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To be a playoff contender, the Wolves must score more

The team’s defense has exceeded expectations, but the offense has sputtered, robbing the team of an encouraging start.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.