Attempting to break down the Timberwolves, possibly the league's most statistically confusing team

At the start of this NBA season, the Timberwolves finally seemed ready to fight itself back into playoff contention for the first time in the post-Garnett era. Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, and Nikola Pekovic, a trio that had taken the floor together only 23 times over the past two seasons, were all going to be ready to play in the first game of the season. This combination of players looked great together on paper, and with the addition of an above-average shooter in Kevin Martin and a run-and-gun veteran in Corey Brewer, the Wolves looked poised to be a real threat in the Western Conference playoff race.

But Minnesota as of yet has failed to meet that expectation. Saying that this team has been a major disappointment may be a bit irrational[1], but the Wolves certainly haven't lived up to the hype of being a playoff contender this year. Part of this might just be because Minnesota is just in the wrong conference to do so, it’s worth noting that the Wolves would be the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference if the season ended today (not to mention that it would have faced a much easier schedule throughout the season).

But the perception of this roster just a few months ago was that it would be an offensive force in the league. For the first time in a few years however, the Wolves could not blame its shortcomings on injuries. The starting five has played 48 of a possible 65 games together so far, a number that only four other NBA starting lineups have been able to top this season. Unfortunately Ronny Turiaf and Chase Budinger, possibly the team’s two most important players coming off the bench, have both missed significant time, but Minnesota has been able to stay healthy for the most part.

Looking over some of the numbers, the fact that this Wolves team hasn’t succeeded becomes even more puzzling. Minnesota is a top-10 team in several major statistical categories, including offensive rating, assist percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, turnover ratio, points off turnovers, second-chance points, fast break points, points in the paint, free throw attempts, and free throw percentage.

So then what’s the issue here? Obviously we haven’t yet reached the point in analytics where numbers can tell the whole story, but a team that is above-average in so many areas of the game should certainly be a playoff contender. Minnesota technically hasn't been eliminated from playoff contention yet, but the thought of this team fighting it's way past the Phoenix-Memphis-Dallas cluster to grab the 8th seed is pretty unrealistic. Still, it is fair to question why this team has underachieved so much this season.

The Offense

Let me start off by saying this: Anybody who subscribes to the idea that Ricky Rubio is not good enough to be a starting NBA point guard is a fool. His complete inability to shoot is obviously a problem, and although this is an unfair comparison to make for Rubio at the age of 23, he is certainly in Rajon Rondo’s category of "If he had a consistent jumper he’d easily be one of the league’s ten best players." Rubio is a solid defender, ranks in the top five in pretty much every SportsVU assist statistic, and while on/off stats might sometimes not be all that telling, there is certainly something to be said about the fact that Minnesota’s offensive rating dives down to 96.7 when Rubio sits as opposed to 109.8 when he plays.

But the problem with Rubio’s lack of shooting is that a team must build around him correctly to make up for his deficiencies, something that the Minnesota front office has done poorly in preparing for this season. Having anything less than three respectable shooters on the floor with Rubio can cause for some serious spacing issues, and the Wolves only have two above-average 3-point shooters on the whole team in Kevin Love and Kevin Martin.

This isn’t much of a problem for Minnesota in transition, where it is one of the league’s best teams offensively, but scoring becomes exceptionally difficult for the team when the game slows down. The Wolves don’t have many lineups that require a lot of attention from deep, and opposing wing defenders don’t mind leaving their assignments open from beyond the arc in order to pack the paint. This has been especially problematic for Minnesota in the pick-and-roll, where it only scores on about 34% of pick-and-roll sets where the ball handler shoots according to Synergy Sports, a number that ranks 28th in the league.

And the team’s lack of shooting hasn’t made life any easier for Nikola Pekovic either, who wasn’t exactly given a $60 million extension for his defense (more on this later). Pekovic is probably one of the league’s five best low-post scorers, and while his numbers certainly haven’t been bad this season, he could be succeeding at a much higher rate if there were more room on the floor. Especially in the starting lineup with Rubio and Brewer, opposing wings will often make their defensive objective to make sure that Pekovic stays locked down on the block.


You'll see on this play where Rubio dumps the ball down to Pekovic followed by four Detroit defenders swarming the paint. Rubio’s man, Will Bynum, heads down to Pekovic almost immediately to try to interrupt Pekovic’s post movement. Corey Brewer’s man, Luigi Datome, is creeping over from the weak side, essentially being used as a backup defender in case Pekovic moves inside, while sacrificing nothing by leaving Brewer alone in the left corner (an area where Brewer hits just 31% of his shots). It also doesn’t help that Love is down in the paint while Pekovic is trying to operate, and even though Love is trying to shove his defender out of the way to make more space, he would be much more useful standing behind the 3-point line.

This isn’t exactly rocket science for NBA defenses. Pekvoic already demands quite a bit of attention from down low as it is, so opposing defenders will often easily decide to leave players such as Rubio or Brewer open from behind the arc in order to irritate Pekovic’s flow. Adding more shooting to these lineups could not only open up a lot more room for Pekovic to move around down low, but also create a deadly inside-out game where defenses will have to make the tough decision of either leaving Pekovic one-on-one or doubling him and sacrificing a high-percentage 3-pointer[2].

