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Nine at a Time, Part VII: Timberwolves Season Review

Let’s look at the key takeaways from games 55-63.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

You guys! Using arbitrarily selected endpoints covering exactly one-eighth of this championship basketball season, the Minnesota Timberwolves have a winning record! I’m not a basketball historian, per se, but I believe the same could be said about literally every prior NBA title-winning team. Like, ever.

Of course, we are at the part of the season when all hope is lost and one could reasonably argue that losing games right now is in the franchise’s best interests. But if you expected anything else, you wouldn’t be here.

But I’m not here to talk team building philosophy or ping-pong ball math. I’m here to report on a mother flipping winning team, y’all.

Let’s get to the numbers…

(All stats for the period 4/12/21 – 4/27/21)

  • Timberwolves Win/Loss: 5-4
  • Average Points Scored: 112
  • Average Points Allowed: 116
  • YTD Win/Loss: 19-44
  • Postseason odds (538): OMG% (previous odds: Nope%)
  • Minutes leaders:
    Anthony Edwards (32.9)
    Jaden McDaniels (27.8)
    D’Angelo Russell (26.0)
    Karl-Anthony Towns (25.0)
    Ricky Rubio (23.4)

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 0.540 13.1 21.4 0.196 0.567 13.2 78.4 0.190
Rank 14 21 19 11 28 10 14 16
NBA Avg 0.539 12.6 22.2 0.190 0.539 12.5 77.8 0.191

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

Item #1: The rookies.

The minutes played numbers are skewed, a bit, by KAT’s absence for two of the nine games. He played 32 minutes per game, for the games he was present. But in terms of raw numbers, the two players who logged the most minutes during this winning stretch of basketball games were a pair of ultra-young rookies. Let’s examine the progression, once again:

Edwards Progression

Metric Games 1-9 Games 10-18 Games 19-27 Games 28-36 Games 37-45 Games 46-54 Games 55-63
Metric Games 1-9 Games 10-18 Games 19-27 Games 28-36 Games 37-45 Games 46-54 Games 55-63
TS% 0.503 0.405 0.523 0.432 0.521 0.583 0.518
Reb% 5.2 7.1 7.9 8.5 8.6 7.6 8.9
Ast% 12.6 8.9 15.2 15.6 13.0 14.3 14.8
Stl% 1.2 1.4 1.3 1.6 1.8 2.5 2.4
Blk% 0.7 0.1 1.7 1.9 0.3 2.0 1.2
TOV% 11.7 11.5 5.9 12.5 9.4 13.8 8.8
USG% 26.8 26.8 22.7 26.6 31.2 26.9 28.2
WS/48 -0.043 -0.116 0.067 -0.095 0.000 0.044 0.049

Is this a settled pattern? Shooting remains volatile, but the guy who couldn’t rebound or play defense at the beginning of the season is showing enough consistent activity in both phases that I think we could legitimately say that the start of the season is the anomaly.

And this about to venture into extremely irresponsible territory, but if we were to cherry pick just the last 18 games of Edwards’s career, what do we have? High usage, does a lot of stuff, but isn’t exceptionally great at any of that stuff, 19 years old, WS/48 in the 0.045 range. Now we’re in the place where we can find some historical comparison examples that make us drool with excitement (Durant: 19 year old rookie, 0.040 WS/48, .519 TS%, 28.1% USG, 34.6 MPG) instead of the typical below average stat comparisons that make us drool with ennui (Wiggins).

Like I said, this feels totally irresponsible unless there’s some externality that might have coincided with the back half of this particular season (hooray for coaching turnover!)

Now, McDaniels:

McDaniels Progression

Metric Games 1-9 Games 10-18 Games 19-27 Games 28-36 Games 37-45 Games 46-54 Games 55-63
Metric Games 1-9 Games 10-18 Games 19-27 Games 28-36 Games 37-45 Games 46-54 Games 55-63
TS% 0.715 0.360 0.568 0.450 0.634 0.574 0.590
Reb% 11.7 11.2 9.2 7.9 7.5 8.5 7.2
Ast% 15.6 4.9 9.0 5.5 4.1 7.5 4.6
Stl% 2.5 0.4 1.0 0.6 2.0 1.1 1.1
Blk% 2.3 3.9 5.2 4.1 3.5 3.4 1.8
TOV% 20.2 6.9 16.4 11.7 5.3 8.9 12.3
USG% 16.7 16.7 12.4 11.0 11.0 12.7 11.1
WS/48 0.116 -0.061 0.065 -0.017 0.112 0.049 0.039
Minutes Played 37 146 193 198 201 296 249

My memory is spotty and flawed, but it sure feels like the Wolves have been searching for a “3-and-D” player since the term was first coined. Every past example of a free agent brought in with the promise of filling that role has flopped like a Crunch roller skate stunt gone tragically wrong. Am I missing someone? We’ll assume no, for the sake of ego preservation.

