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A stab at explaining the Wolves’ slump

Taking a 1-8 pratfall during the soft part of the schedule is why at least some are asking: ‘What is wrong?’

The Minnesota Timberwolves are heading into a deceptively crucial stretch of games between now and the end of the calendar year.

Losers of eight of nine, the Wolves have plummeted to 9-16, the 25th best record among the 30 NBA teams. Yet aside from two games against the Los Angeles Clippers, none of those past nine contests have come against opponents with a winning record.

This relatively easy stretch of the schedule will continue for the next two games, at home tonight against the 10-15 Sacramento Kings, and on the road Sunday in Brooklyn versus the 7-18 Nets. After that, five of the final six games of 2015 will be against teams with winning records, including two against the 22-5 San Antonio Spurs.

The Wolves don’t want to be among the mere handful of teams who have stopped playing meaningful games less than halfway through the 2015-16 season. But that is the peril that awaits should they continue to tumble.

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The Wolves brain trust is clearly aware of the team’s precarious plight. After Tuesday night’s loss at home against Denver, coach Sam Mitchell was more reflective and informative about the club’s shortcomings than in any postgame session thus far this season, and declared it time to shake up the starting lineup.

The next night in New York, the Wolves had Tayshaun Prince and Gorgui Dieng starting, but that could be explained away by Kevin Martin sitting with a nagging wrist injury and Kevin Garnett resting on the second night of back-to-back games on the schedule.

On Thursday, however, right after the Wolves lapsed their way into a 22-point halftime deficit against the Knicks en route to another loss, the reliable Associated Press beat writer Jon Krawczynski reported that the team is seeking to trade Martin. (Anyone who read my last column is aware that I heartily endorse this proactivity.)

More Mitchell agonistes

Before the Knicks game, Mitchell was back to jousting with the media. “Compared to where we were defensively last year, offensively last year, I’m laughing at you guys. Everybody’s like, ‘What’s wrong with the Timberwolves?’ We won 16 games last year. We’ve got nine wins right now….Our three most talented players that play the most minutes and are our leading scorers are all 20 years old and would be juniors in college, so I’m laughing at you guys.”

Okay, let’s play that game for a minute. Two of the three players Mitchell is referring to—Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine — ranked among the team’s top three in minutes last year as well, at the age of 19, with no prior NBA experience, and would have been sophomores in college. The third, top overall draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns, is the most talented center to come into the NBA since DeMarcus Cousins of Sacramento was drafted in 2010. Towns already has sufficient breadth, polish and overall maturity to his game and demeanor to rank as the most promising big man since sure-fire Hall of Famer Tim Duncan.

Last year the Wolves got only 22 games and 692 minutes out of point guard Ricky Rubio, arguably the most consequential player on the roster the past two seasons. In 2014-15, the Wolves were 7-15 when Rubio played and 9-51 when he didn’t. This year, the Wolves have already benefited from 19 games and 570 minutes of Rubio. Mitchell’s ball club is 8-11 when he plays, and 1-5 when he doesn’t.

The more Mitchell compares this current squad to last year’s injury-riddled outfit that spent most of the season tanking for the right to draft Towns, the less all of us should be laughing.

Too unfamiliar on defense

No one reasonably expects the Wolves to be playoff contenders this season. The Vegas line on the team’s win total for the 2015-16 season was 25.5 when it began in late October. Their current winning percentage projects out to 29.5 wins over an 82-game schedule. So the aggregate season to date is not the issue.

Taking a 1-8 pratfall during the soft part of the schedule after an 8-8 start is why at least some of the media — and the fan base the franchise is courting so assiduously via breathless recounts and video highlights of its young stars — are asking what is wrong.

Mitchell is on firmer ground when he simply answers questions. It is not a coincidence that the Wolves are relatively better off when veterans are on the floor. The highest net ratings — the difference in the team’s performance when a player is in action versus when he sits — belong to Andre Miller (+9.0 points per 100 possessions in a small sample size of 170 minutes), Rubio (+8.4), Prince (+5.7), Dieng (+3.4) and Garnett (+3.2).

After the Denver game, Mitchell spoke about the difficulty of calibrating pick and roll defense. Because it is so rarely run at the AAU and college levels, the learning curve is steep for young players. Even as the basics are ingrained, defending the pick and roll is a collaborative enterprise, requiring intuition and instincts as well as an adherence to the prevailing scheme. Without the sort of coordination mostly borne of experience, there is no “right” way to defend it.

For example, Rubio is properly admired for his bulldog tenacity for fighting through picks and going over the top to get to the shooter. But as ace Wolves television analyst Jim Petersen has pointed out, Rubio’s desire to stay with his man can work against him and the team if the ball handler rolls toward the hoop as he is fighting over the screen.

It is hard to get back into the play against the NBA’s quicker guards on dribble-penetration. But if Rubio’s pick-and-roll defensive partner switches off to ward off that penetration while Rubio continues to try and catch up, the opponent who set the screen is open. And once a player is open, smart offenses will move the ball and force the Wolves to keep adjusting until they get the ball to a reliable scorer in that player’s comfort zone.

Conversely, if a defender slides beneath the pick and attempts to come back and challenge that player on the other side of the screen, dribble penetration may be avoided, but the opponent has sufficient time and space to launch an open jumper.

