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Nine at a Time, Part II: Timberwolves Season Review

A recap of what we’ve seen from games 10-18 this season.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

I am not, by and large, a gambler. I’ve never been to Las Vegas. I’ve played card games at casinos like twice in my life and I’ve never bet on sports other than maybe $100, lifetime, on horse races.

Still, I find gambling oddly compelling. There’s a cocktail inside my brain that mixes analytical tendencies with a strong ego that leads me to believe, despite all the conflicting evidence, that yes, I probably would be a big winner were I to dive in to sports betting.

There’s maybe just enough common sense holding me back.

I bring that up only to say that I have a habit, long standing, of checking the daily lines. This habit almost certainly originated from early childhood, sports pages opened wide on the living room floor, the young reader devouring all of it, even the long agate type column of favorites and underdogs.

This habit has morphed from print to digital, of course, and what I’m struck by this year is how many empty slots there are in the daily lines. Every line not on the board represents a cancelled game or a game with too many key participants with status unknown. I haven’t counted or anything…it’s just been a lot of games off the board.

I’m left with two thoughts. The first is that the players, navigating the maze of quarantining and contact tracing and postponed games and short-handed contests and lopsided results, have to be out-of-their-gourd frustrated by this mess of a season. No one’s looking great right now and that will almost certainly be a seed that is reaped in future collective bargaining sessions.

Second, I consider the poor vitiated gambler, left empty by these games that do not exist or exist without a proper wagering line. Consumed by an itch that cannot be scratched. And then I console myself, knowing full well that any gambler worth his weight put a tidy sum on the Minnesota Timberwolves hitting the under.

Philadelphia 76ers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Let’s get to the numbers…

(All stats for the period 1/10/21 – 1/29/21)

  • Timberwolves Win/Loss: 2-7
  • Average Points Scored: 103
  • Average Points Allowed: 112
  • YTD Win/Loss: 4-14
  • Postseason odds (538): 1% (previous odds: 5%)
  • Minutes leaders:

Malik Beasley (31.6)
Anthony Edwards (24.4)
Naz Reid (22.7)
Jarred Vanderbilt (22.4
Josh Okogie (21.4)

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 0.485 13.6 22.3 0.198 0.516 13.4 74.1 0.223
Rank 29 25 19 9 8 13 26 27
NBA Avg 0.53 12.6 23 0.188 0.531 12.7 77 0.189

Remember that all stats and commentary are confined to only the stretch of games noted above, unless specifically noted otherwise.

Item #1: The Wolves are the next-to-worst shooting team in the league.

Here’s a fun little nugget: Anthony Edwards has taken the second most field goal attempts on the team over these nine games. That requires significant context, of course. Towns has played one game in this stretch and Russell just six. And then you look around at the jetsam left on this shipwreck and, well, someone has to take the shots.

Let’s start with a bullet-pointed overview of the team’s shooting numbers:

  • The team shot 47.2% on 2-point shots, compared to a league average of 52.0%. Only Orlando has been worse on two-pointers.
  • Minnesota shot 33.7% from 3-point distance, falling short of the league average of 36.4%. Here, the team ranked 23rd across the league.
  • Given that the Wolves shot relatively better from deep, it would naturally follow that they would deprioritize those shots, right? Indeed: 37.0% of Wolves’ shots were from beyond the arc, compared to the league average of 39.2%. Their 3-point shot rate was good for 22nd best.

Shooting this bad is a team effort, but we need to recognize the true leaders in this accomplishment. Remember how excited we all were when Ricky Rubio was re-acquired? We collectively posited that this Rubio would be the perfect pairing with the collection of young talent in Minnesota. Showing them the ropes, so to speak. I don’t think any of us could have imagined such remarkable mimicry so quickly:

Bad Shooting

Player FGA 2-Point FG% 3-Point FG%
Player FGA 2-Point FG% 3-Point FG%
Rubio 41 34.4% 0.0%
Edwards 115 26.4% 34.9%
McDaniels 51 33.3% 28.6%

Ye gods.

There was a great piece earlier this week on Canis Hoopus detailing how poorly designed the offense is. It was an indisputable thesis, presented clearly. That said, there’s an additional element at play here. One of the shooting statistics that NBA.com tracks is how closely defended a player is at the time of the shot. If we suppose that one of the purposes of running an offense is to allow for open shots, and if we accept the NBA’s definition of an open shot as not having a defender within four feet, here’s the shooting percentages from the above three guys when left open:

  • Rubio: 29%
  • Edwards: 29%
  • McDaniels: 32%

At some point, you simply have to expect a professional basketball player to make an open shot.

This is the part of the show where we need to talk about Anthony Edwards. He’s young, he’s on a terrible team, and he’s famously (fairly) new to basketball. His YTD shooting numbers are now 36% on 13.4 attempts per game. The thought popped into my head. Is he on pace to have the most missed shots in a given season by a teenager?

