Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wacky Wolves

By Ross Lancaster

In this information age, and especially in the extremely data-conscious NBA, there are a variety of ways to judge a team both by statistics and the eyes. While the only win-loss records and playoff series records truly count, this isn't a world with just two or three games on national TV every week.

We can open up the "black box" beyond Ws and Ls to an astonishing degree, whether it be through League Pass, possession-based statistics or cool Kirk Goldsberry diagrams on Grantland. Heck, if I want to know what every shot by my team's ninth man from inside 15 feet looks like, I can call up the video on the league's official website.

However, there are some pretty intuitive, basic metrics associated with a team's season-long body of work that usually are telling of quality. Average margin of victory or defeat is one of these. Obviously, the best teams should beat the average team by more than the merely good ones. And the worst should lose by more per game than the mediocre. For one team this season, that statistic is beyond anomalous.

According to recent history, a point differential of plus 4.0 or higher is the standard for title contention. Both of last year's losing conference finalists, Memphis and Indiana, had average margins of 4.0 and 4.1, respectively. The 2011 Mavericks took home the title with a 4.2 mark. And as you'd expect in a 30-team league where 16 teams make the postseason, the worst playoff team is in the negatives or close to it.

This year's Minnesota Timberwolves, owners of an under-.500 record as of Monday and the 11th best record in the Western Conference, currently have a point differential of plus 4.6.

That is a downright incomprehensible statistic with the season just barely past the midpoint. Now, the only way that becomes even remotely possible is by blowing out a bunch of games and then losing close ones. Sure enough, 14 of the Wolves' 22 wins have been by 10 or more. In two-possession or less games, Minnesota is 3-12. Friday's one-point win over Golden State was the team's first in a one-possession game.

So, is Minnesota just about the unluckiest team in NBA history, or are they just that bad when it matters most? The answer, unsurprisingly, is a little bit of both.

To be sure, the Timberwolves are not a bad team by any stretch of the imagination. They have a top-10 player in Kevin Love, a great offensive center in Nikola Pekovic, a great defender and scorer on each wing, respectively, in Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin, plus Ricky Rubio at the point. That five-man lineup, by far the Wolves' top-choice group, should theoretically win two-thirds of its games, according to the net efficiency statistics on the wonderful website. The fact that the winning percentage effectively crashes down that bad in crunch time, is evidence of at least some bad luck.

One common explanation for Minnesota's problems in close games is that Rubio is such a horrible shooter that teams play off of him to devote more attention to Love (and to a lesser degree Pekovic). There's something to that theory, but not everything. Otherwise, if that was such an effective defensive strategy, it could be replicated all game and the T-Wolves certainly wouldn't have a top-10 offense.

Furthermore, pretty much everyone on the Wolves' core unit has issues in some way in crunch time, even the great Love, who is no stranger to double teams in other quarters.

The problem doesn't seem to be, to me at least, solely that Rubio can't shoot. Shooting skill from a point guard from long range is something you obviously want, but not everybody can be Steph Curry or Damian Lillard. And it's probably asking too much when your point guard is a passing wizard.

The problem is that he's a subpar finisher who has no midrange game whatsoever to keep the defense honest with. Just take a look at his shot chart for the season. Then, compare it to any point guard in the top half of the league offensively. You'll almost definitely see the zones around the basket and in midrange with better percentages than Rubio. However, in crunch time, his 17 percent field goal percentage is bound to come up, simply because I refuse to believe anyone in the NBA can be such a poor shooter. If it doesn't, then the T-Wolves might honestly be better off benching him in those scenarios.

The good news for Minnesota is not only the likelihood of the close games record improving to the mean, but that the schedule gets a little bit easier as well. If the Wolves keep doing what they've been doing all year, but just improve in those nail-biters, it will probably be enough to make the playoffs, even in the brutal Western Conference.

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