The State of the Timberwolves
by Rafael Uehara
The Timberwolves are the textbook definition of an average team. After Wednesday night’s win over New Orleans, Minnesota is now posting a .500 winning percentage on 32 games against what basketball-reference.com ranks as the 12th toughest schedule in the league. The team ranks 11th in pace-adjusted point differential, indicating it should be atop the average tier of the league rather than having won three fewer games than the Mavericks and a couple fewer than the Hawks. That point-differential might be too heavily weighted by 18+-point home victories over the Cavaliers, Celtics and Nets in the first month but its bottom line have also been affected more than expected by bad outcomes in close games. According to nba.com/stats/, Minnesota has a stunning minus-20.5 pace-adjusted point differential in 59 minutes of clutch time, defined as a five-point game with five minutes remaining. They have lost 11 of 18 such games. The Timberwolves have allowed 117 points per 100 possessions in those 59 minutes but the team’s most used lineup in such situations is its starting lineup, its most used lineup overall and it’s allowing a much healthier 103.6 points per 100 possessions in 644 minutes.
Watching them play, the record sure seems about right. Minnesota has an elite offense thanks to a potent starting unit, held down a bit by Ricky Rubio’s and Corey Brewer’s lack of shooting but not much as the former manages to contribute with elite shot creation and the latter with transition scoring. The problem is much more evident in the team’s alternate lineups. According to nbawowy.com, with both Kevin Martin and Kevin Love off the floor for a total for a total of 519 possessions, Minnesota has averaged just 0.94 point per shot on 44.4% effective shooting, dragged down by a lousy 31.9% on three-point shooting. Some of its pure bad luck, as Chase Budinger got injured very early in training camp. Some of it is simple poor planning, as the Timberwolves had two mid-first round picks in the 2013 and opted for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, who have logged a combined 137 minutes, rather than Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Reggie Bullock, who don’t possess great potential but projected to be more helpful right away. Alexey Shved looked like a capable shooter in the European game but has been quite bad in his season-plus in the NBA, which has resulted in the limited Robbie Hummel getting a chance to make the rotation for a brief period before Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was acquired in the Derrick Williams trade. When Brewer is particularly terrible a particular night, Rick Adelman has gone with JJ Barea closing games with Rubio and Martin in the perimeter. Barea is a capable shooter but despite his volume gunning, has never been much more than borderline average.
But Love’s second-team all-pro type of season has maintained the team’s overall offense a juggernaut, despite its mediocre performance (90.6 points per 100 possessions) whenever he sits. Everyone is aware of the numbers he posts but I actually believe Love to remain an underrated player. He is quite literally a complete offensive player. He is a great scorer on the post, shoots a high percentage on a lot of attempts from three-point range, gets to the foul line in volume, generates lots of second chances and is a tremendous high post passer. LeBron James can do all those things at the level Love does. And then who else? Arguably, no one else. That’s something that should be mentioned more often. Lately, Love’s lack of success carrying the Timberwolves to the playoffs have been in discussion, which is incredibly unfair. Love is in his sixth year. Forget for a second that it’s not as if he has been this great a player for his entire six years in the league. He missed 64 games last season, had a Rubio-Pekovic-Ridnour-Derrick Williams-Beasley-Wes Johnson-Ellington-Anthony Randolph-Milicic supporting the cast the year before, was coach by Kurt Rambis the two years before that and before that it was his rookie season. Case closed.
Defensively, has been surprisingly decent despite their lack of talent, ranking 14th in scoring allowed per possessions, rather than bottom 10 as yours truly expected before the season. Rubio is their top eight’s single above average defender, with his long arms and outstanding instincts jumping passing lanes. Dante Cunningham is smart and disciplined but can’t anchor a unit. Providing little rim protection, Love and Nikola Pekovic compose a below average frontcourt (although I don’t think they are much worse than that). Broadcasters are quick to point out Brewer’s effort defending on the ball but he is horrible on the weakside. And I do mean horrible, often costing the team points by leaking out sometimes even before they have secured the ball yet. Martin probably allows as many points as he scores on most nights. As everyone could see coming, Ronny Turiaf has been hurt since the second game. Shved doesn’t play very hard. Barea does but is limited. And Mbah a Moute hasn’t been much of a significant presence.
