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The Timberwolves and the Four Factors: Can Somebody Make Some Shots?

This season has been a little too much like last season for comfort when we look at it through the lens of the four factors. What's going on?

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Let's begin with two charts:































The four factors from last season and this season so far.  Last year, the Wolves finished 31-51 despite "winning" three of the four factors--everything but shooting efficiency, where they got blistered.

This year, the Wolves are 11-11 despite "winning" three of the four factors--once again getting blistered on shooting efficiency.

There is a lot to say regarding the shooting, both the Wolves' and their opponents, but let's start with everything else. While the Wolves "won" three of the four factors last season, they didn't win them by a large margin. Thus the large disparity in shooting efficiency overwhelmed their smaller advantages elsewhere, and they were only able to win 31 games.

This season, in large part thanks to the healthy and dominant return of Kevin Love (7.7 FTAs/g, 11.3% OREB%), they are controlling those three factors by significantly larger margins. They are in the top seven in the league in rebounding on both ends, turnovers committed and forced, and FT/FGA (they lead the league in lowest opponent FT/FGA: they simply don't foul).

Those things have helped them to their .500 record (and 14-8 pythagorean record...for which there is no trophy, unfortunately).

I suspect the improved turnover ratio has something to do with the pace at which the Wolves are playing. Though they were a relatively fast paced team last season (92.8, 11th in the league), this year they are playing at a breakneck pace: 98.3, 2nd in the league. This has an impact at both ends of the floor: they turn the ball over less (or at least, at a lower percentage) because they shoot quickly--fewer dribbles and passes that can become turnovers. They are also generating more steals this season as they look to force turnovers: 9.6 Steals/g compared to 8.5 last season.

In addition to Kevin Love's healthy return, the addition of Kevin Martin has increased their free throw rate. Although both Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio have seen their FTA/36 decline, at least in part due to a decrease in usage as Love and Martin have taken a larger part of the offense, Martin's 6.6 FTAs/36 has more than made up for it. On the flip side, they just don't foul. Both Pek and Rubio have seen their already low foul rates decrease, and Kevin Martin is a non-fouler (under 2 per 36).

While there is arguably a downside to not fouling--opponents make a lot of shots against the Wolves, it certainly helps in a game like last night when the Wolves outscored the Sixers from the free throw line by 13. It's also amusing to read opponent's game threads against the Wolves: the folks on Detroit Bad Boys were not thrilled with the refereeing during that tilt, when the Wolves took 33 free throws to the Pistons' 16. In their building.

It's time to turn now to the biggie: shooting efficiency. Let's start on the defensive end.

Opponents have a .520 efg% against the Wolves, which is the 2nd highest mark in the league (only the Pelicans are worse).  To an extent, we expected this, right? I wrote before the season that if the Wolves were going to have a passable defense, it would be because they controlled the boards, didn't foul, and forced turnovers, they were never going to hold teams to a low percentage. This is a matter of personnel; they simply don't have players with defensive capabilities to shut other teams down.

It's a little worse then I expected, but it isn't a huge shock.  Last season, teams made 37% of their threes against the Wolves; this year they are again making 37%.  That's 6th worst in the league, but not terribly far above league average, which is 35.8%.  They've given up roughly six more threes this season then an average team. That's not nothing, but it isn't the biggest culprit.

The biggest culprit is that they are giving up the highest field goal percentage in the league on shots from 0-5 feet. As your eye test has shown you, they don't protect the rim; teams are shooting 64.5% on those shots against the Wolves. Compare that to the league leaders in this category, the Pacers, who are holding teams to 51.1% from that area. League average is around 58%.  Given their pace, the Wolves are not giving up an outrageous number of opportunities from 0-5 feet, (roughly average), but teams convert against them at a huge rate.

Given the number of attempts for their opponents, the Wolves have allowed more than 40 more field goals then a league average team from 0-5 feet so far this season. This is hurting them badly, and again, seems to be a function of personnel. When opponents get the ball close to the basket, the Wolves simply don't have the players to turn them away; there is no Roy Hibbert.  Of course, everything is a tradeoff: Pekovic and especially Love are outstanding at other facets of the game.  But in this area, the team as a whole is deficient.

I do wonder whether it might be helpful to feed Gorgui Dieng more minutes as Pekovic's backup, so that there is at least a potential rim protector when Pek is resting. Certainly going small by subbing Dante Cunningham in for Pek when he goes out isn't helping in this area.  Regardless, this is going to be a weakness as long as they are running the current line up out there.

Which is probably why I've seen some speculation, both here and elsewhere, that they would be better off moving Pekovic for a player like Omer Asik, who is a better defensive player.  While it's true that such a maneuver would probably shore up their defensive weakness around the rim, it would also have a negative effect on offense, as Asik does not have the post-up capabilities of Pekovic and turns the ball over at an alarming rate.

For now, this is something we'll just have to live with.

Far more disappointing for me is their poor offensive efg%.  Their ,468 is 26th in the league, and a real problem. Last season, the Wolves shot an abysmal 30.5% from three, one of the lowest marks in recent NBA history.  The addition of Kevin Martin and the return of Love was supposed to solve that problem, but they haven't. The Wolves are shooting 33% from three, a slight improvement that still leaves them 25th in the league. The main culprits have been Corey Brewer and J.J. Barea, who have taken the 3rd and 4th most attempts on the team, and are shooting a combined 29% from range. In Brewer's case, it's what we had to expect; he's right at his career average.  J.J. on the other hand has been a 35% shooter for his career, and is really struggling.  The sample size is small enough that it's likely just a matter of variance; certainly it would help the 2nd unit if he regresses back to his mean soonish.

In truth, the Wolves have notably poor shooting percentages from everywhere except in the paint, where they are close to average. Here's their shot chart:


Yellow is roughly league average, green above, and red below.  It isn't particularly pretty. These shot chart areas don't exactly match up to the shot distance stats, but the Wolves are worst in the league from 5-9 feet, 4th worst from 10-14 feet, and 4th worst from 15-19 feet.

Rubio is really hurting them, as he's shooting 37% from two point range and is bad from just about everywhere. Kevin Martin is shooting better from 3 then from inside the arc, which also isn't helping.

On the other hand, they have taken the third most shots within 5 feet in the league, and while some of that has to do with pace, it's also true that they have taken a below average number of shots from 5-19 feet, so they are getting shots from good places, they simply haven't been great at converting them. My sense is that this is a personnel problem more then a system problem; the numbers suggest that the Wolves are generating good shots, it's just that the guys they have available aren't very good at making them.

I'm not sure what to make of this. I expect it will get somewhat better, especially around the margins. Derrick Williams was shooting 35% from the field, he's no longer with the team.  Alexey Shved has gone 10-50 this season; he might not be any good, but there's no way he's that bad.  Luc Mbah a Moute has been slumping since his arrival; he's never been a 37% shooter before, he won't end up there.  Chase Budinger is a career .511 efg% player; perhaps he'll help, especially if he takes some minutes from Dante Cunningham, whose 18 footer can look nice, but ultimately doesn't help too much when he shoots 46% without any threes or free throws.

More then the defensive problems (and they remain 8th in the league in defensive rating), it's the continued problems shooting the ball that frustrate.  I'm hopeful that a series of small improvements like those noted above (and it would be nice to see Love tick that 3 point percentage up a bit as well), will combine to improve the overall team efg% from terrible to somewhere closer to average as the season goes on.  That's the one area where I think the team is under performing, and if they want to be a good team this season, it needs to get better.

What have you noticed?