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Wolves barometer: Gauging the trends of NBA season thus far

How sustainable are the trends? If you watch the games and analyze the numbers, your brain and gut intuition can hazard some educated guesses. Here are mine.

Kevin Love shown during the Nov. 1 game versus the Oklahoma City Thunder at Target Center.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

It is nine games into the 2013-14 season, a point where trends that are prevailing begin to take on the imprimatur of reality. For the Minnesota Timberwolves, whose 6-3 record extrapolates out to 54 wins over the course of an 82-game campaign, the trends have been mostly positive, with the added bonus of being enshrined in some stylistically crowd-pleasing basketball.

The Wolves are not only winning, they’re winning pretty, with the latest evidence being Wednesday night’s clinical dissection of Cleveland’s defense. Despite deploying its anemic bench players for the final 14 minutes of the game, Minnesota coasted home with a 124-95 victory.

Such a robust start to the season is a pleasant surprise, but hardly a “pinch me, I’m dreaming,” scenario. Most NBA pundits had the Wolves as playoff contenders. Few people, however, could or did imagine that Kevin Love would be the league’s de facto MVP at this stage, or that the Wolves would have the NBA’s fifth-ranked defense (in terms of fewest points allowed per possession) to go along with their fifth-ranked offense (points scored per possession).

So, how sustainable are these trends? No one knows yet, of course, but if you watch the games and analyze the numbers, your brain and gut intuition can hazard some educated guesses. Here are mine:

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Love will continue his MVP-caliber play

Kevin Love isn’t going to win the MVP award because the Wolves aren’t among the NBA elite, which is almost a prerequisite to bringing home that particular trophy.

But, barring injury, it seems likely that Love will perform at the highest level of his career thus far, and be the single biggest factor in the Wolves returning to the playoffs for the first time in nine years.

From the beginning, Love has been on a mission to erase the memory of his wretched, injury-marred season of a year ago. He arrived in superb physical condition and is quicker, smarter and more engaged. His usage rate (the percentage of plays that directly involve him on the floor) is about the same as the two previous seasons, yet he has boosted his scoring (slightly) and assists (substantially).

It used to be that Love was a pick-your-poison offensive force, scoring in the paint or beyond the three-point line depending on what presented the better matchup. Either way, he forced opponents to double-team him, a strategy that worked to varying degrees.

But now there is a new kind of poison that is especially deadly to double-teams — passing for buckets. Thirty-one of Love’s 46 assists this season have resulted in layups or dunks, and while about half of those have been long outlet passes in transition, there have also been plenty where Love is getting doubled out by the three-point line or the high post and is hitting cutters like Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin. Last weekend against the Clippers, they were coming hard at Love out on the perimeter and he rifled four assists down low to Nikola Pekovic in the second quarter alone.

Meanwhile, when Love is doubled down low, he kicks it out for open three-pointers for his teammates. It has happened nine times already this season. Throw in two baby-hooks by Pek assisted from Love to those 31 layups and dunks and you get 33 assists on buckets converted deep in the paint. That leaves only four of Love’s 46 dimes that are of the “cheap” variety, resulting in conventional jumpers.

On the other side of the synergy, Love’s effective passing has made teams more reluctant to double team him, a significant reason why he is scoring on 64.3 percent of his shots in the restricted area (closest to the hoop), well above his previous season-high of 54.5 percent. (His three-point shooting is more along his career norms, excepting last season’s nadir.)

Because Love was a chronic matchup nightmare for opponents before he started slinging the ball to the best supporting cast of his career, it is hard to imagine how teams are going to deter his more versatile offensive efficiency. Sure, there will be the typical sine wave of slumps and spurts throughout the season, but circumstances have Love primed for more accurate shooting and many more assists.

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Best of all, although still probably the most covert of his many virtues, is Love’s newfound commitment to defense. No, he’s not great at it, but he talks about it a lot, both on the court as plays and coverages unfold, and in the locker room as a point of emphasis to the media and, indirectly, to his teammates, setting a tone.

