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Looking back, pt. 1

Well folks, it's finally over.  From the opening tip against Sacramento to the final horn against what was left of Sacramento, Our Beloved Puppies Zombies have finally closed the door on the 2008/09 NBA season. 

In order to properly wrap up the season from a blog-perspective, I'm going to run a series of posts that go over various aspects of the campaign:

  • Review of the season preview
  • Analyze January and whether or not it was fluke or an indicator of future success
  • Review and update our Building a Winner post
  • Front office overview
  • Update our stats page to show changes between 10, 20, 40, 60 and 82 games
  • Update our draft board
  • Season awards
  • Player reviews

Let's start things off with a review of our season preview.  Here is the most basic overview paragraph from that post:

For all of the poor decisions that the Wolves' front office has made in recent years, they are now building a team with a clear purpose and structure: a dominant post scorer, a solid-passing big with an advanced mid-range game, and proficient outside shooters.

Unfortunately for the Wolves, the inside/out game (with Kevin Love being the mid-range glue) never materialized under Randy Wittman.  In a league that has gone three-ball happy, we expected the Wolves to have an intriguing combination of young talent that could track down missed long balls and turn them into inside scoring.  We said that the team had two clear strengths (outside shooting and rebounding) and one gigantic weakness (free throw disparity).

While the team lived up to its rebounding promise, it was done in time and time again by poor shooting.  Say what you will about Witt's coaching, but the guy was at the head of the bench for a team that only shot above 50% twice before he was fired. 

The Wolves shot .434 from the floor in November.  They went for .455 in January.  They also took and made more 3s during their only winning month; taking 4.8 more shots and making a full 2 more of them.  That's a lot of points being left on the table regardless of coaching.  It's the type of thing that really plays into 3 point losses to OKC, 4 point overtime losses to the Spurs, 4 point losses to Portland, and 3 point losses to the Warriors.  This isn't to make an excuse for Witt's awful coaching, but it is a reminder that this team's poor play has more to do with the players than the coaches.  After 20 games, the Wolves had the league's 29th rated eFG, at 45.8%.  That's awful.  It's especially awful when you factor in their large number of FGAs.  On the season, the Wolves took the 7th most FGAs in the league.  They had the 21st most makes.  Again, that's awful.  It's also some major league dissonance. (It extends to their three point shooting; the Wolves had the 13th most attempts and the 19th most makes; a -6 dissonance score).  

The primary culprits for this poor early-season perimeter shooting were Randy Foye, Mike Miller, and Rashad McCants.  Despite a season-long discussion about Miller's reluctance to shoot, and despite a multi-season discussion about what in the hell the Wolves were thinking taking Randy Foye over Brandon Roy, Mr. McCants easily takes the cake for the one player that let down this club more than any other single player.  It is really hard to overstate just how awful Shaddy played for the Wolves this year.  Let's take a quick peak at something I wrote about these three players back on December 18th:

Plugging in starting point guard Randy Foye's numbers into Basketball Reference's full court machine, he is having a season comparable to the 93/94 campaign of Greg Graham, 99/00 Larry Hughes, 08/09 Acie Law, 69/70 Wayne Chapman, and 98/99 Kendall Gill.  These are the top 5 seasons of guards who shot less than 40% from the field, <25% from 3, <5.5 apg, and < 15 ppg. 

Moving over to Rashad McCants, Shaddy is currently the only guard in NBA history (with the minimum number of minutes required to qualify for the scoring title) to average less than 35% from the floor, 25.5% from 3, 1 apg, and 10 ppg.  He is epically bad.  If you extend these numbers to forwards and centers, only a 36 year old Jerome Kersey (98/99), Manute Bol (89/90), and Chuck Hayes (current season) can compete with Shaddy's ineptitude.  Each and every single Wolves fan should quickly end any fantasy of Shaddy being traded for anything other than a toaster.  He may be the single most ineffective regular in the NBA.

Current starting off-guard Mike Miller is completely disinterested in playing anything remotely approaching defense and he is averaging career or 5-year lows in FGA, 3P%, 3PA, and ppg.  He doesn't have a good enough handle to get his own and he requires a labyrinth of screens to get his shot off on a team with zero threat of guard penetration.

I'll say it again: while Witt deserved to go, this team did itself in with awful, awful perimeter play early on.  It should also be noted that Randy Wittman played (had to play?) Randy Foye at the point, a fact that made him the last in a line of coaches that paid for the mistakes of the man who will, once again, be allowed to decide his own future employment.  I'll repeat what I said at the time of his firing: Witt isn't a victim but he also shouldn't have been the only guy thrown out the door in mid-December.  McHale is a Hall of Famer and a Minnesota basketball legend but he also has been deserving of a swift kick in the ass for quite some time.  It is even more frustrating to realize that the owner of this team--the guy for whom the buck supposedly ends--has failed to make the should-he-stay-or-should-he-go decision on this guy for years and years on end.  Moving along...

In terms of goals for the 08/09 season, we set aside a few categories that would lead us to believe improvement was taking place. 

