Timberwolves 92, Grizzlies 109: The Long Bright Dark

Steve McPherson —  March 25, 2014 — 15 Comments

[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.

Steve McPherson

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15 responses to Timberwolves 92, Grizzlies 109: The Long Bright Dark

  1. A case for recognizing Rubio’s importance to the Wolves, despite his shooting woes: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-hidden-value-of-the-nba-steal/

  2. Great stuff Steve, as always.

    Sorry to be the #WellActually guy, but KG’s last year in Minnesota was 2006-07, not 2004-05.

  3. KG’s last year here was 06-07. Still, this is the first season where a non-KG team will finish with a higher win % than at least one of the KG teams (33 and 32 his last 2 seasons).

    The starters’ numbers are impressive, though I wonder how much that gets affected by the opponent taking out starters that then beat up on the Wolves bench (like Dirk or James Harden). It’s not the only factor, but it’s a factor.

    Playing Memphis makes it clear how important mental toughness is. Some guys clearly get an edge from being tough, and if the opponent’s response is to sell foul calls, that just increases their edge, especially when it’s rewarded by the league. At some point, the Wolves need more players who can physically and psychologically handle the rougher teams in the league.

  4. Undead Hartman March 25, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    Glen Taylor, please sell this team to someone who cares more about winning. I love your sweaters, but it’s time to leave. I’ll watch the wolves no matter what, I do every year despite having to pay $$$ due to not living in Minnesota for the last 10, but this is getting out of control. It’s terrible when, as a fan, you wish for your “Once in a decade” players (Garnett, Love) to be let go in order to have a chance at winning somewhere else.
    We hire GM’s who run the gambit from mediocre to catastrophic when this is not an inevitability for a mid market team (someone please shower Masai Ujiri with money to leave Toronto). We rarely draft competently, our trades are terrible (the LRMM being the latest example), and our contracts are totally out of whack (Kahn should be fired again for not offering Love the max, and while we all should love Pek’s game, has he made it through a whole season yet? Does ankle bursitis get better year after year when you’re 600 kilos? No.)
    The thought of watching this team that showed such great flashes and such maddening lows throughout this year WITHOUT Love next year, doesn’t sound great. The fact that this could have been prevented with, say, a modicum of intelligence on Kahn’s part? Criminal. But this is how the Timberwolves always have been, and apparently Taylor doesn’t have the highest of expectations.
    There needs to be a reality show for troubled NBA franchises where Steve Kerr airdrops in, gets complete control for one year, and we see what happens to the team after that. Just make sure Minnesota is in line first before Sacramento and Cleveland….

  5. This only serves to point out that if we lose Love we will return to being the doormat of the Western Conference. I just don’t know how he does it. He comes out and pretty much gives the team twenty and ten and then watches Barea and Co. toss it away. It’s gotta be hard not to explode. I really like watching the Wolves when Love, Rubio, and Pek play together, even Martin can contribute when that group is in. Is the 13th pick high enough to get a contributor that could either play with the starters or make the bench less ugly? I don’t know. But I would like to see Shabazz start to develop into a piece we can use somewhere.

    I have no idea how we could get Love to re-sign, maybe give him a say in which coach we bring in, maybe show him in another way that the organization values him. I would say that he’s gone and the Wolves will suck, more than they do now.

    I understand that our author, who knows a lot about basketball and who also enjoys the watchability of Rubio and Love working together, thinks that mediocracy is to be celebrated. I know the West is stacked, and we’d be in the playoffs in the East where the Bobcats have about the same record as the T’wolves.

    The Bobcats have improved as the season went on, we’re bout the same. I doubt that the ‘Cats fans have the same feeling of dread when their bench enters the game. The ‘Cats coach plays with what he has. He has adapted an simplified his defense an chis offense to suit Al Jefferson. The results have been very good for a team with limited talent.

    I think that the analogy about misfitting parts as apt. The question is, how do we fix it? Get a point guard and let Barea walk? Hope that Buddinger finds his shot? Hope that Shabazz improves? That’s a lot of hope, it won’t do much after Love walks.

  6. The issue with Adelman is that he went from a coach that would get the most out of unknown/less established players and he would go with who was producing, not based on veteran status/high draft pick/name etc.

    This year he has been incredibly hypocritical by not giving Bazz more minutes after that great Phoenix game (one of his only real opportunities to get decent playing time) and has refused to bench JJ/Dante/Bud if they are stinking it up. Dante hasn’t been THAT bad and Bud is coming back from a tough injury, but the playing time and usage of JJ is indefensible. I think it’s the main reason the bench has been so inconsistent this season (when you bank your bench’s hopes on an undersized shoot first PG that is incredibly streaky and doesn’t run the offense, you get this year’s results, even with a great starting unit).

    I really think this team’s growth has really been stunted this year by Adelman and JJ. Even though it’s going to be one of the best years in a long time, it still doesn’t feel good to finally have a team that should be a playoff team underachieve to this level (and without the major injuries they had last season).

