This is a simple post.
This year’s Timberwolves team has been good in some ways, bad in others, and decent in others. One of the bad ways (that reared its head last night in Memphis) is 4th Quarter performance. Through 25 games the Wolves are getting outscored by 12.9 points per 100 possessions in the 4th Quarter. In terms of actual point differential in the 4th Quarter, they get outscored by an average of 3.2 per game. Only the Milwaukee Bucks are worse.
We search for explanations. Some make more sense than others. One plausible link that I see being made is between Coach Thibodeau’s penchant for playing his starters so many minutes and those starters’ late-game failures. That the players might just be tired makes logical sense, even if that’s the sort of “excuse” that Thibs would want to hear none of.
With this in mind, I went and looked back at the stats of his old Chicago Bulls teams to see if this was a trend.
Do Thibodeau Teams underperform in 4th Quarters?
Here is the year-by-year breakdown. Each team’s overall offensive, defensive, and net ratings are followed (to the right) by those measures only in the 4th Quarter. At the very far right is the net differential, measuring whether they do better or worse in the final period than in the game overall, and by how much. All stats are from nba.com.
Some things jump out when looking at that chart. First, the Bulls played unbelievably good defense under Thibs. Second, the Wolves play much worse defense under Thibs. Third, the Wolves play better offense under Thibs than the Bulls did.
But getting to that 4th Quarter Question: There isn’t much in there to support a generalized theory that Thibs Teams underperform in it. Four of his five Bulls teams played better in the fourth quarter than they did overall. Those same four teams outscored their opponents in the final quarter; two of them convincingly so. This year’s Wolves team is a major outlier on the spreadsheet with its catastrophic net rating of (-12.9) in the fourth.
Now, this doesn’t completely refute the theory that these Wolves are too tired to play well down the stretch. First, if you look at each season’s Basketball Reference page, you’ll find that the Thibs Bulls teams would play 1 or 2 starters an unreasonably-crazy-high number of minutes — Luol Deng or Jimmy Butler can be found averaging upwards of 39 minutes per game — but then 3 or so starters would average only about 30 minutes; sometimes less than 30. This year’s Wolves team is “only” led by Wiggins’s 36.9 — not quite into Deng/Bulls Jimmy territory — but the floor of the starters’ minutes is at Taj’s 33.1.
In other words, all five of them are getting a full load of playing time, and that means nobody off the bench is able to give that group a sustained injection of energy that might have been helpful on his Bulls teams.
Taking Taj himself as an example, Thibs frequently mentions how Gibson would finish games in Chicago even if he didn’t start them. One might imagine how it would help to have a fresh-legged, defensive-oriented player on the floor during the game’s most pivotal possessions. It’s possible that Taj is less effective in fourth quarters here than he was in CHI. For what it’s worth, his defensive rating jumps from 104.6 (overall) to a whopping 114.4 in the fourth quarter. (This is actually relatively good on the Wolves team — KAT’s 4th Quarter D-Rating is 117.2 and Wig’s is 120.3.) Perhaps if Bjelica played more minutes in the middle of the game, Taj would have more in the tank down the stretch.
It isn’t a crazy hypothesis at all.
But: Thibs already had that reputation well established in Chicago; the one about playing his key guys way too many minutes, burning them out, etc. etc. And despite all of that, his teams were often times good or even great when the game was on the line. If the Wolves are screwing up fourth quarters due to fatigue, it would be a new thing for a Thibs team.