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Wolves’ tenacity: Team fundamentals trump disappointing stars

Kevin Love
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
The chronic problem remains Kevin Love’s inability to put the ball in the hoop.

The title of my previous column — “The Wolves stay afloat in limbo” — was underscored in neon Thursday night, as the Minnesota Timberwolves pulled out their most improbable victory of the season thus far after their star player posted another horrible shooting performance and then repaired to the sidelines for the rest of the game with another nagging injury with his team down by 10 in the third quarter.

The pertinent words resonating out of this fairly shocking 101-97 win over the Denver Nuggets — Minnesota was beaten soundly by Utah the previous night, while Denver had won 10 of 11 home games this season — came from Nuggets coach George Karl regarding the Wolves and their beleaguered superstar, power forward Kevin Love.

“I think at times Minnesota plays better without Love. They’re kind of a machine-like offense. They give guys different opportunities,” Karl said.

He was merely stating the obvious on Thursday. Yes, Love was a beast on the boards, grabbing 17 rebounds in just under 24 minutes of play, but to little positive effect. During the 23:36 he was on the court, the Wolves were outscored by 12, meaning that in the 24:24 he was on the sidelines, Minnesota was plus 16.

The chronic problem remains Love’s inability to put the ball in the hoop. Last season, he was the fourth-leading scorer in the NBA. This year, his shooting has been ridiculously inept, with Thursday’s follies a microcosm of his struggles. Four times in the first half alone, Denver blocked his shot in the paint, contributing to his wretched 40 percent (4 for 10) accuracy within five feet of the hoop. For the season, he is shooting 45 percent in the restricted area closest to the basket, down from 56 percent and 58 percent the previous two years.

Perhaps even more importantly, Love has consistently misfired from three-point territory. As a big man who in previous seasons established a renowned penchant for converting long-range jumpers, he has been able to stretch out opposing defenses and create spacing for open shots by his teammates. But remarkably, he has yet to make even half of his three-point attempts in any of the 18 games he’s played thus far. He is shooting a paltry 21.7 percent from that distance, down from 37.2 and 41.7 the past two seasons.

Lingering problems from his broken hand and sprained thumb are obvious factors, but ominously, even before spraining his finger in the third quarter on Thursday, his accuracy was deteriorating from even the subpar level he had established in his first month back in the lineup. After making three straight treys in the opening quarter of the rousing win over Oklahoma City on Dec. 20, Love has converted just three of his past 25 three-pointers, including the two misses on Thursday.

Minnesota’s other marquee star, point guard Ricky Rubio, has also experienced a rocky return from his significant injury. Out for nine months after tearing his knee ligaments last March, Rubio, like Love, teased the faithful with a spectacular performance in his season debut, and then immediately regressed.

In the four games since wowing the crowd with nine assists and two turnovers in a win over Dallas on Dec. 15, Rubio has registered just 11 assists versus 10 turnovers, a disdainful ratio for someone with his court vision and passing acumen. He also has made just four of 17 shots in that span, missing all three of his three-pointers, making him 0-for-6 from distance overall far this season. Not surprisingly, the Wolves lost three of those four games.

It is fair to say that both Love and Rubio rushed their return, an admirable display of competitive alacrity, especially given the Wolves’ short-handed roster situation from a slew of other injuries. But the bottom line is that the ensuing physical setbacks and underperformance — Rubio has missed the past three games due to back spasms and Love’s various and lengthy ailments aside from the broken hand include a lack of conditioning — have contributed to the uncertainty and inconsistency that have plagued the team for most of the season.

In fact, anyone looking at the miserable statistics piled up by the Wolves two cornerstone players have to be pleasantly surprised that the team has eked out a winning record (15-14) two months into the season. As disappointing as it has been to watch Love and Rubio struggle, this particular edition of the Wolves warrants respect for their aggressive, fundamentally sound approach to the game.

Keys to success

Minnesota’s accomplishments are no illusion. Indeed, they are the opposite of smoke and mirrors, built on the fundamentals of positioning, industry and intelligent judgment. Karl called the Wolves “a machine-like offense,” but that description characterizes Minnesota’s uncharismatic yet reliable style at both ends of the court.

