Through the first 32 games of the season, the evidence would suggest that the Minnesota Timberwolves are a mediocre team. They have not had a winning record since the week before Thanksgiving, yet have never strayed more than two games below the break-even point during that time. They currently stand at .500, with a record of 16-16.
That translates into a 41-41 regular season record, which won’t be sufficient for the Wolves to make the playoffs for the first time in decade. Yes, some teams such as Denver and the Los Angeles Lakers seem to be falling by the wayside, enabling the Wolves to rise from the 12th seed up to 9th in the rugged Western Conference — just outside the eight berths that secure a playoff bid.
But unlike the Eastern Conference, mediocrity ultimately means failure in the West. The Wolves have been 5-5 (of course) over their past 10 games — keeping the same pace as 5th-seeded Houston, while losing ground to the other seven teams ahead of them in the conference standings.
It is further discouraging to realize that Minnesota wasted a phenomenal month by superstar Kevin Love in December. You have probably seen the phenomenal averages — 30 points, 13.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. Consider what it means to hit those kind of numbers over a month-long stretch. Every time you score “only” 25, you have to balance it with 35, or 40 after a 20-point game. You get 10 rebounds? That means you have to get 17 or 18 the next game. Three assists? Five or six are subsequently required.
Next, check how efficiently Love was assaulting the scoreboard. He sank half of his 242 field goal attempts, 44.2 percent of his 86 three-pointers, 85.1 percent of his 94 free throws (an average of near eight attempts per game). Put it together and you have a true shooting percentage of 63.5 percent, slightly more accurate than the 63.1 percent Kevin Durant has compiled for the entire season. With an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1 (50 assists, 24 miscues).
And yet despite those pinball machine totals, the Wolves were, of course, 6-6 in the 12 games Love played in December (he missed the blowout against Miami).
A change in emphasis
While Love has been a constant fount of offensive excellence throughout the season, the emphasis among the members of his supporting cast has inexorably shifted as the season has evolved.
At the beginning of the season, the team’s dynamic duo was composed of Love and shooting guard Kevin Martin; indeed, they were the NBA’s top scoring pair of teammates through most of the first month of the 2013-14 campaign. But in December, Minnesota increasingly began pounding the ball inside to center Nikola Pekovic as a featured part of their offense. Rare is the game over the past few weeks when the Wolves haven’t tried to establish Pek in the low post on the very first possession in their half-court set. Many of those touches and shots have come at Martin’s expense.
The numbers reflect this tilt. Pekovic has seen his usage rate (the percentage of the team’s plays he is involved in while on the court) jump from 19 in November to 24.4, raising his scoring average commensurately, from 15.4 points per game in November to 20.7 percent in December. Pek’s shooting percentage actually declined slightly in December (from 53.8 in November to 51.2), but he compensated with 10 more field goal attempts and 11 more free throws, despite the fact that Minnesota had four fewer games.
By contrast, Martin’s usage rate declined from 26.1 in November to 22.5 in the final month of 2013, while his scoring plummeted even more precipitously, from 23.1 to 15.3 points per game.
Part of this shift was by design, to more clearly anchor the attention of opposing defenses toward Pek near the basket and create space for Love to go to work on the perimeter. But part of it was by necessity, because the rest of the Wolves, including Martin, were such abysmal shooters in December.
Specifically, take Love and Pek out of the equation, and the rest of the Wolves shot 38 percent from the field in December, including 30.7 percent from three-point range. That’s a huge reason why Minnesota played .500 ball in that month despite an MVP-caliber performance from its superstar.
At the beginning of the season there was concern that if the Wolves played two sub-par shooters — Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer — among their starting five, it would throw too much sand in the machinery of coach Rick Adelman’s influential and previously successful motion-and-corner offense. Those fears are being realized.
I talked about Rubio’s historically inaccurate shooting in my last column. Obviously the Wolves would be in much better shape if he could sink even 40 percent of his shots — it is no coincidence that Minnesota is 11-3 when he reaches double-digits in points this season.
Where Rubio is timid generating his own offense, Brewer’s scoring ambitions far eclipse his prevailing skills, which results in him frequently vandalizing the Wolves’ playmaking capabilities. Things were great in November, when opponents could be reliably ambushed by Brewer leaking out to receive long outlet passes from Love for transition layups. It puffed up his shooting percentage and helped obscure the fact that he was once again a willing but terrible three-point marksman.
In 17 of the Wolves’ 32 games this season, Brewer has jacked up at least four three-pointers. He has converted at least half of those long-range jumpers exactly three of those times. In November, Brewer shot a respectable 46.4 percent from the field and a not-execrable 32.4 from behind the three-point arc. In December, those numbers swan-dove to 36.4 percent from the field and 18.8 percent (9-for-48) from distance.
And yet, thanks to those outlet passes (another feather in the cap of Love’s MVP campaign), Brewer actually sports the fourth-best true shooting percentage on the team. Yes, this is a indictment of Minnesota’s glaring lack of scoring efficiency off the bench — not a single sub tops Corey Brewer in that regard. But it also highlights the need to re-involve and energize Martin in the offensive proceedings.
After all, K-Mart currently sports the sixth-best true shooting percentage of all active NBA players at 59.4, and is playing for a coach that essentially taught him how to move and shoot — the system is tailor-made for his talents. Not incidentally, Martin’s defense is so wretched that if he isn’t pouring in about 25 points per game, he’s probably hurting his team’s chances of winning.
