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To be a playoff contender, the Wolves must score more

It is Kevin Love upon whom the offense will most likely rise or fall.
REUTERS/Eric Miller
It is Kevin Love upon whom the offense will most likely rise or fall.

Was it really just five or six weeks ago that the greatest concern about the Minnesota Timberwolves focused on how well the team could defend?

Why yes, it was, and for ostensibly good reason. Scanning over a preseason roster that included Kevin Love and excluded Ricky Rubio based on the relative severity of their injuries, one could surmise that eight of the team’s top nine players were more adept at the offensive end than they were at stopping opponents, with Andrei Kirilenko as the outlier. With an offensive maestro like coach Rick Adelman on the sidelines, the ability to score seemed to be the least of the Wolves’ worries.

Flash forward a month into the season, however, and it’s plain that while the Wolves’ defense has exceeded expectations, the offense has sputtered, robbing the team of an encouraging start.

We’re not talking about simply points per game, because Minnesota’s slow pace (only five teams milk the clock more diligently) depresses the score at both ends of the court. The more accurate measure is efficiency — offensive efficiency gauges how many points a team scores per 100 possessions and defensive efficiency calibrates how many points a team allows per 100 possessions.

On that basis, the Wolves are among the top third in the NBA — 10th among 30 teams — in defensive efficiency, and in the bottom third, 22nd, in offensive efficiency.

Some of the reasons for this offensive drought are fairly obvious. First of all, as predicted here and elsewhere, the injuries to shooting guards Chase Budinger and (to a lesser extent) Brandon Roy have been especially damaging. Budinger provided athletic movement away from the ball and a long-range shooting threat that stretched opposing defenses — he still has the best true shooting percentage (which includes field goals, three-pointers and free throws) on the team. Roy excelled at ball movement and currently leads the club in assist-to-turnover ratio.

When Budinger and/or Roy were in the rotation, Minnesota exceeded the league average in effective field goal percentage (which counts field goals and three-pointers) in four out of their first five games. But since Roy and then Budinger were sidelined with injuries, the team has been above the NBA average in eFG% just twice in their last nine contests.

A second obvious cause of the Wolves’ tepid offense has been the fallout from Love’s injury —  first, his absence and then readjusting to maximize his presence in the lineup while he works to regain his conditioning. You don’t subtract last year’s fourth-leading scorer in the NBA from your offense without penalty, and he doesn’t step back in after a month off without a glitch.

The third culprit has simply been terrible, inaccurate shooting by the Wolves from the two most bountiful places on the court — beyond the three-point arc and right down at the hoop. Minnesota is nestled deep into last place in three-point shooting percentage at 27.7, well below Milwaukee’s second-to-last percentage of 30.2, let alone the 35.7 percent NBA average.

As for shooting percentage on attempts right at the rim, the most recent statistics at hoopdata.com are unfortunately five days old, but it is unlikely that Minnesota has moved up much from their 29th place showing in that category.

Free throw disparity a saving grace

The Wolves’ offensive performance would look even worse if they weren’t so adept at drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. And the team would be burrowed even further down in the standings if they also weren’t defending shrewdly enough to avoid fouls themselves. Instead, the whistles have overwhelmingly gone their way, creating a huge positive free throw disparity between them and their opponents.

Only the Lakers (whose opponents want to foul the wretched free throw shooter Dwight Howard) and the Thunder get to the free throw line more frequently than the Wolves, and only the Hawks and Spurs enable fewer free throws for their opponents.

As a result, Minnesota has attempted 97 more free throws than its foes through the first 14 games. Because the Wolves have converted only 73.6 percent of those attempts, the point differential is plus 61, which still averages out to an extra 4.36 points per game. Put bluntly, winning the free throw battle is keeping the Wolves competitive. If they merely matched their opponents at the charity stripe, their negative point differential would swell from the currently marginal 0.8 points per game to 5.16 points per game, which would be the worst mark in the Western Conference.

It is easy to ascribe this boon to the play of Love, who is a master at drawing fouls by working hard for rebounding position under the basket and by knowing when to feint his man into the air and then lean into him during the shot. He put on a clinic in that regard Wednesday night against the Clippers, getting to the free throw line 10 times in the third quarter alone, and 16 overall. He is averaging more than 11 free throws per game since his return, a number that probably can’t be sustained, but it is likely that he’ll settle in at around the 7.5 attempts he’s averaged the past two seasons.