McDaniels continues to drain from distance, hitting 39% of his threes in this stretch to bring his YTD rate to 37%. And while his advanced defensive metrics still show a not-so-great defender, I’m willing to imagine that the block rate and signs of effort and awareness (perhaps combined with better teammates?!!?) would launch McDaniels into the category of being a 3-and-D guy with serious gravity on both ends of the floor.

Minnesota Timberwolves v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Item #2: The team is still bad, but maybe not?

Winning games is better than losing them, lottery odds be damned. And it seems self-evident that the interdependencies involved in basketball makes a simple read of player and team statistics less useful than in, say, baseball. But it seems clear that there was some good luck involved with the Wolves winning five of their last nine.

Winning teams don’t get outscored in aggregate. Over the last nine games, Minnesota was the 23rd best offensive team (ORtg) and the 23rd best defensive team (DRtg). Looking at the four factors, they did exactly nothing particularly well. They had the 4th worst point differential in the Association.

**Record scratch sound sampled from a turn-of-the-century teen movie**

But wait! Those bad numbers are heavily skewed by a KAT-less and punchless Wolves team getting throttled by the Nets and the Bucks. Over the last seven games, the Wolves are 5-2, are outscoring their opponents by 2 points per game, beating the Heat, Jazz, and Jazz in that span.

I’m trying to steel myself against being punched in the face by unreasonable expectations again, but let’s just say that the core group (minus Beasley) stays healthy and active over the last 9. And Edwards continues to show signs of maturity and growth. And then say that they win five or six of these final games. And then they get the #2 pick in the draft. And then I get a pony.

Wouldn’t you start to feel real signs of hope for next year?

Utah Jazz v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Item #3: The bench* players outshined the starters*.

KAT played well, he pretty much always plays well. He’s fantastically boring that way.

I’ve asterisked this header because I’m bending the data to fit my personal needs, just like every good data scientist and policy maker should. Specifically, in this case, I am categorizing D’Angelo Russell as a starter, even though he did not start a single game in these last nine games. Behold:

The Starters*

Player Minutes FGA TS% +/- per 100 poss WS/48
Player Minutes FGA TS% +/- per 100 poss WS/48
Edwards 296 161 0.518 -7.2 0.049
McDaniels 249 55 0.590 -12.3 0.039
Russell 234 123 0.603 -6.0 0.082
Rubio 211 58 0.426 -17.5 0.023

And then:

The Bench*

Player Minutes FGA TS% +/- per 100 poss WS/48
Player Minutes FGA TS% +/- per 100 poss WS/48
Okogie 204 45 0.678 2.5 0.141
Juancho 176 63 0.646 7.9 0.109
Naz 175 80 0.543 -6.4 0.082
Vanderbilt 152 30 0.541 5.7 0.158
McLaughlin 133 28 0.638 13.3 0.144

Obviously, there’s plenty of context missing from these numbers, I’m sure. I’m not trying to make a point that Group B is better than Group A. I will, however, throw out two comments:

  1. There’s very, very little in Ricky Rubio’s numbers this year that suggest that he is a winning basketball player at this stage in his career.
  2. If the “supporting cast” can truly play well (as demonstrated above), then you can see the path forward: star center, Edwards continues to improve as the high usage wing, McD as an efficient 3-and-D, D’Lo as the 6th man microwave, Rubio jettisoned for Suggs or Cunningham, check back in two years time.

The next 9 games:

  • Average winning percentage of .478
  • 6 at home, 3 on the road
  • 5 of 9 are against teams which would currently qualify for the playoffs
  • 1 of 9 are on the tail end of back-to-back games

Part VIII will drop at the end of the season. Go Wolves!