As on offense, his improvement reflects shrewd decision-making and a concentration on team play. His aim is deterrence more than disruption; his steals and blocks per 36 minutes are below his career norms, but so are his fouls, despite the fact that he has been more active showing on pick-and-rolls, and more dedicated in on-ball coverage, especially in the paint.

This, too, is not likely to diminish. After hanging with the Olympians, Love knows how high the bar is for winners, and not being a soft spot on defense is a necessary part of the package.  

Lack of depth remains a problem

The assumption among optimists in the Wolves fan base is that the return of swingman Chase Budinger and backup center Ronny Turiaf from their respective injuries will reinforce the bench enough to make substitutions less of a nail-biting experience later in the season.

But nobody is sure if, never mind when, Budinger will again be the player whose size, speed and savvy enabled him to get so many good looks at both the rim and the three-point line in Adelman’s system at the beginning of last season. Since then, Budinger has endured two significant injuries to the same knee, the last one resulting in the removal of part of his meniscus,
creating a situation in the joint that is both painful and punitive to his athleticism.”

Earlier this week, President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders tweeted that Budinger was using the exercise machines but hadn’t begun working out with the team. It will likely be mid-to-late December, if all goes well, before he can again become part of the rotation. And if last season is any indication, it will be another while before he is in sufficient game shape and in sync with the accelerated rhythms of NBA action.

One positive is that Budinger played very well, and extensively, a year ago with the primary contributors off this season’s bench. When he was teamed with J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham, for example, the Wolves were a plus 4.9 points per 100 possessions in over 300 minutes. So if Corey Brewer continues to shine as a starter, Bud is best suited getting acclimated as a reserve.

Because rookie Gorgui Dieng is clearly a long-term project (but exhibits enough raw skills to be worth the investment), Turiaf will be an upgrade when able to return from his fractured elbow. But there is a limited ceiling here—the Wolves saved a million dollars in salary replacing last year’s backup center, Greg Stiemsma, with Turiaf, and even then a chunk of that value is his veteran leadership and goodwill in the locker room.

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There is currently a boomlet of excitement for rookie forward Robbie Hummel, who filled in for the flu-stricken Kevin Martin in the blowout over Cleveland on Wednesday and earned glowing reviews from Adelman and his teammates. This is great for Hummel, but another nail in the coffin for Derrick Williams as a dynamic piece of the future under Adelman, and thus hardly glad tidings for the long-term prospects of the Wolves bench. Hummel’s most noteworthy attribute is his knowledge of and adherence to Adelman’s system—he knows exactly where to go at both ends of the court, and makes the right decisions about what to do when he gets there. The coach pointedly noted that the offense was getting into its third option at times against Cleveland, a function enabled by Hummel’s deference and modesty with the ball. Unfortunately, this is more effective when you are surrounded by playmakers instead of scrubs out on the court.

Williams is the anti-Hummel—he frequently doesn’t know or doesn’t follow the prevailing sets, and is by nature an actor rather than reactor on the court, which is why he flounders with inconsistency even when trying to follow orders. He is simply a bad fit with Adelman, who, quite frankly, is more interested in winning games and engendering momentum early in the season rather than establishing a solid and predictable bench rotation.

Here’s hoping that Dieng and top draft pick Shabazz Muhammad gain some valuable experience in the D-League this winter; it will serve them better than the mere mop-up duty planned for them now. They will likely see some quality minutes at some point in the season, as will the mercifully-benched Alexey Shved and other end-of-rotation players, because injuries are a standard part of an NBA season.

Unfortunately, the Wolves are less prepared to deal with those injuries than most of their playoff competitors in the Western Conference.

The new wingmen will be very good — but less superhuman

One of the delights of the Wolves’ 2013-14 season thus far is the sterling play of the team’s newly acquired free-agent wingmen Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer. As I have said before, kudos to Saunders and Adelman for knowing how which players have skill sets that can be maximized under Adelman’s system.

