How it got away

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

We try to figure out how a return to the postseason seemingly slipped through the Timberwolves' grasp

It's Valentines Day as I write this intro, and well, brace yourselves Hoopusters; I'm about to use the dreaded L-word.

Lottery.

Every year we swear we're not returning to this darkest of timelines. Every year we wind up here anyway, contemplating the the possibility of another unjust cancellation of TVs best sitcom (caused by the unjust cancellation of Firefly) and another Steph Curry/Paul George/CJ McCollum dropping into a different team's jersey.


I miss Troy so much.

Bottom line: the Wolves currently sit at a somewhat disappointing record of 25-28....six games out of the playoffs. Golden State currently holds the 8th seed, with a record of 31-22. Extrapolated out over 82 games, this means the 8th seed...whoever it is...will have to win 48 games to actually be the 8th seed. Which in turn, means the Wolves will have to go 23-6 the rest of the season to be that team....a win percentage better than any team in the entire league this season.

Barring a miracle trade for LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Michael Jordan's super Space Jam water, it just ain't happening. The Wolves will continue their NBA leading playoff drought this year.

Pythagorean math says we should have a record of 33-20 right now. That we should be in the playoff picture right now. And we probably should. We have a top 10 offensive rating. We have a top 15 defensive rating. We have a top 10 +/- margin. We consistently kill the bad guys in 3 of the 4 factors. We have the best power forward in the league. We have a coach with 1000+ career wins. We should be awesome. We're not awesome. Why aren't we awesome?

The simple answer is the AP report, of course: 1-10 in games to move above .500, 1-15 in games decided by less than 5 points. We collapse when it matters the most.

But that's a pretty unsatisfactory answer for us of the Hoopus mind. If there's explainable reasons why the Wolves should be in the playoffs, then we're fairly obligated to believe that there's explainable reasons why we're not, aren't we? Early in the season it looked like plain bad luck...a game here and there where someone would make an impossible shot or something of the like, bookended by blowout wins. But this goes far beyond just bad luck and variance at this point; bad luck is like, 0-4 in close games in the middle of December. 1-15 in the middle of February is a trend. And trends have explanations.

Nate earlier alluded to the idea of doing an in-depth feature on what he calls roster synergy; how well....or how poorly...the players on the roster compliment each other. I don't know if he's still going to...if he does, awesome, because he'll be able to explain it better than myself. But if not, he's my take on it.

I think the best way to look at 'balance' is find the key elements that comprise a winning basketball roster (offense and defense) then fill those rolls with players who more or less don't get in each other's way as they fulfill them.

The checklist is up for debate, but I think you can cover the basics pretty simply:

Offense

  1. On-ball movement/shooting (break down the defense off the dribble, create shots)
  2. Off-ball movement/shooting (keep defenses honest, give facilitators dropoff/catch-and-shoot options)
  3. Efficient facilitating (assists that lead to good shots, few turnovers)
  4. Efficient transition (its easiest to score when the defense isn't set)
Defense
  1. On-ball pressure (crowd shooters, cut off driving lanes)
  2. Off-ball pressure (defensive rotation, cut off passing lanes, shot-blocking)
  3. Mobility (close out on kickouts, step out on pick-and-rolls)
  4. Communication (well....duh...)
I think a team that effectively checks all those boxes ultimately grades out in the statistical measures where it matters. A team that moves the ball and gets open looks...especially going to the hoop...will end up drawing fouls and getting free throws by breaking down the defense. A team that rotates, closes out and intimidates on defense will rack up rebounding numbers as they force missed shots. Etc etc.

The other part of this is do the players accomplish all this in a complimentary fashion? Or do they get in each other's way? Do they effectively limit each other by fact of there being only one ball?

Take the Heat for example. They're pretty unbalanced on offense, particularly in usage. All three of their stars are high usage guys who are at their best with the ball. But there's only one ball. If it's a halfcourt possession and LeBron has the ball, what is Wade doing?  He's a poor catch-and-shoot player, and no longer has the athleticism to be a major threat cutting off the ball.

Further, by not having the ball, the good parts of his game...breaking down defenses and facilitating...are basically negated.

And on top of that, all three basically operate from the same spots on the floor: 15 feet and in. This has changed somewhat as Bosh has drifted further and further out (I believe intentionally and by necessity, because of all this) but in the end, LeBron alone has still attempted more shots from within 12 feet this year than all three of them from anywhere else on the floor combined.

They're limiting each other. Forcing their games to radically change, and sometimes getting in each other's way as they decide who's going to be the guy with the ball in the prime spot on any given possession.

