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Wolves’ underachievement: specific disappointments

The essential reason why the Wolves are generally overvalued in these advanced systems is because they often win the blowouts and lose the squeakers.

Rubio is shooting 33.8 percent from long range this season — slightly below average, but by far his best odds of scoring.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

The numbers lie.

The advanced statistics and creative computations that have revolutionized the way we view value in pro basketball over the past 10 years or so keep informing us that the Minnesota Timberwolves are a very good basketball team.

According to the authoritative Basketball Reference  website, the Wolves are ninth among the 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession (offensive efficiency) and ninth in points allowed per possession (defensive efficiency). In an attempt to boil down the true caliber of a team, the site also has a “simple rating system,” which combines point differential (how many points a ball club scores, compared with how many points it allows over the course of the season) and strength of schedule thus far. Under that metric, the Wolves are seventh overall, ahead of, among others, the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, and, eh, the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.

Over at ESPN.com, the “Hollinger 2013-14 Playoff Odds” (named after John Hollinger, who is to advanced NBA stats what Bill James is to baseball sabermetrics) have finally conceded that the Wolves are not likely to make the postseason. But the site still gives them a 36.5 percent chance, compared with, say, Denver, which is accorded just a 11.1 percent chance, despite having a better won-lost record than Minnesota and beating them in their only two head-to-head matchups thus far this season.

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The essential reason why the Wolves are generally overvalued in these advanced systems is because they often win the blowouts and lose the squeakers. Point differential plays a significant role in modern NBA stats, on the assumption that over an 82-game season the easy wins and tough losses will settle into the appropriate level of the team’s core talent. In other words, because the Wolves built 30-point leads on 10 different occasions during their first 40 games this season, it is supposed that they are talented enough to triumph on a fair share of close games.

This season’s Wolves have probably been the biggest exception to that rule since advanced stats came into being. Heading into Friday’s tilt against New Orleans, Minnesota has outscored its opponents by 203 points in 49 games, an average 4.1 points per game, yet currently has a losing record at 24-25. By comparison, Houston has outscored the opposition by only 3.8 points per game, yet stands at 33-17. The Wolves “Pythagorean” record — based on point differential — is currently 31-18.

The gaudy numbers the Wolves have been able to compile often make it difficult to assign individual blame for the team’s overall poor performance. Anyone scanning the stat sheet, for example, would immediately say that Kevin Love should be a legitimate MVP candidate, that Nikola Pekovic was worth every penny of that 5-year, $60 million contract signed over the summer, and that Kevin Martin has proven to be a wise acquisition. You can take it a step further and note that Ricky Rubio is currently second in all the NBA in assists-per-minute behind Chris Paul, and leads the NBA in steals-per-minute as well as total steals.

All in what has thus far been a losing cause.

What follows is my attempt to peek behind the feel-good stats and identify the specific ways in which individual members of the Timberwolves have been disappointing this season. Although I will often use numbers to buttress my case, this is a personal listing, based on specific expectations I had coming into the season. In other words, there may be areas where my disappointment stems more from my misjudgment of a player’s skill set than from that player’s failure to fulfill his potential.

On the other hand, some players get a break in this listing because of my low expectations. For example, you won’t see Corey Brewer’s poor shot selection and reckless gambles on defense cited below. There wasn’t anything in Brewer’s history to indicate he wouldn’t bring those liabilities in parcel with his virtues this season. 

For the record, I picked Minnesota to make the playoffs as the seventh seed in the rugged Western Conference (they are currently 11th) by winning approximately 45 games (they are on pace for 40 wins). The advanced stats say they are performing at a level above those expectations. In determining why they are not, I identified what I believe are the Wolves’ three biggest flaws as a team this season — their poor effective field goal percentage (a measure of two-point and three-point accuracy), the high effective field goal percentage they yield to their opponents, and their lack of depth — and drilled down from there.

Disappointments

The severity of the injury to Chase Budinger

This is a little bit of a cop-out — I obviously can’t, and don’t, blame Budinger for the pace of his recuperation from his second left knee injury in 18 months late last September. At the time, it was revealed that he had only a part of his meniscus removed and would miss “at least 6-8 weeks.”  He finally stepped back out on the court Jan. 8, more than 14 weeks after the surgery.

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What’s more, Budinger has been wretched in the 15 games since his return. Team officials say it is more conditioning and confidence than lingering problems with the knee, but in all the measures that require a spring in one’s step — rebounds, blocks, getting to the free throw line, defending without fouling — Bud is posting career lows. Signed to a 3-year, $15-million deal in July, he was expected to open up the floor with his three-point shooting and otherwise thrive in coach Rick Adelman’s offensive system, which he learned when they were together his first two seasons in Houston.

