Statistical Analysis

On the Timberwolves’ 4th Quarter Woes

(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.

Analysis

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.

Net rating

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.)

1st Quarter

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?)

2nd Quarter

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.

3rd Quarter

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.

4th Quarter

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.

Dead last.

That’s “turrrrrible.”

(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.

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6 thoughts on “On the Timberwolves’ 4th Quarter Woes

  1. The Timberwolves don’t trust their offense to get them the best results, so in the fourth, they stray from what gets them leads and go to individual plays that may create a shot, but not wide open ones. They have had a hard time getting Wiggins,Butler and KAT going at same time this year, unlike last year when you had LaVine, KAT and Wigs all near twenty Points per game. Part of that is how slow the wolves have gotten in pace of play. Teague especially takes to long in the backcourt and dribbles too much before finding someone to pass to. Butler and Wiggins are also slow to engage. The playoffs are coming and it would be great to see this team gel and stay with a quicker pace for four quarters.

  2. That would be funny if Butler read these comments. If he did, it would only be for laughs.

    This is a nice accumulation of data by Patrick. But it kind of feels like it only really starts after it ends, that the post is an intro and the real article would pick up where this one actually ends. The problem with the 4th is clear (although these stats put it in full relief Dead last!). But what is behind it? What are the causes?

    I feel deja vu about this–like I’ve read this post months ago and commented what I’m about to already. But here goes. Some ideas on causes:

    -Fatigue. Are starter mins have gotten more reasonable, but they are still high and it is a long season. Other teams we face almost always have better minute balance. We also have a small bench that often plays poorly, so that puts extra pressure on the starters that wears on them. These effects are worse as the game nears its end.

    -System. Our system on O is flawed, despite being a good O team due to talent. Our slow pace, tendency to fall into iso when things get tense, our lack of action and ball movement and the short short clock we work with contribute. Teams often get hot shooting late, as the game goes on, but we don’t shoot enough 3’s for it to matter as much as it does for most teams. Our spacing is off. We look clumsy at times on O. Our slow, dull style of O mutes momentum, an important 4th quarter force. We lack creativity. We don’t have very good passers on the roster. I’m sure others can bring better analysis of our frumpy O system than I can…

    -Coaching. This is related. We don’t adjust like other teams. In the 4th, teams don’t just step up effort, they use everything they’ve learned all game to play for the win. They adjust to their opponent. We are bad at this, game to game, moment to moment. So we lose our potency as crunch time comes, while other teams adjust and become more effective. Thibs has shown himself to be bad at drawing up crunch time plays out of TO’s on O and D consistently and mismanages when he calls TO’s at times. He clearly is OK at very least with our infamous iso regression and excessive Jimmy takeovers in the 4th. But it might be HIS ‘plan’. It sucks. Variety and KAT is needed in the 4th. Our players, even the likes of Jimmy also sometimes seem confused when the game gets nerve racking. It seems like we’re a bit ill prepared.

    -D. Our D struggles, but it seems to bleed points in the worst kind of way in the 4th. Even if we are scoring well, it seems like teams score nearly every possession in the 4th. This isn’t true, but they score at a really good clip and get too many easy baskets. I’m not sure why. But we need overall D improvement so the other factors don’t create a D meltdown late.

    -Teague. I was open minded about him when he arrived, though I was in a bad mood about it. He deserves the fan shade he gets. All of it. He’s just not that good. I’m not singling him out here, just countering the kind of silly stat of him as the best 4th quarter player according to net. He’s not a 4th quarter dreamboat.

  3. First of all Teague’s +/- numbers look better because he hasn’t played as many minutes as the rest of the starters due to injuries and Tyus being trusted to finish games by Thibs lately.

    Also the bench plays close to half the minutes in the 4th quarter and they have struggled playing together for most of the year. I think part of the problem is Crawford is the only one that takes shots consistently and if he is hot its fine but if he starts missing his defense isn’t good enough to sustain the lead. Also Dieng and Beli don’t compliment each other very well in the front court since both would rather shoot long shots which is fine as far as spacing but the guards don’t take advantage of it by driving to the rim since Crawford and Jones aren’t good at finishing at the rim.

    One thing that could help is playing Teague with the bench since he is really good at penetrating and finishing around the rim. Also Gibson would be great since he is great at scoring with his back to the basket. Also I don’t think Gibson compliments Towns very well because he can’t shoot 3s and that forces Towns to be the one that plays away from the paint most of the time which results in less opportunities for Towns to score. So a lineup of Jones, Butler, Wiggins, Bjelica, Towns and a bench of Teague, Crawford, Wiggins/Butler, Gibson, Dieng would work best. However playing Bjelica big minutes with the starters is scary with his injury history of course which is why Thibs has never done it but now that Patton is healthy and recalled from the G league Thibs has an insurance policy. Ultimately Patton should replace Bjelica in the starting lineup moving Bjelica down to SF with the reserves and giving Wiggins or Butler more minutes to rest.

    Most people would agree that Patton should just be red shirted this season but I think he could be the missing link that would help the Wolves win a championship this season. The reason I say that is what’s happening around the league. Kwai Leonard is not playing, Steph Curry is also been experiencing ankle injuries, and the Cavs are a mess. If Patton stays healthy and starts playing with the Wolves after the all star break, by the time the playoffs start the Wolves could be set with the following lineup:

    Jones
    Wiggins
    Butler
    Patton
    Towns

    Teague
    Crawford
    Bjelica
    Butler
    Dieng

    Obviously without seeing Patton play in an NBA game this is all hypothetical but from watching his highlights in the G League I see a lot of potential that could be wasted this year if Thibs doesn’t take a chance.

  4. I really like this idea of switching up the lineups. It’s risky with Bjelly, but he could be the first one to sit and wouldn’t have to play massive minutes even if he starts. However, it’s pretty pointless. THibs coaches by cliche. A player is either a starter or a bench guy in his head and he doesn’t switch his perception of that due to matchups, creativity and how guys compliment and play with each other. The only reason he ever changes starter bench roles is a) injury or b) if he acquires someone who he considers more of a starter than a current starter. Almost nothing else can make him shuffle. Lineups would be a great way for us to be more creative, and more successful as a team, but Thibs is not creative in any aspect of running the team. Both his systems on O and D are extremely non-creative and his complete lack of adjustment or evolution to his systems and how he uses them is a huge disadvantage. Short story long, these smart line-up adjustments have almost no chance of being tried, unfortunately.

    Curious what his plans will be with the 3 call-ups. It seems pretty bold for him. And we could really use more guys he wants to play, as our rotations are tiny, out of sync and just the amount of guys he’s willing to play only amounts to 9 guys, many at very low minutes. The rub is that Thibs hates young guys, and seems unable to get young guys who’ve been in the league 3-4 seasons to play smart. Will he actually play any of the call ups? If he does will it last when they invariably look like inexperienced, panic prone young dudes? Kind of a strange situation.

    We are way more than a Patton away from being a championship team. For instance, in the playoffs we’d get fried by GS even without Curry. Or Houston without Paul. Cleveland is looking much better so far with their smart acquisitions. But that hardly matters. Getting out of the West is almost impossible with this roster this season (and probably next). To get into that conversation we’ll have to make some pretty decent changes.

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