I think there's a reason why, historically, great guards didn't often play alongside other great guards, and great bigs didn't play alongside other great bigs. It's not just 30 some-odd years of coincidence that it almost always ended up this way. Hakeem, Mourning, Ewing, Shaq...those guys always got paired with Anthony Masons and Charles Oakleys, Robert Horrys, Larry Johnsons and PJ Browns. Because at some level, those teams understood that if you put Ewing and Zo on the same team (for hypothetical example) they'd probably end up fighting each other for the ball as much as they fought the other team for a win.

Now, the Heat get away with this largely because LeBron is LeBron, but that doesn't mean it isn't a problem. In their first year together in South Beach, the Mavericks won the trophy fairly easily by simply crowding the paint (hello, Tyson Chandler) and daring the Heat to beat them with jumpers. Which they couldn't. Next season, the Celtics nearly beat them the same way until Bosh returned and prevented Garnett from playing center field. And last season, the Pacers and Spurs both nearly toppled Miami by effectively eliminating Bosh from the equation. Both were one single play apiece away from eliminating the Heat.


Killed me. Just killed me.

They were able to get that close though, because guarding James, Wade and Bosh can effectively be parred down to guarding just James and Bosh. If it's a halfcourt set and Wade doesn't have the ball, he's just not much of a threat.

And this isn't to say LeBron and Wade are bad players. That obviously isn't true. But how much better could they be...and could the Heat be...if they didn't, in effect, have to take turns being awesome? (reference Durant - Westbrook here...)

Now as usual, my prime example of a team that covers the bases here are the Spurs. I'd personally argue that, all things considered, they are the most balanced team in the league, and have been for a long long time, which is probably a big reason for their chronic success.

San Antonio runs one of the most organized, efficient defenses in the league (arguably in league history) so there shouldn't be much need to spell them out on that side of the ball. More fascinating is what they do on offense, and how simply but effectively it works.

December 19th, the Spurs sat Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and were without Tony Parker due to injury, and still managed to beat a full-strength Warriors squad in Golden State. It was an absolute monument to the Pops way of basketball. Afterwards, a few of us openly wondered how San Antonio could be so good seemingly regardless of their roster, and why other teams didn't replicate it. It's something I've thought about for a long time in regards to the Spurs, and I think, for as much as a puzzle it seems to be, the answer is actually pretty simple:

The Spurs effectively run the same system that winning teams have run throughout the entire history of the modern NBA. A high usage scoring big man, a high usage scoring guard, and a bunch of 3-and-D guys.

Tim Duncan mans the post as the big man on-ball mover/scorer. Tony Parker is the on-ball mover/scorer on the perimeter. Everyone else is basically 3-and-D.  All off-the-ball movement to give Timmy and Tony options if they can't find a shot for themselves.

Hedo Turkoglu, Richard Jefferson and Dejuan Blair all got sent packing for not fitting into this. Yet the Spurs have hung on to Matt Bonner for seven years, despite the fact he does nothing but stand on the three point line and shoot off of kickouts. Kawhi Leonard takes full advantage of screens and backdoor cuts. Danny Green was in the DLeague five years ago; last spring, he set an NBA Finals 3 point record.

The Spurs also seem to understand the usage bit at a fundamental level. Duncan needs the ball to be at his best, so don't put him next to someone who's going to take the ball away from him. Don't put him next to Dejaun Blair. Put him next to Boris Diaw. Put him next to Matt Bonner. Don't send him out there with guys who take the ball from him, send him out there with guys he can give the ball to. Even now, Pops goes back and forth about who to pair him with...he seems to want to make Tiago Splitter work as a starter, but inevitably goes back to Diaw in the end, and I suspect it has a lot to do with this very subject.

One very interesting study here is Richard Jefferson versus Kawhi Leonard. Both had (have) basically the same role in the offense and both produced (produce) roughly the same basic numbers. But one was not efficient at it and became a constant griping point for Pops, the other has exceeded everyone's best expectations and is a guy Pops wants to sign to a lifetime contract. And the difference is basically which one did more with less. Which one didn't need the high usage to play well.

For basically his entire career until joining the Spurs, Jefferson was a fairly high usage guy...over 24% during the Nets' heyday run with Jason Kidd. And in the years he stayed healthy, his usage and overall production were pretty strongly linked...the more he had his number called, the better he did.

