A stab at explaining the Wolves’ slump

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.

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.  

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by charles thompson on 12/18/2015 - 07:44 pm.

    bjelly will get his chance if Martin leaves. He is the obvious drive and kick answer hanging around the 3 point line. Hope etc…

  2. Submitted by Mike martin on 12/18/2015 - 08:06 pm.

    Trade for Ty Lawson?

    Should the Wovles consider trading 1 or 2 second round picks for PG Ty Lawson?

    Pros
    Ty is Starting PG that can play 20-35mintues/game if Rubio gets hurt again. There would not be a drop off in quality with Ty like there is with Zach at the point

    some stats http://espn.go.com/nba/player/_/id/4000/ty-lawson
    http://espn.go.com/nba/player/_/id/4011/ricky-rubio

    Would push Rubio to improve his shooting percentage or be forced to sit in the 4th Q
    Would reduce the minutes Zach plays at PG
    Player with proven history as starring PG. with no injury history
    Better shooter than Rubio ( 46.2% V 36.5% 3s 36.5% V .309)
    the Wolves can get him cheap. Houston traded 4 players who were waived and two 2nd round picks for Ty
    The Wolves drafted Ty but McHale traded him on draft night and kept Flynt

    Cons
    PG is already crowded with Rubio, MIller, Jones and part-timer Zach
    Ty comes with off court baggage and poor on court performance at Houston
    (rent him a condo at the Carlyle or Nic on 5th so he can walk to Target Ctr and get him into 12 step groups or Fellowship of Christian Athletes & local treatment centers for support)
    Rubio is a better rebounder & has more assists but turns the ball over more

    Creates more of a log jam at SG with Zach, Wiggins and Martin looking for minutes

    • Submitted by joe smith on 12/19/2015 - 10:01 am.

      Mchale was gone at the time Wolves picked Lawson and traded him. Bringing in Lawson would be a major mistake. His on the ball defense is brutal and he looks disinterested. Rubio is a poor on ball defender that is why the Wolves struggle on pick n roll defense. Rubio is a great off ball guy getting steals and being disruptive but his lack of athleticism hurts him on the ball.

  3. Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 12/21/2015 - 11:39 am.

    disappointment

    “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.”

    Statements like this are why fans are disappointed in this years squad. If last year they tanked purposely and would likely have had more wins if they weren’t trying to tank then this years squad seems like a disappointment. The team has an additional years experience for most players and added an incredibly talented player in Towns yet seem to be doing no better or worse than a team that purposely tanked the previous year. I’d agree that we shouldn’t expect a team to even contend for a playoff spot this year but with a weak schedule lately most people anticipated better.

    That said, Britt you are a goldmine of basketball information and Wolves info as well and once again do not disappoint with some very good analysis here. I would agree the pick and roll defense is the wolves bane thus far. I would have hoped that some of the players previous experience in high school would help in that regard but apparently it is done so little anymore that many have little to no experience with it. Pick and roll used to be more common and it really shouldn’t be that difficult but it does take time to learn how to defend it and also excellent communication from team mates.

    • Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 12/22/2015 - 08:52 am.

      even more disappointed

      I watched last nights game and can say that I’ve seen 8th graders play better defense than this team. Absolutely terrible. I have the feeling they don’t have a great deal of players on the team with a high basketball iq or a willingness and ability to learn to play defense at all. It really shouldn’t take this long to learn to play D at all. 5 practices and they should have at least the basic ability to play some D. As long as these guys have been playing it really shouldn’t be that difficult but I guess they are getting a paycheck without having to do much. It’s time to blow the team up yet again and get rid of the players that don’t play defense. I think all that will be left are Towns, Prince, and maybe 1 or two others. The rest can go if they won’t or can’t learn to play defense.

  4. Submitted by Jeff Germann on 12/23/2015 - 08:16 am.

    Great article as always Britt…

    First let me say this: I have always been a Sam Mitchell fan. He was one of my favorite players ever on the Wolves and I rooted for him as a coach with Toronto. I really want him to do well with the Wolves and “earn” the head coaching job permanently. That being said.. I am finding it very interesting how Mitchell is continuing to make it harder and harder to root for him by his behavior to the media. Snarky doesn’t cut it and he has done NOTHING so far to justify his “I’m smarter than you” attitude he seems to have copped. Our win total increase this year can really be explained easily (IMHO) by 3 things: adding Towns, overall health of the club (Thanks Arnie!) and the young kids having another year of experience.

    The thing that gets me is stuff like this: You wrote ” 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.” This kills me. In today’s NBA there should be zero reason why your best 3 point shooters take more “long 2’s” than 3 point attempts. I know its a broken record around here (and other parts) but the math is simple and the spacing that is gained by stepping behind the 3 point line is beneficial to the rest of the offense. I just fail to see why this doesn’t change. But as you say its our defense that is the bigger issue. I would have liked to have seen an assistant coach known for defense added to the staff in the off-season. Not happening now. Hopefully the cohesiveness gained with another season together will improve the defense. (Constant change cant be good)

    In fairness to Mitchell he’s been thrust into a difficult situation and he is a head coach who didnt get to pick his staff. I’d be curious to know who he would have brought in if given the chance. I see lots of people calling for Sams head but IMHO I think the jury is still out. He has time to make adjustments. I am still rooting for him.

    The bigger question in my mind is if Milt Newton is the long term answer at GM. He’s an “easy to root for guy” but we have no idea if he’s up to the job. The GM role needs to be answered and nailed down before we can worry about the head coach. If Milts not the guy any GM is going to want to bring in their own coach. So worrying about Mitchell is putting the cart before the horse a bit. It’ll be interesting to see what Milt can do with the Martin situation. Will he be able to get ANYTHING for him or will it simply be an “addition by subtraction” situation where we just find someone to take his salary. I’d be curious to read more about Milt and what he may do.

  5. Submitted by Kelly McPhail on 12/23/2015 - 11:21 am.

    Mitchell insists on coaching as if he’s here long-term, instead of winning games now. Indeed, LaVine should be starting at the “2”, and Wiggins at the “3” to get maximum athleticism on the floor. Tayshaun Prince is 35 years old, and probably wouldn’t be playing for any other team in the league, yet is starting for the Wolves – that makes no sense to keep LaVine and Shabazz on the bench. Is Mitchell doing it so that we get another high draft pick? It just seems to early to give up on the season. Why else would Prince play more minutes than Shabazz? Prince is too slow to keep up with younger players, he’s constantly getting burned on drive-by’s, yet, somehow, he stays on the floor. His PER rating is a dismal 5.0 – near the bottom of the league. In addition, how can the Wolves develop Shabazz by not playing him? This seems so obvious, Mitchell can only be “tanking” for another high pick, but as interim coach he likely won’t be here to enjoy the fruits of an early draft choice.

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