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Nine at a Time, Part V: Timberwolves Season Review

What can we learn from games 37-45?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Lakers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the downsides of this writing prompt gimmick I’ve stumbled across is that the concept of nine game endpoints is rarely coincident with any meta-level trends. This capsule of games is an exception, I think, in that it covers the nine games directly following the All-Star break, meaning that this is our first glimpse of what Coach Finch can do with this iteration of the Minnesota Timberwolves after having caught his breath.

And, simultaneously, we have a 9-game dataset that is 100% free of D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley, two of the three established offensive forces on the roster coming into the year. I don’t know that this combination of new coach and depleted roster gives us a great sense of what’s to come, but I think there are some initial clues available.

Dallas Mavericks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s get to the numbers…

(All stats for the period 3/4/21 – 3/26/21)

  • Timberwolves Win/Loss: 4-5
  • Average Points Scored: 115
  • Average Points Allowed: 117
  • YTD Win/Loss: 11-34
  • Postseason odds (538): Come on, man% (previous odds: LOL%)
  • Minutes leaders:
    Anthony Edwards (35.4)
    Karl-Anthony Towns (35.2)
    Ricky Rubio (30.1)
    Jaylen Nowell (26.1)
    Jaden McDaniels (22.3)

The 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 0.538 11.7 21.7 0.214 0.564 13.7 76.3 0.175
Rank 14 11 19 8 29 5 19 9
NBA Avg 0.537 12.2 22.5 0.188 0.536 12.2 77.7 0.186

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

Item #1: This is [still] Anthony Edwards’s team.

Last time I wrote one of these, I led with the assertion that the Wolves had, wittingly or otherwise, given the keys to the proverbial kingdom to Ant Edwards. There were two valid points of contention to that claim: first, that in the midst of a coaching shake-up, it’s probably not sound judgment to be drawing any conclusions; and second, that Karl-Anthony Towns found himself in enough foul trouble to throw doubt on the notion that Edwards was truly the alpha dog, just yet.

Well.

Since the All-Star break, Towns and Edwards have been essentially even in terms of minutes played (Edwards 319, Towns 317), while the shot attempt disparity has remained exactly the same as last go-around (Edwards 191, Towns 178). It’s still a small gap, but in my mind it’s a huge divergence from what I would expect.

Using a different metric, we see that Edwards has a usage rate of 31.2 in the last nine games. That represents a dramatic increase for the young star(?) as you can see below. For context, it’s also a massive usage rate on its own merits. Over a full season, that would be top fifteen in the NBA. Is it working?

Edwards’ Progression

Metric Games 1-9 Games 10-18 Games 19-27 Games 28-36 Games 37-45
Metric Games 1-9 Games 10-18 Games 19-27 Games 28-36 Games 37-45
TS% 0.503 0.405 0.523 0.432 0.521
Reb% 5.2 7.1 7.9 8.5 8.6
Ast% 12.6 8.9 15.2 15.6 13
Stl% 1.2 1.4 1.3 1.6 1.8
Blk% 0.7 0.1 1.7 1.9 0.3
TOV% 11.7 11.5 5.9 12.5 9.4
USG% 26.8 26.8 22.7 26.6 31.2
WS/48 -0.043 -0.116 0.067 -0.095 0.000

This stretch is in line with the best shooting of Edwards’s young career, and he’s still at replacement level. While carrying LeBron/Kyrie/Westbrook levels of usage.

While the table above presents these metrics in terms of relative improvement, it’s worthwhile to think in terms of a benchmark as well. The only stat that Edwards is approach a tier that we might label as “good” is in his steal rate. Everything else is mediocre or worse.

My gut is that he’s so young that the improvement trend is both encouraging and telling. He’s learning on the fly and applying what he’s learning. That said, the one spot where a discernible trend is not evident is in his shooting efficiency. Up and down. Last time, I pointed out that Ant had the worst TS% in the league. Now he’s up to 4th worst. This is the ultimate tipping point of value: If he becomes an efficient scorer, then he becomes a star. But this is something on the order of adding 100 percentage points to his true shooting percentage, not a marginal improvement.

It’s really the question of the franchise. Yes, there’s the question of KAT’s window and this summer’s draft pick (or not). But does the franchise have the tools to drastically improve Edwards’s shot selection and shot mechanics? If not, prepare yourself for a(nother) lost decade.

Dallas Mavericks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Item #2: This has been the best offensive stretch of the season.

