This Timberwolves season has involved some clear trends, with clear reasons for those trends. In the early part of the season, they won a surprising number of games — 8 of their first 16 — largely because of the exceptional team defense played by lineups that included Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett. When that success started to seem unsustainable, the “youth movement” became a greater priority. With more Zach LaVine, and less Prince and KG, we saw better offense, but much, much worse defense. Overall, team performance suffered mightily in the middle months of the season. The consistency of their mid-season slumping is partly evidenced by the same net rating of -5.7 in December and January. To put that in perspective, only 4 teams in the league post worse net ratings than that: the Nets, Suns, Lakers and 76ers.
When LaVine and rookie phenom Karl-Anthony Towns thrived in the spotlight of All-Star Weekend, it seemed like exactly what the doctor ordered; it was not a fun point in time for the Timberwolves, and the youngsters finally had some positivity.
In March, things have seemed to get better; a bit more stabilized. The offense is performing well, and the defense is performing less bad. The Wolves net rating in March is -1.5, which matches November for the best of their season (not counting the +12.5 they posted in 2 October games). My “eye test” has told me that one significant reason for their improved play is that the most athletic players on the team — Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins — have begun to cash in on fast-break scoring opportunities generated by point guard wizard, Ricky Rubio. A common play in recent games has been either a long rebound or outlet pass to Rubio immediately turned into a shove-ahead assist to LaVine or Wiggins, streaking up the floor for a dunk.
Things are far from great, however. That season-best net rating is still negative, after all, and the improved offense has continued to be offset by crappy defense. Again going mostly by eye test, my take has been that the team’s recent lineup of choice — Rubio/LaVine/Wiggins/Dieng/Towns — is not big enough inside to rebound opponent’s missed shots. Sometimes, the ongoing struggle to get rebounds leads to these fast-break opportunities. Basically: opponents are willing to sacrifice some transition defense if it means crushing the Wolves on the glass all night. Add it together, and it ends with the Wolves struggling to keep up in high-scoring games.
So let’s look at the month-to-month numbers and try to spot some trends. Please note that Garnett’s month-to-month minutes played, beginning with November, go 202, 191, 127, 0, and 0. Prince’s go 307, 322, 377, 133, and 161. LaVine’s playing time was stable from November through February, but his position changed from combo (mostly point) guard, to almost exclusively shooting guard in mid-February, when Tyus Jones took over the backup point guard spot. The LaVine/Prince swap (Wiggins moves to the small forward and Prince goes to the bench when LaVine starts at the two) has a huge bearing on offense (better with LaVine), defense (much better with Prince), and pace (much higher with LaVine).
Here are some month-to-month stats to chew on:
Offensive Rating, and Percentage of Points Scored on the Fast Break
November – 100.6, 12.0%
December – 100.9, 11.9%
January – 103.3, 12.4%
February – 111.9, 13.3%
March – 106.4, 16.5%
Here we see a pretty clear and steady rise in fast-break scoring over the past three months. That confirms the eye test off those Rubio passes up the floor to LaVine and Wiggins. We also see much improved team offense in the past two months, which seems to be attributable — at least in part — to the increased fast-break scoring.
Defensive Rating, and Defending Rebounding Percentage
November – 102.2, 78.8
December – 106.6, 74.7
January – 108.9, 73.6
February – 114.4, 76.2
March – 107.9, 70.1
Yikes. This is also mostly confirmation of what we’ve seen on the court in games. The defense, after KG was shut down, has been terrible. For a reference point on those numbers, the two worst defenses in the league are the Suns at 107.5, and the Lakers at 109.4. That’s about the range of the Wolves January and March numbers. Their February defense was almost unconscionably bad, and that happened to coincide with their great offensive outlier. It seems unlikely that these are unrelated. The bad defense probably created some game contexts to allow for some easier scoring.
I also think that the 70.1 defensive rebounding percentage in March is an important number because that coincides with the major uptick in fast-break scoring. For the season, the league range of defensive rebounding percentage is 72.4 (Bucks) to 79.9 (Hornets). In other words, the Wolves recent lineup that fast breaks so much is horrible at defensive rebounding. This corroborates that the poor rebounding invites opponents to crash the boards and surrender more fast break points. On the flipside, it shows that the outstanding defensive rebounding in November, when KG played more, correlated with much less fast breaking.
Opponent Effective Field Goal Percentage
November – 51.1%
December – 52.6%
January – 52.5%
February – 53.9%
March – 53.5%
The league range of opponent EFG% is 47.4 (Spurs) to 52.8 (Nets). So, the Wolves have been doing a terrible job of defending shots for most of the season, but especially so in February and March. This stat has been steadier than the others, which suggests that the quality of their defense up until a shot goes up has less to do with the fast breaking stats than the rebounding stats might. One thing to note about the terrible opponent EFG% in March: the Wolves are allowing more second-chance points in March (14.8) than they did in February (13.3). Assuming that 1.5-point increase involves a lot of easy tip-in type shots, that might suggest that the Wolves pre-opponent-shot defense has been better in March than it was in February, but the rebounding has just been worse.
What to do with this information?
Well, we — “we” — need to find out what parts of the March improvement are legitimate and sustainable, what parts are not, and how the Wolves can improve their roster in the upcoming offseason. Ideally, they would maintain the fast-break scoring (most of it anyway) while getting the defense of shots under control, and REALLY doing something about the horrific defensive rebounding.
The Towns-Dieng front line has a defensive rebounding percentage of 73.3 in 972 minutes. (Close the league-worst level of 72.4.) It seems like they give up a lot of size against the typical starting 4/5 pairing, and that this is a big cause of the problems. Until KAT gets bigger and stronger — and I suspect he will look a LOT different in 4 years than he does now — I’d like to see him playing more power forward, next to a center that can help protect the rim and rebound defensively. Basically, what Garnett was doing in small minutes before they shut him down.
It’s a bit of an abstract discussion because we can’t know who might be realistically available in trades, or what free agents might be open to joining the Timberwolves. But the season leaders in defensive rebound percentage tend to be centers:
For free agents, Tom Ziller posted a handy resource a while back. Link here. You’ll see some defender/rebounder centers on that list that the Wolves would be smart to pursue.
That’s just the interior defense and rebounding, though. The next part is keeping the fast-break offense, while somehow improving the perimeter defense. To me, that really gets into the heart of the coaching and development question, because LaVine and Wiggins need to become better defenders, and the entire scheme needs to improve.
Mitchell has been outspoken about the improvement that is taking place, but the numbers generally paint a different picture on the defensive end. Their February defense was comically bad. Their March defense is really bad, too, with the caveat already noted that it might be more of a defensive rebounding issue than it was earlier in the season.
In any event, it seems like they need to address the center position via roster change, and address everything else via coaching and development. They need to continue to boost their offense via Rubio’s transition passing and the speed and explosiveness of LaVine and Wiggins, but with better defense from the latter two players. I’m hoping that Tom Thibodeau is the next coach because I think he’d be able to get all of this accomplished. It is possible that Mitchell can too, but it seems much less certain based on the regression on defense that we’ve seen over the course of this season.