I don’t have in hand who the current clubhouse leader on that stat might be, but here’s some points of comparison:

Teenage Bombers

Player Age FGA/Gm Shooting Pct
Player Age FGA/Gm Shooting Pct
Marbury 19 13 40.8%
Kobe 18 5.9 41.7%
McGrady 19 7.9 43.6%
Parker 19 8.3 41.9%
LeBron 19 18.9 41.7%
Carmelo 19 17.9 42.6%
Wiggins 19 13.9 43.7%

OK, so there’s no way that Edwards is jacking up enough shots to match the number of misses by LeBron’s rookie year. I don’t even know if topping this stat list would portend awful things, per se. I don’t know if we can conclude anything, really, about Edwards just yet.

Instead, I’m left with things I think. And I think that missing a bunch of shots doesn’t do much of anything to develop your game. Again, the offense is suffering from poor coaching as well as the absence of Towns and the gravity he carries. I think Edwards gets an “Incomplete” grade until we can watch him co-exist with KAT for more than, like, 36 consecutive hours.

Last thing on Edwards, for now. I can’t find anything redeeming in his shot splits for this stretch of games. He hasn’t shot well, period. But there is a correlation between his field goal percentage and how long the ball is in his hands. If the ball is in Edwards’s possession for two seconds or less, he shot 36%. Which isn’t great, but it’s better than the 26% shooting when the ball is in his hands for 6 seconds or more. I don’t know, man. Maybe he’s better when it’s just instinct? Either way, get well soon Karl.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Item #2: The Wolves are a better than average team on defense.

Yeah, it’s just barely, but still.

The Wolves carried a defensive rating of 111.0, against a league average of 111.1!!! Why does this deserve attention?

Kevin Garnett has the seventh most defensive win shares in NBA history. Is that stat any good? I have no idea. He’s also 19th all-time on the DBPM list. There’s a consensus building: he was damn good on defense.

At the same time, the Wolves have had a better than average defense just six times in their storied 32 season existence. Bad defense has been a systemic trademark of the franchise from jump street, despite having a guy who was a top 5 defender in his generation throughout his prime.

Defense can be tough to quantify, but I think there’s a pretty easy metric at play here:

Minutes Upgrade

Player Minutes played, games 1-9 Minutes played, games 10-18
Player Minutes played, games 1-9 Minutes played, games 10-18
Josh Okogie 75 193
Jarred Vanderbilt 100 202

These guy’s minutes more than double from part I to part II, and the team’s DRTG drops seven points. Can that all be pinned on these two? (I’d consider the drop in Russell’s minutes related to his injury, but his defensive metrics weren’t horrible this stretch) Probably not, but here’s what we can see:

Players being defended by Okogie shot just 39% in this stretch of games; against Vanderbilt, 43%. That’s good, but it might be the only meaningful hard metric I can point to. Neither player’s DRTG is exceptional, and neither jumps out from a steals/blocks/rebounds perspective. Sometimes having a clue and a care matters.

I’m also curious about Jarrett Culver, whose DBPM was -2.8 in the first run of nine games and then 0.5 in the second. Most impressively, his personal opponents shot just 27% against his defense in this stretch. I’m suspecting that some of that could be related to his demotion from starter to reserve, perhaps matching up against lesser opponents. And some of it could be related to the interdependent nature of team defense (again, credit the rise of Okogie and Vandy). And some could be good old luck. Which is all the more reason to take note of slightly better than average defense when we find it.

Philadelphia 76ers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Item #3: The Wolves are getting to the foul line more.

The increase is noticeable enough that one is tempted to credit the coaching staff with some positive input.

Free Throw Rates

Player FTA/36, games 1-9 FTA/36, games 10-18
Player FTA/36, games 1-9 FTA/36, games 10-18
Beasley 3.4 3.2
Russell 3.8 5.5
Edwards 3.2 3.1
Reid 4.6 4.4
Rubio 1.5 5.8
Culver 2.8 4.7
Vanderbilt 6.1 2.9
Okogie 1.4 2.6
Team Total (per game) 15.7 16.8

DLo, Rubio, Culver, and Okogie are driving the bus here. Perhaps a narrative can be built that doesn’t rely on coaching prowess:

Rubio knows he can’t hit the side of a barn, so he’s driving more, plus has had the ball in his hands more (usage up from 14% to 20%). Culver, matched against 2nd team guys, has more opportunity to take advantage. Russell played a whole lot less, so there’s potentially a sample size issue (even more than just the absurdity of looking at nine isolated games). And everything that Okogie does on offense is pure random chance.

More to the point, the three key engines of this offense right now (top 3 guys in the above table) are unchanged enough that I don’t think there’s a true shift in offensive philosophy. And even more to the point, an extra one or two free throw attempts per game matters on the margins, but the margins don’t much matter when your shooting resembles that of a bad Division III squad.

A look look at the next nine games (starting tonight against Cleveland):

  • Average winning percentage of .486
  • 2 at home, 7 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 III will drop sometime after Valentine’s Day. Go Wolves.