Instead, his effective field goal percentage is an atrocious 41.6 percent, and his true shooting percentage, which factors in free throws, doesn’t help because he has only gotten to the free throw line 6 times in 240 minutes thus far this season. His lack of production has really damaged the Wolves’ accuracy and depth on offense.

The passive-aggressive offense of Kevin Martin

On the surface, Martin is enjoying a fine first season with the Wolves, averaging 19.1 points per game and draining 40.2 percent of his three-pointers for a team that desperately needs his outside shooting.

But watching Martin play this season has frequently been mystifying, and, nearly as often, annoying. He came into this season ranked 20th all-time in career true shooting percentage because of his ability to nail the three-pointer and frequently get to the free-throw line, the most efficient places to score in the modern NBA. He honed these skills under Adelman in Sacramento and thrived under Adelman in Houston. He openly lobbied to play under Adelman in Minnesota. He joined a pair of bigs, Love and Pekovic, whose talents were ideally suited to giving him room to operate, and now had a point guard in Rubio who excelled at getting him the ball where and when he wanted it.

This season, Martin has frequently squandered this cornucopia of situational benefits. He regularly turns down makeable shots from three-point territory, especially coming down the floor in transition. Conversely, he often goes at his man and awkwardly puts up difficult two-pointers in hopes of drawing the foul. With some notable exceptions, such as his game-winner at Golden State, he has disappeared in clutch moments since his scintillating play in the first month of the season. It seems as if defenses can successfully negate him if they make it a point of emphasis in their game plan.

Martin’s poor decision-making has cost the Wolves. His three-point percentage and accuracy from the free throw line (88.2 percent) are both above his already glittering career averages, but his true shooting percentage is the lowest since his rookie season in 2004-05. The reason for this lack of efficiency is that K-Mart isn’t getting to the line — his ratio of free throws to field goal attempts is the lowest of his 10-year career — and jacking up more two-point shots than ever before, while making just 44.1 percent of them. Consequently, his ratio of three-point shots to overall field goal attempts is the third-lowest of his 10-year NBA tenure.

Martin’s defense has always been well below average, and this season has seen little or no improvement in that area. He makes his bones via his efficient scoring and has been a disappointment in that area thus far this season.

The rim protection of Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Love

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Nobody should have rightfully expected the “Bruise Brothers” tandem of Pek and Love to block a lot of shots. Both are decidedly earthbound performers, who thrive on low-post offense not because of their hops, but via their strength at getting near the basket in the NBA scrum, and then using the guile of their footwork and (for Love) their up-fakes.

But last season, Pek was an effective defender when he came out to challenge the pick and roll. Part of this was because he had a savvy defensive teammate, Andrei Kirilenko or Dante Cunningham, who could fill in behind him to catch the “roll” man. And part of it was that opponents weren’t running the high pick-and-roll, out beyond the elbow area near the free throw line, as often, which takes the big galoot too far from the hoops without enough quickness to recover.

A healthy Kevin Love means he is the one who most often must fill behind Pek this season, and that isn’t happening nearly as often as it should be. Now Love is such a stupendous offensive player that criticizing this aspect of his game is like the opposite of putting lipstick on a pig — like shaving a Mohawk into a peacock? And he has become adept at drawing charges. But his failure to actively contest shots at the rim, paired with Pek’s proclivity to stray too far and leave himself in no man’s land, is a major reason (along with Brewer’s gambling and Martin’s ineptitude) why all five Wolves starters rank among the bottom 50 NBA players in their opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim.

The shooting of Ricky Rubio

I’ve dealt with this topic extensively, with this column probably the best link to my take on Rubio’s shooting woes this year. Suffice to say that it was reasonable to expect improved accuracy from the third-year point guard, and instead he has posted the lowest effective field goal and true shooting percentages of his career.

Two quick points: I have long believed that the mechanics of Rubio’s shot were horribly askew, especially the way he uses his off-hand to support the shot. President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders disagrees, claiming during my interview with him last month that Rubio’s high free-throw percentage indicates sound mechanics, and that his biggest obstacle is likely that he tries to pass the ball for an assist up to the last second, never mentally or physically putting himself in position to score.

Wednesday’s game at Oklahoma City supports Saunders’ view. With Pekovic, Love and Brewer all absent from the starting lineup, we saw a different Rubio, one hunting for his offense. He attempted 10 shots in the first quarter alone, and later dribbled behind a pick and, rather than wait for the roll, immediately went up straight and true and buried the jumper. It was such a rare and jolting sight for Wolves fans to behold, that it dramatized Rubio’s need to hunt for his own shot more often. (He finished 6-for-12 from the field Wednesday.)

The second point is that Rubio needs to emulate Jason Kidd, another extraordinary distributor who couldn’t make a shot early in his career. Kidd steadily honed his three-pointer, to the point where that was almost all he attempted late in his career. Rubio is shooting 33.8 percent from long range this season — slightly below average, but by far his best odds of scoring. The Wolves would benefit from him establishing the trey as a signature shot, compelling opponents to either guard it or live with the results. Because even 33.8 percentage on three-pointers amounts to an effective field goal percentage of 50.7, above the NBA average of 49.7—and the Wolves’ team total of 48.1.

