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Nine at a Time, Part VI: Timberwolves Season Review

Let’s look at the key takeaways from games 46-54.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

In the grand scheme of things, I’m doing well. I have my health. I like my job. My kids are pursuing interests and hobbies and something called Apex Legends. I’ve eliminated most forms of social media in my life.

And I’ve grown up enough to the point where the outcomes of sporting events no longer bring forth mild depression or obsessive domination of my thoughts. But if I’m being completely honest, I think this version of the Minnesota Timberwolves has completely broken down my level of attachment, to the point where I may now be considered officially Zen, vis-à-vis Los Lobos. I’ll probably be a fan until the team moves away or folds or whatever. Expectations are strictly a thing of the past from now on.

Think of all the anticipation, pre-season. Now consider that the Wolves aren’t even halfway to their over/under win total at this point. Yeah, injuries and coaching and suspensions. But when does the team get to have a good luck season? If I think about friends or colleagues who are perpetually “unlucky,” well…let’s just say that I’m not expecting that luck to change anytime soon.

So, I review the data. Looking for signs of optimism while trying to steel myself against getting excited, again, if I find anything.

Let’s get to the numbers…

(All stats for the period 3/27/21 – 4/11/21)

  • Timberwolves Win/Loss: 3-6
  • Average Points Scored: 116
  • Average Points Allowed: 121
  • YTD Win/Loss: 14-40
  • Postseason odds (538): Nope% (previous odds: Come on, man%)
  • Minutes leaders:
    Karl-Anthony Towns (37.7)
    Anthony Edwards (36.0)
    Jaden McDaniels (32.9)
    Jordan McLaughlin (21.9)
    Ricky Rubio (20.7)

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 0.522 11.9 22.1 0.264 0.578 12.7 78.3 0.211
Rank 24 12 16 1 30 10 11 23
NBA Avg 0.536 12.3 22.2 0.193 0.536 12.4 77.7 0.194

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

Item #1: The rookies.

Ok, so the lead story the last two times I’ve done this has been to point out the Anthony Edwards has been playing more and taking more shots than Karl-Anthony Towns. Those trends have finally reverted to normal so it’s probably time to stop tilting at that particular windmill. I will continue to show the ongoing trend for our #1 pick, but I also want to notice (as shown above) that Jaden McDaniels has played nearly 33 minutes per game in this latest stretch. That’s a lot! I want to pull him into the mix here to see what his progression has been as well. First, Edwards:

Edwards’s Progression

Metrics Games 1-9 Games 10-18 Games 19-27 Games 28-36 Games 37-45 Games 46-54
Metrics Games 1-9 Games 10-18 Games 19-27 Games 28-36 Games 37-45 Games 46-54
TS% 0.503 0.405 0.523 0.432 0.521 0.583
Reb% 5.2 7.1 7.9 8.5 8.6 7.6
Ast% 12.6 8.9 15.2 15.6 13 14.3
Stl% 1.2 1.4 1.3 1.6 1.8 2.5
Blk% 0.7 0.1 1.7 1.9 0.3 2.0
TOV% 11.7 11.5 5.9 12.5 9.4 13.8
USG% 26.8 26.8 22.7 26.6 31.2 26.9
WS/48 -0.043 -0.116 0.067 -0.095 0.000 0.044

The good news is that Edwards’s usage rate has normalized. Even with Russell or Beasley out, it made no sense for Ant to have a usage rate north of 30%. Honestly, I don’t know if 27% is too high or not, but his numbers are north of replacement level, so that’s a good sign. I haven’t been tracking free throw rate in this table, but let’s just compare the beginning of the season to where we stand now: Games 1-9, Edwards had a free throw rate of 16.7%. Games 46-54, 27.7%. He’s been moldable. And now his defense stats are picking up to the point where becoming a legitimately good defender is at least plausible.

And now a stand-alone paragraph admiring the fact that Edwards was an above-average shooter over the last nine games.

The Wolves essentially had half of Beasley and half of Russell over the last nine and they were still the 10th best offense in the league over this stretch. It’s not hard, at all, to see the Wolves as an excellent scoring squad if and when all the pieces are healthy and strategically aligned.

Now, McDaniels:

McDaniels’s Progression

Metrics Games 1-9 Games 10-18 Games 19-27 Games 28-36 Games 37-45 Games 46-54
Metrics Games 1-9 Games 10-18 Games 19-27 Games 28-36 Games 37-45 Games 46-54
TS% 0.715 0.36 0.568 0.450 0.634 0.574
Reb% 11.7 11.2 9.2 7.9 7.5 8.5
Ast% 15.6 4.9 9.0 5.5 4.1 7.5
Stl% 2.5 0.4 1.0 0.6 2.0 1.1
Blk% 2.3 3.9 5.2 4.1 3.5 3.4
TOV% 20.2 6.9 16.4 11.7 5.3 8.9
USG% 16.7 16.7 12.4 11.0 11.0 12.7
WS/48 0.116 -0.061 0.065 -0.017 0.112 0.049
Minutes Played 37 146 193 198 201 296

Trends are certainly harder to divine here than in Edwards’s case. At least some of the opaqueness with McDaniels has to do with his ever increasing level of playing time. He’s been earning time, which is a great sign. Things I unabashedly like: McDaniels has a high block rate (already better than KAT in this regard), is shooting 36% from three on the year, and has been above replacement level pretty much from the starting blocks.

