Bradford Doolittle, of Basketball Prospectus, has provided ESPN with a projection of wins for teams in the Western Conference. The Minnesota Timberwolves are projected to win 51 games, based upon his statistical models, constituting a monstrous jump in winning percentage (almost 23%). Projecting individual and team performance is a booming business and it keeps basketball junkies, like myself, busy until meaningful basketball is played or, at least, until the doctors give Ricky Rubio is cleared to resume running. I am optimistic about the upcoming season and I am not taking issue with a statistician using data to predict a win total, but I think there are several variables that can severely impact the predictive power of statistical models.
The first, and most obvious, issue is the impact of injuries on a team's performance. As a fan of the Timberwolves, last season provided a classic example of the negative impact an injury can have on a team's win-loss record, as evidenced by the injuries to, primarily, Ricky Rubio and, to a lesser extent, Nikola Pekovic. Even the nagging injuries to Luke Ridnour and Jose Barea impacted the Timberwolves win-loss totals, as Malcolm Lee was pressed into minutes prematurely. Doolittle acknowledges that his prediction for 51 wins includes Rubio missing a substantial chunk of the 2012-13 season, but he does not explain how it takes into account other injury concerns the Timberwolves may have to address. First, Brandon Roy has not played at a high level since the 2009-10 season, with the exception of his memorable 4th quarter barrage against the Dallas Mavericks in the opening round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs. Forecasting what impact the Regenokine Therapy will have on Brandon Roy's ability to consistently provide meaningful minutes can only be guesswork. This is troublesome considering the alternative is starting Alexey Shved or returning to the diminutive Luke Ridnour when Rubio returns. Either way, Roy's contributions will figure into the Timberwolves' win total, but I would be wary of a model that predicts whether the impact will be positive over an 82 game season. Secondly, Nikola Pekovic (who, IMHO, is one of the primary reasons to be excited about the upcoming season), had offseason surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle. Pekovic has spent the summer in Montenegro and there has been little news about his progress. Andrei Kirilenko has averaged 14 missed games per season during his NBA career and Greg Stiemsma battled plantar fasciitis in his left foot last season. For the latter player, this is a story, due to the paucity of depth for the Timberwolves in the frontcourt.
The second issue that can create statistical noise in a model will relate to how the team will operate with many new pieces. I am biased, but I do think that the players that were discarded did not provide the team with much value, especially when compared to what the incoming players could contribute. However, quantifying the impact could be tough. For instance, Brandon Roy thrived in an offense in Portland that was built around him. Period. Roy dominated the ball while creating mid-range jump shots and lay-ups for himself, as well as scoring opportunities for his teammates. This may be helpful for the Timberwolves as they play the first half of the season without Rubio, but Roy will have to adjust to a new role once Rubio returns, if not sooner. Can Roy operate as a catch-and-shoot shooting guard, or as a player that needs to move without the ball in order to generate offense? In addition to figuring out a way to utilize Roy, acquisitions Alexey Shved and Chase Budinger will have to earn minutes for themselves. This could be an interesting storyline to watch as Derrick Williams could be the odd man out as Adelman sets his rotation, based upon his not too subtle jabs at the young forward. Adelman has likely seen just about everything in his five stops as an NBA coach, so that is another point in the Timberwolves favor. He seems to put players in a position to succeed (with the exception of Wesley Johnson). He had the Timberwolves going to the playoffs last year with a 6'1" shooting guard and Wesley Johnson starting at small forward.
I enjoyed reading an analyst giving the Timberwolves credit for what appears to have been a successful offseason, considering the amount of negative attention the Timberwolves seem to get as a result of a legacy of mistakes, dating back to at least Jonny Flynn. However, trying to predict a win total down to a number is a tricky game to play. If I went to Las Vegas and I had to lay down money on an over/under of 51 wins for the Timberwolves, I would take the under. The uncertainty surrounding the health of the squad will play a big role in how many wins the Timberwolves wind up with. If the Timberwolves got to 51 wins, or exceeded that total, I would be ecstatic. If the Timberwolves get 51 wins exactly, as Doolittle predicts, I will erase my IPOD, and replace its contents with the album Undrafted, by Troy Hudson, for one month.