Wolves Mania, The Hype Train, The Bjelicaissance — whatever you want to call it, the movement towards high expectations for the Minnesota professional basketball team has one of the youngest team’s in the league feeling as if they are trending upward, running at an incredible rate.
On a recent episode of Zach Lowe’s The Lowe Post Podcast, Lowe proposed a question to former NBA head coach and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy regarding the fifth through eighth seeds in the Western Conference. Lowe, a Utah Jazz believer, asks, “If Utah is in, then one of these five teams is out; Dallas, Memphis, Portland, Houston, Oklahoma City. Who’s out?” Van Gundy responded, “I think Minnesota is making the playoffs.”
For Van Gundy to feel confident about the Wolves in a way that punches their ticket before five proven franchises does say a lot about the current perception of the Wolves. Simultaneously, so does Lowe’s disregard of Minnesota. This disconnect is not unique to Lowe and Van Gundy, two converging narratives are prevailing in regards to the Wolves this season- the numerical vs. the aesthetic.
The Wolves by the Numbers
The numerical approach takes the evidence of the past as the foundation of forecasting the future. The most notable statistic used in this sense is variations of the Real Plus-Minus statistic (RPM). Using ESPN’s RPM, Kevin Pelton sees the Wolves as a team out of playoff contention winning 38.1 games this season.
“With a new coach in Tom Thibodeau -- not accounted for by RPM and many other projection systems -- the Timberwolves have proven uniquely difficult to forecast, especially given their youthful roster full of potential. CARMELO actually projects 46 wins for Minnesota, but Andrew Johnson's projections on Nylon Calculus have the Timberwolves at just 30 wins.” -Kevin Pelton
Pelton’s conservative opinion actually splits the difference between the projections of Nylon Calculus (numerical) and CARMELO (aesthetic). Nate Silver, the founder of fivethirtyeight.com, notes the reason these ideas converge is that CARMELO has more of an eye on the future.
“The basic premise of CARMELO is simple. For each current NBA player, CARMELO identifies similar players throughout modern NBA history and uses their careers to forecast the current player’s future.” -Nate Silver
The aesthetic lens, that CARMELO and many optimistic basketball viewers use, is more dismissive of what has happened in the past and highlights what should happen in the future.
Reaching High Expectations
To keep pace with these positive forecasts, the Wolves need many things to fall in place. The first is to start the season strong. Keeping pace with other teams in the Western Conference with playoff aspirations is vital. One of those teams is tonight’s opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Wolves took care of the Grizzlies seven days ago in an enticing but meaningless preseason game. Tonight has real implications against Memphis, and expectations will only be raised for the home opener (game 3 of the season), again, with Memphis as the opponent. Those two games should serve as an early barometer in finding the answer to the question; are the Wolves a playoff team?
We can look at expert’s Western Conference standing projections but an aggregator of win projections is often the Las Vegas Sportsbook’s win total over/under lines.
For the Wolves, their win total line opened at 41.5 wins and has already hype train-ed it’s way up to 42.5 wins. Even at 42.5 wins, the Wolves have only the 9th highest valuation in the West. The team in the eighth and final playoff spot is the Memphis Grizzlies.
Las Vegas Westgate Sportsbook’s Over/Under Win Totals
1. Warriors- 66.5 wins
2. Spurs- 57 wins
3. Clippers- 54 wins
4. Jazz- 47 wins
5. Blazers- 45.5 wins
6. Thunder- 45 wins
7. Rockets- 44 wins
8. Grizzlies- 44 wins
9. Wolves- 42.5 wins
10. Mavs- 40 wins
11. Nuggets- 37 wins
12. Pelicans- 36.5 wins
13. Kings- 32.5 wins
14. Suns- 29 wins
15. Lakers- 25.5 wins
If the playoffs are the goal being better than the Grizzlies is likely requisite.
Are the Wolves Better than the Grizzlies?
The game tonight presents two teams with vastly different personnel, experience levels, and play style. Yet the Wolves and Grizzlies have similar season-long expectations.
In the national eye, Memphis has been and continues to be viewed as the “Grit and Grind” Grizzlies. In looking at the roster it is easy to decide a team with Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Tony Allen can not do anything but grit and grind.
If you have only watched the Grizzlies sparingly you may not be familiar with the Grizzlies offense with the slowest post-up in the NBA. But it is quintessentially Grit and Grind Grizzlies — slow unathletic, bad ass, and effective. Randolph’s signature move is normally just fighting, but this here is a close second — back to the basket catch, swooping right-footed pivot face up, that leads in to five or so left-footed jab steps.
You can’t even make GIFs long enough to finish Randolph plays.
Albeit not traditionally a high percentage shot, the mid-post isolation was a play the Grizzlies would often go to when they have needed a bucket over the past few years. You can see the other four Grizzlies stagnant waiting for Randolph to shoot or the shot clock to expire.
Since 2009, when Randolph joined the Grizzlies, every season Randolph has had more unassisted field goals than assisted field goals. That is rare for a big man. Comparatively, only 32.1% of Karl-Anthony Towns’ field goals were unassisted last season.
To better know the Grizzlies, Joe Mullinax, one of the editors at SB Nation’s Grizzlies blog GrizzlyBearBlues.com gave his take on the new-look Grizzlies. Mullinax is suggesting Memphis is entering this season shifting their identity as much if not more than any team in the NBA.