The Wolves ranked 14th in eFG% in the league since the break, which is somehow better than they’ve ranked at any other point. I’m going to propose a theory that I don’t think I can totally prove, but maybe one of the video experts at Canis can help supplement this thought at some point.

When I look at the shooting data, I try to keep in mind that volatility wins the day. Shooting percentages will ebb and flow and, indeed, the largest contributor to the Wolves’ improved eFG% is that they hit three-point shots at something close to a league average rate instead of towards the bottom. That might last, it might not.

And we can see that the hyper-extreme model of shooting has intensified since the All-Star break:

Team Shooting Splits, Part 1

Split 0-3 Feet 3 Point shots
Split 0-3 Feet 3 Point shots
Pre All-Star Game 29.9% 39.4%
Post All-Star Game 32.3% 40.4%

Is that real? Is that coaching? Or is it the complete absence of D’Angelo Russell? Perhaps it’s too soon to tell, but there’s one more aspect that I find interesting:

Team Shooting Splits, Part 2

Split 0-3 Feet 3 Point shots % of 3PA from the corner
Split 0-3 Feet 3 Point shots % of 3PA from the corner
Pre All-Star Game 29.9% 39.4% 23.7%
Post All-Star Game 32.3% 40.4% 17.7%

Conventional wisdom dictates that the corner three is second only to a dunk as the most efficient shot in basketball. Not only are the distances shorter than above the break but the corner is also the most difficult spot on the court to guard efficiently.

Note the contrast: The Wolves get more efficient at shooting, but are shooting fewer corner threes.

Here’s where my theory comes in.

What if the prior coaching regime was aware, much like we are, that corner threes are good? And what if the staff was pushing the launching of those shots as a universal, absolute good, without much insight on how to best create the optimal version of those shots? I’m not trying to be a know-it-all armchair analyst…I certainly have no idea how to best utilize the corner three, but I find the directional disparity between lower efficiency attempts and higher efficiency results fascinating.

We should also talk about free throws attempts in this space:

Team Shooting Splits, Part 3

Split Free throw attempts per game
Split Free throw attempts per game
Pre All-Star Game 19.8
Post All-Star Game 25.4

Who has been unlocked?

Team Shooting Splits, Part 4

Split Edwards FTA/36 Rubio FTA/36
Split Edwards FTA/36 Rubio FTA/36
Pre All-Star Game 3.0 3.1
Post All-Star Game 5.4 4.4

That’s a decidedly different offensive scheme at work.

Item #3: The Wolves are next-to-worst in the league at shot defense.

I haven’t written a ton about Jaden McDaniels so far this year. I think the Cliffs Notes version is that he’s been surprisingly solid. And, in the most obvious comparison, he’s been more efficient than Edwards while not being asked to carry anywhere near as a heavy a load.

But the two young pups are being attacked on defense.

That doesn’t really call for a notice of distinction on this squad, but teams are attacking the rookies in a specific way. I can’t think of a good way to visually depict this, so hopefully it comes across okay.

  • Edwards is clearly a wing. Basketball reference estimates that 62% of his playing time since the All-Star break has been at the off-guard position and 38% at the 3 spot. I know positions are mostly meaningless, but this is going somewhere.
  • McDaniels is classified as half-wing, half-big: 58% of his time as a 3, 42% as a 4.
  • Both players are getting abused on shots at the rim. Edwards’s opponents are taking 23 shots a game within 5 feet of the rim; McDaniels allows 15 shot attempts per game in the same range.
  • While those numbers are meaningless without context and while league-wide benchmarks are difficult to come by, note that Edwards plays about 50% more than McDaniels (meaning the shot attempts at the rim are pretty similar on a normalized basis). If we normalized this to a per 36 minutes metric, both players would be allowing more shots at the rim than the team’s center, K-A Towns.
  • Opponents are normally efficient against both players; 64% for Ant, 63% for McD. League average in this range is about 62%.
  • The point, then, has more to do with frequency than efficiency. Opponents know they can get to the rim against the rookies.
  • At a team level, this pops to some degree because since the All-Star break, McDaniels is getting more minutes, pretty much at the expense of Jarred Vanderbilt, who tends to show better numbers on defense.
  • All the same, taking the wide-angle lens view, Jaden McDaniels currently leads the team in on-off +/- per 100 possessions (YTD). Defense is hard; I suspect he’ll get better. But let’s not bury the lede: a 20 year old rookie drafted late in the first round leads the team in on-off metrics. Good God, what a franchise.

A look look at the next nine games:

  • Average winning percentage of .502
  • 4 at home, 5 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 VI will drop sometime in April. Go Wolves.