Even so, the Wolves were among the NBA leaders in drawing fouls before Love’s return. The brute strength of Nikola Pekovic in the paint and the marvelous head fakes of Andrei Kirilenko are significant factors, but the Wolves as a team have learned the fine art of drawing the foul — seven different players are averaging more than four free throws per 36 minutes this season, according to Basketball Reference. For veteran Wolves fans who have watched this franchise chronologically finish near the bottom of the league in free throw attempts, even during their string of playoff appearances under coach Flip Saunders, it is a giddy turn of events — and a saving grace for the ballclub thus far this season.

Prospects for offensive improvement

Regardless of how well the Wolves continue to defend and maintain their edge at the free throw line, it is hard to see them snagging a playoff spot in the brutally competitive Western Conference without improving their offensive efficiency. Fortunately, an upgrade is likely, although probably not as certain as many fans imagine.

Let’s unpack the reasons for merely cautious optimism first. It is easy to overestimate the positive impact of Ricky Rubio on the team’s offense when he returns — which isn’t to say you can’t genuflect at his virtues. Precious few players can anticipate plays and deliver passes with the prescient geometry Rubio brings to the art of the assist. His ability to engender scoring opportunities for his teammates results from an exceeding rare marriage of spectacular showmanship and smart basketball fundamentals, and if you’re not in thrall when you watch it, you might as well switch to the croquet channel.

But after routinely being made to look silly by Rubio’s smorgasbord of dishes last season, opponents realized that the best response was to play the passing angles and dare him to shoot instead. And Rubio shooting is not nearly so pretty. He made a paltry 35.7 percent of his shots last season, including a cringe-inducing 47.1 percent on shots at the rim.

Compounding this weakness is the fact that Rubio’s knee injury prevented him from working on his jumper the entire off-season. He also hasn’t played competitively for nine months, the longest stint since he was out of diapers. As he readjusts to the unique rigors of the NBA and struggles to prove that he can score on his own, he won’t have Budinger, his natural offensive complement in the backcourt, for another two or three months. The Wolves are still likely to be a much better team upon his return, but the improvement will probably be more immediate and dramatic on the defensive end of the court.

The situation at the shooting guard position is another reason to temper expectations. After his seventh knee surgery, the odds of Roy being forced to retire are at least as good as the chance that he can be a reliable contributor to the offense (and the less said about his defense, the better). Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea are undersized and thus occasionally overmatched trying to generate offense at shooting guard (and again, a nightmare trying to defend those guards). Josh Howard is game but past his prime. Alexey Shved is probably the best option, but still needs to prove he can shoot better than even 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from beyond the three-point arc. Budinger can’t get healthy fast enough.

So, how will the offense improve?

The Wolves won’t continue to shoot 27.7 percent from long range. To choose the most obvious catalysts, Love is a career 36.5 percent shooter from that distance who is cashing in his treys at a mere 20.7 percent since his return. Barea is making 25 percent this season, way below his career mark of 35.4 percent. Ridnour’s likely ascent to the mean is less pronounced — 35.6 prcent for his career, 31 percent thus far this season — but still noteworthy. And his international stats indicate that Shved can upgrade his current 27.9 percent. These will more than offset the players currently shooting better than their career stats on three-pointers — Kirilenko (37.5 percent versus 31.4 percent) and Derrick Williams (33.3 percent now as opposed to 27.7 percent for his career) — and also compensate for the minutes assumed by Rubio and his career 34 percent three-point shooting.

But it is Love upon whom the offense will most likely rise or fall. The floor spacing he’ll create when those three-pointers start going in is going to really help Pekovic get better positioning down near the hoop, just as Love’s absence reduced Pek’s attempts and accuracy right at the rim earlier this season. Kirilenko will use that space to pass and move more freely in Adelman’s motion offense. And no matter how much opponents invite Rubio to shoot, they aren’t going to prevent the Wolves from rising above 24th place in fast-break points when he returns.

Whether the offense can become efficient and prolific enough to lift the Wolves into the playoffs is the pertinent question, and the answer is firmly ensconced in the realm of guesswork until we get a better sense of how Love, Kirilenko, Rubio and Pekovic shake out together if and when they can operate as a quartet at full strength.

Meanwhile, another silver lining is that Minnesota has not played too many shoddy defenses thus far this season. That changes beginning Friday night, with a home matchup against a Milwaukee team currently ranked 21st in defensive efficiency, followed by games against Boston (ranked 25th), Philadelphia (10th) and Cleveland (dead last at 30th). Let the points pour forth.

