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Looking back, pt. ii: the January phenomenon

Let's cut right to the chase: One of the biggest debates of the season was whether or not the Wolves' single winning month of January was an indicator of future success or an outlier owing more to bad opposition than internal improvement.  I myself have gone back and forth on this question a few times.  Here is a snippet from a comment I made on the subject back in late March:

In January they won against the 10 win GSW without Maggette and Ellis. They beat the 14-20 Bulls, 11 win Griz, 5 win Thunder (Krstic’s 1st game and pre-Thabo), 9 win Clips with no Camby, Davis, or Kaman, NOLA without West or Chandler, the 18 win Bucks w a hurt Sessions and Bogut, a 22 win Bucks team w/o Redd and Bogut, an 18 win Bulls squad, and the 22-15 Suns straight up.

In the 20 game stretch between games 20-40, which goes from pretty much the end of Witt (19) and almost to the end of the Jan streak (1-20-09), the Wolves showed fair improvement in OE, eFG, defG, FT Diff, pts for, and pt diff. They also played at a higher pace in January than they did in the preceding month. Despite these gains, only OReb% was in the top 1/3 of league rankings. Almost all of their other indicators landed them in the bottom 1/3 of the league; hardly above last season’s rankings and even behind them in a few (eFG being one big one). It was hardly the Big Bang of a reborn franchise. It was nice to watch and really, really fun to see, but this team has exactly 1 month with more than 3 wins this season.

I think your argument also [understates] the dip that the team took against serious competition beginning with Detroit on the 28th. In the 6 games before Jefferson got hurt, the Wolves went 1-5 with the lone win against a 19 win Pacer club. They were taken apart by LA, Boston, Atlanta, and Houston during this stretch. Granted, 3 of those teams are upper-level squads but it was their first real competition in a month and they reverted to what their averages would suggest…they just weren’t doing it against dinged up bottom dwellers.

Throwing out January, McHale is 6-35. Throwing out the 3-18 record since Big Al was hurt along with January and he’s 3-16. The team played March like they did December, going back to roughly 94 ppg, 80 fga/game, etc. The Wolves do have bad luck (injuries) but it is almost always accompanied by outright boobery, mismanagement, and the overvaluing of assets.

For those of you looking to write off their solid stretch of January ball, there certainly is a lot of ammo at hand.   For the rest of you, let's start looking at it in a different way. 

First, while the Wolves went 10-4 in January, their stretch of solid play really started against the Knicks on the day after Christmas.  In the 4 games before the end of the year (where they went 2-2 against the Knicks, Magic, Memphis, and Dallas) the Wolves had an eFG of .519 while scoring 105.5 ppg and giving up 107.5 ppg.  I know this is a clear-cut edition of small sample size theater (copyright SBG Nation--the best sports site in Minnesota) but these numbers easily eclipse the team's after 20 marks of a 45.8 eFG and a -6 point differential; they are also an indicator of things to come throughout January.  For those of you who can remember all the way back to late December, this was right around the time where McHale started getting practices, Randy Wittman's playbook was hacked in 2, and Randy Foye was moved off the ball. 

Before we move on to January proper, let's also take a look at the stretch of ball between Feb 1st and Al Jefferson's injury.  In this stretch of 5 games the Wolves had a .479 eFG and a -6.4 ppg differential.  The Wolves went 1-4 with losses to Boston, Houston, Atlanta, and the Hornets.  In other words, the January cupcakes turned into February monsters and the team started to...well, they played high-level competition. 