And this isn’t necessarily a tough fix, adding even one more shooter to share the floor with the Rubio-Martin-Love-Pekovic lineup could potentially transform Minnesota into a top-five offensive team. This is one reason why the Corey Brewer signing this summer was particularly puzzling. Sure, the Love-Brewer outlet combination is entertaining as hell, but can’t be used frequently nor consistently enough to justify what skills Brewer brings to a half-court offense. Brewer is essentially useless on offense when the game really slows down, whose only discernible skills seems to be cutting to the basket or exploding off hand-offs. These moves are easily stopped though, as defenders already know to play way off of Brewer because of his lack of shooting.

On paper this team may look like a top-five offense already, but when actually playing together the Wolves are a clear example of the direction the NBA is taking. You just simply can’t put three guys on the floor anymore who can’t shoot, it’s just too easy for defenses to stop when the game slows down.

The Defense

Minnesota has been surprisingly sound on defense this season, despite the perception that the team is an all-offense/no-defense type like Portland or Dallas. Although the Wolves' 103.1 defensive rating currently ranks just 12th in the league, that number isn’t too far off from that of the top-10 ranked defenses, a rank that Minnesota hovered around for much of the first half of this season.

The biggest problem here is that the Wolves’ players, especially in the starting five, have very specific defensive weaknesses that can be easily exploited by other teams. For instance, Ricky Rubio is a great isolation defender, but he still really struggles when defending the pick-and-roll[3]. Pekovic and Love are both solid pick-and-roll defenders[4], but Love is notorious for sleeping on his man off the ball and Pekovic, despite all his size, is a surprisingly weak defender in the paint.

According to SportsVU, Pekovic allows his opponent 55.1% shooting on shots at the rim, a mark that is well below the average for big men. Pekovic’s size does have a tendency to scare players away from the paint, but when players do go at Pekovic he has developed the habit to just lazily throw his arms up in the air while still moving his feet rather than making any hard physical contact, such as he does here:

One player on this team who has been a surprisingly decent all-around defender this year however is Kevin Martin. Martin is still a sloppy isolation defender, but according to Synergy he ranks in the top 75 among all players in points allowed per possession on pick-and-rolls, hand-offs, spot-ups, and coming off screens. Unlike some other members of the starting five such as Kevin Love or Corey Brewer, Martin does a good job of following his man off the ball and knowing when to make a rotation.

And speaking of Corey Brewer...

OK, I'm sorry if I rant here, but every time I watch this team I become more confused as to how Corey Brewer is an NBA starter. I already covered what limits he brings to an offense, but he might somehow actually be a bigger liability on defense. Don’t get me wrong, Brewer has all the athleticism and skills required to become a great NBA defender, but he simply just needs to pay more attention.

Brewer is an egregious gambler on the defensive end and is always trying to get a steal to start a fast break, but fails at this on nearly every play of the game. He has been a large factor in why Minnesota has been so good in points off turnovers and fast break points (he ranks 7th in the league with 108 steals this season), but he is hurting Minnesota much more than he is helping by going for these plays.

This is pretty typical of Brewer, where he’s completely focused on the ball while absolutely forgetting about the player he’s defending. Vasquez doesn’t have to do much here, just slowly stepping further away from Brewer for a wide-open 3 (Hint: Even though Vasquez misses here, that is not a shot you want to give him). Cunningham could've helped slightly by switching over to Vasquez and letting Brewer take over covering Novak, but Brewer was too zoned in on the ball to be able to notice that anyway. Brewer is paying more attention to the ball than his man on almost every defensive play, and that usually results in his man scoring.

The numbers back this up too: Synergy has Brewer pegged as the 278th ranked player in the league in terms of points per play at .91, allowing his opponents to score of 40.2% of attempted shots, which leads me to my point: If Brewer isn’t giving you anything on the offensive end while being a net negative on defense, why is he in the starting lineup? I’m not a Minnesota fan and therefore am obviously not watching every single game, so I admit that I may be missing something here. But every time I watch the Wolves I notice that Brewer is significantly hurting the team way more than he is helping.

Brewer is a ridiculously good athlete who brings a lot of energy on the court, but those two qualities aren’t enough to warrant a starting spot on an NBA team. Luc Mbah a Moute is a much more solid and aware defender, and while he is even worse offensively than Brewer, giving more of Brewer's minutes to Mbah a Moute would probably be a big boost for this defense while not experiencing a significant drop-off on offense.

The Bench

Not much can really be said here besides the fact that Minnesota didn't have much depth in the second unit to begin with, making the time missed by Budinger and Turiaf much more significantly damaging than it may have seemed.

Turiaf is easily the best post defender on this team, allowing only 46.1% on opponent attempts at the rim this season. And when Turiaf is out, the Wolves don’t really have a backup center besides Gorgui Dieng. Dieng is still very raw and unreliable in big minutes, and this often left Love forced to play center when Pekovic sat. This became especially problematic during a short stretch in February when both Pekovic and Turiaf were injured, where, despite being a small sample size of only three games, the Wolves’ defensive rating skyrocketed to 107.3.

