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Monday Musings: Improvements

How the Wolves have improved throughout the year

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Those who follow the Timberwolves closely know that there has been an arbitrary date this season, after of which the Wolves have shown a drastic improvement, particularly on defense. That date, December 13th, coincides with a victory over the Chicago Bulls.

Before that day, the Wolves were 7-18, which was good for the 4th worst record in the league. The Wolves had the 10th best offensive rating in the league at 106.1, but were 27th in the league in defensive rating at 109.2. While the team was benefiting from a hot threepoint shooting streak from Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns was having a slow start as he was adjusting to constant double teams and Ricky Rubio was recovering from an injury, as well as adjusting to Thibodeau’s new system.

Simply put, the team looked largely similar and had the same strengths and weaknesses that we saw in the Timberwolves last season. No real improvements other than an unsustainable shooting streak that came with continuously disastrous defense.

However, since December 13th, the Wolves have shown a remarkable improvement, particularly on defense. The team has posted a 12-11 record over that stretch, which is about the .500 record that many predicted the team would post throughout the season before it began.

The team’s offensive rating has slowly dropped to 14th in the league at 107.2, which runs against the somewhat prevailing narrative that the team’s recent success has come due to running a more Rubio-friendly offense. However, the Wolves could be benefiting from a Rubio-ran offense and be improving on offense while dropping in the offensive rating ranks, as teams are simply just scoring more this year. The Wolves have a better offensive rating after this December 13th cutoff, rising from 106.1 to 107.2, the rest of the league is simply outpacing their rise.

More importantly for the Wolves, and for Tom Thibodeau, the team’s main improvement has been on defense. Since December 13th, the Wolves have posted a defensive rating of 105.4, which is 8th in the league.

This improvement has only impacted the Wolves’ season-long upward trend on defense to 23rd in the league, with a defensive rating that is actually almost exactly the same as the one that the team posted last year, but we have already seen that NBA-wide, scoring numbers are rising quickly.

However, the fact that the Wolves can post a top-ten defensive rating over more than a 20-game stretch is impressive, especially considering that this is a new system and the Wolves are placing such a heavy burden on their young core. The bench veterans are still getting almost no playing time, other than the few game stretch where Brandon Rush filled in for Zach LaVine.

Over the season, the teams that have been in the top 10 for Defensive ratings:

Defensive Ratings

Team Pre - Dec 13th Post Dec - 13th Season
Team Pre - Dec 13th Post Dec - 13th Season
Warriors 10 1 1
Jazz 5 2 2
Spurs 7 3 3
Grizzlies 1 10 4
Hawks 2 9 5
Pelicans 13 5 6
Heat 14 6 7
Thunder 6 17 8
Hornets 8 16 9
76ers 18 4 10
Bulls 9 15 11
Clippers 4 23 12
Pistons 3 28 13
Wizards 22 7 14
Timberwolves 27 8 23

The Wolves are not the only team to have a drastic change in fortune in regards to the December 13th date. The Pistons have seen a dramatic fall in their defense, as well as posting an 8-13 record, and they have been battling internal turmoil ever since Reggie Jackson’s return, which was around the same time as the December 13th cutoff. The Clippers have also seen a steep decline, but they have been struggling with injuries to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul over the same time period.

The Wizards and the 76ers have been the two other teams who have dramatically risen, going from 22nd to 7th and 18th to 4th respectively. I do not know enough about the Wizards to intelligently attribute the reasons for their success, but the team has posted the 3rd best record in the league, 17-6, during the same time. The 76ers have also drastically improved, and have gone 11-10 over the same stretch.

It is interesting that the Wolves have seen the smallest rise of their season-long defensive rating. For example, the Wizards splits of 22nd and then 7th, have brought their season-long defensive rating up to 14th while the Wolves jump from 27th to 8th has only culminated with a rise to 23rd in the league.

But if this current rate of play continues, and at this point there is really nothing to suggest that their defensive improvements won’t continue to trend upwards (although there will certainly be games where this is not the case), the Wolves will almost certainly finish the season with defensive rating in the top-20 in the league, which would be an admirable improvement in Thibodeau’s first season.

Notes from December 13th onward:

-Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins have been relatively stagnant in their offensive statistics throughout the season, although LaVine has had a recent downward trend. For Wiggins in particular, even though a lot of his numbers have not improved, his relative consistency is important for a player with his offensive burden.

- Gorgui Dieng, of course, is the consistency master

-Rubio has dramatic monthly splits while Towns is slowly getting even better

  • Rubio in November - 7.0 ppg, 6.4 assists per game, -7.5 rating.
  • Rubio in January - 9.2 ppg, 9.8 assists per game, -0.1 rating
  • Towns in November - 23 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 2.2 apg, - 0.4 rating
  • Towns in January - 25.6 ppg, 13.- rpg, 3.5 apg, +0.6 rating

- Shabazz Muhammad is simply on fire in January. He has been averaging 11.5 ppg while shooting 53 percent from the field and 56.7 percent from three.

- If the rest of the bottom of the West was not continuing to win games, it might be time to get excited about the Wolves making a run for the playoffs (although we have benefited from a recent soft schedule).

Of the bottom of the West morass, the Wolves are tied with the Nuggets for the most Pythagorean wins (22) and we have the best SRS (-0.53). The Wolves and the Nuggets rate out significantly higher than the Trailblazers, Kings, and Pelicans. If the Wolves had not had such a disastrous start, we would likely be currently battling it out with the Nuggets for the 8th seed. However, the 3.5 games deficit that we face may be too much to overcome at this point in the season, but at the very least, the Wolves have been trending in the right direction for a month and a half now.