Corey Brewer: Early Returns

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Eleven games in, let's take a look at our surprise starter at small forward, Corey Brewer.

First, a comment about sample sizes.

Had I written this article three or four games ago, which I almost did, I would be looking pretty foolish right now. I suspect that writing this article after 11 games might make me look foolish too, but it seems time to consider the start of Corey Brewer in his second go around with the Timberwolves.

I have to admit that I was not a huge fan of the Corey Brewer signing. It seemed to me that it was an overpay to give a flawed player like Brewer $5 million a year, especially in combination with the $5 million per Flip gave to Chase Budinger earlier in the summer.

Brewer's flaws were clear: he was coming off three straight seasons of sub-30% three point shooting. He has been a consistently poor free throw shooter, and a weak rebounder for a forward. His positives have been his ability to generate steals, and his energy (if not his efficiency) in transition.

I still question the wisdom of investing $10 million a year in the small forward position for nothing resembling a star player. Of course, the fact that Budinger has not been healthy for most of his tenure with the Wolves doesn't help.

It's hard to argue, however, that Corey Brewer has not been a positive contributor for the Wolves thus far. He has started every game, and averaged 6 points on 55% shooting in 10 minutes per first quarter, during which the Wolves have scored an astounding average of nearly 33 points while outscoring opponents by almost eight points. He's been integral to the Wolves' hot starts, and overall is giving the team 13.5 points on 54% shooting inside the arc and nearly two steals in 33 minutes a game.

So what has changed for Brewer this year?  First of all, his usage is down. From a career high 23.4% last season to a five year low 17.5% this year.  It makes sense. Last season his was playing the bulk of his minutes with Wilson Chandler, Kosta Koufos, Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson, and Andre Miller.  In other words, primarily guys who were not offensive centerpieces.  This year, he's playing the bulk of his minutes with Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, and Ricky Rubio. That's two high-usuage high-efficiency scoring stars and a medium usage high-efficiency scorer. As a result, Brewer is simply asked to do less, especially in the half-court, where the focus is on the Kevins.

What this translates to is four fewer FGAs per 36 as compared to last season. He's taking two fewer threes and two fewer twos per 36, but less than 1 fewer FTA.  In particular, the reduced number of three pointers helps, because it is not a shot he makes consistently. His shooting and per play efficiencies are significantly up, however, as he is currently posting career highs in both TS% and efg%, and his .99 ppp is ranked 74th in the NBA and compares to his .91 ppp last year, which was 208th in the league.

The big change for Brewer is where his offense is coming from:

All plays that end in FGA, FTA, or TO for the player are counted

2012-13

Type of Play*

% of total

PPP

League rank

Overall

100%

.91

208

Spot Up

32.4%

.86

245

Transition

27.6%

1.13

152

Off Handoff

5.3%

.95

36

Cut

7.7%

1.09

164

Off Screen

8.7%

.82

102

2013-14

Type of Play*

% of total

PPP

League Rank

Overall

100%

.99

74

Spot Up

22.7%

.82

73

Transition

46.7%

1.19

26

Off Handoff

4.7%

1.14

--

Cut

8.7%

1.38

--

Off Screen

7.3%

.55

--

*These do not add up to 100% because I left out some of the incidental play types that aren't significant in number.

All data above courtesy of mysynergysports.com.

I bolded the key areas, but it's hardly necessary.  His offense is coming i transition nearly half the time this season, as opposed to 27% of the time with last year's fast paced Nuggets. In contrast, his spot-ups are much less a part of his game now. He's much more successful in open floor opportunities, which has increased his efficiency significantly.

We've all seen it:


Corey Brewer leaking out time and time again looking for the long outlet pass from Kevin Love. It was working multiple times a game in the first few games; now it appears that teams are beginning to get on top of it.  However, Brewer is still getting out in transition, not only for the long bomb, but also running with Rubio and looking for easy baskets.

What isn't noted in the charts above, however, is that, despite a lower usage rate, Brewer's turnover rate is up this year to 12.5%, from 9.4% last season. This is largely attributable to his 17.5% turnover rate in transition this year, compared to under 10% last season.

I view this as partially a Brewer problem and partially a Love/Rubio problem. The Wolves are so eager to get out in transition that both Love and Rubio will frequently hit Brewer with a hit-ahead pass that results not in a clear opportunity, but rather in a 1-on-2 or 2-on-3 situation, with the ball in Brewer's hands. This is not ideal, as Brewer is not a great ball-handler or decision maker.  Frequently I find myself yelling at the screen for him to slow it down and back it out, but all too often he attempts a confounding foray to the rim that winds up in a turnover.  Although it is incumbent on Brewer to make better decisions in those situations, the truth is that both Rubio and Love are better decision makers, and should be more judicious about when they give the ball to Brew in the open court.

While the increase in turnovers does not entirely wipe away Brewer's efficiency gains, it does limit them. It's one area I think improvement is possible.

Even at the margins, Brewer's offense has cut down inefficiencies.  Not on the chart above because they don't amount to much percentage wise are isolation plays and plays where Brewer is the PnR ball handler. You might imagine those are not good for him. And it's true. Last year, he averaged slightly more than one of these plays per game; this year, about 1/2 per game (6 total plays).  It has essentially been eliminated from the offense.

Although this article is focused on offense, it is worth noting that Brewer's base Synergy defensive numbers are better this year as well. He is giving up .83 PPP, down from .90 last season. This is largely because his opponents are not getting as many spot up opportunities, which always result in a high PPP, because they are often open threes. Whether because of scheme, or because he is simply free-lancing less, the percentage of his defensive plays that are spot ups is way down. Conversely, the percentage of plays where he is guarding the PnR ball handler is up, and there he shines, giving up just .65 PPP, good for 18th in the league.

As much as I am disappointed that Chase Budinger is injured and has been unable to play this year, in the end it may have one benefit for the Wolves: it allowed Brewer to bed in with the starting lineup. It was pretty clear in pre-season that Rick Adelman preferred Brewer off the bench, and in the absence of Budinger tried to find another option. He failed to do so, however, and that has proved a boon. Playing with the starting lineup takes any half-court offensive pressure off Brewer, as he simply does not have to operate with the ball in his hands, and can concentrate on creating havoc on defense, running, and cutting.

Had he been placed with the 2nd unit, he would have found himself in more half-court situations with less gifted offensive players, and would not have had the transition opportunities he has now. With luck, Budinger will be able to slot in to a reserve role, where his superior shooting, ball-handling, and defensive rebounding will help that unit hold its own while Brewer continues to be the wild-card in the starting lineup where those skills are less needed given the presence of players like Love, Rubio, and Kevin Martin.

It's early in the season, and even earlier in his contract, but so far Corey Brewer has been executing the role assigned to him and making the money he got look worth it. Hopefully it continues all year. We'll check back to see how it's going again soon.

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