The natural reaction to Flip Saunders’ decision to effectively replace Andrei Kirilenko with Kevin Martin is this:
Good for offense, but BAAAAAAAAAD for defense.
While I don’t fully trust individual defensive statistics — it’s far too much of a team endeavor, reliant on things like scheme, need to double team to account for other matchup problems, etc — there is some value in looking at on/off numbers. Specifically, we can see how teams defend with a given player on the court, and compare it to how they defend when he is off.
First things first:
Last year’s Timberwolves ranked 14th out of 30 in defensive rating, giving up 102.9 points per 100 possessions. The Indiana Pacers were tops in the league (96.6) and the Charlotte Bobcats were the worst (108.9). The Wolves were almost exactly in between those extremes both by rank and by the measure itself.
Second things second:
The Timberwolves allowed 102.8 points per 100 possessions with Andrei Kirilenko on the floor; a titch better than when he was off of it (103.1). Somewhat interestingly, the Wolves were noticeably better on defense when Chase Budinger was on the floor (99.1). The With-Chase rating would’ve been good for 3rd in the entire league.
Third things third:
The Thunder were 3.9 points worse per 100 on defense when Kevin Martin was on the floor. That’s the bad. The good is that the Thunder still only allowed 101.0 points/100 with the new TWolf out there defending; a rating that would rank tied for 9th in the league and better than the Timberwolves — even the Timberwolves when AK47 was out on the court.
It’s difficult to draw any, right now. Chase’s favorable rating seems like fluky small sample size. In the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12, while playing with Martin on the Rockets, Budinger’s team was 0.8 points/100 worse on defense with him on the court. Coincidentally, on that same team, Martin had the exact same on/off defensive split of 102.6 while on (slightly better than last year’s Wolves) and 101.8 while off.
Regarding Kirilenko’s average-looking splits, I think it’s safe to say he’s cast in an unfair light. If you watched last year’s Wolves you saw how valuable he was on that end of the floor, routinely defending the top two-through-four scorer on the other team. He seemed expertly trained in calling out switches and anticipating passes. There is little doubt that Kirilenko-to-Martin is a significant blow to the Timberwolves defense.
The hope is that the 2013-14 Timberwolves will be an offensive juggernaut that wins with scoring. Last year’s Knicks won 54 games with a worse defense than Minnesota’s. Houston and Brooklyn were mediocre on defense, yet in the playoffs. For extreme optimism, look back at the Seven Seconds or Less Suns that won 60-plus games and contended for titles with mediocre defense.
Point is, there’s more than one way to win games. I expect a defensive dip, but hope it’s only a point or so in defensive rating. If newly discovered health and shooting ability can lead to a major rise in offense (ranked 6th to last, last year) the net result could be the first playoff appearance in a decade.