Are the Kids Alright (Right Now)?
Karl-Anthony Towns turned 21 today. Happy b-day, KAT. On behalf of A Wolf Among Wolves, we can’t wait to have a beer with you.
More serious, though, is the coincidence of the Wolves’ underwhelming start and overwhelming youth movement in the form of the team’s big three–Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine. What to make of so much talent that is so young?
Andy G wrote a post last month on “Timberwolves mania.” Before the season, all comers, it seemed–from the deepest NBA insiders to casual bandwagon fans–were excited about the Wolves prospects for this season. And with good reason. It is clear that the Wolves have a talented, personable, and flashy young core featuring third-year players Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine and second-year player Karl Towns.
Andy (presciently) wrote:
Setting high expectations can be harmful.
This is the part where I should propose some type of solution, but I am not even sure that there is a “problem,” so much as an interesting preseason dynamic. I am curious to see how it will shake out. Knowing what we do about Thibodeau, the likelihood that his Expectations Meter will err on the “low” side seems laughable. When he joined the Celtics as associate head coach in 2007, they literally won the championship in his first season. When the Bulls hired him as head coach in 2010, they won 62 games, which was TWENTY ONE more than they did in 2009.
This is a man who comes in and fixes things. He is a perfectionist. He will not be satisfied by a modest improvement from 29 wins up to 32 or 33.
But yet again:
THE WOLVES WILL PROBABLY START THREE 21-YEAR OLDS.
Something’s gotta give.
Here’s hoping for a pleasant surprise.
Zach Harper seconded Andy’s take on Twitter.
— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) October 11, 2016
This discussion about the possible downside of youth–no matter how supremely talented it might be–got me interested in exploring whether we really ought to have curbed our enthusiasm about the Wolves 2016-17 prospects due to the Wolves’ key players tender age: is there historical precedent for the optimism many observers shared about this year’s Wolves squad?
I analyzed data on all NBA teams since the 1999-2000 season to find out.
A few things about how I did the analysis.
- Data: All data are from basketball-reference.com. An example of the data I started with, from the Timberwolves 2015-16 team, looks like this:
- Identifying teams’ starting lineups: I deliberately kept this simple. For each team and season, I took the five players who started the most games. Those players were considered the team’s “starters” for that season. (Eds. Note: This definition is imperfect, but is at least consistent. I wanted to get on with the analysis. In at least one case, which is discussed below, it was problematic for the purposes of addressing our research question.)
- Calculating starters’ age: I used the same definition as basketball-reference: “Age of player at the start of February 1 of that season.” By that definition, LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns will each be 21 this season. Tyus Jones will be 20 years old, Kris Dunn 22, and Gorgui Dieng 47. (Eds. Note: Just kidding–Dieng, in his fourth season, is classified as 27 by basketball-reference.com.)
- Analyzing the data: Again, my approach was deliberately simple. To start out with, I just counted the number of 21-and-under starters for each team and season in order to find out how many teams had two or three starters as young as the Wolves’ LaVine-Towns-Wiggins trio, and to look at how these teams fared.
How Many Teams Have Had Such Young Starting Lineups?
Not many. The chart below shows the number of starters under 22 by team and season. Only five teams since ’99-’00 have had three starters who were 21-or-younger. No team has started four players 21-or-younger. It is much more common for a team to start two players who’re under 22: there have been 31 such teams that did it since ’99-’00.
So, Tom Thibodeau appears to be in almost unprecedented territory this year insofar as he has three 21-year-olds in his starting lineup, while apparently expecting to field a team that could compete for the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2004-05.
How Have Comparably Young Teams Fared?
Not well. The table below shows that Memphis went 24-58. The Grizz eventually went on to be a boss team. Cleveland was 24-58 in 2012-13. But the Cavs ended up getting LBJ in free agency, so we can’t learn much from their youth experiment.
|Season||Team||# of 21 or younger starters||Average age of starting lineup||Record|
Briefly looking at the youngsters who started for the best and worst teams listed above provides a bit more context. Although Denver has some talent, I don’t think we can learn a lot from their youth movement last year. They went 33-49 with a starting lineup in which 19-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay, 20-year-old Nikola Jokic, and 21-year-old Gary Harris played significant roles. We all know how putridly miserable the 76ers were last year, when they started the likes of Jerami Grant, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor, who were 21, 21, and 20, respectively. These teams have had some talent, but ultimately failed to win. This year’s Wolves team should be better.
To state the bottom line up front differently: The average number of wins for teams that, like the Wolves, rolled out three starters who were 21-years-old or younger is 23.2, or a 28.3 winning percentage. By definition, an average NBA team finishes an average season (i.e., one in which the season isn’t shortened by a lockout or some other type of work stoppage) with a record of 41-41 (.500 winning percentage). If you whip out your calculator, the difference between teams as comparably young as this season’s Wolves and the league average is huge–almost 22 percentage points, or a percentage change of 43.4.
