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Nine at a Time, Part I: Timberwolves Season Review

What do we see from Minnesota’s first nine games?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: The following article is part one of a new series we’re debuting this season from one of our very own here at Canis Hoopus. Mark is very much “one of us” (i.e. has strong ties to the land of 10,000 lakes and frequents our comment section), and recently reached out to me about breaking down the Minnesota Timberwolves season in 9-game installments. This was a really cool idea and I hope you all enjoy it. Thanks, Mark!


Hello, degenerates!

This article represents a new feature that is based on an old idea. My favorite sport is baseball and my favorite team is, generally speaking, not very good. Cincinnati Reds, last playoff series win: 1995. Holla if ya hear me, Wolves fans.

One of the things sticks out as a function of being a fan of a mediocre (or worse) team is that early-season performances maintain a disproportionately high representation of how my brain processes the relative value of the players who had a really good (or really bad) start to the season.

In baseball terms, if a player breaks out of the gate hitting .400 over the first two weeks of the year but ends the season hitting .275, it takes me a long time to disassociate him with the hot start, especially as my interest wanes due to poor team performance.

To bring this closer to home, we saw a similar phenomenon when Jamal Crawford registered as a 47% 3-point shooter through the first eight games of the 2017-18 season. Commentators were referring to his strong shooting numbers long after the requisite correction of that early season start.

Getting to the point, several years ago I ran a periodic series on the Reds’ SB Nation site that looked at independent snapshots of games. 18 game capsules, with reporting and commentary on what the numbers revealed for just that subset of games. I don’t write that series anymore, but I thought it might be interesting to resurrect it for the Wolves this season, nine games at a time.

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

I pitched it to Kyle a few weeks ago, positing that this season was shaping to be a fascinating developmental year. The maturation of Edwards, the reintroduction of Rubio, the gelling of an almost completely churned roster. Et cetera. What we see 50 games in might be very different from the first few. He liked the pitch, and I was excited for the season to get started.

One more introductory note — lest you think that I’m glomming onto Wolves fandom for the page clicks and notoriety, allow me to produce my Minnesota bona fides. I lived in the state as a child, way back. I can remember reading the Star Tribune article about Minnesota being awarded an expansion franchise, but we moved away before they ever played a game. In what looks a bit like child abuse in retrospect, my parents allowed me to display a Timberwolves poster on my bedroom wall during their inaugural season, meaning that there may have been nights in which Randy Breuer was the last thing I saw before turning off the lights. Also, the Wolves have a perfect 2-0 record when I am in attendance at the Target Center. This 1.000 winning percentage compares favorably to the franchise’s all-time win-loss record.

76ers v Twolves Photo By David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s dive in with some opening assumptions.

  • Assumption 1: At the outset of the season, it was not reasonable to expect a playoff season from the Wolves in 2020-21. One could hope, but history and forecasting would instruct us that just sneaking in to the playoffs should represent a plausible best case scenario.
  • Assumption 2: With this season being a bit more permissive than usual, with respect to the postseason (i.e. ten teams qualify for at least a play-in berth), the Wolves probably don’t need to win half their games to qualify. Over the last five seasons, the #8 seed in the West has averaged a .526 winning percentage, which works out to 38 wins over 72 games. But the #10 seed in the West has averaged just a .449 winning percentage…or about 32 wins over 72 games. Breaking that down even further to make the math applicable to these nine game capsules, if the Wolves win four out of every nine games, they will be on theoretical pace to play an extra game or two at season’s end.
  • Assumption 3: Basketball stats are broken. I don’t mean that pejoratively. The interdependencies that are inherent in the game of basketball are far too complex to result in advanced valuation metrics that are of the same quality of what we see in baseball. At the same time, I don’t mean to present myself as a basketball stat expert — I’m simply presenting the assumption because this drives me to a belief that the best place to start when thinking about players is looking at the overall team metrics.
  • Assumption 4: Basketball stats are simultaneously impressive. As a mini-conflict with the above point, there’s so much available data attached to on/off splits, lineup combinations, matchup combinations, etc. that this series will absolutely not be a definitive word on much of anything. But what I found with the old Reds feature was that looking at data, formed by nothing more than some arbitrary endpoints, can lead to some interesting thoughts and questions. Let’s see what happens…

(All stats for the period of 12/22/2020 – 1/9/2021)

Timberwolves Win/Loss: 2-7

Average Points Scored: 110

Average Points Allowed: 122

YTD Win/Loss: 2-7

Postseason odds (538): 5%

Minutes leaders:

  1. Malik Beasley (32.0)
  2. D’Angelo Russell (30.9)
  3. Anthony Edwards (26.3)
  4. Ricky Rubio (24.7)
  5. Jarrett Culver (24.1)

Four Factors

Metrics Off eFG% Off TOV% ORB% Off FT% Def eFG% Def TOV% DRB% Def FT%
Metrics Off eFG% Off TOV% ORB% Off FT% Def eFG% Def TOV% DRB% Def FT%
Wolves 0.511 12.8 24.9 0.168 0.572 12.8 76.9 0.205
Rank 25 11 5 25 28 18 24 19
NBA Avg 0.533 13.1 21.5 0.195 0.533 13.1 78.5 0.195

Like most things in life, I went into this exercise without a plan. Now that the time is here, I want to let the Four Factors shape my writing. If four or five wins out of every nine games would put the Wolves where we want them to be, and if the four factors on offense and defense are strongly correlated with team success, then I plan to find three things each capsule that seem to point to something. And then try to uncover what that something might be.

