2016-17 Season

Are Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins Redundant? It’s Too Early To Tell.

(Original photo credit: David Sherman, Art credit: Eric Neely @ericneely)

An interesting theory that seems to be slowly invading the zeitgeist of Minnesota Timberwolves’ basketball fandom is that the team would be better off bringing Zach LaVine, arguably the most electric and least polarizing of the young ‘Big Three’, off the bench to fill a role similar to that of James Harden when he was a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. This theory’s foundation is built on the idea that the overall influence of LaVine and Andrew Wiggins on the court is too similar, despite having dissimilar individual skill sets.

To put it simply, their team defensive deficiencies along with their need to have the ball in their hands on offense compound each other, which results in the sum of their impact being less than their individual parts. Consider that an argument exists for both players’ best position in the long-term being shooting guard and this theory grows more legs.

Being hesitant to buy into this theory, I thought it would be a good idea to research LaVine and Wiggins’ plus/minus and net rating when they are on the court, both individually and as a pair, and off the court to see if there was any merit to this theory. I decided to use plus/minus and net rating as they are two of the best ways to measure a player’s or lineup’s overall impact on the game being that they take both offense and defense into account (they are anything but end-all-be-all stats, however).

The table below highlights the data I discovered (via NBA.com).

  Plus/Minus (Total) Net Rating (ORtg – DRtg)
Wiggins On -16 -1.2
Wiggins Off -28 -1
LaVine On -96 -3.6
LaVine Off 52 5.1
Wiggins On + LaVine On -66 -4.3
Wiggins On + LaVine Off 50 6.1
LaVine On + Wiggins Off -30 -1.6
Minutes On (Total) Minutes Off (Total)
Wiggins 1511 467
LaVine 1417 561

I want to emphasize right away that the sample size of the dataset above is far too small to derive any solid, long-term conclusions (i.e. Wiggins and LaVine can’t play together! LaVine should definitely be the team’s sixth man!, etc.) and, in fact, may be skewed because of the Wolves’ awful third quarter showings during the months of October and November. During that time, the Wolves were -109 (!) during third quarters when Wiggins and LaVine shared the court and -18 when only Wiggins was on the court. While that may seem like more evidence pointing in favor of the theory, the fact of the matter is that that 91-point gap is almost impossibly large and screams of being anomalous.

However, the data may be illuminating in the short-term in a few ways. For starters, and perhaps most importantly, the numbers seem to indicate that it would be smart of Tom Thibodeau to play LaVine more frequently with an all-bench lineup and Brandon Rush with the starters. (Note: Playing LaVine more minutes with the bench is not necessarily the same as playing him as the sixth man.)

LaVine should still start games and play the majority of his minutes with the starters, but simply increasing his minutes as the alpha with an all-bench unit could prove to be fruitful (LaVine has only played 153 minutes this season with four other bench players). For what it’s worth, the lineup of Dunn-LaVine-Muhammad-Bjelica-Aldrich is the Wolves third most utilized lineup – logging a paltry 111 minutes – and has a plus/minus of .4 and a net rating of 3.5.

More evidence that LaVine should be playing more minutes with the bench can be gleaned when looking at the Wolves’ plus/minus and net rating when he and Ricky Rubio share the floor versus when Rubio sits. 

  Plus/Minus (Total) Net Rating eFG%
LaVine On + Rubio On -75 -5.2 58.1%
LaVine On + Rubio Off -21 -.9 52.7%
Minutes On (Total) Minutes Off (Total)
Rubio 1145 833
LaVine 1417 561

Although LaVine’s effective field goal percentage (eFG%) takes a hit when Rubio sits, the team’s overall performance improves (again, the caveat here is sample size).

When Brandon Rush is swapped in for LaVine in the starting lineup the Wolves have a plus/minus of 3.5 and a net rating of 29.3. (Need I even disclaim the small sample size? I do? Well, this lineup has only played 47 minutes together.)

The data also suggests the extent to which LaVine and the combination of Wiggins and LaVine have struggled defensively this season. Although Wiggins has a negative plus/minus and net rating whether he is on or off the court, his 12-point swing is nothing compared to LaVine’s 148.

To put it another way, the Wolves are 12 points worse when Wiggins is off the floor compared to when he is on, and are 148 points better when LaVine is off compared to when he is on. The Wolves are 116 points better when Wiggins is on the court without LaVine and only 36 points better when LaVine is on the court without Wiggins. These discrepancies can’t simply be explained by offense, especially when LaVine is having arguably the better offensive season when taking three-point field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage into account. The foundation of the discrepancies is rooted in defense and, as it stands right now, Wiggins is the better, more consistent defender (particularly in one-on-one situations; both players really struggle with team defense).

Although the sample size is too small to draw conclusions about Wiggins and LaVine’s fit in the long-term, these data do illustrate something that should be monitored going forward. Thibodeau is not one to change his rotations, but if their plus/minus and net rating follow a similar trend at this point next season, a real argument could be made for moving LaVine into the sixth man role. But as of right now, both players are still trying to learn how to be good NBA players and how to best operate within Thibodeau’s system. These things take time and, like many other things regarding this team, all we can do is wait and see what the future holds.

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3 thoughts on “Are Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins Redundant? It’s Too Early To Tell.

  1. I think the more basic difference is that Rush / Bjeli aren’t as effective with the bench unit. They are spot up shooters that get no space with Dunn/Aldrich/Bjeli…but does with KAT/Wiggins/Dieng in the lineup and Rubio distributing the ball..

    I also believe that Wiggins has the advantage playing the 2-guard spot and is at a disadvantage (currently undersized) when starting at the SF spot.

    Yes, it is a small sample size, but some of the roll players have thrived (and so has the team) in the three games Lavine has missed this season (all victories over LAL [Bjeli] and HOU and OKC [Bazz and Rush].

    I also think that Lavine can create his own shot better than Bjeli/Rush which is needed in the 2nd unit.

    I like Lavine a lot. I think he’s improved more than any other Wolves player, but the team would be stronger with him in the 2nd unit.

  2. The skill sets these two guys have as starters is something most teams would love to have. The redundancy is their terrible D and how slow that it has improved (if at all).

    They absolutely need to learn to play together. If they can’t one needs to be traded, not because of redundant talent, but because one of them isn’t the kind of player we want on our team if they can’t learn to play with the other. Fun game: figure out which one I’m referring to.

  3. The problem with having one-and-done rookies who are reliant on raw athleticism is how quickly one has to spend max money on seasons where the player isn’t in their prime. Since neither of them are in the category of stars who will likely be leading their team to a conference finals any time (or be primarily responsible for that), that’s a lot of $ to be paying guys who probably won’t have seen a 35+ win season in their careers. I get the sense that we’d know more about Wiggins if the Wolves had drafted someone like Rodney Hood or TJ Warren instead of LaVine, and we might know more about LaVine if the Cavs had Jabari Parker to trade for Love instead of Wiggins. I guess by the time they’ve finished their first max contracts, it will have become clear whether they deserve another max. That doesn’t seem like a quick enough answer for some/many, but it seems like the likely outcome.

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