Timberwolves 92, Grizzlies 109: The Long Bright Dark
[Video courtesy of CJ Fogler]
That right there is a man at the end of his rope.
When that video of Kevin Love’s postgame comments after the Timberwolves’ 109-92 to the Memphis Grizzlies was posted last night, reactions were both swift and morose, with many jumping to the conclusion that this means Love is done in Minnesota, but let’s pump those brakes, OK?
First, no one would deny that this season has not met expectations, and the team is now trudging into a stretch that Love knows all too well where the season is more or less done, but there are still games to play. Second, this is a team that surrendered a 22-point lead the day before at home then hit the road to face one of the league’s most physical teams without Nikola Pekovic and Ronny Turiaf in the frontcourt to absorb some of the damage. As Love notes in the video, the evidence was all over the boxscore, where the Grizzlies outscored the Wolves 66-42 in the paint, held them to 38% shooting and outrebounded the Wolves 54-42. All of that stuff means Love had a very bad awful no good day, but it doesn’t have to say anything about a decision that’s a year away, from his perspective.
Speaking of that bad day, the most interesting thing Love had to say there — other than the freighted, difficult pauses that spoke to just how wiped out he is — was “I’m allowed an off game every now and then.”
But here’s the thing: Based on the way the Timberwolves are constructed, he’s actually not.
Over at Per Diem on ESPN, Kevin Pelton looked into the top ten players in the NBA this season by the numbers (it’s an Insider link, but I’m about to give you the skinny on Love). The numbers in question are EWA (Estimated Wins Added, developed by John Hollinger), win shares (from Basketball Reference and beloved by stat geeks) and WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player). Basically, this is a cocktail of advanced stats that each provide slightly different shadings on measuring a player.
First of all, it’s worth noting that Love’s win shares (13.2) is just a hair worse than LeBron James (13.5) and a good deal better than Steph Curry’s (11.1), who’s fourth in the league. In fact, the difference between Love and Curry (2.1) is basically the same as the difference between Curry and Dirk Nowitzki, who’s fifteenth with 8.9. I don’t have the hard numbers, but the story with WARP is virtually the same. Bottom line: Love is simply a spectacular basketball player, even with acknowledged deficiencies on the defensive end.
But check what Pelton had to say about Love and his defense:
Love’s poor interior defense also is a factor in the Wolves’ inability to stop opponents late in games. But Minnesota might not play so many close games if the bench wasn’t continually blowing leads Love helped create. The Timberwolves are plus-6.4 points per 100 possessions with Love on the court and get outscored by 11.0 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench, making the non-Love Wolves fundamentally equivalent to the Philadelphia 76ers (minus-11.4 points per 100 possessions this season).
Let that sink in for a bit. A plus-6.4 net rating overall would place the Timberwolves fifth in the league for net rating, behind the Spurs, Clippers and Thunder and ahead of the Heat, Rockets and Warriors. Overall they have a plus-1.5, good for 12th in the league. A minus-11 net rating is not only fundamentally equivalent to the woeful Sixers, but a good deal worse than the Bucks (minus-8.8), the Jazz (minus-8.2) and the Lakers (minus-6.2).
Really think about that and realize how much Love is responsible for on this team and maybe reconsider questioning his defense as the primary problem with the team. As the game against Memphis showed, if Love is off, the team looks more or less like the Sixers. They didn’t lead at any point — not even early in the first quarter — while the Grizzlies’ biggest lead was 25.
I would go so far as to say that for all the weirdness of the starting lineup — including Ricky Rubio’s still-iffy shot (although, as Zach pointed out, he’s been pretty good since January 1st, shooting 41.2% overall), Nikola Pekovic’s lack of rim-protecting abilities and Corey Brewer’s defensive gambling and scattershot shooting and finishing — that the starters are not fundamentally a problem either. Their overall net rating in the 1010 minutes they’ve spent on the floor together is plus-8.3, which would lead the league over the Spurs (plus-8.2). Going forward, you may want to consider how moving a player like Kevin Martin or Corey Brewer to the bench might bolster that unit’s offense or defense, respectively, but the starters are basically good. Very good.
The problem lies with a bench that’s composed of many pieces that look oh so useful but just won’t fit together, partly by design, partly from injury and partly from coach Rick Adelman’s lack of vision for what they should be doing. It’s like if you had a quarter of the pieces each from a remote control, a PlayStation controller, a watch and a toaster and tried to makes something cohesive out of them.
J.J. Barea is not a primary ballhandler yet that is what he was often tasked with this season. According to nbawowy.com, with Barea on the floor and Rubio off, the team’s assists per 100 possessions is 20.1, down from 25.6 in the reverse situation. Chase Budinger, who was supposed to be the sniper to open up the offense, has a true shooting percentage of 46.3%, third worst on the team ahead of only Alexey Shved and Shabazz Muhammad. His three-point shooting percentage of 33% is worse than Rubio’s (34.8%). Ronny Turiaf has only played 23 games this season. Dante Cunningham has been only incrementally worse than last year by the numbers, but it doesn’t take much for a solid backup to turn into a minor liability.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has presented a particularly troublesome case. Measuring his contributions to the team is hard for a number of reasons having to do with the difficulty of measuring defensive contributions and with moving a player into a new system mid-season, but none of those things can explain away moving a player that Adelman wouldn’t play for one who was supposed to get minutes in order to shore up the defense of the second unit, but now does neither. He averaged 21.8 minutes per game for Sacramento with an offensive rating of 120 and a defensive rating of 108. On the Wolves, he’s getting 13.8 mpg with an offensive rating of 96 and a defensive rating of 109.
As with most things, some of this is stuff you can control and some of it isn’t. Just about all the stuff you can’t control (injuries, rehabbing, age) have broken bad for the Wolves, as have many of the things they can control. Personally — and I emphasize the “personally” here — I think Adelman’s done, that his heart has gone out of it, and that looking back on his impressive and Hall of Fame-worthy career, this span in Minnesota will be notable mostly for it being the stretch that let him know it was time to pack it in.
He gets too much grief for not improving young players. Just look at Love’s development from the year before Adelman got to Minnesota to now, going from being selected as a replacement for Yao Ming in the All-Star game to being voted in as a starter. And for as much as I think Rubio and Adelman have not been a perfect fit (Adelman’s model of a point guard is much more in the Mike Bibby mold — a shooter who works better in the corner offense initiated by the big men at the elbow), I think Rubio has improved since his rookie year and will continue to do so after this season.
It’s also reasonable for him to approach rookies with an eye towards making them overprove their readiness. It’s important for them to not just be handed minutes but to work for them. Gorgui Dieng’s recent strong play is assuredly not independent of how hard he’s had to work to get his shot combined with that shot being created by Pekovic and Turiaf being injured.
And then if you want to look at the simplest raw number: .493. That’s the Wolves’ win percentage right now and it seems likely to finish around there by the end of the season, marking the franchise’s best season since 2004-05, Kevin Garnett’s last year in Minnesota. Their average win percentage in the six years between 2005 and the start of Adelman’s tenure? .291. During Adelman’s tenure? .422.
So the shocker: things aren’t always black and white. You can have success that’s still a disappointment. You can fail and still be better than you used to be. That’s fundamentally what the Wolves are looking at right now. That and thirteen more games.
Statistical support for this post from NBA.com.