With so much at stake this season, the Wolves have been playing with the smug aplomb of proven winners who can afford to bide their time.
The Minnesota Timberwolves were force-fed some of their own medicine in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s depressing loss to the Boston Celtics. In a closely contested final stanza that produced three ties and four lead changes, the Celtics held a whopping 13-0 advantage in free throw attempts and 9-0 margin in made free throws, more than enough to account for the Wolves’ four-point defeat.
The disparity flipped a formula the Wolves have used to their advantage throughout the season. Heading into Boston, they had feasted on the whistled judgments of referees to the tune of 216 extra free throws, which, because of their superior accuracy at the line, had netted them 222 more points in 24 games.
Being able to outscore your opponents by 9.3 points per game on free throws alone is a phenomenal achievement. It would be more ballyhooed if the Wolves had managed to win more than half of those 24 games. But as it now stands in the wake of the Boston defeat, they are 12-13 and languish in 11th place among the 15 teams in the rugged Western Conference.
It has been difficult to tamp down disdain for the personality of this team over the past few weeks. With so much at stake this season — a failure to earn one of the eight playoff spots in the conference would likely hasten the departure of venerable coach Rick Adelman and superstar forward Kevin Love over the next year or two — the Wolves have been playing with the smug aplomb of proven winners who can afford to bide their time. They are frequently outhustled and out-executed. They have yet to beat a winning team that had its top six players available.
They have not been particularly likeable thus far. But they have been fascinating. The loss in Boston is the latest example.
All season long, the woeful amount of production from Minnesota’s bench players has left folks wondering, are the scrubs inept because coach Adelman isn’t developing them, or is Adelman shunning them because they’re awful?
Adelman’s curious, atypical late-game substitutions versus the Celtics only roiled the conundrum, and enhanced the frustration of fans hoping to see this team finally generate some momentum and sense of purpose. In a winnable, tightly contested game against a sub-.500 team from the inferior Eastern Conference, his top four players in minutes during that see-saw fourth quarter came from the discredited bench — to no avail.
Yes, the starting backcourt of Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer shot with ridiculous inaccuracy — a combined three baskets in 20 attempts. But was it really the best thing to entrust backups J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved for all but 18 seconds of that fourth period, especially when in that same frame rookie Gorgui Dieng got more burn than Nikola Pekovic at center, Dante Cunningham had more time than Kevin Love (even though D.C. limped off the court with an ankle injury with four minutes to play), and Luc Mbah a Moute logged all but 15 seconds?
Maybe Adelman wanted to send a message to his starters. Maybe the coach is sick of lousy shooting and injected the streaky backcourt duo of Barea and Shved into the fray as a gamble to enhance the shooting percentage. Maybe he was responding to how the starters in general and Rubio in particular struggle on the tail end of back-to-back games (Boston was also the Wolves’ fifth contest in seven nights), and sought fresh legs.
Or maybe Adelman is as frustrated and flummoxed as many of us by the underachievement of his squad, and is casting about for solutions.
Overcoming a lack of rim protection
One deficient aspect of the Wolves’ play that is currently in vogue as a topic of conversation is Minnesota’s inability to “protect the rim.” It has long been a part of hoops catechism that a team’s defense is anchored by large, sky-climbing big men who can block, alter or otherwise intimidate the shots of opponents down near the hoop.
In center Nikola Pekovic and power forward Kevin Love, the Wolves deploy a pair of bruising, earthbound grinders who are gifted scorers and rebounders, but lack the springy hamstrings and/or long, lithe wingspans that are the common equipment of imposing shot-blockers.
The statistics in this regard are pretty damning. The Wolves are dead-last, by a wide margin, among the 30 teams in the NBA both in the number of shots they block and in the field-goal percentage they allow on shots attempted within five feet of the hoop.
After 25 games, Minnesota has swatted away just 75 shots. The next-worst team, Sacramento, has 86 blocks in just 23 games. Atlanta is the team with the next-fewest blocks after at least 25 games played, and they have 108. In terms of opposing field goal percentage, the Wolves’ are permitting 64.9 percent accuracy on shots less than five feet from the rim, well above the next-worst Cleveland Cavaliers, who are allowing 63.6 percent down at the hoop.
