Timberwolves 102, Nuggets 106: Consider It a Promise Not a Threat

If you’re a fan of any one team in the NBA, there are players on other teams that strike fear in your heart. These can be particular to your team — the Trail Blazers’ Wes Matthews has attempted more 3-pointers against the Wolves (125) than any other team and has his best true shooting percentage (.643) against them — but there’s also that more general sense of unease that comes with watching Kevin Durant, LeBron James or James Harden handle the ball against your team in a close game. Anthony Davis is beginning to develop some of that, although the Pelicans’ general inability to consistently get him the ball is tempering it for the time being. These players are, in a word, threats, and that kind of threat is precisely what the Wolves do not have right now and haven’t for quite some time.

At their best, Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love together had some of this, but they had to do it together. Rubio with the ball in his hands is a threat only so long as the players around him can consistently make shots and Love with the ball in his hands is a direct threat only so long as he’s catching it with space to shoot. Neither is capable of engendering that feeling that they could take a defense apart at any moment all by themselves. While it might be dangerous to build your whole offense around the kind of iso-heavy, hero-ball type game implied by this idea of being an offensive threat (viz. Knicks, New York), used correctly, this kind of threat can distort defenses and force them into mistakes.

In his last two games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets, though, Andrew Wiggins has shown the promise of developing into that kind of threat.

Last night’s loss to the Nuggets was actually played fairly evenly except for the second quarter, which the Wolves lost 27-20. Otherwise, the Wolves won each quarter by a point. Neither team shot particularly well from the field (.398 for Minnesota, .411 for Denver), but the real gaps lay in free throw shooting (where the Wolves went 17-24 including 8-14 in a fourth quarter where they had a lead) and in rebounding, where the Nuggets destroyed the Wolves 62-44. More on that shortly, but first back to Wiggins.

With the season about a third over, people appear to feel comfortable deciding that Andrew Wiggins is a bust. Now, it’s not impossible that he is. It is, after all, more likely for any given player to not live up to lofty expectations than fulfill them. But the evaluative gymnastics involved in extrapolating results from a third of a season in which three of the four Wolves veterans who were supposed to start have been injured, and basing those results largely on a single number metric (box plus-minus) that you also adjust as if Wiggins were 22 and not 19 seems specious. Certainly, there are a lot of numbers that have not been good for Wiggins, including a negative statistical plus-minus, but lots of star players had a negative statistical plus-minus their rookie years — especially ones who were under 21 at the time: Dirk Nowitzki, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant. There are also busts on that list: Andrea Bargnani, Michael Beasley, Darius Miles.

My point is that metrics that boil down a player’s performance to one number seem pretty unreliable when it comes to predicting the future. I wouldn’t necessarily say the eye-test is any better at that — just that in the last couple games Wiggins has shown the kind of focus that augurs well for his development if he can cultivate it. In the third quarter last night, there was a stretch where he missed a shot in the post but followed it with a tip in over a couple defenders, drove the lane off an offensive rebound for a layup and drained a 3-pointer from the left wing. It wasn’t all done with the kind of aggression he showed off on that impressive dunk from the other night in Cleveland, but more with a sense of being in control. It gave off some of that sense of being a threat.

Now, the next question from most people is, “How come he can’t do that every night?” It’s a natural thought: He’s 19, fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing in the NBA, getting paid pretty well to do it — what more motivation do you need? But then honestly think about being 19. Think about an 82-game schedule when a long college season is 35-ish games. Think about traveling all over the country and playing in Salt Lake City the night after you lost in Milwaukee. Wiggins said the game against Cleveland was a “motivation game” and it should be, but for so many other games? Being-good-at-basketball-and-being-paid-to-do-it is just too abstract of an idea to be effective motivation night in and night out.

Last night on the broadcast, Dave Benz noted that the Wolves have played the most different teams so far this season — 24 opponents in 28 games, I believe. How are you supposed to find concrete, personal motivation against a team you’ve never even seen before? Players like Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan may be wired to go hard against every opponent, to excavate any little shred of a slight to make things personal in order to fuel their focus, but a player like Wiggins has to learn to do that, and some of that just comes with experience.

Right now, he’s playing with the kind of focus he needs to turn his promise into a threat.

