, no. Between the long stretches at home and the soft second half of March, it’s easy to find at least 17 more victories on their schedule.

Warriors LogoGolden State Warriors

As Dragic is key to the Suns, Stephen Curry’s health is vital to the success of the Warriors. Of the six teams being profiled, the Warriors have the easiest remaining schedule, at least according to cumulative opponents’ winning percentage (.497). They get 19 of their final 34 games at Oracle Arena, where they’ve won 67% of the time (42-21) since the beginning of last season. They’ve already weathered an injury storm to a key contributor (Andre Iguodala) and enter February a (mostly) healthy group.

That’s not to say they don’t have their problems. Golden State won 10 straight from December 21st through January 7th, but have come back to earth a bit, going just 5-5 over their past 10 games. The bench is an issue – encapsulated primarily in the struggles of Harrison Barnes. From the beginning of the season through December 15th, he put up a 14/4/2 line on 48/40/72 shooting splits; since, he’s a dismal 7/4/1 on 32/38/72 splits. Figuring him out – and incorporating Jordan Crawford into the mix – will be important going forward.

To echo from above: can the Wolves catch them? Not without an injury to Curry, no. They play weaker teams (on average) than the other contenders for the final playoff spots, they get a majority of their remaining games at home (where they’re good), and they’re the most complete team on this list.

Memphis Grizzlies LogoMemphis Grizzlies

Things will be interesting for the “grit-and-grind” ballclub from the River City until Mike Conley returns from the ankle injury he suffered late in Friday’s victory over the Timberwolves. It was a shame to see him get hurt – he played sublimely in January, leading Memphis to the league’s #1 Net Differential rating (and a 12-3 record) to put them squarely in the hunt. Courtney Lee’s been a godsend, providing the three-point shooting the Grizzlies desperately needed, and Marc Gasol’s return from a sprained MCL couldn’t have come at a better time.

That being said, the schedule is not kind to Memphis down the stretch. They have nine – NINE – remaining back-to-backs, and play 21 of their final 36 games away from FedEx Forum. If Mike Conley’s ankle isn’t healed in a timely fashion, the Grizzlies will be forced to play Nick Calathes 30+ minutes per night, a frightening prospect considering how ineffective he’s been running their second unit.

Can the Wolves catch them? This is a tricky one. Defense doesn’t take nights off, and the Grizzlies seem to have hit their stride on that end of the floor, as well as found enough offense (when healthy) to be successful. The brutal schedule down the stretch will be tough on them, however; it’s a 50/50 proposition, at best.

Mavs Logo 2Dallas Mavericks

This morning, the Mavericks find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture, thanks in large part to Memphis’ hot streak, but also to their recent mediocrity. Since January 1st, Dallas is just 9-8, with the 17th-best Net Differential rating (+1.6) in the NBA. They’re 5-5 over their past 10 games, with tough losses to the Clippers, Nets and Rockets in that stretch. They’re a bottom-7 defense, thanks in large part to the human swinging gate known as Jose Calderon. Despite Dirk’s brilliance (a 22/6/3 line on 49/39/91 shooting, all at age 35) it’s fair to wonder if their inability to get stops will be their Achilles heel down the stretch.

On the bright side: what Rick Carlisle has done to mold Monta Ellis into an effective, efficient offensive player ought to warrant him a Nobel Prize in psychology. Over the past four seasons, Monta heaved 4 threes per game and made fewer than a third of them, much to the chagrin of his fans. This season, he’s trimmed the attempts in half and instead focuses on driving to the rim – according to SportVu data, he’s among the best in the league at doing so.

Can the Wolves catch the Mavericks? From now until the end of February, the Mavericks combined opponent winning percentage is .451. After March 1st? That number skyrockets to .557. As long as Dallas doesn’t embark on a crazy run between now and just after the All-Star break, the Wolves should hopefully be able to gain ground when the Mavs run into the likes of  Oklahoma City (twice), Indiana (twice), San Antonio (twice) and Miami down the stretch.

