Effective Field Goal Percentage, True Shooting Percentage, Offensive and Defensive Rating, Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares. In the modern day NBA, there are dozens of metrics and analytics that have been created in order to measure a player’s impact on the court. There are so many unique ones that it is almost too hard to keep track of them all – heck, there is even one named LEBRON. While I am all for these advanced metrics and giving players credit for their impact on the court over counting stats, sometimes the most simple of stats are plenty good in determining the success of a team.
This has been the case for the Minnesota Timberwolves this season.
As I was watching the game against the Portland Trail Blazers a graphic flashed across the screen that caught my attention. It also caught my dad’s attention who was watching the game as well and he sent me a screenshot of it (which you can enjoy below)... this may or may not have been the inspiration for this article. The graphic listed that this season, when Minnesota has 27 or more assists in a game they are 16-0 and when they have 26 or less assists they are 10-11 (two games have taken place since that point and so the updated numbers are 17-0 and 11-11).
While this is all fine and good, assists are not always the most reliable in terms of their impact on winning (they can point to a trend but are not one of the most important stats) and the numbers of 26 and 27 assists also seem a bit like a cherry-picked statistic in order to prove a point. While those two facts may be true, the sample size is there to show a real inclination of how the Timberwolves are successful night-to-night: when they share the ball, they win games.
According to NBA.com, the Minnesota Timberwolves as a team are averaging 26.2 assists per game this season. That ranks 15th in the NBA, so they are perfectly average. This 26.2 number is right on the threshold of the line between being a .500 team or being undefeated for them. That is a pretty wide margin. While this is definitely not the end all, be all case of why Minnesota wins or loses games, the fact that they are undefeated in a solid sample size when they hit that 27 assist mark signifies to me that when they are able to share the ball, good results tend to happen.
Here are some more stats to back this case up. The Wolves have hit the 30-assist mark in a game 12 times this season. Their average margin of victory in those games is 15.4 points. While some of those games came against the Memphis Grizzlies, Trail Blazers and other good teams that had injuries during those matchups (think Los Angeles Lakers without LeBron James and New Orleans Pelicans without Zion Williamson or CJ McCollum) they also had quality wins over the New York Knicks and Sacramento Kings with 30+ assists.
On top of that, they have only had exactly 26 assists in two games: both against the Pelicans on 12/11 and 1/3. The other nine losses they have averaged 21.6 assists per game. That is a huge drop off from when Minnesota wins and when they lose. Their average margin of defeat in those games (filtering out the Pelicans matchups as they are right on the border of the potentially cherry picked stat) is 11.7 points. So, the point difference between when they get 30 or more assists in a game compared to their 21.6 average in the losses (not including the Pelicans games where they got 26 assists) is a whopping 27.1 points (!!).
This, to me, means that assists are a huge indicator of team success. When the Timberwolves are high in assists they win by a lot, and when they are low in assists they lose by a lot. Straight up.
It makes sense, too, when you consider that the Wolves have struggled against teams that can go small and switch, or play zone. In those games, Minnesota has had a tendency to play more iso ball rather than play freely with more ball and player movement, and in turn more assists.
The biggest proponent of this passing starts with Mike Conley, and then we find Anthony Edwards a little further down the mountain. Conley is averaging 6.4 assists per game, while Edwards is sitting at 5.0 per game. This should be a point of emphasis the rest of the season with this squad that has had its struggles on offense to start the year. More assists usually means less turnovers and because of that it can function as a two birds, one stone approach for a team that is third worst in the NBA in turnovers per game at 15.3. This could also be used as an argument for what kind of player Minnesota should pursue at the trade deadline.
According to @STATSPerform, Conley is the sixth Timberwolves player since the start of the 2019-20 season to record more assists than the entire opposing team in a half.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) January 13, 2024
Tonight was the 15th time it's happened this season.
(h/t @Twolves_PR) https://t.co/00iyH31fM6 pic.twitter.com/gyHor8z8HU
If they are able to up their assists (and in turn, lower their turnovers) that provides a huge boost for the offense. Team assists may seem like one of the most simple stats that is pulled from a box score and yet it has told a big story for the Timberwolves this season. With all of the advanced statistics that are out there it can be easy to skew to those in order to talk about how good or bad a team is at specific parts of the game. While they are rightly a huge part of the game today and do say a lot about a team, sometimes it is the most rudimentary of statistics that can give you an idea of if that team was successful from game-to-game.