But when he got to San Antonio, his situation changed. He was no longer a #1 or #2 option...he was #3, sometimes #4. And yeah, he was getting older, but he was still under 30 and had been a 20ppg scorer the year before. He was hardly a Derek Fisher. What did change was his usage% went from 24 down to 18, and his effectiveness went with it. He was brought in to be an off-ball/transition guy, but couldn't let go of being an on-ball/shooter, and at his salary figure, the stalemate became unacceptable. He didn't adapt, and couldn't adapt, and finally Pops got fed up.

But the Spurs knew they needed that off-ball/transition player at the 3 spot. So they looked for who was expendable and came to George Hill. Who, by the way, Pops mentioned as his 'favorite player' more than once. But who ultimately did not give them anything they weren't already getting from Parker (and again, who at times was competing with Parker for control of the ball), and shipped him out for the pick that ultimately became Kawhi Leonard. A guy who has done better that Jefferson in his role, while still needing the ball less to do it.

As Jeff McDonald of the Express News put it:

Crunch time lineups were always going to feature Parker and Ginobili. Hill, as the Spurs fourth best player, deserved to be on the floor as well. But in running three-guard lineups, Hill’s strengths on the defensive end were muted some, with Hill cross matched against bigger shooting guards and small forwards. The further away from his natural defensive position, the less an impact he had.

In Leonard the Spurs hope to have the true small forward they thought they were getting in Richard Jefferson. As Varner pointed out, the loss of Hill has as much to do with Jefferson’s inability to produce in his role relative to the cap figure of his contract. Should the new CBA allow teams one contract reprieve, Leonard may even step in as Jefferson’s immediate replacement.

If Leonard merely reaches the same levels of George Hill (albeit in a different way) the Spurs will have gained greater value simply by getting that production in a different position — one that has been a weakness of sorts. But should Leonard reach his potential the way Hill has maxed out his, the Spurs will have found something far more impactful.

San Antonio balanced their roster. It's that simple. They took an excess at one position...a good player who was nonetheless having a negative impact because of simple circumstance...and used it to fill a deficiency at another one.

Now, let's also talk about Danny Green. He broke Ray Allen's Finals record for made 3s last year. Twenty three made threes. But here's the thing: he only put the ball on the deck before shooting twice. Twenty one of his twenty three shots from the great beyond were straight catch-and-shoot.


Again, balance and usage. Danny Green perfectly fills the role opposite of Parker. Tony is high usage, on-ball domination who breaks the defense down. Green is low usage off-ball shooter who finds where the defense is broken and gives Tony an option from. It's the most stupidly simplistic dynamic there is in basketball, and yet so many teams...our Pups clearly no exception....don't get.

This is also where we see the true, magnificent genius of Manu Ginobili. The guy is a chameleon who can balance any given lineup on any given night. He can play on the ball, he can play off the ball. He can be high usage or low usage. He can defend the handle or defend the passing lanes. You can put him out there with anyone and he can make stuff happen by being the things they aren't. Duncan and Parker need an off-ball shooter? Manu can be that. The bench needs an on-ball shot creator/facilitator? Manu can be that. The guy is the ultimate x-factor...a one in a million player that no defense will ever be able to really plan for no matter how hard they try. It's why Pops shuffles him around and why the Spurs success when it matters most always seems tied to how well he plays.

So going all the way back up to the Spurs beating the Dubs sans the big three, the pieces now fit together pretty obviously. It's not so much about the player individually as what role that player fills. The Spurs win without Tony Parker because Patty Mills doesn't need to be Tony Parker, necessarily. He just needs to do what Tony does...handle the ball, break down the defense. Bonner doesn't need to be Danny Green, he just needs to find open spots and make shots like Green does. If you can find 5 guys for your bench that do what your 5 starters do, then the whole roster (except Ginobili) is basically interchangable...it's just a matter of how high quality the individual parts are.

Now where all this applies to the Wolves, in my mind, is two glaring places.

One, The Wolves are good....great, fantastic even...at some of the checklist. Adelman's offense spaces the floor and moves the ball. We generate plenty of transition buckets forcing turnovers and capitalizing on Love's rebounds and outlets. Rubio and Love are tremendous at moving the ball, and Brewer and Rubio are thieves on defense, both on the ball and in the passing lanes.

On the other hand, the Wolves are also pretty critically lacking in a few of the other areas. Kevin Martin (and Love, but we'll get to that later) has been the team's only worthwhile catch-and -shoot player (which is a limiting factor on his total game) and the team's shooting as a whole is pretty dismal, largely in part, I believe, to the fact we have no player combinations that can get easy buckets. We have basically no one who can create a shot for himself in isolation (our pull up jumper %es are horrendous....Barea leads the way at just 37%. Martin is at 34%. Love and Rubio are both at 30%) We mystifyingly still struggle to close out on three point shooters, and we have little defensive communication and no shot blocking.