“Grit and Grind is dead. Grizzly Bear Blues killed it and buried it here and here. What remains is a possible evolution from that philosophy in to a more modern style of play under new head coach David Fizdale. Marc Gasol has been instructed to take four three-point shots per game. Zach Randolph is now a sixth man. The team is switching on the pick and roll more defensively, they are playing with more pace. The bench is younger and more athletic, but less experienced.” -Joe Mullinax (@joemullinax)
That would be a monumental shift from the way Memphis played in previous seasons. Most notably the three-point shooting. Last season Memphis shot 18.5 threes per game (25th most in the league). For a point of reference on Gasol shooting “four three-point shots per game” — amongst centers, Demarcus Cousins led the league in three-point attempts last season, shooting 3.2 per game. Considering Gasol shot 3 total three-pointers last season in 52 games, this will be an obvious adjustment to stretch him all the way to three-point distance.
It is not so much that Gasol can not shoot threes, but creating those type of shots is not simply just a decision or a mandate. Any team can just come down the floor and launch from three. It is about finding effective looks. Finding the sweet spot of execution and efficiency is something that takes time.
This theoretical addition of space created by pseudo-stretch-five Marc Gasol may be a long term benefit for the Grizzlies who would be giving another franchise cornerstone, Conley, more space to work with. The spacing with Gasol on the perimeter actually worked well in one instance of the Wolves and Grizzlies preseason game last week. In transition, Conley had switched off of Ricky Rubio and onto the much slower Brandon Rush. On this play, Gasol effectively pulls Gorgui Dieng away from the rim, leaving little resistance for Conley.
There will be instances where this additional space is beneficial, and this new style may be what the Grizzlies need to remove the lid that has been restricting them from advancing deep in the playoffs. But foundational change is difficult. And change is an inherently tedious process.
On top of schematic changes, the Grizzlies players themselves have not had a chance to put their new rotation to the test in the preseason as Tony Allen and Chandler Parsons have both been injured. Those two dinged up starters are an addition to two other starters returning from serious injuries — Gasol a broken foot and Conley an achilles injury — that is a great deal of moving variables in the starting lineup, not to mention the move of Randolph to the bench.
It is a safe assumption that the Grizzlies will not be operating optimally at the beginning of the season due to these numerous points of transition. The Wolves stand to be a beneficiary of this transition playing Memphis twice in the first six days of the season.
Where the two teams wind up at season's end will be about how not only Memphis but also how Minnesota responds to transitioning coaching staffs.
Minimal Transition in the Thibodeau System
With an overhaul of the Grizzlies system, the hiring of David Fizdale is, in theory, a step backward to take two steps forward. The learning curve of a new system can be steep. This same learning curve could be placed upon the Wolves and Thibodeau’s new system.
The process has felt different in Minnesota. If nothing else, more gradual. Thibodeau has been vague about wholesale changes. Rather than a full overhaul, Thibodeau seems to be trying to side-step the tribulations that come with a new regime.
The first indicator was the minimal roster turnover in the offseason. The list of key losses from the roster were Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince. That is it. The roster additions — Kris Dunn, Cole Aldrich, Brandon Rush, Jordan Hill, and John Lucas III — are nowhere near earth shattering moves. Likely five bench role players who have five distinctive characteristics and roles. For the sake of continuity, this is a positive.
The Wolves starting lineup is the same. Even the offense itself has operated in a manner very similar to that of last season. Again, for the sake of continuity, this is a good thing.
Thibodeau could have changed things up, started Bjelica alongside Towns and/or started Kris Dunn at the point guard. The offense could have shifted to a high pick and roll offense utilizing Karl-Anthony Towns as the pick and roll man a la Deandre Jordan.
But Thibodeau opted for the status quo, continuing to utilize Towns and the second big (often Dieng) in the high post. Yes, Towns will certainly be used in the pick and roll this season with many different ball handlers including Dunn, but the “elbow” motion the Wolves ran extensively last year will again be the offensive starting point. Additions will go from there.
We can see the continuity of this set from 2015-16 when Sam Mitchell was the head coach and again with Thibodeau. Under Mitchell, Wiggins finds Towns at the high post and streaks the lane for a dunk in 2015-16.
In a similar action, now under Thibodeau, LaVine finds Towns, again in the high post alongside another big, and also cuts the lane for a dunk in the 2016-17 preseason.
Maybe a veteran team like the Grizzlies can handle a tectonic shift of the proportion their new coach is implementing, but for the Wolves, Thibodeau seems to be choosing a gradual approach for change. The idea of continuity should minimize the transition from Mitchell to Thibodeau, this may be a necessity for a, still, very young team.
Where do the Wolves Fall in the West?
Wolves projected wins...— Dane Moore (@NikolaPekovic) October 25, 2016
Nylon Calculus: 30 wins
ESPN's RPM: 38.1 wins
Vegas: 42.5 wins
FiveThirtyEight: 46 wins pic.twitter.com/M5dVRfUmlT
The range of outcomes seem to be massive. One’s opinion on win total is likely dependent on whether the numerical or aesthetic lens is used to analyze this team. If you live by the numbers, the Wolves are at least a year away from the playoffs. And if you are the eternal optimist that believes youth, plus athleticism, plus good coaching always equals playoffs then hop on the hype train to the playoffs — Jeff Van Gundy, Bill Simmons, Britt Robson, and every kid who has ever played NBA 2k is already aboard.
The reality is the way this season plays out can take numerous routes, there is a plethora of possible outcomes. Quiet the noise of the numbers and move one step at a time would be my approach. Be done with the shoulda wons or less than five-point losses. Beat the Grizzlies on the road in the season opener and the Wolves will have made a statement that they are in the playoff picture. Let’s go.