Ok, I had a really cool picture of Will Robinson to go up at the head of the post today but something is not quite right with the post editor this morning so we'll just have to skimp on the visual aids.
First things first, the Wolves played hard against Houston. This was a big step up from their (lack of) effort against Portland. It was a watchable NBA game. Unfortunately for the Wolves, it was a watchable game against one of the toughest match ups (for them) in the league. That being said, the team is showing signs of sputtering out simply on the basis of talent and some questionable in-game decisions. We've discussed the talent gap ad nauseum so let's move on to the most glaring problem with last night's game.
The last time these two teams played, Al Jefferson was in the lineup and the Houston announcers spent the better part of the game talking about how big and slow their team was against the athletically superior Wolves. Seriously.
This time around the Wolves were without their best player and the Rockets rightly focused on what a team with giants should be focused on against an under-manned and under-sized squad: not fouling and forcing them to go over the top. It wasn't just Shane Battier who was reading the pre-game stat sheets against the Wolves; the Rockets' entire defensive approach was geared around staying far back enough to prohibit dribble penetration, avoid fouls, and then focusing on Kevin Love on the boards as Minny's mini-perimeter players aren't exactly rebounding threats after they jack up mid-to-long range shots.
Mosey on over to ESPN's box score and take a look at last night's shot chart. It is a wonderland of mid-range x's (misses) and o's (makes). While, in real time, it looks nice to see Randy Foye using his dribble penetration quickness to launch himself into mid-range jumpers, it's not so pretty to look at the stat sheet and see the team's best dribble-drive threat end the game with only 3 shots in the lane and 2 FTAs. Note to the Wolves: they let you have all the mid-range shots you could possibly want last night.
The Wolves had a .534 eFG% against the Rockets. They shot 62% from 3 in the first half. All night long, Houston played the percentages. They knew full well that a team with significant minutes going to Bobby Brown, Rodney Carney, Brian Cardinal, and Ryan Gomes was not going to maintain that high of a 3p% throughout an entire game. They knew full well that a team who had to split its two best perimeter players (Miller and Foye) apart in order to field 2 semi-competitive lines was not going to be much of a perimeter threat over the full course of 48 minutes.
In the 1st half the Wolves went 17-33 from inside the arc. They did so with 6 FTAs. In the 2nd half they went 14-31 inside the arc with 4 FTAs. Game. Set. Match. I don't want to get too far into the land of absolutes, but you will almost never, ever win a professional basketball game with only 10 FTAs. Actually, we can do a search for that at Basketball Reference. In the 50,000+ games that have been played since the 86/87 season (when BR started keeping game-by-game databases), only 258 games have been won by teams shooting 10 or less free throws in a game. Let's just say that there have been 50k games since 86/87 (I'm not going to get an exact count); that means the level of FTA futility the Wolves achieved against the Rockets had about a .00516% chance of success. This season, only 1 team has managed a win with 10 or less FTAs, the Spurs vs. the Clips on November 17th. The math gets even worse when you factor in an opponent taking over 20 FTAs. Since 86/87, only 139 games ave been won by teams shooting less than 10 FTAs while their opponent goes over 20. That's .00278% for you folks playing along at home. That's what the Wolves were up against last night. Simply put, you can't win without getting to the line. You can't win without forcing fouls.
Going forward, the Wolves have an interesting decision to make. There are essentially two ways that this team can win games from here until the end of the season. First, they could have an individual player go nuts. We'll call this the Bassy method. It's not very reliable and it may not even provide enough juice to get a single win, but basketball is still a sport where a single hot player can make a massive impact. The second way this team can win games is to package Bassy and Foye with Miller, Craig Smith and Jason Collins in the first unit and bring Love and Gomes off the bench. This gives them their most balanced two unit attack and short of front-loading everything into the first and 3rd quarters, this lineup would allow the team to balance inside-and-out as much as possible. It will probably still lose them a bunch of games but you avoid bad pairings as much as possible while ensuring that both lineups have balancing threats as well as guys who should be able to get to the line.