Put succinctly, quality defense is about coordinated chain reactions. Losing that coordination creates a hole in the linkage, and trying to adjust for that gap and reestablish coordination can easily set up a more dysfunctional chain reaction — a defensive breakdown yielding a layup or an open three-pointer. That’s why experience — individually, but also in sync with your teammates — is so important.

Not too long ago, some sophisticated data from Synergy was reported showing that the Wolves were especially ineffective at defending the ball handler on the pick and roll. Before a game against the Orlando Magic on December 1, there were detailed instructions for the Magic players on the chalkboard in the visitor’s locker room. Among the cryptic messages was one that stated, “P&R, small-small = *gold*.” Translation: When Orlando could involve the Wolves in a pick-and-roll play involving their two guards or small forward, they felt it was an optimal opportunity to score.

Given that only the veterans Garnett and Prince have a better defensive rating (fewest points allowed per possessions) than Rubio when they are on the court, the “pick and roll ball handler” and Magic blackboard info indicts LaVine, Wiggins, Martin and Miller as well as perhaps exploits a relative weakness in Rubio’s defense. For that matter, as with any negative defensive metric, it indicts the inability of the entire defensive unit to coordinate the chain.

Good scouts will uncover flaws and opponents will prey on them until they are rectified. The Wolves are too young and inexperienced to rapidly adjust and otherwise compensate for those flaws. That would help explain a regression from 8-8 to 1-8 in this 9-16 season to date.

Too tight on offense

Theoretically, at least, Mitchell and his staff have a greater ability to prevent a freefall on the offensive end, where the young Wolves are initiating rather than responding to the play.  

Sure enough, over the last nine games for every NBA team, Minnesota ranks 11th in offensive efficiency at 104 points per 100 possessions, and 28th in defensive efficiency at 110.2 points per 100 possessions.

Yet there is familiar hole in the Wolves’ offensive arsenal: the absence of credible outside shooting that would help space the floor and generate more options for open looks.

Only the Brooklyn Nets attempt fewer three-pointers than Minnesota. In his postgame press conference after the Detroit loss, Mitchell acknowledged it was a problem, declaring that his players have to make over 100 threes before leaving every practice and bemoaning the paucity of outside marksmen.

The numbers at least partially support him. The Wolves are shooting 11.8 percent more threes this year than last season, even as their percentage from distance has dipped a titch, from 33.2 to 33.1.

Nemanja Bjelica
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
If Nemanja Bjelica continues to regress, the team’s most adept three-point shooter coming into the season will be a bust.

To compensate, the Wolves draw fouls. Indeed, no team makes as many free throws per game in the entire NBA, and while some of that is due to their 80.7 percent accuracy at the line (second only to Memphis), they also earn their way to the charity stripe. (Houston and the Clippers shoot more free throws per game, but that is due to opponents fouling weak free-throwers for a strategic advantage.)

The downside of this aggressive desire to draw contact is that the Wolves shoot a higher percentage of shots that are defined as being guarded “very tight” than any team in the NBA. A whopping 24.5 percent of their field goal attempts are hoisted with a defender within two feet of the shooter. (Utah is second at 23.5 percent; the Clippers last at 15.2 percent.) Considering that all the shots that draw a foul don’t count as field goal attempts, probably a third or more of the times a Timberwolves is shooting, an opponents’ hand and body are in the way.

An interesting kicker to this is that the Wolves rank fifth in the NBA on the accuracy of these “very tight” shots, making them at a rate of 48.6 percent. Chalk it up to practice makes perfect.

Which raises the question why the Wolves aren’t “practicing” more three-pointers. Yes, 33.1 percent is pretty dreadful — 23rd in the NBA — but why not develop long-range shooting along the same premise as pick-and-roll defense, or boxing out, a skill that has to be learned through trial-and-error repetition? Making 100 threes in practice can’t really substitute for launching them in the course of a game.

This is especially true of the dazzling young talents on the roster. The more accurate Zach LaVine or Andrew Wiggins or Bazzy Muhammad can be from beyond the arc, the easier it will be for them to blow by opponents having to challenge the trey, and use their athleticism against fewer obstacles in the paint.

Again, in fairness to Mitchell, Wiggins and LaVine are both using a higher proportion of their field goal attempts on three pointers. But it could be higher yet. Both still shoot more frequently from 16 feet out to the three-point arc than they do from beyond that arc.

Then there are the individual wrinkles. LaVine is a more accurate scorer on catch-and-shoot field goal attempts than off the dribble, so why not play him off the ball more? Even when he is paired with Rubio, the Wolves invariably run at least one or two half-court sets where LaVine brings up the ball and Rubio goes to the corner, when defenders promptly ignore him. This makes no sense.

By contrast, Karl-Anthony Towns attempted just 9 three-pointers in the 17 games played in October and November, making three. In eight December games, he is 6-for-12 from distance.

For the next two games, Towns will be matched up with the mammoth Cousins of Sacramento and then Brook Lopez of Brooklyn. The ability to draw both of them outside with a couple of made treys would be a boost to the Wolves chances in these next two winnable games before the deluge.

So would telling Nemanja Bjelica to stop thinking and start chucking. If the Euroleague MVP continues to regress, the team’s most adept three-point shooter coming into the season will be a bust. Better Bjelly goes down righteously rather than emulate former Wolf Alexey Shved— and furthering injurious Euro stereotypes — by wimping out.