The picture looks about equally bleak even for (slightly) “older” young teams, which are defined here as having trotted out two starters under 22. As I mentioned above, starting two players who’re 21-or-younger has been more common than starting three–by my definition, there were 31 “team-seasons” of the former, versus only five of the latter–but even these slightly older young teams still tend to be losers: their average win-loss record is 27-54 (a 32.9 winning percentage). About a quarter of these teams (8 of 31) won fewer than 20 games. And almost two-thirds (64.5 percent) had fewer than 30 wins. (Eds. Note: To be sure, there were a few competitive teams in this category. For example, the 2002-03 Suns went 44-38 with 20-year-old Amar’e Stoudemire and 21-year-old Joe Johnson flanking elders Shawn Marion, Stephon Marbury, and Penny Hardaway; the 2000-01 Orlando Magic went 43-39 with young T-Mac and Mike Miller in its starting lineup; so did the 2003-04 Denver Nugz, which started a 19-year-old Melo and a 21-year-old Nene [in a lineup that included Voshon Leonard (!)]. And the 2006-07 Warriors went 42-40, with youngsters Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins starting (alongside elders Jason Richardson, Al Harrington, and Boom Dizzle.)
Of course, when a team goes young, many factors can cause it to lose. Teams that do it tend to be rebuilding, have an incompetent coaching staff and/or front office, be engaging in unrepentant tanking campaigns, or some combination of these. The Wolves are going through a rebuilding process, but they’re arguably farther along in it than a lot of their “peer” teams due to the level of talent and high-quality coaching they’ve accumulated.
Overall, bearing in mind that worst-ever team to make the NBA playoffs since the advent of the 82-game schedule–the 1967-68 Bulls–had a 29-53 record (.333 winning percentage), it seems clear that most people’s expectations for this year’s Wolves were unrealistically high.
The Outliers (or, Possible Lessons for the Wolves)
Based on the historical data, it might seem that we expected too much from the Wolves going into the season. But not all is necessarily lost. There are precedents that show that the combination of a bona fide youth movement and a winning team is possible.
The clearest example is the 2009-10 Okalahoma City Thunder. The Thunder were loaded with under-22 talent that season. Not only did OKC have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the starting lineup, the Thunder also brought James Harden and Serge Ibaka off the bench. (!) Neither Harden nor Ibaka started a single game for OKC that year.
This OKC team is, to my mind, the best-case comp, and a good model, for the 2016-17 Timberwolves. In case you’ve forgotten, that young Thunder team was really, really good that season. They finished with a 50-32 record. That season, the Thunder were buoyed by rookies James Harden and Serge Ibaka, and the improvement of young stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who were in their third and second years, respectively. Durant was a stud from day one, averaging 20.3 ppg in his RoY campaign in 2007-08, 25.3 in 2008-09, and 30.1 in 2009-10–a season in which KD made the All-NBA first team. Westbrook, for his part, was also coming into his own, in his second season, averaging 16/8/5–a statline that foreshadowed his eventual ascent toward becoming the NBA’s Ultimate Triple-Double Machine. Harden and Ibaka, who as rookies in 2009-10 were not starters for OKC, averaged 9.9 and 6.3 ppg, respectively. (Eds. Note: 15.5 and 12.6 points per 36, respectively.)
Another “outlier” youth movement that enjoyed relatively impressive, if short-lived, success, occurred right here in Minnesota. Gone, and too often forgotten, it happened in the 1996-97 season, when the Wolves started 20-year-old Kevin Garnett and 19-year-old rookie Stephon Marbury en route to a 40-42 season. (Eds. Note: The Wolves also started 27-year-old Tom Gugliotta–Googs was the team’s leading scorer–along with 29-year-old guard Doug West and 30-year-old Dean Garrett.)
Showbiz and KG finished 6th in the Western Conference. The Wolves defied the historical probability and made the playoffs, but were swept by Houston in the first round.
Also, remember how much fun this was?
Few of us would be disappointed to end up with the ’96-’97 Wolves’ W-L record this season, especially given the early struggles we’ve lamented thus far.
What the numbers tell us is that it is still possible, if improbable, for the Wolves to turn things around this season and contend for, if not make, the playoffs. Before this season, Vegas oddsmakers put the over/under on Wolves victories at 41.5–well below the number of games OKC won in 2009-10, but well above the Wolves’ 29-win campaign last season, and slightly above the number of wins achieved by the 1996-97 Wolves. It is difficult to compare the raw talent of this season’s Wolves team to those teams, because we’re still learning what we’ve got. Yes, KAT is great, Wiggins is developing into an all-star caliber player, and LaVine is supremely talented and is still managing to surpass expectations.
One lesson that seems to stand out from these best-case scenarios involves the long-term costs of making dumb trades of young stars in haste. The Wolves did it with Marbury. The Thunder did it with Harden. In each case, the reasons were complicated, so this lesson is easy to prescribe but can be difficult to implement. Still, while we obviously can’t know the counterfactual scenarios–what would have happened had these deals not occurred–it seems not only possible, but perhaps probable, that the Wolves and/or the Thunder would have won a championship had they maintained their full young core.
The Wolves have no apparent intention to trade Towns, Wiggins, or LaVine. But for those who still believe that Ricky Rubio should be a part of the team’s core moving forward–I’m one–a strong argument can be made against trading Rubio unless you get real value in return. Obviously, Rubio is not James Harden and he isn’t as talented as Stephon Marbury was early in his career. But at the least, the recent historical record suggests that adding a fourth young player to an already historically young starting lineup–Kris Dunn–would probably decrease the Wolves’ chances of having a winning team in the near term. Given that Rubio is only now getting himself healthy after an early-season injury, making a rash early-season trade would be ill-advised.
Damn the historical record, give this team a chance. It’s early. Growing pains and all, the Timberwolves kids are alright, right now.