Wolves 112, Hornets 94: For the Timberwolves, Stats are for Losers

photo via slamonline.com

James Harden scored 56 points and had 13 assists against the Jazz on Sunday. Kristaps Porzingis had 40 points and 6 blocks against the Pacers. Around the league on any given night these days, certain players are going off for stat lines not seen in decades, since the high-paced days of the 1960s when things like Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game (and 50-points-per-game season average) and Oscar Robertson’s season-long triple double were possible. Last year, Russell Westbrook matched The Big O with his own triple-double average, including over 30 points per game.

For a lot of the game’s best players, the stats have gone wild.

The Timberwolves are going to have to be satisfied with merely winning a lot of games, because their approach is far too egalitarian for anyone to match what the Hardens and Westbrooks of the league are doing.

On Sunday night, on the tail end of a home back-to-back, the Wolves continued their winning ways, beating the Charlotte Hornets easily. The finally score was 112-94.  They also continued what figures to be a season-long theme of sharing the basketball and looking to exploit favorable matchups while putting the team goal of winning ahead of any individual’s stats. Against the Hornets, the Wolves were led in scoring by Andrew Wiggins, who had 20. Wiggins got hot in the third quarter. After him was Jeff Teague, who completely dominated the second. He finished with 18 points and 12 assists. After Teague was KAT, with 16 points. Towns took a bit of a backseat, intelligently and unselfishly allowing his teammates to handle the scoring load while he was occupied with “trying to rebound over Dwight Howard” duty. After Towns was Gorgui Dieng, who scored 15 off the bench.

And after Dieng was Jimmy Butler, the most unselfish player in the NBA right now, who chipped in 13 points on just 6 field goal attempts. [Correction/Revision: Off the bench, Jamal Crawford also had 15 points.] Butler was asked about the team’s equal-opportunity approach after the game:

We just wanna win. However that happens — if somebody scores 30, great. If they score 50, even better. If you can score more than Kobe’s 81, do that too. We just wanna win at all costs.

I’ve already written a post about Butler’s unselfishness so I don’t need to belabor this point, but the fact that he is so willing to let other players shoot, coming off of an All-NBA season in which he averaged over 23 points per game, is an incredible luxury for this Wolves team. It builds chemistry and leads by example. If the best player on the team is willing to put winning above all else, everybody else should follow suit. Lately, that has been happening.

The Wolves have won 5 straight games, and 7 straight when Butler has been in the lineup.

This Hornets game began with Charlotte bombing from deep and building a small lead in the first quarter. When the bench came in, Jamal Crawford got hot and helped turn the game around. The Wolves tied it up by the end of the quarter and never really looked back. They started to close out harder on shooters like Frank Kaminsky and Jeremy Lamb. By allowing fewer half-contested threes and inviting Charlotte’s players to drive and make plays off the dribble, they got them out of their comfort zone and never really looked back.

Teague hit a couple pull-up threes in the second quarter that got the crowd buzzing when he next touched the ball and started probing the defense. The moment was a fun one for Teague, who has yet to fully figure out his role on this team and has the added pressure of trying to please fans who are nowhere near ready to move on from Ricky Rubio. After threatening to shoot another three, he kicked it out to Butler, who buried another trey. The crowd went wild. At this point, the Wolves led 54-43 with 3:42 to go in the half. The Wolves had established a double-digit lead and momentum, and they never really looked back from there.

Two things about this team are very different from Wolves teams of the past decade.

First, of course, is the winning. The Wolves are now 7-3. They haven’t been 7-3 in quite a while:

If they continue this pace for the whole season, they’ll win 57 games. They have hit that mark just once in their entire existence (2004). Also, and in case you missed it, the Wolves haven’t even won half of their games since the 2004-05 season.

So, yeah. The winning is new.

The second thing that’s new here is the team basketball.

The entire franchise history is a story of singular players trying to carry teams on their back. Kevin Garnett, the best of them by a lot, was the only one who was able to do it in a winning context. After KG, there was Big Al Jefferson. Then there was Kevin Love. After Love, was a year of Rookie Wiggins, and then there was KAT. All of those players — especially Love and Towns — produced huge individual stats, but never for a winning team.

While fans adjust to winning this year they’ll also have to adjust to paying more attention to the score of the game and less to the box score. Barring any serious injuries, there will be a lot of balance between Teague, Wiggins, Butler, and Towns. Right now, KAT leads them with 21.8 points per game, and Teague is 4th, with 13.4. It wouldn’t be shocking — and might even be ideal — if nobody on the team averages over 20 points per game this season. They’ve done a really nice job in the past few games of identifying which opposing defender is weakest, and figuring out ways to attack that player near the hoop. In many instances, it’s gotten the Wolves into the bonus earlier than usual because overmatched defenders tend to foul.