The 2013 draft by Flip Saunders

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Saunders was frank about having the first round of the draft unfold in a manner that deprived Minnesota of their first few preferred options, causing him to trade the ninth overall pick to Utah in exchange for the 14th and 21st picks. And he was honest with me last month in saying that he didn’t expect either of those two picks, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, to contribute much to the ball club this season.

Mission accomplished. I didn’t have particularly high expectations either, but figured the pair would log more than a collective 227 minutes through the first 49 games. Yes, some of that can be blamed on Adelman’s reluctance to play either rookie, but the fact remains that both are extremely raw; playing them is an inherent risk that trades short-term ineptitude for long-term development.

The problem is that the Wolves are in “win now” mode and have suffered from a lack of quality depth, especially at point guard. The pick the Wolves traded to Utah was used on Trey Burke, a point guard who has been the starter for the Jazz and a notable sparkplug for their offense. Reportedly the next player on the Wolves’ board had they chosen to keep the ninth pick was C.J. McCollum, a combo guard who was out with an injury until January but has still managed to play more minutes that either Muhammad or Dieng for a Portland team that is 35-14.

Maybe one or both of the players Saunders drafted will pan out. But not securing any meaningful depth out of that draft during a pivotal year in the team’s push for respectability qualifies as a disappointment.

The distribution of point guard minutes and absence of trust in his bench by Rick Adelman

This is another topic I’ve dealt with at some length in other columns. Put bluntly, I greatly admire Adelman but believe he has not had a good year coaching this team. My specific disappointments revolve around the way he has — or hasn’t — used his bench, and more specifically the rotation of his point guards.

In my view, the nadir of Adelman’s season to date was pulling Rubio for the entire fourth quarter in favor of J.J. Barea in the loss to Memphis last Friday. Rubio had just dazzled the crowd with a penultimate display of how to orchestrate an offense without scoring yourself, while simultaneously serving as a defensive catalyst throughout the third quarter. He had six assists in the period alone, and could have had two or three more if his teammates were aware and coordinated enough to handle his passes.

It was thrilling, and it was that combination of sizzle and substance that makes Rubio a special talent and a natural box-office draw. Not incidentally, it also saw Rubio riding a much-needed wave of confidence and panache less than two weeks after enduring the toughest stretch of healthy playing time in his career thus far.

Adelman canceled all that on the basis of a couple of three-pointers from Barea early in the fourth quarter. He maintained after the game that he and his staff all believed Barea gave the Wolves the best chance to win the game. Since the Wolves lost anyway, that is a damning indictment of either your own judgment or your level of trust in a player regarded as a team cornerstone by most everyone associated with the franchise.

Before and after the Memphis debacle, Adelman’s decision to rely on Barea as a backup point guard has been chronically disappointing — especially because his misplaced faith in Barea becomes even more acute in the fourth quarter. One of the more remarkable statistics this season is that Barea has logged 355 minutes in the fourth quarter, compared with 236 minutes for Rubio. Even accounting for blowouts when the starters are resting, that is a ridiculous disparity.

Barea at the point presents a host of problems. Partly owing to his diminutive stature, he has difficulty feeding the post, where Pek and Love reside as offensive cornerstones. Because the position requires sharing the ball, he drives to the hoop and draws the foul much less frequently than when he is a shooting guard. And because he is not especially adept at feeding his teammates, he frequently has to bail himself out with a last-option jumper, lowering his field goal percentage. His effective field goal and true shooting percentages are the lowest since his rookie season.

The Wolves might be better served going to a natural distributor behind Rubio, even if it is a fellow poor shooter such as A.J. Price. Let Barea be Barea, and if he is hot, let him burn as a shooting guard until he cools off.

Which brings us, as a final disappointment, to Adelman’s season-long mistrust in his bench. Part of this is because injuries deprived him of trusted veterans such as Budinger and center Ronny Turiaf for significant chunks of the season. Part of it is that because of the lackluster draft and the frontloading of star salaries, the Wolves truly don’t have great depth.

But one possible cause of the Wolves’ perhaps unprecedented combination of blowout wins and close losses has been Adelman’s refusal to give his bench much playing time, especially when Budinger and Turiaf were sidelined. You win by 20 or 25 points instead of 10 or 15 points when you keep your starters in longer than necessary. And perhaps you sap their energy level during the NBA grind enough so that it is tougher to maintain in close contests.

That doesn’t mean Adelman is solely, or even chiefly, to blame for the disparity between the Wolves’ Cadillac statistics and their pedestrian won-lost record. But his inability to elevate this team with his proven talent is a disappointing drop-off from what I expected this season.