Begin with the offense. Sometimes statistics are misleading, but here they reveal pretty blatantly how Minnesota does and doesn’t put up points.

It certainly isn’t through accurate shooting. In every single area on the court measured by hoopdata.com — from “at the rim” out to “threes,” and including 3-9 feet, 10-15 feet and 16-23 feet—the Wolves’ shooting percentage is below the NBA average. This is especially true on three-pointers, where Minnesota ranks dead last among the 30 teams at 29.5 percent. How important is three-point shooting percentage? Consider that the five most-accurate teams from distance — OKC, Miami, San Antonio, Golden State and New York — are among the seven best teams in won-lost percentage, with a collective 116-43 mark thus far this season.

No, the Wolves gain an offensive advantage by grabbing rebounds to extend their possessions and drawing fouls to get to the free throw line. To choose a recent example, despite being outshot in the first half against Denver on Thursday, Minnesota built a four-point lead in the first half in large part because they corralled nearly half of their own misses — 12 offensive rebounds, versus 14 defensive rebounds for the Nuggets — which fueled 16 second-chance points (against 4 for Denver) and 20 free throws (12 more than the Nuggets).

For the season, Minnesota is third in the league in offensive rebounding percentage and third in free throw attempts per game. (They are also among the leaders in second-chance points, but I don’t have the latest numbers.) To be fair to Love, he is a significant factor in this success, averaging 3.6 offensive rebounds and 7.9 free throws per game.

But it’s worth mentioning that six Wolves average at least two offensive rebounds per 36 minutes played (Love is third per-minute behind Lou Amundson and Nikola Pekovic). And on the flip side, Love is the one primarily responsible for the Wolves’ horrible execution of their basic sets on offense.

More specifically, hoopdata.com breaks down a team’s shot attempts into various areas of the court, factors it against the average shooting percentage from those spots, and comes up with an “expected effective field goal percentage,” or “XeFG%.” Teams with a high XeFG% are taking a greater share of their shots from the most productive places on the court, which are from three-point territory and right down near the hoop—midrange jumpers are notoriously inefficient.

Minnesota is a middling team in terms of wise shot selection, ranking 14th among the 30 teams in XeFG%. But their execution of those shots — their actual effective field goal percentage, compared with their expected effective field goal percentage — is 27th, ahead of only Cleveland, Charlotte and Washington, who, not coincidentally, have three of the four worst won-lost records in the NBA.

So why do the Wolves have a winning record? Part of it is the offensive rebounding and the free throws. But even then, the team’s offensive efficiency, meaning points-scored per possession, is a doleful 25th in the NBA. To uncover the real hidden jewel in this Timberwolves season thus far, you have to go to their fundamental rotations on the defensive end of the court.

No foul, no harm

How does a Wolves team with a mostly undersized and athletically mediocre complement of backcourt defenders manage to rank sixth overall in defensive efficiency (fewest points allowed per possession)?

Well, for starters, they have that brutish front line grabbing rebounds and thus reducing extended possessions for the opponent. Only Houston grabs a greater percentage of caroms off their defensive glass than Minnesota. And as noted in greater detail in a previous column, the Wolves have also become experts at defending without fouling — only the Rockets and Atlanta permit fewer free throws per game by their opponents.

But the place where the Wolves are especially sneaky-good on defense involves the rigor and discipline of their rotations on defense, which force opponents into taking low percentage shots.

Just as hoopdata.com calibrates what effective field goal percentage an offense should achieve according to where they shoot from on the court, they also measure how well a defense can reduce the potential for an opponents’ accuracy from the field depending on what areas of the court they deny through vigilant rotations and positional play. This is referred to as the “opponents expected effective field goal percentage,” or “OXeFG%.”

The rather stunning statistic is that the Wolves currently have the lowest OXeFG% in the NBA. Put simply, no team in the league maneuvers their opponents into collectively lower percentage shots than Minnesota.

Here’s the caveat: No doubt because of their relative lack of size and athleticism, the Wolves once again have trouble following through on the positive situation they have created. Their defensive ratio — the actual effective field goal percentage of their opponents versus the expected effective field goal percentage of their opponents — is 24th  best in the league. In other words, they are frequently positioned to provoke tough shots, but don’t have great individual defenders to further depress the chances those shots will go in.