OK, let's get to January.  The following chart is a comparison between the Wolves' numbers in January and what they had posted in the first 20 games of the season, i.e. the Witt era:

January After 20
eFG .496 .458
opp eFG .490 .510
FTA diff +0.6 -2.8
FTM diff +0.2 -2.2
pt diff +4.5 -6
Oreb/game 14.0 12.25

Since I don't have these stats broken down by month, let's also take a look at some of the changes between games 20 and 40 to get a sense of how the team changed under McHale:

  • OReb%: 28 to29
  • OE: 102.8 to 105.5
  • DE: 109.3 to 109.4
  • Pace: 91.3 to 91.9

How did the Wolves become a more efficient team without increasing their pace by a large amount?  The simple answer is this: they shot better.  I can't overstate just how poorly this team was shooting near the beginning of the season.  It was a big theme in our first season wrap post and it will continue right through this one.  The big question for the team and its fans is this: Why did the team shoot better in January?  In order to answer this question, let's take a look at 3 players: Randy Foye, Kevin Love, and Rodney Carney.

Randy Foye had a fantastic January.  It was far and away his best month as a pro and it was the type of month that, if repeated, would make him an upper-level 2 guard in the form of a upper-lower-middle-class D-Wade.  

Foye had season highs in January in 3p% (.425), FG% (.448), pts (19.4), ast (4.7), and 3pa (80).  Most notably, 39% of Foye's January shots were from beyond the arc.  This is a big, big deal for both Foye and the team.  While most of our readers are well aware of the fact that Kevin Love has a tough time getting his shot off inside the paint, I'm not so sure the fact that the league's most-blocked interior finisher (in terms of percentage) is Love's teammate: Mr. Randy Foye. 

28% of Foye's shots come from the inside.  20% of these shots are blocked.  28% of his inside shots are assisted.  Foye carries a .491 interior eFG.  In plain English, this is a pretty accurate description of all of those kamikaze drives that Foye takes down the right side of the lane.  Let's do a bit of rounding up/down. Let's say that Foye makes 1/2 of these kamikaze drives.  Of his remaining shots, roughly 1/2 are missed and 1/2 are blocked.  He's quite literally a 50/50 hit or miss guy on these types of plays.

If Foye had some sort of mid-range game to speak of, or if he possessed fantastic court vision, (or if I had access to something like Synergy Sports)  this all-or-nothing approach could be mitigated (or explained) with the threat of a pull-up jumper or a quick pass.  While I don't have the stats to back it up, my assumption here is that out of all kamikaze drives into the lane (typically the right side of the lane) Foye doesn't kick it out or collect an assist on more than 10-15% of these sorts of possessions.  As for the mid-range game, Foye carries a .384 eFG on 2 point non-interior shots. 

Here's where it gets interesting.  For the season Foye took roughly 40% of his shots from non-interior 2 point land.  31% of his shots were from beyond the arc.  In January, Foye upped his percentage of 3s, taking roughly 39% of his shots from distance.  Here's the part where you really, really, really, really hope the Wolves have a solid internal stat keeping department.  The question they need to answer for Foye and January is this: Where did those extra 8% of 3s come from?  Did they come at the expense of his poor mid-range shooting or kamikaze drives?  Either way, it's net gain for the club.  We'd have to figure out what other positives (if any) come from him operating in mid-range vis-a-vis the interior, but in terms of his own personal scoring, I'd hope someone is/was/will be encouraging him to get to a 40/40/20 ratio of 3s, interior, and non-interior twos.  I'd also hope that they are keeping track of what happens to those blocked shots.  If it turns out that the Wolves gather about a 1/3 of those blocked shots, it would put the Randy Kamikaze Success Rate above 50%...which would be a very nice thing to have near the end of a game or quarter. 

Randy Foye is never going to be Brandon Roy.  What he can be is the type of player who played in January.  He doesn't even need to shoot the lights out from three for this style of play to work.  Let's spread out the 40/40/20 concept over 1000 shots (he took 981 this year) and realistic shooting percentages.  This means that Foye would take 400 threes, 400 inside shots, and 200 non-inside two pointers.  Taking his current .491 inside shooting percentage, .374 career three point percentage, and .384 non-inside 2p%, he would make 196 inside shots, 150 threes, and 77 non-inside twos.  To put this in perspective, he took 308 threes, 275 inside shots, and 398 non-inside twos this season; making 111 threes, 135 inside shots, and 153 non-inside twos.  In January, he likely came close to the 40/40/20 split (we don't have the break down for month-by-month) that turned him into a wildly effective player off the ball.  400 threes and 400 kamikaze drives are the goal next season for Foye. The following chart is a break down of Foye's 08/09 season and our ideal 40/40/20 campaign in a 1,000 shot season:

08/09 1000k
total shots 981 1000
3s (makes/attempts) 111/308 150/400
inside (makes/attempts) 135/275 196/400
non-inside twos (makes/attempts) 153/398 77/200


In other words, if Foye stuck to the 40/40/20 model, he would be on track to score 996 points/1000 shots (.996 pts/FGA), which would be an improvement over the .926 pts/FGA he made this year (not including FTA/FTM).  This is the part of January called shot selection, shot selection, shot selection.  It's also called threes, threes, threes and volume in the right spots.

Our next subject is Kevin Love.  Let's take a look at a few December-to-January changes that the rookie pulled off:

  • FG%: .381 to .543
  • FTA: 49 to 64
  • FGA: 97 to 116

He did all of this while only playing 1.6 more mpg.  I know it's not as detailed as the Foye analysis, but Love simply started making more shots and it really, really, really helped the team.  I do not think it is unreasonable to expect (at least) this type of shooting from the Big Piranha next year. What is also encouraging is that it is hard to think that he will shoot .361on non-inside twos like he did this past season.  If he can raise that to a respectable .400-425, the Wolves are going to be very, very, very happy with his game.  This is the part of January called regular expected player improvement.

Our final shooting subject is Rodney Carney.  With Corey Brewer down with injury and Rashad McCants out with a case of the crazies, Carney found himself thrust into a significant role off the bench.  Carney used this opportunity to run in transition and shoot a bucket full of threes.  51% of Carney's January shots were from downtown.  It wasn't just his percentage that was high (he took a large percentage earlier in the season as well); his volume increased from 22 attempts in December to 53 in January.  Carney is important because he took a lot more threes despite the fact that he had a lower 3p%; .377 in January compared to .455 in December.  I've said it all year long: volume matters.  Despite an inferior percentage, Carney made 10 more threes in January than December.  These 30 points went a long way to making his January eFG (.533) comparable to his December one (.540).  I cannot begin to explain just how important that extra point on a three pointer is.  As a quick side-note, Sebastian Telfair is the only other player on the squad who used volume as his friend; going from 19 to 45 three point attempts between December and January. This part of January is called players playing in roles that fit them.

I used these three players because I wanted to highlight examples of specific types of play that will help the Wolves duplicate their positive January play in the 09/10 season.  Yes, I know that the schedule in January was favorable and that they had issues winning against fully-manned upper-level teams, but they can't control who they play.  Going forward, they need to have their players understand that they need to make specific types of plays that fit their games.  Foye needs to be as close to 40/40/20 as possible; Bassy needs to shoot from specific hot zones and focus on drive and kicks to open players (his rise at the point helped Foye get a lot of open looks from three); Love needs to work on his 15-17 foot jumper; and whoever comes off the bench at the 2/3 needs to take a lesson from Rodney Carney and jack up the damn three ball at an amazing clip while running and playing defense. 

I know this post has gone on a little long so I'll keep the rest of it somewhat short.  Here are a few other ideas about what led to a fantastic January (leaving aside the schedule/opponent injury concerns addressed at the top of this post):

  • The Wolves benched their most ineffective player (McCants)
  • They were relatively healthy
  • The emergence of Bassy at the point (Foye being off the ball is the other side to this coin)
  • Mike Miller coming off the bench (It should be remembered that January was the month that really did in any hope of Miller shooting the damn ball.  He went .194 from 3 and .389 for the month.  It's hard to imagine that he would shoot this poorly going forward.) 
  • Ryan Gomes started to play like a functional player after an awful November and December.  He boosted his ppg by over 4 points and he grabbed 1.3 more rebounds than he did in December.  Gomes needs to rebound if he is going to be an effective contributor on this team. 