I expect Martin and Brewer to continue having productive seasons, but some regression from their incredible performances thus far seems inevitable. Martin is making 55.8 percent of his three-pointers and 92.2 percent of his free throws, both well above his already prolific career norms.

Brewer’s career field-goal percentage is 41.8; this season it is at 50. Some of that is inflated by layups off long outlet-passers from Love, which have now been thoroughly scouted and will become much less frequent.

This in no way is intended to disparage the wisdom of acquiring Martin or Brewer, or to suggest that they won’t continue to be valuable contributors. But their current production doesn’t seem sustainable.

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The Wolves team defense will remain legitimately good — but not among the five best in the NBA

By far the most pleasant surprise of the season thus far has been the effectiveness of Minnesota’s team defense. No one would have predicted that the Wolves would be up there with the Pacers, Spurs and Bulls (although Phoenix ranking fourth is another shock) among the NBA’s stingiest teams in the number of points allowed per possession.

It’s not as if the team has caught an early break in the schedule. Yes, they have played the 29th ranked Cleveland offense twice already, but four teams among the NBA’s top offenses — the Clippers (second), Mavericks (fourth), Warriors (seventh) and Thunder (10th) — have also been on the docket.

One of the beauties of the NBA game is that it is difficult to hide a bad defender — opponents will invariably identify and exploit the matchup, and when the defense compensates, another weakness is created. Consequently, credit for the Wolves’ performance thus far belongs to every member of the team’s yeoman starting five, and to Adelman, whose innovative approach to brilliant, fast-paced offense obscures the reliable effectiveness of his team’s defense over the many teams and years he has coached.

In Tuesday’s column, I identified the abiding virtues of Minnesota’s defensive style — avoiding fouls, forcing turnovers and grabbing rebounds. That is what propelled the Wolves in compiling the 12th-best defense in terms of points allowed per possession a year ago. This season, Minnesota is forcing more turnovers and corralling fewer boards, but the template, especially with respect to fouls, is intact and formidably executed.

Brewer earns a lot of the credit for capably assuming the crucial role as the team’s wing stopper, effectively guarding the opponent’s premier perimeter scorer. But the defensive play of Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic is a stone joy to witness and criminally underrated around the league.

Unlike the trove of gamblers who literally leave their team in a lurch by going for steals, Rubio excels at on-ball perimeter defense and has keen judgment on when to jump the passing lanes for interceptions. Long, lanky and surprisingly rugged, his commitment to defense rebuts the stereotype about European ballers and compensates for his wayward shooting on the offensive end.

Pekovic is even more underrated, sabotaged by the lazy overreliance on blocked shots in judging the effectiveness of a big man in the paint. With the notable exception of Roy Hibbert anchoring Indiana’s league-leading defense, the rest of the top five shot-blockers in the NBA toil on teams ranking anywhere from 14th to 21st in team defense.

Sure the likes of Brook Lopez, Spencer Hawes and Anthony Davis can swat a shot. But none of them can hold a candle to Pek when it comes to disrupting a pick-and-roll.

In other words, there are sound, proven reasons involving team philosophy and individual performance to suggest that the Wolves can retain their surprising distinction as an above-average NBA defense. But, as with the offense of Brewer and Martin, the current caliber of Minnesota’s defensive performance feels like overachievement. The starters are going to get worn down and the whistles aren’t always going to give the Wolves’ fundamentally sound approach the benefit of the doubt. Pekovic in particular has reaped a bevy of no-calls that could have easily have been fouls.

Two weeks ago, I wrote in my Wolves season preview, “it will be a minor miracle if the Wolves maintain or improve last year’s 12th-place ranking for fewest points allowed per-possession.” I’m on the verge of conceding a minor miracle may be on the horizon. But top five? Not yet.