Budinger’s injury hurt the bench simply in terms of the team missing one of its only reliable shooters. Minnesota already has what might possibly be the worst shooting bench in the league, completing only 39.6% of its field goals (ranked 30th among benches), 29.2% on 3s (ranked 29th), and 69.3% on free throws (ranked 28th). Budinger has struggled to find consistency in his shot since returning in January however, shooting only 37.3% from the field and just 33.7% on 3s (a percentage that is lower than Rubio’s).

The rest of the bench doesn’t leave much to be desired. J.J. Barea is a nice player to have as a backup, but he gives up way too much size on defense and is currently having one of the worst shooting seasons of his career. Dante Cunningham is solid as well, but not good enough to be the player you want leading your bench in minutes. Shabazz Muhammed and Gorgui Dieng are both extremely raw, and not yet polished enough to see real NBA minutes. Alexey Shved has played so poorly this season that I'm not sure he'll be in the league in a few years at this rate. And like I mentioned before, Mbah a Moute is a very good defender, but almost non-existent on the offensive end.

The 4th Quarter

As many Minnesota fans may already be painfully aware of, this team is really, really bad in the 4th quarter. The numbers might be worse than expected though, where the Wolves share either the 29th or 30th ranked spots in major 4th quarter statistical categories with Detroit including offensive rating (97.5), net rating (-9.3), field goal percentage (40.6%), and 3-point percentage (27.9%). It gets even worse for the Wolves as the 4th quarter progresses, with Minnesota’s net rating plummeting to -25.1 in clutch[5] situations.

Much of this can be attributed to the slowed pace of the game by the 4th quarter. Minnesota’s average pace of 100.81 over the first three periods drops to 96.31 in the 4th quarter, and as I mentioned before, the game becomes very difficult for the Wolves’ offense when it slows down. As players lose energy and defenses tighten up in the 4th quarter, shooting, a luxury that Minnesota does not have with its closing lineup, becomes very valuable.

Going Forward

I’m not going to waste my time or yours making up fake Kevin Love trades, it’s an extremely stupid discussion for two reasons: 1) The only possible Love trade I could see happening would have to be a Melo-to-Knicks or Dwight-to-Lakers-esque deal, with a team (or teams) supplying the Wolves with a bevy of cheap/young talent and future first-round picks. Finding an equal value-for-value trade is nearly impossible with a top-tier player in this league, and even then, I’m not sure that Minnesota would want to give up Love anyway[6], which leads me to… 2) Why is everybody automatically assuming that Love is leaving because the Wolves probably won’t make the playoffs this year? You know his player option is in 2015, right? In the event that Minnesota turns it around next season, the idea of Love re-signing is very plausible. We’ve seen all-stars change their minds before, with examples such as Kobe (asking for a trade in 2007 before the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol) and Lamarcus Aldridge (mentioning that he was open to exploring free agency before the Blazers’ success this season).

The Wolves won’t have much wiggle room to really improve this roster for next year however, with only Cunningham, AJ Price, and Robbie Hummel coming off the books this offseason. Minnesota owes its first-rounder to Phoenix at some point over the next three summers[7] (sorry to bring up Kahn memories), and the team should be praying that it can hang on to that pick in this draft in able to pick up a cheap, yet usable player. Without much room to do any damage via free agency, this year’s pick would be well spent by adding another consistent shooter to this team.

Looking much further than this summer is not a very relevant conversation right now until the Love situation is resolved, and much of Minnesota’s focus should be on convincing him to re-sign next summer. Rubio will be up for an extension that same offseason, but the landscape of this team may be very different by then.

Much of Minnesota’s success next year will heavily rely on how the rest of Western Conference handles this offseason. Even for being the West, this conference was unusually brutal this season, with a 38-28 team in Phoenix not even being currently able to hold down a playoff seed.

As usual though, Minnesota's health, even for the second unit, will once again be the biggest factor for this team next season. The Wolves are still an extremely entertaining watch regardless, but could be much better if all the pieces are able to fall into place. And as basketball fans, let's just hope that this team can reach its max potential going forward.

[1] We’re only 65 games into the season, and the team has already won more games than any post-Garnett era Minnesota team.

[2] I outlined here how teams like the Wizards has taken advantage of playing two traditional low-post players, where the team’s 3-point percentage jumps up to nearly 43% when both Nene and Marcin Gortat share the floor.

[3] Rubio allows nearly 44% shooting on such plays, ranking only 161st among all players according to Synergy.

[4] Pekovic is actually an exceptionally good pick-and-roll defender, allowing his man just 38.8% shooting on these plays according to Synergy, ranking 15th among all players.

[5] Five minutes remaining, losing or winning by five points.

[6] Spoiler alert: That ridiculous David Lee/Harrison Barnes-for-Love trade that got floated around during the trade deadline is never happening. Try to find any logical reason why Minnesota would agree to that.

[7] This pick is protected 1-13 this summer and 1-12 in 2015 and 2016. If the pick has not been sent to Phoenix by then, it turns into Minnesota’s 2016 and 2017 2nd-rounders.

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