A common trope for the early season of the NBA is that effective evaluation is not plausible due to the limited sample that we have of the NBA season. The six games that the Wolves have played thus far really represent about 7 percent of the season.
Percentage-wise, that is about the same as just over one game in the NFL season. Minnesota Vikings fans may disagree, but it seems fair to say that it would be non-nonsensical to declare the season over after one football game.
However, 288 minutes of Basketball are not nothing. The Wolves may have played two of those games without Jimmy Butler, who seems to be the fulcrum of success thus far, but there are certainly a few statistics and trends we can check in on and keep an eye on throughout the year.
Usage Rates and Minutes
With the addition of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, and Jamal Crawford, the Wolves now had five players on their roster (including Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins) who typically have usage rates about 20 percent. Butler, Wiggins, and Towns, in particular, have had usage rates above 25 percent last year.
So far, Butler’s usage rate has been the one to plummet. His current usage rate is 19.8 percent. He certainly has taken on a facilitation role with this group and has been picking and choosing his spots to score. Butler is also the most versatile of the star trio and he likely was cognizant that he is more able to adjust to the new system compared to Wiggins and Towns. As the season goes on, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his usage go up at the expense of Towns and Wiggins.
Butler is currently 2nd in the NBA in minutes per game at 37.8, but there is not another Timberwolves player in the top 20. That is a sharp decline from last year, when Wiggins and Towns were 3rd and 5th in minutes per game. It’s possible that Thibs is finally adjusting his minutes strategy to be more in-line with the rest of the NBA. Only time will tell.
Finally, Gorgui Dieng has gotten the short end of the stick with this new roster. Iron G has seen his minutes decline from 34.4 from last season to 13.5 this year. Also, it is rare that more than a couple of those minutes come with the starters.
This has been for a couple reasons. Taj Gibson taking his starting spot is the obvious culprit, but Thibs has also been experimenting with a lot of small-ball lineups this season. Much more so than he did last season. As a result, Gorgui rarely gets any run at power forward anymore as the competition for the minutes there has grown tremendously. As Cole Aldrich is all too aware, there just aren’t that many minutes out there for KAT’s backup.
Over the offseason, it became obvious that the Wolves were going to have the replace the three-point shooting of Zach LaVine. The team was last in three-point attempts last year and lost their most prolific three-point shooter. The obvious candidates for a jump in attempts per game were Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins.
Somehow, Teague is shooting fewer threes per game this year, dropping from 3.1 to 2.5. He is making them at a healthy 40 percent clip, but those attempts really need to climb up.
Wiggins has had a dramatic jump in three-point shooting, going up from 3.5 per game to 5.2. This has been tremendous for his game and he is really the only player on the court right now that is firing away from deep. Most of his attempts have been in fairly open catch-and-shoot situations and he is going to get those all season as teams are keyed in on Butler and Towns.
The Wolves have increased their three-point shooting as a team from last year, albeit barely, from 21 last year to 22.8 this year. However, they are not last in the league and rank 28th! in three-point attempts. There is that improvement we were looking for.
The Wolves are a far cry away from embracing the three-point revolution. The teams in the top-ten in three-point attempts are taking around 10 or more threes than the Wolves per game. The league leaders, the Houston Rockets, take more than 20 threes per game than the Wolves.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Taj Gibson and his new corner three-point shot. While it was exciting during the preseason, Gibson has taken only five so far this season and made one. Still a work in progress to get some three-point shooting at power forward.
Coming into this season, the additions of Gibson and Butler seemed like the Wolves were doubling down on two of their strengths from last year, free throw rates and offensive rebounding. The goal was to bully the other teams in the paint and win through the boards and on defense.
The Wolves rate 8th in free throw rate, but one of their main stars, Butler has barely gotten to the line, and his free throw rate has dropped from 54 percent to 30.2 percent. This is likely a consequence of Butler serving as a facilitator and I would expect this to change as the season goes on.
The team is 7th in offensive rebounding rate at 25.3 percent and will also likely improve on that ranking throughout the year.
As for effective field goal rate, the team ranks 12th, as well as 15th in turnover percentage. So far, looking like a team is mediocre to good through the four factors, which is a good sign.