Item #1: The Wolves are next to last in the league in effective field goal percentage allowed.

So, Minnesota is bad at defense. This might be the easiest one to decipher. Only the Pistons allow a higher effective field goal percentage and, curiously enough, the Wolves’ struggles are only partially having to do with 3-point shots. The Wolves are middle of the pack when it comes to number of three point shots allowed, and are 5th worst on 3 point FG%. That’s not great, but it doesn’t fully explain the horrible defense.

No, this is a story that can be explained without even introducing the “e” part of eFG. Minnesota has allowed a 49.8% shooting percentage against, irrespective of distinguishing between 2 pointers and 3 pointers. That’s the 2nd worst FG% allowed in the league.

And the closer to the rim the opposing team gets, the more advantage they are able to take of the Wolves defense. Minnesota leads the league in dunks allowed and are 3rd worst in combined dunks and layups allowed.

There are two things that jump out, both related:

The first is that if you look at the guys who have played the most over these first nine games, all of them are 6’6” or shorter. All five of them ostensibly operate as guards.

Obviously, this set of five doesn’t really represent a true lineup that has ever been on the court at the same time, and the rank order of minutes played are necessarily skewed by Towns not being in the lineup for six straight games, but the primary point is that the Wolves lean small. And opponents are having a field day on the inside against Minnesota. It’s not just dunks. The Wolves have allowed the 2nd most field goals within 5 feet of the basket across the league.

But the second point is a little harder to quantify, exactly. Notice above that the Wolves are the 5th best team in offensive rebounding. And tie that to the earlier comment that Minnesota is, relatively speaking, a team full of shrimps. And then add in the data showing the Wolves as having allowed the 2nd most fast break points in the league, and one can begin to build a narrative in which Minnesota prioritizes crashing the offensive boards (achieving 3 more per game than the average team) over getting back on defense. Easy baskets are the most valuable currency in the NBA and this team is routinely open for business. Does that metaphor work? I’m not sure, but it damn sure sounds dramatic in my head.

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Item #2: The Wolves have the 6th worst effective field goal percentage on offense.

Let’s look at the top nine players for this stretch of games, in terms of field goals attempted:

Shooting Data

Player FGA 2-Point FG% 3-Point FG% eFG% eFG%, last 3 yrs
Player FGA 2-Point FG% 3-Point FG% eFG% eFG%, last 3 yrs
Russell 153 0.466 0.385 0.513 0.507
Beasley 138 0.5 0.379 0.529 0.551
Edwards 126 0.514 0.286 0.476 N/A
Culver 68 0.542 0.25 0.493 0.462
Reid 68 0.63 0.409 0.625 0.477
Hernangomez 56 0.5 0.333 0.5 0.517
Rubio 53 0.457 0.278 0.443 0.469
Towns 46 0.471 0.417 0.511 0.545
Layman 32 0.6 0.167 0.469 0.587

We should start with the Towns issue. He’s typically somewhere around 16 FGA per game and he missed six games this stretch. That’s 96 field goal attempts that had to go elsewhere. If you were to assume that KAT had been intact and shooting at his career norms and the rest of the team’s shot attempts went down proportionately, then the team’s eFG% would maybe be at .515 or so instead of .511, and that’s before trying to model any residual benefits of having the team’s best player on the court.

And yet...

This team was touted as a potential offensive force. Last year, the average eFG% in the NBA was 53% and the Wolves were bringing two above average shooters to the table (KAT and Beasley).

Let’s put it another way. The weighted average eFG% of the non-Towns players above is .510, pretty much exactly in line with the overall team eFG% thus far. If you replaced this year’s eFG% with each player’s eFG% from the last few years, you get .502, indicating that the team, sans Towns, came out of the gate shooting relatively well.

Here’s a riddle: if you are frustrated with the play of D’Angelo Russell thus far, how do you think you’ll feel if his 3-point FG% corrects down a few points to his career average of 36%?

The bottom line, I think, is that if and when Towns is sidelined, we should expect the Wolves to be a bad shooting team. And when he is on the floor, they’ll be better, but probably not as good as I (and maybe you) had assumed.

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Item #3: The Wolves are a good offensive rebounding team and a bad defensive rebounding team.