Denver Nuggets LogoDenver Nuggets

Brian Shaw’s had an eventful first season as an NBA head coach. He’s been part of a 7 game winning streak, an 8 game losing streak, a stretch where the Nuggets rebounded and won 6-of-7, and had a falling out with a respected veteran point guard (Andre Miller) which has resulted in the Nuggets paying him to stay home, all while managing the deepest roster in the NBA. Lately, they’ve been down again, dropping 6 of their past 10 games despite playing well in January (9th best Net Rating, +4.0 points per 100 possessions).

The loss of Nate Robinson hurts them. Guard Evan Fournier, who averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game prior to Robinson’s ACL tear, has clocked 38 minutes apiece in the two games since it happened, with mixed results (he turned it over 7 times against the Raptors on Friday night). Denver’s crazy early season rotations have tightened up over the past month or so (with Anthony Randolph and Jordan Hamilton apparently being the odd men out), but do they have enough top end talent to compete with the other teams on this list?

Can the Wolves catch the Nuggets? Of the six contending teams being profiled, the Nuggets’ remaining opponents sport the highest collective winning percentage (.532). Plus, Denver gets to face the following murderer’s row over the final three weeks of the season: Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio (twice), Memphis (twice) and Houston (twice), with only New Orleans and Utah thrown in as sub-.500 opponents. The Wolves should finish higher than the Nuggets, but that’s not the real question, is it?

So, can the Minnesota Timberwolves make the playoffs?

It’s not impossible, but it sure as hell doesn’t appear likely. Phoenix and Golden State can be jotted down with pencil; that leaves one spot between Memphis, Dallas and Minnesota. Both the Grizzlies and Mavericks possess three-and-a-half game leads on the Wolves, an advantage that can’t be overlooked. Plus, it’s not as though Minnesota was lighting the world on fire, even with Pekovic healthy (and playing out of his mind); they ranked 11th in Net Rating in January, going 8-8, and are now just 5-5 over their past ten games.

Here’s how each team stacks up against the Wolves in various, pertinent categories:

 

Team

 

Record

Home Games Remaining Away Games Remaining Cumulative Opponent Win % Back-to-Backs Remaining Last Ten Games Pythagorean Record

Phoenix

29-18

18

17

.527

6

8-2

29-18

Golden State

29-19

19

15

.497

5

5-5

31-17

Memphis

26-20

15

21

.510

9

9-1

24-22

Dallas

27-21

17

17

.518

4

5-5

26-22

Denver

22-23

18

19

.532

4

4-6

23-22

Minnesota

23-24

19

16

.517

5

5-5

30-17

A couple of things for the Wolves to cling to: first their Pythagorean record, which indicates improvement ought to be coming, if historical statistical models have anything to say about it. Secondly, 19 of their remaining 35 will take place in Minnesota.

However, despite Memphis’ tough slate, it’s difficult to doubt their defense (and pedigree); they’re a team with an identity, a style they adhere to. Minnesota lacks such an identity; their style can change drastically from one quarter to the next. And despite Dallas’ defensive woes, they possess an otherworldly power forward who’s complemented by terrific offensive guards (for all my Calderon-bashing earlier, he’s been great on offense this season) and one of the best two or three coaches in the game (Rick Carlisle) at the height of his powers. The Wolves possess an otherworldly power forward of their own, but theirs is too often left to carry the entire offensive burden, and their coach seems unable to right the ship for more than a couple of games at a time.

Can the Wolves overtake one of the two (Memphis or Dallas)? Sure.

But both? A tall order.

William Bohl

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15 responses to Survival in the West: Analyzing the Timberwolves’ Playoff Chances

  1. Basketball Reference (http://www.basketball-reference.com/friv/playoff_prob.cgi) has the Wolves chances at 32.4%. That seems a bit high to me. I think your more qualitative analysis points to a slightly lower probability, perhaps 20%. I wish it were higher. We need to get on a serious roll.

    OKC loses Westbrook, and Durant and Ibaka go nuts. We need Love to go (just a bit more) nuts along with Kevin Martin to get something going before too long. I’m hopeful Pek will be back soon, and playing at the high level he was throughout January, too.

