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Nine at a Time, Part IV: Timberwolves Season Review

What can we learn from games 28-36?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I suppose we all saw the Golf Digest story highlighting that the Minnesota Timberwolves recently overtook the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the worst all-time winning percentage for active major sports franchises in the U.S.

And, look, whatever. The greatest quarterback in NFL history just voluntarily signed to play for Tampa. These two franchises are not remotely comparable.

It does get one to briefly ponder if there any fan bases that have it worse than Minnesota. I know some have introduced a “misery index,” but I don’t know if analytical computation is the way to go after this. I guess I come down to the conclusion that it’s not that interesting to try to determine if the Wolves or the Detroit Lions or the Pittsburgh Pirates are somehow more pathetic than the other. There’s no hope here, just like I imagine it to be in those other dens of wretchedness.

But there can be fun in hopelessness! Let’s have some fun with this stat in question: all-time winning percentage:

Minnesota has a historical winning percentage of .393. If they won every game for the next six and a half seasons, they still wouldn’t be back to .500. And this is a franchise for which many of us can comfortably remember the inaugural games, in the HHH Metrodome.

But winning every single game is fairly unreasonable, even for a franchise with a great management team. 60 wins per year is a pretty strong standard for representing a championship contender. If the Wolves instantly turned into a 60-win team, it would be 2035 before the Wolves flipped to be on the positive side of the ledger. That’s a sci-fi kind of sounding year.

If there is a precocious four-year old reading this blog right now and that four-year old had access to the kind of sinister medications that would allow him to live for two hundred years, that doomed little boy or girl would never once experience a world in which the Wolves attained a positive franchise winning percentage.

Charlotte Hornets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s get to the numbers…

(All stats for the period 2/15/21 – 3/3/21)

  • Timberwolves Win/Loss: 0-9
  • Average Points Scored: 107
  • Average Points Allowed: 121
  • YTD Win/Loss: 7-29
  • Postseason odds (538): LOL% (previous odds: 0%)
  • Minutes leaders:
    Anthony Edwards (33.8)
    Karl-Anthony Towns (32.9)
    Ricky Rubio (27.7)
    Malik Beasley (24.4)
    Jaden McDaniels (22.0)

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 0.482 13.6 20.4 0.167 0.559 13.5 76.4 0.223
Rank 29 25 20 24 25 8 24 27
NBA Avg 0.544 12.5 21.4 0.193 0.543 12.5 78.4 0.193

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

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

Whether intentionally or not, the keys to this franchise have been handed to Anthony Edwards.

Let’s back up, just a bit. Part of that transfer of power is certainly unintentional. The Russell injury and Beasley suspension have created a vacuum on offense, in which there are a significant number of freed-up shots up for grabs. This team does not look anything like it was intended to look.

Fine. But the team does have an all-star-level talent, who is somewhat of an offensive specialist. And for the first time this season, we can say that Karl-Anthony Towns has been on the floor for an extended stretch. In fact, he’s played in all nine of the games we’re focusing on in this piece.

Again, take the long view. This team had three established scorers coming into the season. Two of them are currently out of action. Who’s been playing the most minutes, over the last nine games?

Edwards: 304

Towns: 296

Who’s been taking the most shots?

Edwards: 161

Towns: 148

If your reaction is that those margins are small, you’re missing the point. First off, KAT has more offensive skill, in spades. Second, the field goals disparity is entirely a function of the last three games, where the team has been without Beasley. Left with literally no above average options except one, the team chose not to emphasize said option. New coach? My guess is even Coach Finch had heard tell of the past stories of KAT’s scoring prowess.

It’s just weird.

There’s a good news/bad news story at work here.

The bad news is that the offense, with Edwards as the lead dog in the pack, was horrible. Edwards’s eFG% in the last nine games was obscenely low: 39.8%. The good news is that as we continue to track Edwards’s ability to play the game of basketball at the professional level, he’s continue to trend upwards in pert near everything save shooting:

Edwards Progression

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

Anthony Edwards, with a .466% True Shooting percentage on the year, is the worst shooter in the NBA. He’s taking the most shots in this team’s current form. This is akin to giving a 16-year-old newly minted driver a brand new BMW M2 and telling him to “see what happens.”

Finally, with half a season in hand, I want to look at Edwards in terms of recent rookies. FiveThirtyEight has a useful sortable database that comes in handy here. Over the last eight seasons (including this one), the database lists 274 rookies with at least 500 minutes played (Edwards is just over 1,000 so far). Ant ranks #254 in WAR and #255 in the site’s plus-minus metric (RAPTOR).