There are a few other points but these are the biggies.  What can we make of January?  Throwing out the depleted opposition (which, I admit, is a pretty significant factor in the number of wins) the Wolves won with a more efficient offense.  They did not come about this efficiency simply by an increase in pace and a more loosey-goosey style of play.  They did so with players being more adequately fit to a role that matches their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses.  Foye was moved off the ball and became more perimeter oriented.  Love saw more touches near the high post.  Bassy and Carney shot a bunch of threes and ran up and down the court.  Miller came off the bench.  Gomes shot a bunch of threes and grabbed rebounds.  You get the picture. 

As was the case with surrounding KG with two above average perimeter players (which won a title in Boston), Kevin McHale has the right idea of how to make a Jefferson/Love/Foye core work but has fallen short on the execution side of things.  While guys like Miller, Bassy, Carney, Gomes, and even Craig Smith have their moments, they all could be significantly upgraded or moved down a single step to a more natural role.  I think some players understood that McHale had/has the right idea about how to make this thing work.  The two players who benefited most from his promotion/demotion to the end of the bench have been outspoken in their desire for him to return next season.  Bassy and Carney get it.  Gomes and Miller...probably not so much.

Moving forward, I believe January (more specifically, from the Knicks game to the Big Al injury game; a 13-10 stretch) showed that this team has the potential to operate with the type of proficiency that could land them the 7-10 spot in the Western Conference during the 09/10 season.  This type of play will be heavily dependent on Big Al returning to form, bench players understanding their role, and injuries not forcing players to move up a few spots on the rotation ladder.   More specifically, it will depend on the Wolves' perimeter players (who were the league's worst bunch in November and December) playing like real, honest-to-Pete rotation players.  Most of this burden will fall on Randy Foye. 

Foye is an easy guy to root for.  He does fantastic work in the community and he doesn't seem to have an air of anything but honesty about him.  Any reasons why fans would be sick of him have more to do with Kevin McHale than Randy Foye.  Foye over Roy = McHale.  Foye at the point = McHale.  If the Wolves are going to make this rebuilding thing work, they absolutely need Foye to make it at the off-guard.  McHale simply invested too much in a single player to not have it matter who takes over.  Keeping Foye off the ball would allow them to draft or trade for a point and a real starting small forward.  If January is going to be a glimpse into the future, Foye needs to be set up next to a point that can get in the lane and kick the ball out or around.  He can't be forced to run a pick and roll with Jefferson or Love.  He can't be forced to run the offense.  I firmly believe that Foye can work at the 2 guard.  I think January provided a solid example of how this would have to happen.  That, more than anything else, gives me hope that January wasn't an outlier.  With a healthy team, and with guys like Gomes, Miller, and Bassy returned to their proper roles, I think the Wolves are a lot closer than most people give them credit for.  Let's imagine for a moment that Bassy was allowed to come off the bench behind Raymond Felton, Kirk Hinrich, Ricky Rubio, Tyreke Evans, or Ty Lawson.  How about Gomes coming around after Caron Butler or Marvin Williams (or Anthony Randolph)? Suddenly, the Wovles become a very capable team.

January showed the bottom level of what Love is capable of.  It showed the upper level of what Foye is capable of.  It featured one of Mike Miller's worst months as a pro.  It saw the Wolves win 10 games with backups starting at the 1 and 3.  A lot of next year will depend on how well Big Al can return from injury.  What it will also depend on is how far the team can execute on the promise of the ideas showcased during their January run.  The idea is correct.  It's now all up to the execution. Who can they get to allow Foye to remain off the ball (Hinrich, Rubio, or Evans appear to be the best options on this front) and who can they bring in as a starting small forward?  BTW: If you want to take another jab at McHale, Thad Young could be on this team right now and we would be talking about filling the point and only the point. Anywho...

Up next in our season recap series is a post from Wyn about the roster, cap space, and draft picks.  After that I'll be back with a post on the team's stat progression throughout the year. 

Until later.