This isn't exactly rocket science. In fact, this is something I have told the 7th grade AAU teams I've coached in the past: if you only have 6 FTAs in a half, something is wrong. I don't care if you're shooting 70% from 3, that type of percentage won't last and you need to get into the lane and get some contact. I don't care if they have a team of 7 footers, you throw yourself into the lane and see what happens. It is inexcusable that the Wolves only mustered 4 FTAs in the 2nd half. There is no reason on God's green earth why something like that should happen. Will your shots get blocked? Yes. Will you have some turnovers? Yes, but poor shooting teams cannot rely on mid-range jumpers and 3s when their primary interior threat is gone. You have to get to the line. You drive to the rim, not to 12 foot jumpers.
BTW: Over at Britt's place he once again asks the very pertinent question of why Mike Miller isn't shooting the ball:
My postgame questions to McHale about Miller generally have had a negative undercurrent, so it was nice to note after Friday's game that he seems to have settled into his 6th man role without a hitch. But McHale, who had generally rebutted my negativity in those previous press conferences, had also switched places. Specifically, he noticed that while Miller was converting 85.7% of his shots (6-7FG), his teammates were converting just 38.3% (23-60 FG). "We'd like to get Mike shooting 12 to 15 shots per game," McHale said with a downcast tone, adding ruefully, and with perhaps a little sarcasm, "but Mike doesn't take bad shots."
On Sunday, Ron Artest presented all kinds of problems for Miller with his length and aggressiveness. At the end of the Wolves' sound thrashing, Miller, as noted, had led Minnesota in assists with 5, but also committed a team high five turnovers in 32:20. But most obviously he once again seemed loathe to shoot, going 3-5 FG in 32:20. Of the ten players who logged double-digits minutes, only Brian Cardinal put the ball up with less frequency per-minute-played. This is by now a typical occurrence.
First of all, as a quick note to Dave DeLand of the St. Cloud Times, this is how you question a player's worth to his squad. This is how you cover a team. Secondly, let's take a quick walk back to the wonderful NY Times article about Shane Battier and Daryl Morey:
He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers.
Just after that, the half ended, but not before Battier was tempted by a tiny act of basketball selfishness. The Rockets’ front office has picked up a glitch in Battier’s philanthropic approach to the game: in the final second of any quarter, finding himself with the ball and on the wrong side of the half-court line, Battier refuses to heave it honestly at the basket, in an improbable but not impossible attempt to score. He heaves it disingenuously, and a millisecond after the buzzer sounds. Daryl Morey could think of only one explanation: a miss lowers Battier’s shooting percentage. "I tell him we don’t count heaves in our stats," Morey says, "but Shane’s smart enough to know that his next team might not be smart enough to take the heaves out."
Miller's no dummy. No matter what happens during the off-season or next season, he's still in a contract year and his worth may be decided (on teams with GMs not as up-to-speed as Morey) by traditional shooting stats. He's known as a shooter. Even on ESPN and NBA.TV you hear announcers and talking heads refer to him as a sharp-shooter and then promptly talk about his net makes and percentages. I'm sure there is still a rather large contingent of NBA front office personnel who take this old school approach. I'm not saying that Miller doesn't have worth above and beyond his shooting (he does) but I think this is the most likely explanation for why he isn't shooting a bunch of shots that he should be taking. It isn't, as he derided a Strib reporter with, simply the game of basketball; it's contract time and he's simply looking to maintain his value as a shooter. Even if he's not shooting a lot, he can point at the team (bad) and say that he maintained his averages in a less-than-optimal situation.
If this is truly the case, it isn't something Miller should be blamed for (or called out for "stealing" money, as DeLand's column did). If anything, the Wolves should be understanding of this fact and glad that they have a known incentive with a player. It still doesn't remove the fact that Miller's nearly $10 mil 09/10 salary can bring back just over $12.5 mil in returning salary in a trade, and that packaged with Cardinal and Smith, the Wolves can bring back a pretty damn solid player without breaking the bank. In this sense, Miller is being paid exactly the right amount. He is what he is.