  1. A neutral OE/DE ranking: The Wolves finished the season with a -5.3 points/100 possessions.  It beats the -7.4 they put up last season but not by much.  It is also nowhere near neutral.  They did happen to get it down to -4.9 after 40 games (which was pretty good considering they were -6.5 after 20), but it wasn't nearly enough. Surprisingly, you could very easily make the case that the Wolves hurt themselves on offense more than they did on defense....which is another point we'll save for the inevitible Hasheem Thabeet debate that will occur when the Wolves get the 6th or 7th pick in the 2009 Draft.  As a quick preview, we'll just remind people that this team has functional, not positional, needs.  In other words, they would be insane to use a high draft pick on a defensive player.
  2. 20+ 3 pointers/game.  The Wolves finished the season with 18.8 3 point attempts/game.  In November and December, they averaged 15.5 and 15 3pa respectively.  From January on, they averaged what they should have been averaging all along: over 20/game.  This team is built for some fairly massive inside/out up-and-down action.  Frankly, I find it amazing that they don't take 25 threes per game.  Not having what they thought they had in Miller, Shaddy, and Foye hurt, but they still needed to jack up a bunch of threes.  Rodney Carney and Sebastian Telfair seemed to be the only perimeter players on the squad who got this fact. 
  3. Free throw neutrality: Last season the Wolves had the league's worst FTA (-6.9) and FTM (-6.0) margin.  This season they ended up with -2.3 attempts and -2.0 makes.  That's a solid improvement. It's also a positive dissonance; which is something you don't see on the team that often.  For those of you still clinging to the idea of O.J. Mayo being a better player than Kevin Love, this is the one argument that even the most delusional amongst you cannot find fault with.  Kevin Love was this team's biggest FT threat; getting to the line at the 18th highest FTG clip in the league (39).  Mayo is way down there past Randy Foye (103rd) and Mike Miller (146th) at #150, with a 19 FT/FG rate.  We'll have more on the Mayo/Love Highway Robbery trade in a future post, but it is pretty amazing to think of just how bad the Wolves would have been from the line without Mr. Love.  It's even more amazing once you plug in Mayo and Love's usage rates and minutes played.  Love made 35 more free throws than the Wolves' 2nd biggest free throw threat (Randy Foye) in about 450 fewer minutes.  Love had 18 more FTMs than Mr. Mayo in about 1,100 fewer minutes.  Forget Miller, getting rid of Marko, Brian Cardinal, and cap space, Love is a straight up better player than Mayo (and it's not just because of free throws).  Mayo is a solid player and the Wolves are still in the market for a good starting perimeter player (or two), but Love was the right pick.  He was an even better catch in a trade that brought in additional assets.  His acquisition was the single biggest positive for this club all year long.
  4. Going injury free: On a team as thin as the Wolves, they needed to have a bit of luck on this front.  Instead of luck, they were ravaged; with heavy rotation players (Brewer, Miller, Foye, and Jefferson) losing 120 games to injury.  The Wolves have a pretty thin margin for error and this, along with poor shooting, was the main reason for their lack of success. 

Along with some key indicators of success, we asked a few questions at the beginning of the season:

  1. Will Shaddy get it? Answer: no.  While McCants somewhat rebounded from his epic fail start to the season, he is probably still headed towards Euro ball.  The man is straight-up delusional about his talent and output.  The most awkwardly embarassing moment of the season came when Shaddy thinking he could go toe-to-toe with LeBron James at the Target Center.  No role player in the entire NBA thinks more of himself than does McCants.  If he was honest with himself, he could hash out a long, Kevin Ollie-esque career in the league.  If not, he probably won't sell any poetry in Europe either. 
  2. Can Corey Brewer increase his impact minutes?  Answer: no.  Brewer showed some promise last year.  He showed some promise this year; most notably in his ability to put the ball on the floor and get into the lane.  However, an early season injury quickly put this question to rest and we will have to wait and see how he is physically able to come back from a horrible knee injury. 
  3. What about all those draft picks? The Wolves managed to keep the pick owed to the Clippers in the Marko Jaric trade and they will also cash in on Boston and Miami's first rounders.  Can you believe that the man behind the Marko deal is still employed by the franchise? Me neither.
  4. What about Witt?  This is another question that was answered early on.  Witt couldn't hack it.  The most frustrating thing about Witt was that he was fired for the same reasons he was hired: for his discipline and structure. The guy who hired him had to have known what he was getting....and he got it.  It will never cease to amaze me that Papa Glen didn't pull the trigger on McHale at the very moment it became obvious that Witt was the wrong hire. 

Wrapping this thing up, here is something I wrote about the pre-New Year's schedule:

Again, if they can't walk away from that schedule with more than 4 wins, something is drastically wrong.  11-20 is well within their reach (even with last year's roster).  Assuming they can play at least as well as they did during the final 3 months of last season, anything above 4 wins during pre-New Year ball can be added to a baseline of 22 victories.

They ended up with 6 wins, which is exactly 2 more than last year.  These two games ended up being the 2 victories that pushed this season's record two games over last year's mark of 22.  In predicting 36 victories for the squad, my main assumption was that they could pull in around 5-7 more games before New Years and about 5-7 more games from the value added by Miller and Love.  Love did not disappoint; easily establishing himself as the 2nd best player on the squad.  Miller, while being somewhat disappointing in the way which he went about his business, didn't hurt the club.  What both of these players could not do is make up for the large regression of guys like Foye, McCants, Craig Smith, and Ryan Gomes

Of course, it wasn't all bad.  In the stretch of ball between the day after Christmas and the day Big Al went down, the Wolves were 13-10.  In our next post we'll talk about this run and whether or not fans can put any stock into it being anything more than an outlier.  That's only about 28% of the season.  Is it reason for optimism or cynicism?  Surprisingly enough, and after first writing off January as something of an outlier, I think there is plenty to be excitied about with this squad....if (and this is a pretty big if) Jefferson and Brewer can completely recover and Ryan Gomes can return to last year's form.  This team is a big guard (and a healthy big man) away from being dangerous.  This was a hard thing to remember near the end of an awful season, but they are still positioned well to succeed. Here's hoping it happens.

Until later.