  • Let’s talk about rebounding and a pet theory I have: Although on paper it seems like the pairing of Thad Young and Gorgui Dieng in the frontcourt would be better than Young and Nikola Pekovic in terms of defense and rebounding, last night’s game made me think this might not be the case. Sure, neither Pek nor Young are rim protectors or lockdown paint defenders, but Pek clears out space in the paint in a way that Dieng does not. Watching the game last night, I also noticed that Dieng going for blocks opens up a lot of space that Young is poorly equipped to control for rebounds at only 6-8. Being undersized, Young doesn’t rebound well for his position, so he’s best as a rebound scavenger, rather than a main rebounder. Sample sizes are small, but the stats might bear this out. Young’s total rebounds per 100 possessions is 6.4 with Dieng on the floor and 9.0 with Pek on the floor, plus Pek gets more rebounds than Dieng per 100, so it’s not like Dieng is taking rebounds away from Young. Also, the Wolves are giving up 1.03 points per possession with Young and Pek on the floor, 1.09 with Young and Dieng. Again, some of that is sample size plus the fact that those minutes with Pek included minutes with Rubio, but it’s at least worth paying attention to going forward.
  • Speaking of rebounding, Kenneth Faried was completely out of his gourd last night: 26 points and 25 rebounds. He had 12 offensive rebounds BY HIMSELF — only two fewer than the entire Timberwolves team had. He’s bouncy.
  • After the game, a lot of people were bagging on Chase Budinger for stepping out of bounds as he was catching a pass that should have led to a 3-pointer and a tie game with 11 seconds remaining. There’s no question it was a bad move on Budinger’s part, but it’s not his fault the Wolves lost the game. He was actually second in overall plus/minus for the game with a +8 behind Mo Williams’ +12. Recently against Boston and Indiana he posted game scores of 14.9 and 11.0, which is pretty damn good. And yet people are saying he should be cut from the team because he slipped up and had his foot out of bounds. At this point, he just can’t win.
  • Jeff Adrien continues to impress, putting up 6 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists in just over 12 minutes of action. The guy just plays hard all the time, the importance of which cannot be overstated on a team with a lot of young players. Wolves PR tweeted that a scout was referring to Adrien as “Robocop,” which is a great nickname for him. I was skeptical of the signing — not because of Adrien per se, but just because the Wolves needed (and still need) depth at point guard and size at center. But Adrien’s proven his value to this team right now, and that’s great.
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4 Responsesso far.

  1. gjk says:

    Yeah, blaming Bud isn’t right. I don’t get why they ran a play for him or had him in the game, but those plays don’t just happen to guys struggling.

    I guess I expected Bennett to be a good matchup for guys like Faried. They need one regular-sized PF in the rotation, but he just seems lost on both ends. Even D-Will looked better in his 2nd season.

    We should be skeptical about the eye test when it comes to shooting, since guys can have a nice-looking shot but not make many. However, Wiggins’ visible skills at the rim match up with a decent 58% from there, and he’s still above 40% from 3. He’s just awful from everywhere else. Bad shooters on bad teams will look bad with the current analytics, especially since they’re a dumpster fire on D right now.

  2. Mac says:

    I am sure Paine is a smart guy and his analysis is in good faith but I feel like he’s more than a little trolly in setting up his straw man arguments on fivethirtyeight. Recently he wrote an article about how the data shows Jordan was definitely better than Kobe. Other than utterly deluded Kobe fans (who while vociferous and numerous, cannot possibly make up a statistically significant number of the total basketball fans worldwide) did any informed basketball fan remotely doubt this to be the case? Likewise, while everyone still agrees Wiggins is an elite prospect with a high ceiling, I doubt anyone after about game 10 into last season at Kansas thought that ceiling was “Lebron”. It is an Internet pet peeve of mine when writers take a premise and riff on it not because reasonable people have not already come to a consensus on the subject, but just because if they set it up just right then it’s ripe as clickbait.

    It is a little ironic that in his book, Nate Silver talks about how an infinite amount of information can be generated, but the store of knowledge in the world stays basically the same, so the problem with the Internet is that it churns out vast rivers of information without having anything to add to our collective knowledge, and in fact serves no real purpose than paying the bills for the people generating the information and marketing themselves as “experts” with respect to the knowledge, when in fact what they are experts at is producing information and have no particular insight with respect to the knowledge beyond what lots of people know, or could deduce equally as well without the expert and his/her information. That seems to be pretty much fivethirtyeight’s bread and butter as well, and if Silver thinks his website is somehow more disciplined or principled than others just because a lot of numbers are being thrown around, I am not seeing it in action.

    All that aside, if Wiggins (and LaVine) is this far south of the total VORP Mason-Dixon line at year’s end, that would not be good. The bust % is much higher for players who had negative VORP during their rookie years than for guys who at least managed a 0.0, regardless the talent around them.

  3. Mac says:

    I am troubled that the link Paine cross-references as evidence that “hoops cognoscenti” heralded Wiggins as the LeBron James is an amateur blog post containing nothing but 5 posts from August and September 2012, in which the blogger starts off by saying he has never seen Wiggins play.

    http://kidonanisland.blogspot.jp/2012_08_01_archive.html

    I don’t know much about data journalism, but in my view Paine does not have a right to fudge the story to fit the numbers, any more than opinion journalists have the right to fudge the numbers to fit the story. It may seem like a little detail, but what am I supposed to think of a data journalists who doesn’t sweat the details? If the restroom in a restaurant is filthy, it’s highly unlikely the kitchen will be spotless.

  4. gjk says:

    Good points, Mac. More data (especially all the SportVU stuff) does help, but the 2 areas that irk me are when those data analysts seem absolutely certain of a conclusion and when they overemphasize predicting the future. The difference between Shabazz last summer (supposedly didn’t belong in the NBA) to now (top 5 in PER among SFs) provides a hint that maybe not everything can be predicted.

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