All in all, the Wolves are playing like a team and it’s leading to great results.

In summary:

 

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9 Responsesso far.

  1. pyrrol says:

    As much as I’ve complained about us not exciting me as a fan for a variety of reasons, I sure am glad we aren’t a one man show like Houston. That’s such a cynical approach to basketball. And that team is destroyed in Harden goes down for any significant amount of time. I guess I shouldn’t talk, because of our little no Butler crater. But we try to have a pretty even, from all sides attack, and Houston doesn’t even feign that.

    Speaking of watchability, we were really fun to watch tonight! Obviously, it wasn’t the closest game and that took a lot of the edge of the seat type stuff away, but we did our part.

    Butler has come in and done what exactly what he was supposed to do (with a slow scoring start). I’m not going to pat him on the back excessively for being unselfish. He wasn’t brought here because we need a lot of scoring and he knows that and Thibs knows that. We need about everything else, including the ability to be more consistent on offense and not have dead zones or times when we fail to respond to runs. Jimmy helps set our tone and energy on offense while we don’t depend of him for a huge amount of scoring–just chipping in. Obviously, his help and example of D is even more important.

    I don’t feel the least bit sorry for Teague. All he has to do is play half of his worth and I’m happy, and I’m about the biggest Ricky fan there is. Today he played really well, and was worth what we are paying him. In general, he’s not going to play worth the money most nights, because we are simply overpaying him for what he can likely offer on a nightly basis. But that’s not his fault. He is what he is. Tonight he played really well. He was passing the ball well, even with a bit of flair. He doesn’t have a lot of Ricky scalpeling the D type passes right on the money, but if he can pass like he did tonight often, we’re in good shape in that dept. I thought he’d get blitzed by the speedy Walker, but he was held in check and Teague was a part of that. Teague also shot very well, and had a calmness about him which was helpful.

    I thought Towns really played well on D. Perhaps even turned a corner on D in one game, even if a small corner. His stat line of 9 reb and 2 blocks really don’t describe how much more engaged and competent he looked on that end (held Howard to 9 boards).

    Wiggins still needs to do more stuff more often, but he’s more efficient this season and that’s a relief. Gorgui looked very confused on the bench to start the season, not the secret weapon I was expecting. But he’s looking more comfortable. He had 15 and 11. Bjelly finally is getting more minutes. I like what I see from him. Crawford looks good, but mark my words, he won’t be here to help us at the end of the season if we keep playing him so much. He’s generally winning the bench minutes race every night. I get it, he’s a 6th man. But we have no need to lean on him this hard and he won’t last if we continue to. In general, for a blowout, comfortable game, the bench didn’t log enough minutes. If this doesn’t change we may have issues later…

    Boy, the Hornets were getting off to a better start than most expected. But man, can it last? Well, they are .500 now… But this is a team that at the moment is starting the likes of Dwayne Bacon, Jeremy Lamb and Marvin Williams. This is not the roster I was expecting for some reason and not a good test. We should and did beat this team into the ground. Real tests await. This team should be left in the dust, but we’ll see. I was shocked how bad they were.

    On that note, man, our team ball movement looks way better! And movement without the ball, too! Some great cuts. And our D was pesky if still a work in progress. Also, I felt we controlled and varied pace better. But in a game like this, it’s hard to tell how the way we are now spreading the court and moving the ball really is defining the game. The Hornets looked baaaad on D. Did we make them look bad? I’d like to think that at worst we helped make them look bad. But it’s just so hard to tell. We were doing everything right and would have put pressure on most teams in the league playing as we were, but there were so many obvious Hornet break downs that it’s hard to know the level of pride we should be feeling. We’ll find out more later as we face better teams.

  2. Pyrrol, I think you are in my top 5 Wolves commentators! As per usual, I agree with most of your points. I want to pump up WIggs a little bit. You are correct that he needs to do more, but, that does not mean that he is not doing more! Multiple times I saw him fighting to box out Howard. I have seen him hedge off his man disrupt drives and even reach to slap at the ball another man is defending. Wiggs has two steals in the last 5 games created by keeping his hands in a defensive position and letting his length get to the ball. He is not where he needs to be, or even where he will be in a month, but good things seem to happen when he is on the floor. I am seeing small signs on defense that show he is getting it. The Wiggins/Wolves homer in me is positively giddy at the amount of space Wiggs/Butler can cover together on Defense.
    One more observations about Wiggs….In stead of standing somewhere between the right corner and the right break for 19 seconds each position like he did in the first 8 games, he seems to be more dynamic behind the line with his movement and willingness to create angles off the ball. He is finally shifting and moving with both the ball-handler and the other off-ball players. On both offense and defense, it seems that he is more aware of where everybody else is on the floor.