Even so, a 6th-rated defense with the existing personnel is overachievement, and a tribute to coach Rick Adelman and his assistant Bill Bayno, as well as a tribute to the team’s collective unity at that end of the court.

The wild card

Last but not least (unless you are talking about height), we can’t depart without a shout-out to J.J. Barea, who once again spun flax into gold in the fourth quarter as a means of leading the Wolves to an unlikely triumph.

I’ve booked my reservations about Barea’s crunchtime hero ball just two weeks ago in this column, and most of the same sentiments still apply. And if you want a sober, strictly-by-the-numbers appraisal of what J.J. has in the clutch and the fourth quarter thus far this season, the links are provided.

But why rain on a parade? Barea as dragon-slayer is becoming an increasingly recurrent theme this season, and his “would-be heroism” is tilting toward the “should-be heroism” side of the decision-making process as a result. Especially against aggressive shot-blockers — the common theme uniting the Brooklyn, OKC and now Denver teams he has bested — the little dude with the fearless temperament and herky-jerky dribble seems like the right go-to guy at crunch time. At least until Love and Rubio put this crazy, entertaining season back on a more even keel.

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Comments (10)

Great stuff.

One little piece of the "provoking tough shots" success is the way that Alexey Shved defends dribble penetration. He totally avoids hand checking and instead does a lot of back pedaling with his hands up. It invites pull-up jumpers. Better players--particularly some point guards like Tony Parker or Chris Paul--could probably torch this type of defense with controlled, pull-up jumpers. But most seem to be frustrated by the lack of body contact and end up forcing something off-balanced and contested.

But that's just one wrinkle. Great use of numbers in explaining these factors.

Shved

Andy--

I like your focus on Shved. I liked what you said recently over at PunchDrunk Wolves (check it out folks) about how physicality is getting to Shved, and how he doesn't use varied rhythm and stuck out body parts to draw fouls off his dribble enough.

And I like this noticing of Shved's simultaneous back out and hands raised. I agree with the strategy occasionally, but he uses it too much. You're right about CP and Parker, but even a healthy Ty Lawson is going to hurt him--along with at least a half dozen others. Given his length, I'd recommend no backing off, just hands raised. But I get why he's cautious: He's a rookie, a non-American and there is no credible back up for him on the roster. In other words, he won't get the benefit of the doubt on close calls and he can't afford to be in foul trouble.

I'm glad someone can explain how we're winning

Because I've watched every game and some nights it's pretty hard to figure out how they do it. Then again, as a long-time Wolves fan I've probably forgotten what it's like to watch a well coached team.

Curious

Britt- When you say, "Love is the one primarily responsible for the Wolves’ horrible execution of their basic sets on offense," do you mean he's breaking plays to look for his own shot, or simply not making shots within the sets, or both?

If one of the latter two, what do you think the likelihood is of Love embracing the notion that the team might be best served if he were to do a better job moving the ball and getting his shots within the flow of the offense, rather than pressing so much? I'm curious what Love's reaction would be if asked this question point-blank.

I also wonder if A.) Love's offensive tendencies been different this year; or B.) He's taking the same types of shots as previous seasons, just not converting; and/or C.) Now that he has more talent around him, it's more obvious that Love's style of play is incongruent with Adelman's system.

Love's incongruence

Erick--

I think mostly it is him not making shots within the sets. I am one who believes Love's usage rate should not go down--he should probably emulate Barea and ignore the hockey assist but concentrate a little more on the direct assist and a little less on his own jumper until he feels better.

Last night there was a play where he drove down the middle of the paint and fed for a layup as both Denver bigs converged. I'd like to see more of that. But I want him to keep shooting threes so long as he is on the court, because if you remove that threat, the spacing vanishes.

On the other hand, if he's not right, he ought to sit. I wasn't a fan of him removing himself from the game in ostentatious fashion, then coming back and volunteering to play while at the same time telling Adelman he couldn't shoot. That's the kind of passive-aggressive injury junk that made me dislike Mike Miller so much while he was here. If you're on the court, you can play 100 percent, or at least give a pretty good account that you are doing so. If you can't, put on street clothes. If it takes you three minute to slowly get up off the court, or if you are constantly waving whatever body part you want everyone to know you just injured, I'm not interested, and will veer away from sympathy.