  2. I just don’t see the Twolves making it in. As you stated, the lack of identity is huge. It is a work in progress and better than previous years, but it isn’t like we have developed a culture of winning yet. Plus my guess is that Pek’s bursitis issue will be a nagging problem for the rest of the year since he can’t play ball without his feet. I really hope I’m wrong. I feel like we have the pieces to be a playoff team but things just haven’t been consistent enough. I don’t think the poor record in close games is a statistical anomaly though. Lack of execution and commitment on D is killing us late in games. If we can fix that we’ll be a dangerous team.

  3. Good analysis. I wonder if making the playoffs even really matters for this team though. I always felt like the goal this year was for the young guys to get better, the team to gel and to get a better idea of what this management/coach/roster’s ceiling was, particularly relative to the rest of the West. Now 50 games in, I think it is starting to become pretty clear that regardless of their pythagorian record, this is not a management/coach/roster with a particularly high ceiling. In that case, I feel like Adelman’s current strategy of playing Pek and Love 75-80 combined minutes a game, riding JJ in the fourth quarters and playing established role players like Cunningham and Turiaf to try to squeeze out 44-46 wins is just a waste of everyone’s time. They should give up on the playoffs, see what they have in Muhammad and Dieng, keep the 2013 pick from going to the Suns and try to persuade Love that they have made enough progress that he should think about building this team up for 2014-15 instead of making an academic playoff run this season. They should then spend the offseason breaking down Rubio and building him back up, tweaking the roster and getting a contributor in the draft. And yes, they should probably let Adelman go. Getting the Wolves back to respectability is all they could have hoped from Adelman, and he and they have achieved it. It is time for an amicable separation regardless of whether this team finishes 8, 9 or 10th seed in the West.

  4. could not agree more Mac, keep the draft pick and free shabbaz should be priorities

  5. First, I will start by saying when I heard Minnesota was bringing in Adeleman I thought we finally signed a coach I could be proud of. However, after this stint with Minnesota I have grew apart both from Adeleman and his questionable at best decisions. The fact that he sent shabazz down when we needed bench scoring most, and is up to giving Hummel more playing time, as well as Barea over Rubio down the stretch, tells me he is loosing it. Regardless of his advocators, you simply can’t overlook how our group is better than Phoenix, Dallas, and Memphis, and possibly up there with the likes of Houston. This group should be a 50+ win ball club, and this season has been a complete disappointment. Year after Year we continue to tell ourselves next year is the year, but I have something to tell the fans of Minnesota. Next year is our last chance at not only a run at the playoffs, but to be a contender as well. We all know the speculation towards kevin love and whether or not he will be a laker in 2016. I for one, wouldn’t blame him. Yes, he struggles a bit on defense, but consider his defensive rebounds, he almost becomes underrated. This guy is a franchise player, and because of Adelman, and his eventual retirement that will lead to Kevin Love’s excuse for the player option and hit free agency. The timberwolves again, will be in complete rebuild mode. Something I, and my fellow Timberwolves’ fans have become much to familiar with. Ahhh, time’s like these make me wonder why I didn’t become a Lynx fan instead!

  6. Nice post Mr Bohl. Sad indeed

    Mac – The goal this year was to make the playoffs, end of story. The whole”a year for the team to gel” is BS/front-office lip service that the fanbase will certainly hear all about after the year is over. Teams that go out and spend nearly 100 million on free agents should not take a year to gel, especially when the dynamic in the West is bound to be even more nuts next year. I have to believe there is a bit of panic upstairs. This season has not gone according to plan in the slightest, and I am starting to really think Flip has dug himself into a really bad situation.

  7. I think we have a better chance than people are putting us, look at our schedule in late February to Mid March, we can roll on those games, once Pek is back, there is no reason we can’t get on a roll. To me, it’s about smart basketball, don’t let Cunningham take 6 shots because is wildly inconsistent, when Shved is hot, let him shoot, when Barea is turning it over, don’t let him shoot his way out of a slump. We just have to get a couple upsets, win around 90% of the games we are expected to, and there is no reason we aren’t playoff bound.

