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Nine at a Time, Part III: Timberwolves Season Review

A recap of what we’ve seen from games 19-27 this season.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Toronto Raptors Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

I once wrote a joke that goes like this:

If I ever win a lottery which awards me $1,000 a day for an entire month, I’m going to choose the month of February because it lasts forever.

I suspect fellow Minnesota Timberwolves fans will know what I mean. Maybe more so this year, in which the lovable home team is already statistically eliminated from the most permissive playoff structure in league history.

And I think it’s ironic, in the most Alanis-esque meaning of the word, that the Wolves are so bad this year and yet there’s still so much we don’t really know about the team.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Toronto Raptors Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Let’s get to the numbers…

(All stats for the period 1/30/21 – 2/14/21)

  • Timberwolves Win/Loss: 3-6
  • Average Points Scored: 111
  • Average Points Allowed: 113
  • YTD Win/Loss: 7-20
  • Postseason odds (538): 0% (previous odds: 1%)
  • Minutes leaders:

Malik Beasley (33.4)
Anthony Edwards (31.9)
Ricky Rubio (26.3)
Jaden McDaniels (21.4)
Naz Reid (19.1)

Four Factors

The 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 0.534 10.8 21.2 0.123 0.529 13.1 75.8 0.229
Rank 19 7 19 30 10 8 26 28
NBA Avg 0.543 12 22.3 0.198 0.543 11.9 77.6 0.197

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

Item #1: Anthony Edwards is growing up.

This particular news bulletin doesn’t align to the four factors, per se, but it popped out to me because of them. I always look at the team four factors on offense and defense to see where the team is doing the best (and the worst). Ranking highly in turnover percentage is nice, as far as it goes.

So I go look at the individual stats and start with the point guards, but that’s not what grabs my eye. Russell took good care of the ball but played only about half as much as Rubio. Rubio’s TOV% was pedestrian.

But Edwards’s TOV% was low! 5.9%! And that led me to look at his other numbers because, honestly, I don’t exactly know what to do with turnover percentage. Behold:

The Progression of Ant Edwards

Metric Games 1-9 Games 10-18 Games 19-27
Metric Games 1-9 Games 10-18 Games 19-27
TS% 0.503 0.405 0.523
Reb% 5.2 7.1 7.9
Ast% 12.6 8.9 15.2
Stl% 1.2 1.4 1.3
Blk% 0.7 0.1 1.7
TOV% 11.7 11.5 5.9
USG% 26.8 26.8 22.7
WS/48 -0.043 -0.116 0.067

It’s still not exactly great, but he’s now above replacement level in this latest stretch. And it’s not like the above chart shows a true linear progression, but you can see improvement in nearly every “do stuff” category worth looking at. If you’re going to take anything out of this kind of fly-by statistical overview, it’s that Edwards doesn’t improve…categorically improve…without being engaged. Which should count for a lot in this franchise. I’m encouraged.

There is a caveat that needs to be applied, namely that the Wolves played the 3rd easiest schedule in the NBA over these last couple weeks. Perhaps there’s some turbulence ahead for Edwards as the schedule gets more difficult, but something has clicked with the young star.

If you want to sprinkle in some pessimism to this item, just to keep it real, let’s casually note that of the 30 rookies taken in the first round, just six of them have negative win shares, year-to-date. Edwards is one of those six.

Item #2: The Wolves are giving up 8.5 more free throw attempts per game than they are getting.

The last time I wrote one of these puppies, I noted that the Wolves were getting to the line more and didn’t that portend some optimism and kudos to the coaches LOL sorry what a idiot.

This stretch, the Wolves ranked dead last in offensive free throw rate and 28th in defensive free throw rate. And keep in mind that this was with one of the easier strength of schedule marks in the association.

There is a team-wide commitment to the bit re: not getting to the line:

Free Throw Rates (not good)

Player FT rate FT rate, as a percentage of league average
Player FT rate FT rate, as a percentage of league average
Beasley 0.108 43
Edwards 0.156 62
Rubio 0.161 64
McDaniels 0.136 54
Reid 0.159 63

It’s tougher to track this on defense. It’s not like the PF/G leaderboard is peppered with Wolves. I’m willing to cast this net on the general concept of “poor situational awareness,” but I understand if your faith isn’t strong enough to accept that notion at this time.

So far, writing these pieces has left me with a bit of “so what” syndrome. I’ll write about one statistical margin or another but in the back of my head I’m concluding that even if Minnesota was a smidge better in this category, it probably wouldn’t mean much in the win-loss ledger.

When I see that they’re -8.5 on the FTA per game plus/minus chart, I translate that into maybe six lost points per game. Incidentally, the team’s six losses in this stretch have been by 2, 3, 2, 5, 7,and 6.

Looking at YTD stats, the Wolves are 29th in offensive FT rate and 27th in defensive FT rate. Which translates to almost five fewer free throw attempts per game. The Wolves’ current FT rate gap is so bad, that only one time in the past five seasons has a team been worse (last season’s Bulls). Historical!

When the entire team isn’t getting to the line, one suspects that at least part of the reason is that the team is fairly easy to defend. I have to imagine that having KAT back full time will help. On the other hand, in Towns’ last three games, his free throw rate has been in line with the chart of putrescence above.

Item #3: The Wolves are almost a good shooting team.

Minnesota was 19th in eFG%. That’s not good, of course, but there’s a few anchors in play:

Shooting Anchors

Player Effective FG%, games 19-27 FGA, games 19-27
Player Effective FG%, games 19-27 FGA, games 19-27
Okogie 0.289 45
McLaughlin 0.318 22
Rubio 0.444 62
Everyone else 0.565 712
Team total 0.534 841

If the team had an eFG% of 0.565, that would be, like, 8th best in the league or so. That’s good! And that’s with the team’s best offensive player only getting the 8th most shots on the team over these last nine games.

A few thoughts:

One, this type of cherry picking isn’t meant to create an un-level comparison with their competitors. Every team in the league could have better metrics by selectively omitting certain players. Instead, I wanted to explore just how much these three players dragged down the team average.

Two, the three-headed monster of Okogie/McLaughin/Rubio (OMR, henceforth) accounted for 15% of the team’s field goal attempts over the last nine games. That’s unconscionable, regardless of whether Towns and/or Russell are in the lineup. Fifteen percent! It’s not like any of the OMR trinity have a history of sharpshooting, so we should just be patient on the regression to the mean. So, what gives? Presumably, defenses are leaving these guys open; NBA players are taught to shoot if they’re open; OMR can’t shoot; rinse & repeat.

Indeed: Okogie is 3 for 16 on wide open shots, Rubio is 4 for 13, JMac is 0 for 3. My nine year old son could dial up a defense against that.

Point three: at some point, it becomes incumbent on the coaching staff to react and adjust. There are signs of respectability, but those signs seem awfully hypothetical in the current atmosphere.

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

  • Average winning percentage of .509
  • 5 at home, 4 on the road
  • 7 of 9 are against teams which would currently qualify for the playoffs
  • 3 of 9 are on the tail end of back-to-back games

Hopefully the league forgets to schedule the Wolves for the 2nd half of the season.