Over the past five seasons, the correlation between offensive rebounding percentage and defensive rebounding percentage, at the team level, is in the neighborhood of 0.1. Meaning that being a good rebounding team on one end of the court means basically nothing on the other end of the court. And you can find other examples from recent seasons where a team has been a top-5 offensive rebounding team, but a well below average defensive rebounding team. The 2018 Wolves, for instance. And they weren’t even bad!

I should probably insert a bit of meta-commentary here because I know that this series is, at heart, a gimmick. There’s rarely anything conclusive that can be pulled out of nine basketball games. But I’m looking for bits of evidence all the same. I’m about to explore an avenue that’s obviously premature, but is concerning nonetheless (consider this your trigger warning).

There are twenty player seasons in the last five years in which said player had a defensive rebounding percentage under 7:

Bad Rebounders

Player Year Age Pos Height Dreb%
Player Year Age Pos Height Dreb%
Jamal Crawford 2016 35 SG 6'5" 6.3
JJ Redick 2016 31 SG 6'3" 6.6
Darren Collison 2016 28 PG 6'0" 6.8
Marco Belinelli 2016 29 SG 6'5" 6.9
Jamal Crawford 2017 36 SG 6'5" 5.7
E'Twaun Moore 2017 27 SG 6'3" 6.9
Jamal Crawford 2018 37 SG 6'5" 5.5
Austin Rivers 2018 25 SG 6'3" 6.2
Lou Williams 2018 31 SG 6'1" 6.6
Tyler Ulis 2018 22 PG 5'10" 6.8
Patty Mills 2018 29 PG 6'1" 6.8
Gary Harris 2018 23 SG 6'4" 6.8
Terrance Ferguson 2019 20 SG 6'6" 6
Landry Shamet 2019 21 SG 6'4" 6.4
Darius Miller 2019 28 SF 6'6" 6.6
Eric Gordon 2019 30 SG 6'3" 6.9
Darius Garland 2020 20 SG 6'1" 5.2
Patty Mills 2020 31 PG 6'1" 6.2
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 2020 26 SG 6'5" 6.4
Landry Shamet 2020 22 SG 6'4" 6.6

Why bring this up?

#1 draft pick Anthony Edwards currently has a defensive rebounding percentage of 7.8, with that number rather significantly pushed up by a career high 4 defensive rebound night on January 9 (author’s admission: I wrote this section prior to the Spurs game, at which point Edwards held a 6.9% DReb.) Should we do the caveats first or the red flags? Let’s do the caveats:

  • Rebounding percentage is an estimate and isn’t precisely calculated.
  • Anthony Edwards is 19 years old and didn’t have the luxury of Summer League.
  • Early season stats are obviously subject to volatility and that almost certainly is even more the case for rookies.

HOWEVA…

  • Admittedly, I didn’t do a comprehensive Google Image Search certification on this but…Edwards has got to have a considerably bigger body than any of the above names, right?
  • Even with the early season caveat, Edwards is 21st worst in DReb% this year.
  • Comparing like-to-like as much as possible, Edwards looks bad when sorted against highly drafted guards and wings.

Looking at top 5 draft picks over the past several years, here’s the average defensive rebounds per game, for just the first nine games of each player’s career. Excludes centers and Markelle Fultz:

Recent Rookie DReb% Through 9 games

Player Dreb/Gm
Player Dreb/Gm
Ben Simmons 7.6
Lonzo Ball 5.6
Luka Doncic 5.4
Jayson Tatum 5
RJ Barrett 5
Zion Williamson 4.1
De'Andre Hunter 3.8
D'Angelo Russell 3.2
Brandon Ingram 3
De'Aaron Fox 2.9
Josh Jackson 2.8
Kris Dunn 2.7
Trae Young 2.7
Ja Morant 2.3
Jaylen Brown 1.7
Darius Garland 1.3
Mario Hezonja 1.1

Edwards is at 1.8 thus far.

Like I said, it’s not (yet) a death knell. I’m confident that the progression of Edwards will be one of the items that this series will cover in the future. Two things stick in my craw.

First, as much as I’ve tried to forget what my high school basketball coaches told me, one of the memorable coach-speak lessons from those days was that rebounding was a function of effort and desire. I’m not sure that completely holds up when you bring height differences into the mix, but the general point kinda rings true, if maybe difficult to verify. And, sure, I guess there are distinctions between the NBA and medium-sized suburban Connecticut high school basketball teams but for now, there’s enough data to suggest that some of the focus concerns on Edwards might have had some validity.

Second, how much confidence do you have in this coaching staff to identify and address this particular problem?

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

A look look at the next nine games (this includes last night’s victory against the Spurs):

  • Average winning percentage of .474
  • 6 at home, 3 on the road
  • 4 of 9 are against teams which would currently qualify for the playoffs
  • 2 of 9 are on the tail end of back-to-back games

Part II will drop at the end of the month. Go Wolves!