A SportVu deep dive into the Timberwolves’ young season


Over the past couple of seasons, NBA.com has made Synergy Sports data more and more available in ever-increasing detail. While the numbers certainly shouldn’t be taken as Gospel, and subjective factors must always be kept in mind, it can be quite informative to jump into the advanced statistics in an attempt to learn a little more about player and team tendencies.

With that in mind, please enjoy what I’ve put together below. Rankings and statistics were current as of Friday, November 20th. Oh, and be wary of small sample sizes. The Wolves have played 14 games, which is not an insignificant number, but plenty of things can still change over the final five months of the regular season.



What do you know, having a semi-healthy Ricky Rubio and Kevin Garnett changes things; the Wolves have made a nearly 9-point improvement in their defensive rating over a year ago. Minnesota’s Net Rating of -0.2 points per 100 possessions indicates they could be approximately a .500 team, if things keep going the way they’ve started. Last season, Indiana sported a -0.1 Net Rating and Boston put up a -0.4; they won 38 and 40 games, respectively.

The other big takeaway from the first chart is the Wolves’ ranking in three point attempts (surprise! dead-last) and free throw attempts per game (among the best in the league). Getting to the line has always been a big part of Kevin Martin’s game, and this season, Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins are following his lead. However, aside from Martin, Zach LaVine, Nemanja Bjelica and the little-used Damjan Rudez, hardly anyone on the roster fires from downtown at a steady clip.



The further away from the hoop the Wolves get, the worse they get at shooting, but their high percentage around the basket is worth commending. Zach LaVine (69% at the rim) has become a very good finisher, as has Shabazz Muhammad (also 69%). Andrew Wiggins ought to progress to his mean (65% last season, 55% this season) and even Ricky Rubio is doing well (by his standards, anyway, at 47%).

The problem on offense, of course, is the fact that the Wolves are second in the league in midrange shot attempts. They’re actually approaching a league-average percentage at making them, but the fact they are still taking so many is, of course, discouraging.

On the other side of the ball, the Wolves are awful at defending the restricted area despite Karl-Anthony Towns’ brilliance (more on that later), but all things considered, they’re doing pretty well. Minnesota allows a ton of three-point attempts, but their field goal percentage against seems to suggest they’re either very good at closing out on shooters, or very lucky, or perhaps some combination of the two. Either way, Wolves opponents are having a tough time shooting jumpers over them, which is a welcome change from last season.



Lots to dissect, here.

On the offensive side, the first thing that jumps out is just how few spot up shots the Wolves’ offense generates. Typically, the teams that rank near the top in spot up opportunities are among the league’s best offenses; catching and shooting in rhythm, especially from three, is the most desired shot in the modern NBA. The Wolves are bad at manufacturing those looks, and when they do get them, they’re often from the midrange area. Not a great mix.

Another thing to notice: Minnesota is very efficient at scoring in transition (2nd in the league), but don’t get out and run as often as they’d probably like (22nd in frequency). Sam Mitchell has attributed their lack of fastbreak opportunities to the fact that they have to commit several guys into rebounding, mainly because they’re so thin on the front line. Until Pek comes back, it’s tough to envision many lineups where anything would be different, and even then, Pek isn’t exactly the guy you sub in when you want to push the pace.

Also, the Wolves call a ton of post ups and isolation plays, which is less than ideal, but at least they are average or slightly above average at converting in those situations.

On the other side of the ball… man, what a weird set of numbers. The Wolves are awesome at defending spot up shooters and in post situations, and terrible getting back in transition and containing ball handlers in the pick and roll. Minnesota is young, athletic and long, thus enabling them to contest shots well. The Wolves’ two best defenders are probably Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, who are also the two most likely players to defend a post up, thus helping to explain their stellar ranking in that area.

As for the poor showing in transition defense… I have no idea. The Wolves are about league average in turnover ratio, so it isn’t as if they’re giving it away in live-ball situations all the time; they’re just bad at getting back on defense. The fact that they get torched by pick-and-roll ball handlers makes some sense, as the team strategy to defend that play seems to be to go under screens, thus protecting the rim. But when you do that, you decide to live with the point guard generating offense. Against Steph Curry, for instance, the result was 46 points. Damian Lillard (34 & 7), Jeff Teague (24 & 9), Elfrid Payton (24 & 4), Mike Conley (20 & 7) and Reggie Jackson (18 & 5) have all had some big nights as a result.

Elsewhere, the Wolves are pretty solid across the board  – overall, it’s a breath of fresh air compared to last season’s tire fire on that end of the floor.