We also have a problem where two of our starting combos...Rubio/Martin and Love/Pekovic....have competing usage%. I think this is especially apparent (and most easily understood) with Ricky and KMart. Rubio's a master facilitator but terrible catch-and-shoot player. So he needs the ball. Martin is a good catch-and-shoot player, but needs to draw free throws to maximize his game. For which he needs the ball.

Only one of them can have it at a time, so if Rubio has the ball, a big part of Martin's game gets eliminated without the other team even doing anything. Can't get free throws without the ball (well...unless you're DeAndre Jordan I guess...) And if Martin has the ball, what is Rubio even good for?

The conflict is most noticable with Rubio, who's at a career low in FTA and overall scoring, without any rise in efficiency, and is only just matching his rookie assists average despite having (theoretically) much better talent to work with. The outlier? 16% usage rate, down from 21% last year. He's not a good shooter. He's not good off the ball, and yet, primarily because of Martin, he has the ball less than ever.

Now dream with me, for a moment, what basketball would be like if Rubio was out there with Danny Green. A really good shooter who's sole purpose in life is to let Ricky do his thing and give him a really good option to pass the ball to when he feels like it. The dynamic there sounds better, right? It does to me. Rubio has the ball all he needs to be effective, his partner in crime puts up Martin-like scoring in a simpler, more straightforward way that doesn't take the ball away from Ricky.

(and I highlight Ricky because he's the most limited by all this, in my mind. I refuse to believe he and Kendall Marshall are the same level of player)

((and that's coming from a huge Kendall Marshall fan. The dude set an ACC assists record for Flynn's sake!))

(((and this is probably starting something, but...Kevin Love without Pekovic: 31ppg on 47% shooting, 14.5 rebounds/per, compared to 25ppg on 45% shooting and 13 rebounds/per the rest of the year)))

I mean, this is all hypothetical (and unrealistic really, given our lack of cap space and clever management...) but if you were to do with Pek what the Spurs did when they swapped Hill for Leonard....take Pek's scoring output and move it to the 3 spot, then replace Pek with a player who fills the mobility/communication boxes and let's Love maximize his game....that's be a net gain, right?

What I think the imbalance and usage conflicts add up to is production imbalance, which leads to what I guess you could call record imbalance.

Where it falls apart for us right now is that 3 spot. Corey is the only low usage guy in the starting 5, and thus the Wolves badly need him to be an off-ball shooter/scorer to make up for the high usage rates and ball domination of everyone else. We need him to be Danny Green, and he just can't be that. This is what Nate meant in his post when he said Corey is a Flynnin' disaster on this roster. And really, through not fault of his own. But if the Wolves are going to be committed to Love/Pek/Martin as their trio...and all the usage on offense is going to go through them...then the point guard and small forward need to compliment that. (which neither does, but Brewer is the much bigger problem)

This is one place we badly miss Kirilenko. He wasn't a great shooter, but he found ways to score off the ball, and checked a lot of boxes on defense to boot.

What this pans out to is we double up on a couple of the four factors (rebounds and free throws) while being horribly deficient at the shooting factor...which is a combination of our off-ball players being bad at scoring, our good scorers needing to split time with the ball, and our defense being incapable of holding down the other team's eFG%. We only check 4 of the 8 boxes. Our good players get in each others' way.

Another 'nother layer to this is the system we run. Look, Adelman is a great coach. He has over 1,000+ career wins. And he's one of a very very few competent minds in the management pool here.

BUT...

He's leaving wins on the table.

There's the obvious common gripes here over his stubborn adherence to the hockey lineup. Dieng and Muhammed should probably at least get enough time for a fair evaluation (I don't really see what damage Bazz could do that isn't already being done)  And he keeps complaining about the players not committing fouls when they avoid fouls so completely that someone telling them 'don't foul' is the only conceivable explanation. But I actually think the core problem is much more complex here, and has to do with his system itself.

The last game I attended with my family, my dad made a comment about how much he liked Kevin Love passing the ball out of the high post. "It's like a quarterback option". Which it is. The ball goes to Love, and then he surveys the floor to see what pass is the best option. It's classic Adelman-ball, with Love playing the role of Vlade Divac.

