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Monday Musings: Fool’s Gold

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Examining the Post-All Star break victories from last season

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

One of the main reasons for Timberwolves’ fans to be optimistic coming into this season was the stellar post All-Star break period where the young Wolves looked like they had turned a corner. Their offensive numbers had skyrocketed, LaVine was finally starting at Shooting Guard, and the Wolves lineup of Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Dieng, and Towns looked like it could do some real damage.

This transition officially happened during the last game before the All-Star break against Toronto, where Towns had probably his best game of his rookie year. This was also the first game where Zach LaVine became the starting shooting guard.

One of the problems with writing about Sports on a consistent basis is that it is so easy to be drawn into the overarching narratives that develop about a team. At the end of the day, articles need to be pushed out and something needs to be written. For example, this year there was a day a few weeks ago where it was “suddenly ok to talk about how the Timberwolves might not be good” from A Wolf Among Wolves, Deadspin, and the Washington Post.

This makes it all the easier to drown ourselves in either optimism or pessimism after each game and then paint broad swaths of the past in single strokes. For example, when we think about the previous season, it’s easy to break it down as:

  • Opening 16 games - Good defense, Towns is awesome. We might have something here.
  • Middle Stretch - Holy Hell these young players might not know anything. Long-twos, Tayshaun Prince passing up shots, and bench lineups of LaVine point guard, Kevin “keep getting dem checks” Martin, and Shabazz “not sure if I should try to drive through one guy or two guys” Muhammad.
  • Post-All Star Break - Three pointers are great! Best offense in the League! We beat the Warriors!

Somewhere along the way from the Post-All Star break to the start of the season we convinced ourselves that the “leap” was happening, which obviously was influenced by the hiring of Tom Thibodeau as Glen Taylor was shockingly competent in his hiring process.

https://xkcd.com/904/

The problem is that a significant portion of the foundation for this idea based on the Post All-Star Break hypothesis hasn’t really examined been examined all that closely. Let’s take a look at those wins. Starting with the Toronto game, the team went 13-16.

Wins

  • Feb 10th vs Toronto, 117-112 - Towns is amazing
  • Feb 22nd vs Boston, 124-122 - Solid all-around team effort. Beat a good Boston team
  • Feb 27th vs Pelicans, 112- 110 - Beat a Pelicans team without Anthony Davis aka a bad team
  • March 5th vs Brooklyn, 132 - 118 - Brooklyn’s leaders in the game were Markel Brown with 23 points and Thomas Robinson with 17 boards and 5 assists. Enough said
  • March 11th vs OKC, 99-96 - Awesome win. Ricky’s famous buzzer beater assisted by Wiggins
  • March 16th vs Memphis, 114-108 - Memphis starting lineup featured Briante Weber, JaMychal Green, and Ryan Hollins. I believe this was the game when they had to call up three D-league players
  • March 23rd vs Sacramento, 113-104 - DeMarcus Cousins did not play. Kings were bad
  • March 25th vs Wizards: 132-129 - Good win against full-strength Wizards team. Entire team played well
  • March 28th vs Phoenix, 121-116 - Phoenix is bad. They are still bad now
  • April 5th vs Warriors, 124 -117 - The fabled Warriors win. Simply awesome
  • April 7th vs Sacramento, 105-97 - Beat the Kings again without DeMarcus Cousins. Rondo didn’t play either, although that may have actually been better for the Kings
  • April 9th vs Portland, 106-105 - Quality win against the Blazers as they were fighting for Playoff position
  • April 13th vs Pelicans, 144-109 - Beat up a very very bad Pelicans team that only had 7 players. Kendrick Perkins played 20 minutes in this game

Out of these wins, by my count there are 6 wins that were against teams that can be considered quality. The rest were against the Kings twice without Cousins, the Pelicans twice without Davis, the Suns, and the Nets.

Now, this is what teams are supposed to do, beat up on bad teams and teams who are not at full strength, especially as teams are tanking at the end of the year. However, if we were basing our projections for this current year, as well as what the “core” of the Timberwolves looks like, based on this sample, which we certainly did during the offseason, then I think we might need a further readjustment of our expectations as well as our certainty that, in fact, this is our core.

To wit, out those 16 losses during this stretch, 10 were against playoff teams and a two of those “playoff team” losses were against the Zombie Mavericks who somehow managed to hold it together last season. Of our wins, six were against playoff teams and one of those six wins was against the motley crew of Grizzlies D-Leaguers.

I’m not sure exactly where this leaves us. Obviously, the advanced stats and regular counting stats show a dramatic improvement among our starters during the post-All Star break on offense, which is not to be ignored. But how much of those can we attribute to beating up on half-strength teams?

It certainly is more discomforting to think of the flip-side, which is that our terrible defense numbers last year might have also been bolstered by playing weak competition.

I think this season makes much more sense if we think about exactly why we thought the Wolves would be good this year.

  1. The Wolves were good during the Post All-Star Break last year.
  2. Thibodeau is going to make our defense great again

If we don’t think that point one is certain anymore, then maybe we can rethink point two, specifically how quickly we thought it was going to happen. For if the Timberwolves were never good, how can we expect them to suddenly be good?