The bottom line is that the Wolves aren’t going to the playoffs if Martin maintains his December averages of 40.1 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three-point territory. It is a chicken-or-the-egg question of whether K-Mart’s decline is the result of less touches because the Wolves are relying so heavily on Love and Pekovic, or whether the reliance evolved because Martin wasn’t producing. Either way, the trend has been relentlessly downward — if you break Martin’s 30-game season to-date into 10-game scoring increments, his average drops from 24.4 to 21 to 14.2 points per game—and needs to be reversed.
As we ponder the Wolves’ corrosive inaccuracy — they currently rank 25th in effective field goal percentage, a gauge that measures both two-point and three-point field goal attempts — it is pleasant to imagine Chase Budinger strapping on his knee brace and gunning his way to the rescue. Budinger was the outside shooter and mover-without-the-ball who functioned most effectively in Adelman’s sets last season. He was also the first player signed to a new contract by the team during the off-season last summer.
Unfortunately, two significant injuries to the same knee have sidelined Bud for all but 23 games — 508 minutes, total — over the past two seasons. To expect him to regain his prime-time form is optimistic; to expect it to happen before the final month or two of the season is delusional. Sure, he knows the system and can probably spot up and stick a random long-range jumper relatively soon. But the same could be said for current ninth-man Robbie Hummel. Better to treat any future upgrades by Budinger as a bonus this season.
Others will argue, with some statistical support, that when it comes to offense, the Wolves shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken. After all, per Basketball Reference, Minnesota currently ranks second in the NBA in points-per-game, and fifth in offensive efficiency (points scored per possession). What’s not to like?
Answer: The team’s mediocre record. Yeah, the schedule has been a little bit rugged, and the return of Budinger and backup center Ronny Turiaf will help the depth some. But after 32 games, it is time to stop automatically counting on a brighter future and start the work of determining where improvements can be made with existing resources.
The Wolves’ roster is plagued by a dearth of well-rounded players. The above-average defenders are for the most part offensively deficient, and vice versa. (We could rue the departure of Andrei Kirilenko right about now, but AK’s consummately well-rounded game has the voodoo-doll flaw of a chronic back ailment. He only now is recovering from his latest bout with it and just played his first game of the season for Brooklyn.) For example, it is hard to remedy the lack of rim protection on defense without breaking up the pairing of Love and Pekovic. And even if you did give more minutes to shot-blocking rookie Gorgui Dieng, the fouls and subsequent opponents’ free throws will spike up, perhaps negating the advantage wrought by fewer opponents’ layups and dunks in the paint. (More on the Wolves’ historically positive free-throw disparity in a minute.)
This isn’t to say that Dieng shouldn’t be developed — Pek and Love can use more rest and a little rim protection mixed with rookie seasoning is a net plus in the long run. But given the makeup of their current personnel, the Wolves are doing well to rank 12th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession), a notch above last year’s ranking when they had Kirilenko on board. And the reason for it is that the clanking shooters Rubio and Brewer blow up possessions by generating turnovers through steals and on-ball pressure, and because the Wolves don’t give away points at the free throw line. It is a defense that looks awful — opponents have the fourth-highest effective field-goal percentage in the NBA versus Minnesota — but is relatively competent.
On the other hand, using a proven scorer like Martin more effectively (and getting it through Brewer’s head that he is a defensive specialist) seems like a potential upgrade that doesn’t have to disrupt the team’s prevailing style that much. It is unlikely that Love can sustain his superman December numbers anyway.
There is also some evidence that the Wolves’ offense is so boom or bust that the gaudy efficiency ranking masks some troubling inconsistency. Minnesota’s opponents score 9.5 more points in Wolves’ losses than when the team wins. Yes, that is a pretty large number, but consider that the Wolves themselves score 14.1 more points per game when they win, compared with when they lose. (Since the team’s record is 16-16, the sample size is the same.)
What’s more, that 14.1 point-differential actually understates Minnesota’s offensive prowess in blowouts. Consider how many times the team has handed a monster-sized lead over to the bench at garbage time, only to watch them miss shot after shot. In six of the team’s 16 wins this season, the team has scored between 12 and 22 points in the fourth quarter and still triumphed with ease.
The relative lack of support around Love and Pek likely explains some of this boom-or-bust cycle. And, to be brutally honest, Pek’s inability to be a reliable scorer in the clutch is one of the reasons why the Wolves are 0-8 in games decided by four points or less. By contrast, remember how Martin confidently seized the big shot opportunities when the games were in the balance in November.
Again, this is hardly an argument for ignoring Pekovic or moving away from the primacy of Love on offense, especially at crunch time. But integrating Martin as a second or third option more consistently feels like the best way for the Wolves to realistically improve in the coming months.
Wolves rule at the free throw line
Finally, a quick note about the incredible difference in free throw attempts that the Wolves are producing thus far this season. If sustained, it will be the largest differential since the NBA started keeping such stats in the 1970-71 season.
According to number compiled by Minnesota’s stat guru, Paul Swanson, the Wolves currently are making 8.69 more free throws per game than their opponent. That would obliterate the existing free-throw disparity margin of 7.77 set by the 1981-82 Denver Nuggets. The 1985-86 Philadelphia 76ers and the 1989-90 Phoenix Suns are the only other teams in the past 43 years to have a positive disparity of more than seven made free throws.