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Monday Musings: Small Sample Sizes

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What are the initial trends after the first few games?

Cleveland Cavaliers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Most of the time, it takes quite a few games for a team to settle into their identity at the beginning of the season. They have to incorporate new players, they may be running new schemes as a new head coach is in town, or they have to redesign their playbook after important players have left.

For the Timberwolves, while they are not incorporating almost any new players, nor running new schemes, they still are dealing with the uncertainty that is the Jimmy Butler debacle.

However, we can certainly check in on a few things for early signs of trends to keep an eye on throughout the beginning of the year. The Timberwolves are one of the few teams that have had remarkable continuity, as they have essentially brought back 7 players of their 9 man rotation, swapping out Derrick Rose for Jamal Crawford and Anthony Tolliver for Nemanja Bjelica. So what are a few things to pay attention to in the early stretch?

Andrew Wiggins Free Throw Shooting

Last year, Wiggins had struggled from the free throw line. After a remarkably consistent 76 percent free throw shooting percentage in his first three seasons, he only made 64.3 percent from the free throw line. At least anecdotally watching the games, this seemed to make him much more tentative when attacking the basket, as the low free throw percentage may have impacted his belief about drawing contact and heading to the line. While this is not necessarily fully causally related, Wiggins did shoot his lowest percentage of shots in his career from 0-3 feet last season.

This year, his free throw percentage is 87.5 percent through three games on 16 attempts. Wiggins has gone through streaky shooting splits before, most notably with his three-point shooting, but not typically from the free throw line. It would be incredible if he was suddenly an over 80 percent free throw shooter, but regardless the start of the season hopefully implies last season was a blip.

Derrick Rose Resurgence

After being one of the most effective players in the playoff series against the Rockets, Rose has continued his strong play at the start of the season. Rose has certainly seized the mantle of the 6th man shooter off the bench, most notably on Saturday against the Dallas Mavericks where he put up 28 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in 32 minutes. This comes after the game against Cleveland, where he was instrumental in pushing the pace and getting the Wolves running during the dominant second quarter.

Rose, like Wiggins, is prone to streaks, and we have seen this play out with his short career with the Timberwolves last season and in the preseason. For now, the Wolves have gotten more good Rose games than bad, but it will be interesting to see how long the leash is during the bad games. Of course, all of these stats are highly suspect to small sample size problems.

Bad, Bad Defense

Somehow, the Wolves do not have the worst defensive rating in the league. I expected that upon starting this article. However, after three games, they are ranked 27th in the league, right alongside the Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Chicago Bulls. You know, all those expected playoff contenders.

The Wolves are doing relatively fine in limiting fast break points, which has typically been their Achilles heel (along with everything else related to defense), but they are tied for last in the league in opponents points of 2nd chances.

We had hoped that losing Jamal Crawford would be an addition by subtraction on defense, but this year it is the starters that are dragging the team down, as in their 31 minutes together they have a 114.3 net defensive rating. That number is so astronomically higher than last year’s 104.7 for the same group that it should improve.

However, it is pretty clear that if Butler is eventually traded, this is going to be an incredibly bad team on defense.

Rebounding

The Wolves opponent’s offensive rebounding percentage is 37.5 percent so far, good for 29th in the NBA. Not great. Normally, the Wolves are one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the league, but thus far they are in the middle of the pack.

The Wolves really should not be a bad defensive rebounding team, as they typically play two bigs, but this is something to keep an eye on throughout the season.

Karl-Anthony Town’s Shot Attempts - Do They Matter?

This is probably the most controversial conversation within Minnesota Timberwolves twitter, as the issue has been going on for over a year. On one hand, it seems absurd that Towns, perhaps the most skilled shooting big other than Dirk Nowitzki, is 5th on his own team in field goal attempts per game with 10.7. Andrew Wiggins, Derrick Rose, and Jeff Teague, all slightly-to-often inefficient chuckers are getting more shots up per game than him. That seems incredibly damaging to a team’s offensive potential.

On the other hand, the Wolves have the second best offensive rating in the NBA at an incredible 119.8. On Saturday night they put up 136 points in regulation against Dallas.

Now, the starting lineup has been disastrous together, with a 95.7 offensive rating in 31 minute total minutes (again, Small Sample Size alert). Most of the awfulness has come in the fourth quarter, where that group has an offensive rating of 63.2.

This statistic does give credence to the idea that Towns offensive touches are a problem, because, just like last year, the fourth quarter with the starters devolves back to Jimmy time, where Butler simply isos or uses a high pick-and-roll to get to the basket or draw a foul. This works from time to time, but also slows the Wolves offense to a crawl and often lets the other team get back into the game, such as against the Cavaliers.

In the fourth quarter against Dallas when KAT was featured, the team’s offensive rating was 158.3. Just don’t look at the defensive rating.

Three-Point Shooting

Through three games, the Wolves are averaging 23.7 three-point attempts per game, which while that ranks them 19th in the league, it is only about one additional three-point attempt per game over last year when they were 30th in the NBA. It seems more likely that the rest of the NBA will be increasing their attempts at sample sizes normalize and the Wolves will fall down in the rankings. If they continued their average of 23.7, they would improve their ranking judging by last year’s numbers from 30th in the NBA to 29th! Baby steps.