    The underachieving this year actually hurts a bit more I think.

  7. The problem with Adelman’s rotations is about the lineup combinations, not who plays. I have yet to see someone provide anything more than 1-2 isolated observations (that aren’t backed up by stats) proving that Shved or Price is better than Barea or that Shabazz deserved more time before this point. Despite playing with few offensive threats and having a bad shooting season, Barea is still dishing out assists at a much higher rate than Shved or Price have done in their careers. For a scorer, Muhammad is shooting much worse from almost every spot on the floor compared to Luc or Chase; also, neither of those guys have the offense run specifically to get them shots like Shabazz does when almost every set with him in the game is meant to get him a post-up on the left block. Also, Cunningham wouldn’t be in the NBA if he relied on his shooting; he plays because he’s the team’s best help defender on a team that relies heavily on help D.

  8. gjk, I think it’s a lot more about flow with Barea. Barea took too many contested shots holds the ball too long and does not make anyone around him better. I don’t think Shved would have been much better to be honest, he just seems to get lost too quick. I do not think either of those players are right for the team. Ideally a more traditional SG/PG combo that compliment the starters so when one comes out the guy replacing him is not so radically different. My opinion is this really hurt the team a lot this year by constantly adjusting to who was on the floor. It may be pure lack of talent from the bench. but it really seemed to me that when the bench came in the pace of the game went from controlled to frantic. Frantic is Barea’s game.

  9. Yeah, I totally agree that he can’t be their primary backup PG next season. They just need a guy better in at least some of these areas: running an offense, facilitating open shots for teammates, perimeter shooting, and defense. To be fair to him, everyone knew something like this (besides the bad shooting) would happen if he had to play a lot of minutes as the PG; that’s why he rarely did that in Dallas.

  10. No denying that Love is a fantastic player and the lack of bench production has doomed this season.

    But I want to re-post what I had on the Phoenix blog ‘cuz I’d like to hear some of y’all’s thoughts. I often hear that, statistically, the Wolves are actually a good defensive team (something about defensive efficiency). That’s gotta be a statistical mirage. They are 26th in points allowed. Perimeter D is a huge issue for this team. Martin and Barea are liabilities and Brewer doesn’t help the problem as much as he should.
    And I notice that at the end of close games, the Wolves struggle to make shots but our opponents usually have no trouble getting good looks. Usually those shots go in (and we lose) and sometimes we get lucky and they don’t (see Dirk’s recent shot). Regardless of whether Love stays or goes, I think defense is a huge priority to address this off-season, second only to 3-point shooting.

  11. @shlabotnik13:
    Points allowed and Points scored are useless statistics, because they don’t factor in the pace at which a team is playing. The Wolves rank highly in points allowed because they play at a very high pace compared to the other teams. That doesn’t mean they are a poor defensive team. The Wolves were an above average defensive team all season, currently ranked 14th in defensive efficiency with 104 points allowed per 100 possessions and that’s not a statistical mirage.
    If you don’t understand efficiency, google it. A team that gives up 101 points on 100 possessions is a better defensive team than a team giving giving up 100 points on 95 possessions (by far).

    At the end of every close game, the Wolves have nobody that can score a corner three (besides Love) and every opponent knows that Ricky Rubio isn’t trying to score and mainly can’t score. Teams tend to double Love, who manages to make good passes, but either guys aren’t taking the shot or they can’t make the open shot. If Love isn’t involved in an offensive possession, the other guys can’t manage to produce enough and it ends with somebody forcing something (which can backfire with an easy score in transition for the other team).
    Look at Loves gamewinner in the Dallas game. In the 4th quarter, the Mavericks constantly doubled Love on the catch or as soon as he started to dribble. Whenever he gave it up, the other guys couldn’t make something happen. On his last shot attempt Love pumpfaked, split a doubleteam and then made a one hand push shot over a third defender (7 ft Brandon Wright I think). That was just an insane shot that he had to force up and thankfully made.

  12. Their defensive rating is aided by not committing shooting fouls and by forcing a lot of turnovers. Their main defensive problems are field goal percentage allowed in the paint and points allowed off of turnovers. It looks worse than it is, but if the opponent takes care of the ball, they have trouble forcing a miss, which is obviously notable. As for Dirk, luck would be if the ball slipped out of his hands or he missed a layup. A contested 20-footer where the worst-case scenario is another overtime is good defense.

  13. My mistake: they were only up by one. Either way, the defense was solid on the final play and not related to luck.

  14. Who knew Nikola Pekovic was Montenegrin for Wally Pipp.

  15. Thanks dattebayo and gjk for the thoughtful responses (this is a good blog). I understand defensive efficiency, but we all know that stats don’t tell the whole story. What gjk says about the Wolves having trouble forcing a miss, rings loud and clear with me. Oftentimes hear Adelman lament that we can’t get stops at the end of games. I’d really like to see the Wolves have some tough defenders who can go and make stops when we need them.

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