People who followed the Minnesota Timberwolves, whether they were fans or media members, so closely last season have widely held the belief that it was the lack of late game execution that ultimately was the undoing of this team in their quest for a return to the playoffs. The 0-11 start in games decided by four points or less was a frustrating run, and it once the Wolves ended that streak with a clutch win on the road against the Golden State Warriors, hopes of the floodgates opening and leading to more wins was the preferred result of getting over that hump.
To a degree, it did. After the 0-11 start in games decided by four points or less, the Wolves won six of eight in these close games. But the damage had been done. Missing out on those precious wins early seemed to help lead to players checking out and the effort not being consistent enough in the final two months of the season when the Wolves didn’t have any margin for error. There are plenty of reasons as to why the Wolves were so bad (shooting, player execution, coaching, the bench being so bad it taxed the starters, defense, etc.) and most fans want to jump on Rick Adelman as the primary reason.
So will a coaching change help this Wolves team get over the hump in a close game environment that has plagued them for a decade? In a recent Q&A by Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune, Flip Saunders mentioned he doesn’t care so much about who starts games as he does which players finish games. He even said that prior to his time coaching the Washington Wizards, his teams had a higher winning percentage than any other team when games were decided by three points or less:
Q Who’s your starting 5?
A I have no idea. I probably won’t have an idea a week from today or two weeks from today. I don’t look at starting lineups. I go the reverse: who is going to finish the game? That’s important to me. I know coaches say that a lot but if you look at my career, prior to Washington, our winning percentage was higher than any team as far as games (decided by) 3 points or less. We executed, didn’t turn the ball over, played to our strengths. You have to have the right personnel on the floor.
Flip was apparently talking up this record at the end of close games at the Wolves’ Media Day on Monday as well, according to our own Steve McPherson.
This is the second time I’ve heard Saunders emphasize his history of winning close games.
— Steve McPherson (@steventurous) September 29, 2014
Was Flip skewing his memories or is this actually a true statement?
I checked out the records in close games but changed the sample size just a bit to get a better idea of how he did building a team into a winner, rather than including a championship team he inherited from Larry Brown when he took over the Detroit Pistons in 2005. Not to diminish the coaching he job he did with the Pistons because they had incredible records in the regular season while making the Eastern Conference finals every year, but I felt like it didn’t draw on the reality of what his job will be rebuilding this Wolves team as the coach and president. I also decided to expand the criteria to games decided by four points or less to make it more relatable to a roster that will have a lot of the same components from last season.
It’s still close enough to what Flip said while trying to eliminate the noise of comparing two mildly similar but ultimately different situations. And it turns out, he was still very successful in this respect and wasn’t blowing smoke up the rear ends of the newspaper readers.
In games from when Flip Saunders took over coaching the Wolves in the 1995-96 season until he was fired during the 2004-05 season, the Wolves had the second best record in the NBA in contests decided by four points or less. They had a record of 92-63 in this stretch of games over nearly 10 full seasons, giving the Wolves a winning percentage of 59.3%. Only the Los Angeles Lakers’ record of 100-68 (59.5%) was more successful than Flip’s Wolves teams. The Kings, coached mostly by Adelman during this time, were third behind the Wolves at 99-71 (58.2%).
There are some things to remember with this data that are important:
1. The rules of the league were different back then and Flip’s coaching was ahead of its time in that respect. He played around with defensive help and pseudo-legal zones that actually weren’t legal at all, which helped the Wolves play great defense at the end of games. There are plenty of questions as to whether or not Flip is capable of being ahead of today’s NBA because everybody is doing what he did in some respect and have furthered that even more. His time in Washington isn’t a total indictment because that organization was a mess at the time he was there, but he certainly didn’t prove his way was the right way with that team.
2. Yes, the Wolves had Kevin Garnett during this run, but remember KG didn’t have the best reputation in close games. In fact, his shooting numbers in clutch situations wasn’t very good, so it wasn’t just relying on a Hall of Famer to get things done and Flip sitting on the sidelines. He preached execution on the floor and the team executed quite well.
3. His Pistons teams were 30-23 (56.6%) in games decided by four points or less. His Wizards teams were 22-26 (45.8%). Since Flip’s departure from coaching the Wolves, this organization is 60-109 (35.5%) in games decided by four points or less. The Wolves are by far the worst team in the NBA in winning close games since Flip left. The next closest is the Indiana Pacers at 56-84 (40.0%). This won’t shock anybody that the Spurs are the best during this time with a record of 87-50 (63.9%). Execution. Execution. Execution.
4. Don’t kill the Bobcats too much for this chart. They only had the one season in this time frame and it was their inaugural season. They went 6-28 in these close games.
What does all of this mean? Well… I’m not quite sure. This team lost Kevin Love, one of the 10 best players in the league, and while the future looks as good as it possibly can with this turn of events, the Wolves still won’t have that go-to guy at the end of games. Perhaps, this forces them to run more actual plays to create shots for others? Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin are the two best scorers on the floor. Ricky Rubio’s improved shot-making (if there is any at all) will have to come through to help him create scoring chances for the team when they’re in close games. We also have no clue how quickly Andrew Wiggins will or won’t take the reins of this team and be a featured player on offense.
Flip is going to make Wiggins earn every bit of stardom he gets, which I personally love. Yes, Wiggins is the future and he should be treated like it in some respect, but making him fight for everything, including end-of-game scoring responsibility, can only help him develop. The Wolves can feel confident in knowing they have a coach who typically has success in close games. As he figures out which players will help them execute at the end of games, we’ll see this team start taking the necessary steps toward being respectable again, like the franchise was when Flip was first patrolling the sidelines.
However, the Wolves hired a coach back in 2011 that had a record of 170-134 (55.9%) in games decided by four points or less. His teams went just 19-33 in these close games over the last three years (although there is a ton of context in that lack of success). It’s good for Flip to be confident in his coaching at the end of games, but he’ll still need the players to get the job done while this organization tries to become successful once again.