Things that concern me: McD’s rebound rate is barely higher than Edwards. This could be a long-term weakness for this pairing. Also, he’s pretty naturally a stretch-4 and KAT is obviously a prototype outside-in center. How well do these two really pair, especially if McDaniels isn’t much of a playmaker? And can they jointly defend a team with a true, traditional big?

As with most things, the level of success probably points back to Edwards. If both KAT and McDaniels can space the floor with their shooting ability and Edwards can be a ball-dominant wing who can both get to the rim at will and distribute to an open shooter, then this offense probably makes sense. If Edwards wants to settle for outside jumpers, like, ever, then it’s hard to see the offense being great.

And if McDaniels can grow himself into someone who can handle the ball well enough to also play pick-and-roll with KAT, then things could get scary good.

New York Knicks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Item #2: There is an unusual offensive anomaly at work.

I made reference in the last of these write-ups to the fact that the Wolves are getting to the line more under the Finch regime. In fact, I would argue that getting to the line is the most obviously detectable statistical difference between Saunders and Finch.

Free Throw Trends

Split Free throw attempts per game
Split Free throw attempts per game
Pre All-Star Game 19.8
Games 37-45 25.4
Games 46-54 27.9

It’s real, it’s spectacular, and it’s even more spectacular than it was before. Moreover, the Wolves were the best team in the Association at getting to the free throw line, using the FT/FGA comparison. The best! At the same time, Minnesota was not a good shooting team (24th in eFG% in the last nine games). The question that arose in my head was this: what does it mean if a team is bad at shooting but really good at getting to the line?

In the prior 5 seasons, I found five teams which had a rank disparity of at least 23 between their ability to get to the line and their eFG%:

Unusual Offenses

Team FT/FGA rank eFG% rank ORtg rank
Team FT/FGA rank eFG% rank ORtg rank
Golden St. Warriors (2020) 7 30 30
Phoenix Suns (2018) 7 30 30
Charlotte Hornets (2018) 1 25 13
Memphis Grizzlies (2016) 4 29 19
Los Angeles Lakers (2016) 5 30 29

I don’t mean to over extrapolate recent data here. The above five teams maintained this unusual offensive set of characteristics over an entire season. Our beloved(?) Wolves have displayed these disparate splits for just nine games.

The key point is that Minnesota is clearly and obviously finding ways to get to the line. This development is structural. At the same time, historical data would suggest that a team that can get to the line but can’t shoot particularly well is going to be, generally, not good at scoring.

The Wolves have to shoot better. They also have to play better defense. Other than that, things look pretty good.

Chicago Bulls v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Item #3: D’Angelo Russell played like the 2nd star that Gersson Rosas imagined.

Look, I just don’t want to talk about the team’s defense anymore. They suck, it’s obvious to you and to me and to anyone remotely paying attention and the data stopped being interesting on that front months ago. So let’s just agree to ignore it for now.

Instead, I want to get irrationally excited over D’Angelo Russell’s last four games. Here are some basic observations:

  • Russell came back on April 5th from an injury that had sidelined him for two months. His stats included in this period of games include four appearances from D’Lo.
  • His playing time, probably by design, was limited. He didn’t start any of these four games and he averaged 25.8 minutes per game.
  • His shooting got real damn close to hitting the 40/50/90 mark: 41.4% from three, 52.8% from two, 87.5% from the line.
  • As a result, Russell has a TS% of 62.9%, which is higher than KAT’s career mark.
  • D’Lo had an extraordinarily high usage rate (34.1%) and his assist rate of 36.3% would compare to something we would expect out of Ricky Rubio.
  • His defense wasn’t good but as my 14 year old daughter likes to say when something inconvenient gets brought up, “shhhhhhhh.”

Like I said, I’m irrationally excited. To the point that I’m in danger of breaking the rule I brought up at the start of the piece saying I was reaching a Buddhist monk level of detachment from this wretched franchise.

I’m wondering if the combination of coming off the bench, in limited minutes, with nearly no usage restrictions is the right key to unlock maximum productivity out of Russell. One imagines that he might bristle at the suggestion of being a 6th man from this point forward, but so far (four games!) it seems to agree with him.

A look look at the next nine games:

  • Average winning percentage of .567
  • 4 at home, 5 on the road
  • 6 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

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