  3. One more point, he had multiple Ricky’ last night. That is a pass to a player with a defender out of position that leads to free throws but do not get credited with an assist. I have seen Ricky throw hundreds of those(

  4. Dammit. I keep tapping my laptop incorrectly and submitting. Ricky threw tons of passes that led to free throws that did not get him credited with assists. It was just more ammo in my how Ricky is actually valuable quiver. Wiggins is not exactly piling up assists, but I am seeing signs that not only is he more willing to pass, he is more aware of where everyone else is at, even when he is driving to the hoop.
    Enough gushing, that is unless KAT has actually decided to care about defense. If both he and Wiggs decide defense counts, we might be more than a pretty good team.

    Andy, I apologize for not commenting on your article. I thought it was great. It began the good mood that led me to gush over Pyrrol’s post. I guess it is call cabbage, kraut, and fruitcake in the land of casseroles and cold.

  5. Tom says:

    I thought that the wolves would get beaten up by Howard and the Hornets. Teague would not be able to keep Kemba from having his way in the paint and get our bigs in foul trouble. I thought that KAT and Wiggins would be shooting long twos and not get to the free throw line. Charlotte would get hot from outside and beat us badly. Boy was I wrong. These are not my tumberpups anymore, and I couldn’t be happier.

    I love the video of “stats are for losers”. So many times in the first couple years of KAT and Wiggins, I felt that they didn’t understand that. Extremely talented, but having an AAU mentality of showcasing themselves and not focused on winning games. Last night, I saw Wiggins attempting to block out, get down the court with some hustle and not force shots. KAT working his tail off down low for offensive boards and not dribbling as much, but passing out of trouble. IF this is a sign of things to come, then I think 50 wins is very much in play. We still haven’t played Houston, Golden State, Boston or the other teams that have started out fast, so maybe this is just a mirage, but I think this team is getting an identity and winning games is getting to be the only goal and that hasn’t happened here for a long time.

  6. jmndodge says:

    It is wonderful when the “best player’s” are on the best team. The design of the league – draft process/salary cap/free agency all are designed to help poor teams gain access to players with high potential. With talent the likes of KAT/Wiggins/Butler/Teague – perhaps our 4 “best” players – Gibson/Dieng/Bjelica/Crawford – perhaps ranked as the next level – Gibson starting and playing well – Dieng/Bjelica needing more minutes as possible – Dieng having been a starter – Bjelica the prime backup, and Crawford with amazing energy for his age, a highly skilled player who can bring instant offense. Jones/Bazz round out the top ten – Aldrich the veteran backup – along with Brooks – then primarily emergency depth bench players who likely will spend time in Iowa. Patton the one likely to remain in future plans. Our players are not all happy with their playing time – Dieng/Bjelica deserve more – Bazz needs more to find his game (hasn’t earned it yet – but his commitment to return deserves giving him an extended opportunity). With injury (almost every roster faces significant injury in today’s game) playing time will adjust. Meanwhile it is good we are winning – winning makes it easier to accept your role.

  7. Tom says:

    I don’t know that the design of this league is to help poor teams gain access to players with high potential. A great read is https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/does-the-nba-draft-lottery-work-premium-picks-rarely-lead-to-titles/
    In it, it mentions that very few lottery premium picks actually get their teams to a title. On those rare occasions that you get a Shaq, Duncan or LeBron it helps to get the first pick. Most times it provides you with a high cap burden on a player that believes he is the franchise and only works on his offense or you get a bust of a pick and that puts you right back into the lottery again.

    As for Free Agency, the looseness of the process is such that a Golden State can keep all its players (starters and non) and teams with bad track records must overspend to get players to come to the team. As much as Teague and Taj have contributed to the team’s early success, the wolves didn’t get a discount for their talents, even though with the addition of Butler, you would have thought players would be willing to take a little less to play for an up and coming team. Also with the rule that teams with All-Star Free Agents can spend more, it certainly helps the great teams stay great and the poor teams pick through the other players or find a Chicago to trade their best player to us.

    Finally, the salary cap is definitely a benefit to the richest teams in the biggest markets. Not saying that an OKC or Cleveland aren’t spending a ton of luxury tax to keep their teams together, but compared to what a New York, Houston, LA, Bay area, Boston can spend it is hugely more to the advantage of the big markets that make more money to absorb those costs. We shall see if Glen Taylor will spend max dollars for Butler after spending max money for KAT and Wiggins or to even have a bench to support our big three in a couple years.

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