On Saturday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves blew a 15 point lead and lost to the Phoenix Suns at home. They were outscored 31-to-25 in the fourth quarter, but the poor showing barely registers on the season-long ledger of embarrassing performances in the final periods of games. On November 28th, they squandered a 13-point lead at home against the John Wall-less Wizards, and lost the fourth by a 24-to-18 margin. On the 22nd, Minnesota lost the closing frame 38-to-18, bumbling a 26-point lead all the way down to 6 before ultimately salvaging the victory. Two days prior, it was the Hornets kicking the Wolves’ teeth in during the fourth, 34-to-22. On the 19th, the Pistons, 29-to-17. And on November 11th, it was the lowly Suns, at that point losers of five straight, outscoring Tom Thibodeau’s bunch 33-to-22 in the fourth to snatch away a victory.
Despite the team’s struggles closing games, they’re still 17-13 and on a 46-win pace, which would almost certainly land them a playoff spot (and perhaps even a in the weaker-than-expected Western Conference. The playoffs are, many say, the only benchmark that matters, and everything else is just noise. And since the franchise has missed out on the postseason every year since 2004, it’s hard to argue the matter too profusely.
But then again…
… the Wolves aren’t just bad late in games. They’re historically bad. Currently, they’re being outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions in fourth quarters. You have to go back to the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, who went 7-59 in that strike-shortened season, to find a team so inept in final periods. (Fat Boris Diaw, Michael Jordan’s Friend’s Kid, Rookie Kemba Walker, Rookie Bismack Biyombo and the rest of that ‘Cats team were outscored by 13.0 points per 100 possessions in fourth quarters.)
Obviously, that’s a shocking little piece of trivia, but you don’t even have to go to such extremes to see why these Wolves are so unique, and why their late-game ineptitude is so bizarre and worrisome. But as we sort through teams who’ve performed poorly in fourth quarters, a few interesting comparisons emerge, which may offer some insight into what the Wolves are up against as they attempt to fix it.
We begin here: over the past decade, 54 teams have logged a negative-5.0 or worse 4th quarter Net Rating; just four of them made the postseason, and only two were able to overcome their late-game ineptitude well enough to post had a winning record. All together, those 54 teams averaged 27 victories. Here’s a look at them:
The two teams who managed to put together a winning record despite their poor fourth quarter play were, as the chart shows, the 2014-15 Washington Wizards and the 2010-11 Atlanta Hawks. Tom Thibodeau is attempting to join Randy Wittman and Larry Drew as members of an illustrious group of coaches who steered their teams to winning seasons despite film of their fourth quarter play being best set to the tune of ‘Yakety Sax.’
There were two other teams who managed to stumble into the playoffs while similarly afflicted: the 2012-13 Milwaukee Bucks and the 2010-11 Indiana Pacers. That was back when the tail end of the Eastern Conference playoff standings was truly a joke; the two squads made it in with 38 and 37 wins, respectively, and they combined to go 1-8 in postseason games. But not all four of those teams were alike; when their quarterly ratings are broken down and compared to the current version of the Minnesota Timberwolves, we can see that there are a few different classifications of teams that struggle late. For instance, those Bucks and Pacers teams would bookend solid mid-game play with hilariously inept opening and final quarters:
Whereas that Hawks team was sort of just present for three quarters before being blown apart at the ends of games:
(A note about this Atlanta team – they were actually outscored on the season, yet won 44 games, a statistical quirk I’m actively rooting for the Wolves to duplicate this season.)
And then there’s the Wizards, an excellent first quarter team who slid further and further into despair as their games went along:
This third and final example most clearly mirrors the Timberwolves, who are a terrific first half team, an average third quarter team, and then, as you know, clown car in the fourth:
It’s interesting to note the comparison between the 2014-15 Wizards and the 2017-18 Wolves because Randy Wittman’s philosophy regarding minutes distribution was vastly different than Tom Thibodeau’s, despite the similarities in output. The Wizards had one player in the top-40 in the league in minutes per game that season: John Wall, who was 8th. All five of this year’s Wolves are in the top-40 in minutes per game: Butler 2nd, Wiggins 8th, Towns 15th, Teague 29th, and Gibson 39th. Does this politely suggest that there might be more than just “fatigue” to blame for the Wolves’ failures late in games? The Wizards were plenty rested – two of their starters, Marcin Gortat and Paul Pierce, didn’t even crack 30 minutes per game – and still had trouble executing down the stretch.
The other informative comparison can be found when we dredge up the worst of the worst: teams who have, since the year 2000, been outscored by 10.0 points per possession in the fourth quarters of games:
The 2004-05 New Jersey Nets stick out of that group. That team was thrown together and had difficulty meshing its established veterans (Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson) with a superstar newcomer (Vince Carter); its stars played high minutes, and paid the cost with missed time due to injuries; had a team-first forward who eschewed personal stats for the good of the team (Jason Collins); and was near the back of the pack in three-pointers attempted. Does any of that sound similar to what’s going on with the Wolves?
Those Nets teams never quite got it together the way many people hoped or expected; the whole was never as great as the perceived sum of its parts, and two and a half years later, they blew the whole thing up. That nucleus finished 23rd and 20th in 4th quarter Net Rating the next two seasons they were together. The Hawks, on the other hand, figured it out – a year after their woes, they had the league’s 8th-best point differential in those same situations and played at a 50-win pace. The 2015-16 Wizards were 17th in 4th quarter Net Rating; the 2016-17 team was 4th. Those were young teams figuring out how to win together, and figure it out, they did.
So which is it going to be in Minnesota?