Wiggins’ shooting numbers are on the low side… Zach LaVine’s are always surprisingly good, especially around the rim… Kevin Martin is in one of the worst slumps of his career, and ought to progress to his mean sooner or later… KAT is perfect… Ricky needs Mike Penberthy back in the worst kind of way… Bazzy’s Bazzy… Gorgui’s Gorgui… I hope the coaching staff tells Nemanja Bjelica every single day that he has the green light to shoot because he’s probably the best shooter on the team at the moment… KG is old, but it’s hard to argue with that Net Rating… Ditto for Tayshaun.



Briefly, again:

When Tayshaun Prince (currently attempting fewer than 5 shots per-36 minutes) is your best spot up shooter and you only have a total of two qualified guys who are above average at it, there’s, uh, room for improvement… So, LaVine, Muhammad, Towns and Martin are all excellent finishing in transition, and Wiggins and Rubio are both above average. They’ve got to figure out how to incorporate that more… Towns falls into a surprisingly low percentile at post ups (it just seems as if he’s so much better than that), Dieng is surprisingly high, and Wiggins is right where I thought he’d be… Both Wiggins and LaVine improving their one-on-one isolation games is good for the Wolves. When plays break down, it’s good to have a guy who can make something out of nothing… The LaVine/Rubio pick and roll ballhandling numbers should not be interpreted to mean LaVine is better at running them. However, they could be used to make the case that LaVine is better than you think at it.



KAT. Seriously. How is he this good already? Incredible… Dieng stays being bad at rim protection… Bjelica isn’t so good, either, but then again, defense was never supposed to be his strength… WOOF, Adreian Payne.



I chose to highlight post ups and spot ups because they’re two of the only plays where the numbers can reasonably be expected to mirror real life. That is – there’s nothing ambiguous about which defender was guarding a player in the post, or was closest to a spot up shooter. It isn’t always as clear whose “fault” it is if a player scores on a pick and roll, or a cut, or in transition; therefore, those Synergy Sports stats ought to be treated carefully. For that reason, I decided to omit them here.

Anyway.. Andrew Wiggins’ growth at post defense is one of the biggest stories from this chart. He’s bulked up, gives up position less easily, and uses his quickness and length to stay in position and bother shots. He is tasked with defending the opponent’s best wing scorer on a nightly basis, so it isn’t as if he’s facing a bunch of chumps.

At the same time, his low ranking at defending spot up shots is a bit of a letdown. A lot of it has to do with sagging off his man to help, only to have the ball swung around the perimeter for a three. Wiggins does tend to drift on the offensive end of the floor from time to time, but playing active defense has never been a concern for him. He’s usually in good position to make plays, he’s just always guarding above-average scorers.

Other things to notice…

Nemanja Bjelica is bad at protecting the rim in the traditional sense (blocking or altering shots, anchoring the defense) but appears to be doing fine at both one-on-one post defense and closing out on shooters… Towns is great at protecting the rim, and in one on one situations in the post. And he’s 20. He’s. TWENTY… Tayshaun Prince, eeeek…


Towns and Wiggins have improvements to make on offense, but they’re both pretty good defenders, especially considering their ages. The Wolves should shoot more threes, and it’d be nice if they got out in transition a bit more often. Minnesota’s pick and roll defense should be watched closely, and someone other than Towns needs to learn to defend the restricted area.

If you follow the team closely, you probably knew all of that already. But, hey – now you have some fancy-looking charts and numbers to back it up!

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2 Responsesso far.

  1. skune says:

    Thanks for this bout of nerdiness, Will. After the Sixers game, I was pondering how it could be that no one except KAT seems to be truly exceeding their offensive expectations yet the team as a whole is outpacing their expected win totals at this point in the season. The big thing, as you pointed out, seems to be defense. As much as I groan about Prince’s stint in a starting role, the Rubio/Wiggins/Prince/KG/KAT lineup has been the 2nd most stifling big minute lineup behind the Heat’s Dragic/Wade/Deng/Winslow/Whiteside starters. That core has held opponents to an almost ludicrously good 83pts/100 possessions.

    It’ll be exciting once the team starts to pick up the efficiency on the offensive side of the ball. The CHI and ATL games really give you hope that this team can go somewhere, even this year.

  2. telecustom says:

    RR has a (wolves-leading) net rating of 7 and has a PER of 18 despite shooting terrible percentages from the field. how is that even possible?!?! he truly is a unicorn.
    (also, he’s great at defending spot ups.)

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