As of January, the 2nd, Minnesota is three games behind Dallas for the eighth seed, with a two-week stretch of games that features Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Charlotte, San Antonio, Sacramento and Toronto. It is not schedule to play a two-week sequence of games considered weak the rest of the season, except maybe in early March, pending on how New York and Denver look then. It’s unclear how Budinger will look upon his return but he is expected to at least provide more quality minutes than Shved, Mbah a Moute and Hummel. Other than his return, perhaps Brewer hitting up from the corner like in the second half of last season or Rubio suddenly start scoring at the rim, there isn’t much internal improvement to be had with this group. The tendency is for their record in close games to discontinue being as bad but shouldn’t represent that positive a swing either.
Considering some of the teams in their tier, the Timberwolves are not in a terrible position if they opt to enter the trade market. They owe their 2014 first round pick to Phoenix (reward for the Suns taking on the final year of Wes Johnson’s rookie deal, so that the ‘Wolves could fit Andrei Kirilenko into the cap) but that pick is only protected until 2016, according to realgm.com, so their 2017 and 2019 picks are available while they also maintain the right to offer swapping picks in 2018 and 2020. They have extra second round picks coming from New Orleans, Golden State and Denver in the next three years and second round picks have become real assets, as SB Nation’s Mark Deeks breaks down here. The rights to passing power forward Nemanja Bjelica and stretch four Bojan Dubljevic could also be appealing to a couple of teams with a strong international scouting department and thinking long-term. But Minnesota’s top asset if they were to be creative is Pekovic. After re-signing for a five-year deal worth $60 million in the summer, Pekovic is posting essentially the exact same numbers he did a year ago, just with a lot fewer people talking about it. But the combination of his and Love’s subpar interior defense just isn’t optimal long-term. Saunders should be open-minded about the possibility of dealing Pekovic in exchange for a rim protector to pair Love with. Omer Asik is available and the ‘Wolves engaging the Rockets and a third team for a trade involving both centers and the third team coughing up a first round pick seem like a natural thing to suggest but it’s not as simple, though. Pekovic is a superb scorer, the type that is hard to give up unless you absolutely have to, never more evident that in the team’s loss to Clippers a couple of Sundays ago, when he had 34 points and 14 rebounds to go with Love’s 45 points and 19 rebounds. Of importance as well is the fact that Love has the option to become a free agent as soon as the summer of 2015 and some speculate the relationship between the franchise and its top player has been damaged beyond repair by the David Kahn era. Though a guy like Asik is extremely impactful in a good team looking to become great, he is far less appealing in a rebuilding situation, not to mention that he could bolt in free agency that same summer as well. Taking the gamble of trading Pekovic might be the only path the franchise has of acquiring the high end rim protector that gives it the better chance of upgrading its contention status right now, however.
If Minnesota opts not to risk the bird in the hand (a monster scoring center locked into a reasonable contract for four more years) or simply can’t make a trade work (trades are in general naturally hard to close), strengthening the wing should be considered, with the assumed (we never really know who is available at what price) trade market for swingmen featuring Evan Turner, maybe DeMar DeRozan, Steve Novak, Courtney Lee, OJ Mayo, maybe Wilson Chandler, Marvin Williams, Marcus Thornton, maybe Eric Gordon, Ben Gordon and maybe Arron Afflalo; all guys that would be expected to improve the ‘Wolves, some a lot more than others.
For now, this team is doing exactly what should have been expected of them; battle for the eight seed. Higher expectations are misguided. At its core, this is a team with a great player, two very good ones, an overpaid specialist and weak depth around them. Average play seems about right. Taking into consideration the history of the franchise before Kevin Garnett arrived and since he departed, managing to realistically compete for a postseason berth the entire season, let alone succeeding in clinching one, would already be one of the most successful seasons in team history.