2017-18 Season

A Statistical Dive into the Wolves’ Historic 4th Quarter Ineptitude

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?

Share this because Rubio would pass this along:

4 thoughts on “A Statistical Dive into the Wolves’ Historic 4th Quarter Ineptitude

  1. Very interesting! You put a lot of work into this. I appreciate it particularly because I’m horrible at statistics.

    I think the fatigue thing in the 4th is a pretty small factor in comparison to other issues, such as the system we use (it’s flawed generally, but becomes more of a handicap as the game nears a close) and chemistry. How does this team fit together? Short answer–not particularly well at this point. For instance, instead of having a pure SG flamethrower next to Butler, we have a dish reg version of Jimmy (Wiggins). Towns might be a PF, but we have him pared next to a pure PF. Lack of bench and rotation diversity plays into this, too. Our predictable, iso heavy offense is more and more of a burden as the game goes on. The iso becomes easier to defend and the other team tends to adjust to us more than we do to them. If a team gets hot from 3 (it happens a lot late!) we don’t have a good counter.

  2. I have stayed off my RR horse for a few weeks while trying to keep an open mind about Teague. Teague is growing on me, and I would like him if he took 75 less dribbles per game and he would keep up a constant level of energy on D. He goes from pulling the blanket from the nose of a charging driver to blocking 7 footers in the corner. But, this Rubio point has nothing to do with Teague. Ricky took much blame for our 4th quarter woes. We all know the routine, he can’t shoot, defenders go under picks, clog the lane, blah blah blah. 3 years ago we were -.1, 2 years ago we had a +.1 in 4th quarters, last year -1.1, and this year -3.

    I miss Ricky. I miss Flip. I hear Sam Mitchell some mornings on Satellite radio and I don’t miss him or his vocal tic of “think about it”, and I am working overtime to stay open-minded about Thibs. I keep telling myself that he knows what he is doing and all of our 4th quarter bungling is part of the education/growth process of the young guys and our future will be bright. Then I find myself not bothering to stay up to watch the games and just watching them in the morning. Not a great showing of enjoyment. I have every televised game since Wiggs was drafted and the new version of our wolves began and before this season I think I waited till morning half a dozen times. This year it has been over half the games. I am just worn out from watching worn out players quit playing defense after the 5 minute mark of the 3rd quarter. I miss coaching flexibility.

    Enough whining. Great article! Great comments Pyrrol! Maybe tonight is the night we have some lineup changes.

  3. We can comment all we want and say what needs to be changed, but it won’t. Not as long as Thibs is the coach of this team. So, I am trying my best not to get upset anymore when we underperform because this is the best we’re going to perform under this coaching regime. We just have to accept the fact that we’re going to be a boring team to watch, blow leads, and play bad defense. I miss Ricky and Flip as well. Flip would’ve been a great coach for this team and for the younger guys. But alas, here we are. Here’s hoping for change that Thibs gets fired and that we continue to lose. I’m rooting for the T-Wolves long term. Sometimes that means wanting them to lose in the short.

  4. The fourth Quarter has been a source of great agony for Wolves fans. When you don’t have a lot of off ball cuts, passing or great three point shooters, each time down the floor is a struggle to get open looks. When your bench is comprised of players that are basically lesser versions of the starters, you also make it easier for defenses to not change to help your offense out. Third issue is when you have a simple offense, it has to be run to perfection. You can’t have an easy play and then be sloppy with the pick, roll or pass part of it. Lastly, if it is going to be a struggle to score, give yourself as much time as you can, by hustling the ball up the floor and most certainly stop taking 17 foot turn-around fade away shots (Andrew?) with 15 seconds left in the shot clock or three pointers with no chance of an offensive rebound (KAT and Teague??).

    Defensively, the biggest problem with the wolves is the stupidity when it comes to leaving their solid three point shooter and helping down low to stop a two point bucket. Unlike our team, leaving a wide open three to a player like CJ McCollum or JJ Riddick is suicide. They will make them. If our team could keep them shooting twos and just walling off the player and not foul, we would be greatly improved in the ends of quarters. If they took away the three point shot, we would be NBA champs.

    Games like the Suns the other night are inexcusable. Even the Sixers game was a bad because they shot better than us on our own floor. I know we have this great practice facility, but these guys need to shoot more on the home court. It should be like fish in a barrel for guys like KAT, Teague and Jimmy to make open shots in Target Center. Crawford and Wiggins are more streaky than those other three, but even they should get hot during a game and make a higher percentage. Wiggins shoots threes like he doesn’t care, with no continuity from one shot to the second.

    Finally, I have been mad the last two weeks about our sharpshooter Belly-aches and pain. Either get therapy and stop getting dressed for games, or get out there and test it out. You have been dressed and sitting on the bench this entire home stand and it makes me mad that he isn’t getting healthy, when it sounds like he has been day-to-day for three weeks.

Leave a Reply