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Comments (7)

Your earlier post about Budinger's absence

is looking more prescient with each passing game. Consider that when Ricky comes back, it's quite possible that the starting shooting guard next to him is Malcolm Lee and, depending on back spasms, the small forward is either Andrei Kirilenko or Josh Howard. Rubio's elite-level kickout and skip passing is hardly put to use when it's delivered to players that either don't make (Lee) or take (AK, Howard) three-point shots. Hopefully they can find other ways to score enough points, and allow the defensive boost from Ricky's return to inspire more victories. If Shved can continue to bury those wing threes, and Budinger comes back well in advance of the playoffs (if that's a realistic goal, at that time) maybe there will be better chemistry between the 1-2-3 positions. Oh and this is excellent:

"His ability to engender scoring opportunities for his teammates results from an exceeding rare marriage of spectacular showmanship and smart basketball fundamentals, and if you’re not in thrall when you watch it, you might as well switch to the croquet channel."

trying again

Andy--

Don't know what happened to my last reply, but I appreciate the kind words and wish I'd made it exceedingly rather than exceeding as the modifier for rare on the passage you cited.

Good to see the Wolves get a win on a game very much in the balance, especially with Shved and Pek defending so well and a host of unfamiliar lineups not hurting as much as they could have.

The nature of Ricky's dimes

Andy--

Exactly right about the need for long range shooters who are both willing and able to maximize Rubio's dimes. That is why Shved will continue to get crunchtime minutes when Ricky returns--whatever else anything thinks of him, he doesn't shrink from the big moments.

Thanks for your appreciation, although that I should have written "exceedingly" instead of "exceeding" as a modifier for "rare."

Sometimes I get bogged down in analysis and numbers and forget to describe what I love about this game, which is at least equally important.

On the same idiosyncratic note, I ultimately opted not to put this in any column, but feel compelled to stick it somewhere and this seems like a good spot: Why is there a congratulatory tone when we read about Luke Ridnour refusing to tell the coaches and trainer if his back is bothering him or not? It gets to that whole macho, "suck it up" ethos whose time should be passe. While I am firmly in favor of someone grinding it out over small, nagging ailments--something that Nene, for example, never seems to do--I want Luke to describe exactly how he feels for the people in charge of monitoring his health and his minutes. Then we'll know if he's physically compromised and yet admirably stepping into the breach for an injury-depleted team, or simply sucking out loud for four or five games. The way he suddenly started making proactive bounce-passes to bigs in the paint the past couple of game (but especially early in Sacramento) leads me to believe he is suddenly feeling well enough to dribble into good vision and execute. But in any case, I think it is important to know to what extent his slumps are physical. Him keeping mum on the subject ultimately protects Luke Ridnour more than anybody. I certainly don't respect him more for it.

And that's my Friday afternoon rant, folks.

Just getting back to these

Just getting back to these comments -- you describe a fine line between sucking it up over those "small, nagging ailments," and being irresponsible and hurting one's team by not taking the necessary time off. The Timberwolves are a young team which, despite the acute injuries of Rubio, Love, and Pekovic, should make this less of an issue than on a team like the Lakers where Kobe seems to always be lauded for playing through injuries with varying degrees of success. But Luke isn't young and if he has a bad back, he should do whatever it takes to remedy the situation even if it includes rest.

I do have to say though: I respect players more who "suck it up" than the opposite. Neither extreme case is good, but if it's impossible to know how much one player's back hurts or another's knee is swelling up on him, I'll probably err toward supporting the guy on the floor. Maybe this is the Minnesota Twins fan coming out of me, having seen some hugely-paid players frequent the DL with generalized pain type of conditions.

The defense thing is a good catch

I hadn't thought about how the opponent has affected them to this point on that end, even though it's helped them defensively.

I think the first thing that happens when Rubio returns is that Ridnour takes some time off for his back to heal. It's affecting him enough on both ends that it doesn't make much sense to play him at the 2 early in the season.

Here's the question I have about Lee: should we really assume anything about his true ability level? First of all, he shouldn't be playing; he's young, and he's done nothing to earn his minutes, making for a very weird situation (especially when considering at least one guy better than him not playing because of his position). With that said, as much as we can go off of college stats, it's pretty clear that Ben Howland's system doesn't show accurate representations of what a guard will be like in the pros (except for Collison and Afflalo, both disciplined yet limited players who fit what he wanted to a T), and this is really the first time he's getting minutes at a position he should be playing (making him get his first extended time as a pro as a backup PG with last season's crew is one of the worst on-court situations for a young player). A larger sample size might bring better productivity. I can't stress this enough, though: the sooner he's attending games in a suit, the better.