End of rant. Finally, I'm not convinced Love and Adelman aren't a good match. While Love is never going to be Chris Webber, he can keep teams honest with below average ball movement so long as he does it well enough to engender open looks when it happens. It is when Love is ignoring open looks that would lead to layups or treys that would concern me, and I see his simple inaccuracy on his own shots as being more of a problem than that kind of ball hogging right now.

Just a couple of things

Maybe it was just your references to the Rockets, but it's kind of telling to see that Adelman's former team is also excelling at things we do well (offensive rebounding, playing D w/o fouls) - I have to wonder if that's a testament to Adelman's teaching ability or GM Daryl Morey's ability to properly assess coaches and address his team's shortcomings and his own philosophical underpinnings. Either way, I think it's encouraging.

But just to reluctantly play the role of the pessimist, your article alludes to the possibility that we are playing at or very near our ceiling. If we are truly a top-notch defensive team (collectively), and we are also elite in terms of offensive rebounding, and top-5 in FT differential...where are we supposed to go from here? I'm a believer of the Four Factors (shooting %, turnover %, rebounding %, and free throws - in that order) being the most helpful in determining basketball outcomes, and it seems like we have the last two mastered. But when Ricky comes back, the turnover rate will increase and I'm guessing (sorry I'm not in the mood to research stats) our team eFG% will stay about where it is, accounting for Ricky's terrible shooting but supreme setups for teammates. Obviously the icy hand of Kevin Love has brought down our collective shooting percentage somewhat, but is his inevitable improvement going to be enough to lead us to more wins?

stars can make wins

Anton--

Just time for a quick hit and run right now but yes, I think Rubio and Love can dramatically improve the team if they return to vintage form. For Ricky, of course, the defense only gets better, as he was the team's best perimeter defender last year and will be again if healthy and sound. Love shooting historically low percentages with his typically high usage rate will also give the team a huge boost once he's back on track.

Do the other things the team performs now hold up? Who knows? But I can't imagine the odds favor a decrease.

As long as you wait to Love

As long as you wait to Love and Rubio put this crazy as you said, Barea is making the necesary to win some games. I will said it better or I think in other way. Barea will be an important piece to close many games not all but many important games as he did with Dallas. Love, Rubio, Barea, all of then will be integrated estrategically to win games. He will not do it all the time but he will do it again.

Barea fan

Agustin--

I'm not as much of a Barea booster as you are, but I'll give you props for the comment. I couldn't go on a Spanish language blog and get my point across as well.

This group deserves props for what they've done

Some of my favorite Wolves teams were the ones who MacGyvered their way to wins. Whether it was the 97-98 team taking a 2-1 playoff lead on Seattle with a front line of Peeler/Mitchell/KG and Tom Hammonds and Micheal Williams as their bench, the 00-01 team surviving the Joe Smith sanctions with the longest win streak in franchise history while giving major minutes to Reggie Slater and Felipe Lopez, or the 02-03 team gaining homecourt advantage with mostly journeymen surrounding KG (winning that playoff OT game in LA with KG fouling out and Gary Trent and Marc Jackson sealing the game at the foul line). They all still had KG, though.

Anyone thinking their team works better long-term without Love and/or Rubio has their ideas rooted in lower levels of basketball, where the name on the front of the jersey matters most. Great players are required at every level, but because good players can be taken out of a game more easily by scheme at lower levels and because the college game is much more top-heavy, the focus is on team and coach. Units like the 1 that won Thursday's game are effective, but we've also seen the flip side: the loss to Charlotte. Against the best teams, it becomes crucial to have very good players who can play within a team set. Love did that vs. OKC.

One thing that can't be overlooked with Thursday's result is while the Wolves have generally struggled vs. Denver since KG was traded, the games have been closer on the road (Denver's margin of victory is 5.5 points) than at home (8.9 points), and the Wolves have won 2 games in each venue during that span. There's obviously a difference between taking a game and staying close, though, and the winning lineup showed a way to do that. I apologize in advance for jinxing their next game in Denver.