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 + 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)|
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)|
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.