To the bigger point, this team will obviously sink or swim with FT/FGA and OREB%; it's two of the biggest places that will make them efficient offensively. Shooting will help with spacing, and it needs to be better, but they're currently playing to their strengths offensively and just need better finishing at the rim by their best offensive options. There's got to be something that can get the Wolves more successful inside with the group they currently have. They didn't finish particularly well at the rim last year, either, but 61.7% (last year) is still a bucket per game better than where they're at now. The most notable dips are Ridnour (65.5 to 47.1), Love (59.8 to 46.4), and, obviously, Williams (63.3 to 47.1). Pek has also dropped from 65.9 to 60. (This can't be overlooked: they shot that well last year even with Darko's misses and Rubio's 47% at the rim.) In general, the teams with the most attempts shoot worse, except for Denver, Sacramento, Phoenix, and San Antonio. Denver does it with athleticism, but the other 3 don't have many above-the-rim types in their heavy-minutes guys or even anyone who sticks out as a top notch finisher. Except for the Spurs, none of them even seem to have a consistent threat to stretch the defense and open up the lane.

Ignorant of the college game

PSR-- (For those who don't know, Greg's real name is PagingStanleyRoberts)

Any discussion of a pro player relative to his college game leaves me helpless, as ignoring college and women's hoops is the way I conserve life for listening to and writing about music and politics (plus being a semi-coherent dad and husband). I trust what you say about Malcolm Lee. The other day a fellow writer asked me if I had gotten Lee's blood off my hands because I savaged his play so badly in my 5-game losing streak post, and of course I felt badly. Hearing that he may merely be undeveloped is much more hopeful and I thus wish him the best. I also didn't mind a bit that he went out and played two pretty decent games after those five losses.

Those at-the-rim numbers are shocking, aren't they? Didn't realize Luke had taken such a big drop, although in truth he so rarely gets to the rim in half-court situations it is not as significant as Love's and Pek's drop. Pek against the Clippers the other night drove me crazy with is inability to finish, which was much tougher to watch than him getting continually housed my Larry Sanders in that sequence. You just tip your hat to Sanders in that instance, whereas Pek was simply blowing easy looks vs LAC.

And rather than make a separate reply, let me just say that I heartily agree with the below post. I'm not usually a Woj guy--too much insider stuff for me--but he nailed that rant. Before he allowed the owners in Seattle to sell out and then okayed the move to OKC, I thought Stern was the greatest pro sports commissioner since Pete Roselle. Now, after the Seattle betrayal/fiasco, the Chris Paul trade nix, and this quarter-million dollar tantrum, I hope he is closely monitored so he doesn't embarrass himself too much further before the 2/2014 retirement.

Also, thought I'd post my rant about Popovich/Stern here

Though Popovich certainly drew more attention to his actions based on where they fell in the schedule, it was a logical long-term move in that it's better to sit them all at once against a top team than to sit a few at a time against lower-tier teams, since the goal is to maximize their chances at winning more winnable games. As for the fans, I seriously doubt many of the Heat fans (probably the most shallow, frontrunning fans in the league) care about the Spurs. The whole "But what if you'd bought a ticket to the game..." argument is overplayed and unnecessarily dramatic. It's faux outrage for the most part; color me skeptical that a large number of Spurs fans from Florida were shafted by his actions.

Adrian Wojnarowski's article about it summed up the situation perfectly: Stern wants it both ways. He hates how successful the Spurs have been because the league doesn't reap as many benefits as they do from glamor teams. They played in most of the lowest-rated Finals of the past decade, and the perception is that they're boring, even though they have a great Xs and Os coach who gets the most out of his players. With the exception of the flopping and complaining about calls (which seem to have been toned down from the past), they're the model NBA franchise, yet since casual NBA fans don't gravitate toward them, they're supposedly doing something bad for the league. Duncan is perceived as old and never was a marketable star in the first place, and Parker and Ginobili aren't really marketable, either. This is Stern perceiving that Popovich showed him up (which could've been his motives) and trying to send a message.

Popovich's loyalty is toward his owner, not the NBA, and it's partially because of practical thinking like this that the Spurs are successful enough to be on TNT in the first place. The owners who treat the NBA like it's just entertainment ultimately end up playing a lot fewer national TV games than the Spurs do; I mean, if the Spurs ownership and management team ran the Knicks for the past decade, wouldn't they have played a lot more national TV games and sold a lot more merchandise than they actually did, just because they'd have been consistently good? Just think about how often they were on NBC in the 90s with a team that played a much uglier style than the Spurs do as well as guys who were much less marketable than the Spurs big 3.

Oh, and Jerry Zgoda is a moron if he really believes what he said in one of his tweets: "Everybody else pretty much plays 82 games if they're healthy, don't they? If you're that old, retire." Setting aside my opinion of Zgoda and his clumsy "white Wolves" piece that he vigorously defended, I'd much rather have Adelman sit, say, AK47/Luke/JJ/Love for a game every so often if it meant he wouldn't miss a week or more at some other point in the season.