Here’s some interesting comparisons:

Rookie Snapshots

Player Rookie year age Offense RAPTOR Defense RAPTOR WAR
Player Rookie year age Offense RAPTOR Defense RAPTOR WAR
Anthony Edwards 19 -2.6 -3.1 -1.6
Anthony Bennett 20 -5.2 -2.4 -1.6
Zach Lavine 19 -3.5 -4.8 -5.4
Rashad Vaughn 19 -3.1 -2.4 -1.4
Jarrett Culver 20 -2.5 -1.3 -0.8
Adreian Payne 23 -4.5 -4.3 -2.3
Karl-Anthony Towns 20 1.2 0.2 5.6

Mostly this was an opportunity to post numbers from some old friends, both sublime and ridiculous. But I also threw Rashad Vaughn in there, as he was the most similar player I could find in terms of the metrics. Then I had to look up who the fork he was. If you want a guy who played more in his rookie year, maybe you compare to Ben McLemore? But that doesn’t feel right either, since Ant has more of the “do stuff” stats.

I’ll keep looking, but in the meantime, we might be in uncharted territory here. A rookie who shoots this poorly and this often…how does that turn out?

Charlotte Hornets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Item #2: Karl-Anthony Towns is not himself.

I mean that statement to read ambiguously.

Towns has now played sixteen games in the 2021 season, which is not a large sample size. But there are clues that Towns is worse this season than he’s ever been since becoming a pro. To wit:

  • His eFG% is worse this year than ever before
  • His WS/48 is worse than ever before
  • His ORTG and Off BPM are worse than any season other than his rookie year

Not great. Back to the ambiguity, how much of the statistical decline is due to health, be it physical or emotional? We can’t know what kind of shape his lungs are in, we don’t know the pain of his wrist, and we don’t know if has mentally checked out of this season already. That’s not a slam, by the way. I would have checked out weeks ago if I were in KAT’s shoes.

But what I’m interested in is to see if there is anything we can glean from his surroundings that might also answer this question. Namely, can we quantify the quality of KAT’s teammates, specifically on offense?

KAT’s Supporting Cast

Season Wolves eFG%, KAT off-court Wolves ORTG, KAT off-court KAT ORTG
Season Wolves eFG%, KAT off-court Wolves ORTG, KAT off-court KAT ORTG
2016 0.487 104 112
2017 0.475 105 121
2018 0.487 105 127
2019 0.501 109 118
2020 0.494 104 121
2021 0.493 104 114

There are, of course, problems with on/off metrics. We run the risk of misleading data due to hockey-style substitutions, opponent matchups, or just the general collinearity inherent in basketball statistics.

Nonetheless, I was looking to see if we could argue 2021 as an outlier in some way, with respect to the quality of the team around Towns. Looking at the data above, I don’t see any way that we can.

As noted above, there are plenty of reasons to point to if looking for valid explanations for the depression in KAT’s statistical profile. But to lay it out as bluntly as I can: he’s been an all-star before, surrounded by teammates who were roughly as shitty as the ones he has now. Something else is wrong.

Charlotte Hornets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Item #3: The Wolves are good at stealing the ball from their opponents.

I’ve been taught that when giving constructive (negative) feedback to a colleague or team member, one is recommended to include some positive news as well. And this particular summary of games sure feels like one of the worst performance reviews I’ve ever seen. And so:

The four factor summary above shows the Wolves as the 8th best team in forcing turnovers. And that correlates very highly with defensive steals, a metric in which Minnesota ranked 5th in the league.

That’s just over the last nine games. Year to date, the Wolves have the 2nd most steals per game in the NBA.

What’s curious here is that Minnesota has some excellent ball thieves that lurk in the shadows. A steal rate above 2.0% is a useful benchmark denoting “good”. On the season so far, Minnesota has five players with steal rates at or above 2%, and most of them are part-time players (Vanderbilt, Layman, McLaughlin, Rubio, and Okogie). Meaning, I suppose, that a cursory look at steals-per-game rankings will not reveal many Wolves.

Turnover rate is listed as one of the four factors because it matters, somewhat. Given the year, defensive turnover rate (or steal rate) will correlate with defensive rating somewhere in the 15%-30% range. On the other hand, there will typically be five or so teams with a good turnover/steal rate on defense and a mediocre-to-bad defense, overall. The Wolves are poised to fit in that group.

A look look at the next nine games:

  • Average winning percentage of .540
  • 5 at home, 4 on the road
  • 6 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 V will drop later this month. Go Wolves.