(Editor’s Note: The statistics used below are current as of February 9, 2018.)
The Timberwolves are 5-8 since the middle of January and fans are getting restless again. Some of these recent losses have come against subpar competition (e.g., Chicago and Atlanta), and the Wolves have seemingly made it a habit to play down to the level of their opponents.
Jimmy Butler has had his share of heroics in 4th quarters. He’s our closer, our Eckersley, the baddest MF of the bunch. Yet Butler’s fancy for calling his own number again and again and again in extended hero ball sessions in games the Wolves ended up losing has had fans call into question whether Jimmy’s outsize role in 4th quarters is maybe a bit too big for the team’s own good.
Regardless, the 4th quarter is when teams win or lose games, so I decided to do a bit of analysis that I wrote up below the fold.
Bottom Line Up Front
So I visualized some data on the current season’s teams’ “margins“, which measure “the difference between two opposite metrics,” and “refers the difference between points scored and points allowed, or offensive rating and defensive rating, etc.” This post relies primarily on the former—the difference in points scored and allowed—but also uses the net rating stat—the difference in points scored and allowed per-100 possessions—in places to validate the former and, where appropriate, to highlight differences between the two metrics as they pertain to the analysis of the Wolves that follows. (Editor’s Note: Here’s a useful glossary of terms.) Margins data are from NBA Miner. Other data come from NBA.com.
Basically, what the margins stats show is that the Wolves, playing .586 basketball as of today, are THE WORST 4th-quarter team in the league. The worst!
Now, the team’s poor 4th-quarter performances were a source of concern earlier this season. But since then, I would’ve expected that the team’s improved play would’ve washed away some of the stink from their season-long 4th quarter numbers. Not having reviewed the advanced numb#rs and splits recently, I was surprised and concerned with just how poorly the Wolves continue to compare to the rest of the league in #WinningTime.
The thing is, the data from the other three quarters also substantiate what many of us thought we were seeing about the team’s potential when the Wolves were winning at a higher clip back in December—most importantly, that it has quite a high ceiling. Like, for this season. But they need to start winning in the 4th if they’re going to hit the arbitrarily meaningful 50-win mark in the 2017-18 campaign.
I thought it would be useful to look at some stats on teams’ performance by quarter of games in order to see where they rank in comparison to the rest of the league.
Below, I’ll first give a brief overview of the team’s overall net rating and then make a few observations about the Wolves’ performance in each quarter so far in 2017-18.
The first chart below shows teams’ overall net rating. Net-rating looks like a reasonable approximation of a team’s overall performance. The best teams are at the top. Yada, yada, yada.
According to this statistic, the Wolves are the sixth-best team in the entire NBA. That also sounds about right. They feel less like a top-5 team to me, by far, than does OKC, for example.
The Wolves just don’t feel like a top-five team at all, really, especially given their subpar play of late. But they might not be very far from becoming one.
Realistically, that’s seems more likely to happen next year than this season.
But who knows–the Wolves have no-kidding shown their ability to compete with and beat some of the league’s best teams. (Editor’s Note: Hey, at least is feels like they’re definitely a playoff type team, which is going to be cool.)
The Wolves have been outstanding in the first quarter this season, with a margins stat that ranks fourth-best in the league. Interestingly, another of the league’s youngest and most talented teams, the Philadelphia
Process 76ers rank second in 1st quarter margins, coming in well behind the Rockets, who’ve absolutely killed it in the 1st this season with 1st-quarter margins greater than +5. (Editor’s Note: As you’ll see in a minute, like the Wolves, Philly is among the worst 4th-quarter teams. I wonder what they have in common?)
The Wolves also stack up as an elite-ish team in the 2nd quarter. As with their 1st quarter margins, they rank fourth in the 2nd quarter this season. That the Wolves have consistently been a top-four team in first halves this season is not only impressive, it’s also consistent with the eye test.
It isn’t a secret that the team has played well in the first half of games this season, only to trail off in the second half (despite Jimmy). What I found somewhat surprising and interesting in revisiting these numbers is how (relatively) good the Wolves have been in 3rd quarters this season. On average, the team hasn’t “lost” the third to set the stage for defeat in the fourth; rather, they’ve won the third, outscoring opponents by an average of one point based in margins, which currently ranks as ninth-best in the league. (Editor’s Note: The Wolves’ current 3rd-quarter net rating, +2.7, is 11th in the league.)
No, the team’s 3rd-quarter performances haven’t been quite on par with their first-half numbers. But hey–it’s still top-10-(ish) in the L. So the Wolves’ decline in the third quarter, relative to other teams, isn’t catastrophic. It’s actually quite solid.
TRIGGER WARNING! The final chart shown below is the most negative, and, unfortunately, the most important for the team moving ahead: The Wolves still rank last in 4th-quarter margins.
(Editor’s Note: They’re currently ranked 28 of 30 teams in 4th quarter net rating, the per-100 possessions statistic, per NBA.com, at -6.4, ahead of just Memphis (-6.5) and Philadelphia (-8.2).)
That all needs to change if the Wolves are going to be at all competitive in the playoffs this season. And, if their performance in the first three quarters of games is any indication, well, we’ve accumulated enough evidence to credibly believe they could be—if they can fix their 4th Quarter Problem.
After all, despite their disappointing play as of late, the Wolves remain atop the division (two games ahead of both Portland and OKC) and fourth in the Western Conference (1.5 games behind San Antonio). They haven’t been seriously bitten by the injury bug yet this season. (Eds. Note: JINX!)
Another interesting thing about the 4th-quarter margin stats is how much less variation there is from top to bottom than in other quarters. Unlike the Rockets’ dominance in the 1st or the Warriors’ in the 3rd, the spread between the top and bottom teams in the 4th is much, much smaller—an effect that can probably be explained largely by changes in team effort (i.e., more teams are more likely to play harder in the 4th than in, say, the 2nd quarter) and possibly in officiating (i.e., refs might call more fouls “on both sides” in the 4th to keep games closer than they might be otherwise, ceteris peribus).
There are some semi-odd blips in the 4th quarter splits. For example, since when is Phoenix a top-five 4th-quarter team? Wait. They aren’t, realistically. More likely is that they’re already losing by enough after the first three quarters that opposing teams are more likely to play their reserves and possibly event let up in terms of collective effort in 4th quarters against Phoenix, as shown by the 1st-3rd Quarter charts above.
One final observation on the 4th-quarter margins that does seem consistent with objective reality as we understand it: Is it any surprise which team’s margins in the 4th have been the best so far this season? Yessir, it’s the Spurs. Which makes sense, right, given how much vaunted
Executive Time “rest” Coach Pop gives his top players? (RHETORICAL!)
So who’s to blame?
Great question, glad ya asked.
But it’s a difficult one to answer, however, because Thibs has tended to play the same rotations for large chunks of 4th quarters and the team has played so poorly as a collective during those minutes.
Weirdly, Jeff Teague is the only player on the roster with a positive net rating during 4th quarters so far this season. While I wouldn’t read very much into that, Jeff gets dogged so much by fans that I wanted to shout him out.
We salute you, Jeff, don’t let the haterz get you down!
Until next time.