Now, the problem with the Vlade option scheme is it requires good shooters as the options. This is why Adelman has always gone with shooters at the point guard spot; he has his big men do the facilitating. Kevin Martin's pretty good, but again, taking the ball out of his hands limits his game. And Pekovic can certainly score, but he's not a mobile alley-oop guy, so if you pass him the ball, he's still fighting the defense for a bucket. The good shots in the Vlade option come from good catch-and-shoot guys finding open spots on the floor. The Kings had Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby. We don't have Peja and Bibby. We have Brewer and Rubio. Who do some good stuff elsewhere on the floor, but are practically friendly-fire as shooters.

The problem is the Adelman system, quite frankly, works against our players' strengths. Our best catch-and-shoot guy is Kevin Love. Who is the one passing the ball. To our best facilitator, who's a terrible shooter.

We have it backwards.

System obviously matters, and this year is probably the best example of all this in recent memory. On the high end, we have Portland and Phoenix, two teams contributing to our playoff drought by being way, way better than expected. Neither team made significant roster changes (considering Eric Bledsoe is out for the year) but both have new head coaches who know how to utilize their rosters. (hint: Nic Batum doing Scottie Pippen impressions is what makes the Blazers work)

On the low end is Cleveland, where even Kyrie Irving has fallen to the Mike Brown singularity of offensive suckitude.

This is the second place we really really miss Kirilenko. Our high post facilitator has to be Love. Rubio only works in motion. Pek is not a facilitator. Brewer and Martin, among other things, would never be able to hold post position. But Kirilenko could have. He could have been the Vlade, which would have freed Love up to the the Peja.

So to come full circle, we're 1-15 in close games, which is the difference between playoffs and lottery for us, and I'd say this is pretty compelling evidence why. We clearly can't perform in the clutch:

Overall Offensive Rating 104.6 Clutch Offensive Rating 94.4
Overall Defensive Rating 102.5 Clutch Defensive Rating 127.2

That clutch off rtg is bad, but far from the worst...there are 6 teams below us, including 3 teams in the 80s (one is Chicago, who also has a winning record and a playoff spot)

The clutch defensive rating, however is the worst by a mile. Next worst is Detroit at 112.2. Yeah. We are a full 15 points/100 possessions worse on defense when the game is on the line than anyone else in the league. That's why we lose close games.

Like I said in the Mbah a Moute bit, if your defense relies on something other than getting stops, you're going to be taken advantage of at the end of games. Other teams will run you out in the 4th quarter and if you're letting them score at a 127.2/100 clip, then your offense literally has to score every single possession to stay above water. It's a completely unrealistic expectation.

And the heart of it goes back to checklists and usage and system. We have no one to create shots. We have no defensive mobility or communication. Our best shooters aren't shooting the ball and our best players get in each others' way. Our underlying issues overrun us when the other team zeroes in.

Things to try:

  1. Run the Pek and roll as the #1 option. Let Rubio be an actual playmaker, get Pek the easiest looks his body type will consistently get. Use Martin and Love (aka our best shooters) as actual shooting options
  2. Play Turiaf more. Even when Pek returns, Turiaf should be the first big off the bench. Adelman likes Inferno, and hey, I like him too. He's a hard worker. He knows his limits. But Turiaf is a better rebounder, facilitator and shot blocker (the guy already has 10 more blocks than anyone else on the team despite missing over half of the season so far) and pretty much never attempts anything but a layup or dunk, so he's not going to hurt us with missed shots. He does, as a center, what Adelman wants his centers to do. He's the closest we have to a low usage big who checks the boxes on defense.
  3. Stop with the hockey lineups. The bench run that usually happens at the end of the third heading into the fourth is killing us. Absolutely killing us.
  4. Find cheap 3-and-D wings. Danny Green came out of the DLeague for Flynn's sake. We don't need an Evan Turner. A couple Steve Novaks will do just fine.
  5. Pray for Bazz and Dieng to make it. Seriously guys. We talked about this at the start of the year. We left ourselves with no flexibility to change things if this didn't work, and guess what? It's not working. The only way then for this to take a significant turn is for one of our two unknowns to blow up big.

At the very least...even if we can't fix the clutch part....at least we could get more wins where we get so far out ahead early the other team gives up by running an actual efficient offense of compatible parts, rather than the mad machine we actual have. (a top 10 offensive rating with a bottom 10 TS%....?) Our roster flexibility is extremely limited, but we can still make improvements. Cheap players to try and balance things out better, and run a system that best fits what we do have.

It's a lot of bits and pieces that can probably be reasonably argued away as an itemized list. But as a whole, I don't see what other conclusion can be drawn anymore.

BONUS VIDEO

The end tag that started it all

AND BONUS BONUS VIDEO

It got even better


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