And yet by the most broad-based metric preferred by stat gurus for measuring defense — points allowed per possession, or defensive efficiency—the Wolves rank 13th with 101.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. How does Minnesota prevent opponents from scoring? By grabbing defensive rebounds, forcing turnovers and limiting their trips to the free throw line.
Few things in basketball are more beautiful than a soaring blocked shot, and few things connote rugged defense more than a hard foul delivered on a shot at the rim. Because the Wolves so rarely deliver those lasting impressions, the relative effectiveness of their defense is underrated.
Minnesota’s 75 blocks are 44 fewer than the NBA average of 119 for a team. But the average NBA team also generates only 373 turnovers by their opponents, which is 61 fewer than the 434 created by Minnesota (second in the NBA only to Miami’s 443). Meanwhile, the 64.9 percent accuracy by Wolves’ opponents on shots at the rim is indeed porous, but not as high as the 75.3 percent NBA average on free throw attempts.
Another way to reduce the points your opponents score on each possession is to end that possession by rebounding their shots. Minnesota has the 12th-highest defensive rebounding percentage in the NBA — not spectacular, but another small defensive improvement compared to the league norm.
The gang that can’t shoot straight
In dissecting the reasons why the Wolves have failed to live up to expectations in the race for the playoffs thus far, it is important to remember the preseason consensus — with the addition of Kevin Martin and the departure of Andrei Kirilenko, Minnesota was expected to be an offensive juggernaut with a subpar defense.
Yet even with Kevin Love returning to the all-star caliber of play he flexed before last year’s injury-marred season, the offense has been nearly as middling as the defense — they currently rank 12th in offensive efficiency, or points scored per possession. And the reason for that disappointing rating is pretty simple — this has been a team of lousy shooters.
Indeed, the biggest shock and most depressive stat of the season thus far is that a team coached by an influential offensive mastermind in Adelman, featuring such prolific natural scorers as Love and Martin, and orchestrated by the passing and court vision of Rubio, doesn’t have a single player ranked in the top 60 in true shooting percentage. (TS% is the most comprehensive measure of a player’s scoring efficiency, as it measures field goals, free throws and three-point shots.)
Kevin Love tops the Wolves with a TS% of 57.3 — tied for 65th place in the NBA. That means that, on average, every one of the other 29 NBA teams could have two players with a higher true shooting percentage than anyone on the Wolves. After Love, you have to drop down to 89th place to find Kevin Martin at 55.9, with Nikola Pekovic 97th — but third on the Wolves — at 55.6.
There are a host of interrelated reasons why the Wolves have vastly underachieved on offense relative to preseason expectations. Space permits me to cite only the one I find most annoying — a lack of discipline when executing the sets in Adelman’s half-court offense.
Minnesota plays at the second-quickest pace in the NBA and jacks up more shots per game than any other team. Yes, some of this rapid pace is related to how many steals they generate on offense, and the long outlet passes Love is able to deliver right after a rebound in transition. But those two factors would tend to inflate a team’s shooting percentage by offering easier looks at the basket. And it is slightly counterbalanced by the fact that Minnesota is among the top teams in offensive rebounds, which extends possessions and retards pace, while also improving a team’s shooting percentage by offering more putback attempts right at the rim.
Even so, Minnesota’s shooting percentages are dreadful. They are making 45.4 percent of their two-point shots, well below the NBA average of 48 percent and 26th overall. On three-pointers, they rank 20th, making 33.9 percent versus the league average of 35.9 percent.
To say the Wolves offense is hurrying to fail would be an overstatement. But Adelman’s offense is designed to generate ball movement and easy looks at the hoop. Too often Minnesota is short-circuiting those sets for isolated dribble-penetration and crowded pick-and-rolls. Yes, they rank high in assists — 8th in the NBA at 23 assists per game — but that’s a function of volume shooting, not smart, accurate, disciplined shooting.
Put it this way: A team anchored by Clydesdales like Love and Pek shouldn’t be playing at the second-fastest pace. They should be maximizing Adelman’s strategic acumen, the ability of Love and Pek to establish position in the paint, the talents of Martin and Love from long range, and the court vision and passing prowess of Rubio. To fully exploit those skill sets, they need to settle down and start dissecting. Otherwise, they run the risk of shooting themselves into oblivion.