  8. Just wondering if there is any specific reason why the Wolves aren’t looking at Gasol? I think Gasol can still play. Do the Wolves not have any expiring contracts to trade away?

    I don’t think Flip knows what he’s doing, especially after the Shabazz pick. Kahn made some bad picks, but you know, they weren’t really that bad. Shabazz is a terrible pick.

    That the Wolves haven’t been linked to any trade rumors all season tells me that Flip isn’t on the ball. I would have moved JJ by now.

  9. What I have noticed this year is that we don’e have a point gaurd who can lead the 2nd unit and hit a mid range jumper. Any way we can get Luk Ridnour back? I was amazed that we got rid of him in the first place. I would have kept him and traded J.J. Is there any word that the Wolves are looking to do anything at the trade deadline? Or are they going to hold on to what they have and make the changes over the summer?

  10. Knowing the Wolves, they’ll finish 9th and lose the draft pick (which they’d keep if they finished 10th). I agree with Wallyworld that Flip has put the team in a bad situation going forward. They don’t really have any trade assets to improve for next year (unless they give up on Love, but then the whole team is in rebuilding mode), maybe no draft pick, and minimal cap room.(probably around $5 mil). Plus, Flip will likely make himself coach if/when Adleman retires. I’d really like to be more hopeful about this team going forward, but it is tough to do.

  11. Wallyworld – I agree Flip and Rick wanted to win 50 games and be what the Blazers actually became this year. When I say I felt like the goal for the team was something else I literally meant that is what I felt the realistic goal was this year. Honestly the team hasn’t met Flip and Rick’s goal and is performing below expectations with respect to my more modest goal of just confirming there are bones of something that can take the next step on the current roster. I don’t think anyone is arguing the current season has worked out beyond ever our most humble dreams, but at this stage I (again, just me speaking) think it’s dumb to riding Pek and Love into the ground and rely on veteran role players to squeak into the playoffs. But hey, that’s just me.

  12. To clarify I am not calling Wallyworld dumb, everything he said is correct. I meant it would be dumb for Flip and Rick to stubbornly throw away a draft pick and development of young players the rest of this season just to fight for a meaningless eighth seed and then barely fail anyway. Of course that looks quite possible at the moment.

  13. Your analysis points toward the Wolves making a trade. If they do not make the playoffs this year very likely that Kevin Love leaves the year after and the Wolves have to blow up their team at that point. I do not think the Wolves would trade KLove or anything, but I think they might trade Pek or take on a bad contract or their 1st round now or in the future in order to upgrade their role players/bench. I really disliked the Mah boute trade as I feel they could have got an offensive scorer off the bench instead which would have more met their needs.

  14. I don’t think the Wolves have any assets with which to make a meaningful trade that improves the team around K-Love. They owe a #1 to the Suns either this year or next year and you can’t trade first rounders in consecutive seasons, so they might have to offer up a 2017 first or something – it will be hard to get a huge difference maker for a pick that is years away (plus with the Wolves’ luck that pick probably will turn out to be the #1 overall down the line). Thanks to Flip and David Kahn’s love of locking up average players in multiyear contracts, the Wolves have a bunch of moderately unattractive veteran contracts with multiple years remaining, which are less than worthless to tanking teams looking to dump talent on the cheap. If you’re a bad team the last thing you want are guys like Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger, Mbah a Moute or Barea. Dieng, Rubio, Martin and even Muhammad can’t be sold for more than what they are (theoretically) worth to the Wolves, and packaging them all won’t bring us James Harden. So the Wolves can’t offer teams prospects, draft picks or salary cap relief. On the other hand, if they trade Pek or Love they may as well start over. This is what happens when you had David Kahn as your GM and he turned 10 first round draft picks into Ricky Rubio and Chase Budinger. Thank God McHale drafted Love and Pek as parting gifts before Kahn fired him, because since then Kahn and Flip have put together a pretty good D-League team. Yes, I am declaring Kevin McHale by far the best Wolves executive in franchise history. Sad.

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