One Team, Three Stats: Late-game issues for Wolves

Have the Minnesota Timberwolves been a disappointment, or were we expecting too much too early?

The Wolves have a slew of young talent that was already good offensively. And this summer, they hired Tom Thibodeau, who coached seven straight top-five defenses (from 2007-08 through ’13-14) when you count his years in Boston (as an assistant) and Chicago (as head coach). Put those two things together and you have a team that should take a big leap forward and contend for the franchise’s first playoff berth in 13 years.

Not so fast. The Wolves are one of eight teams that have improved in both offensive and defensive efficiency, but late-game issues have them struggling to take a step forward in the standings. Through Wednesday, they sit in 13th place in the Western Conference, six games in the win column behind the eighth-place Portland Trail Blazers.

The Basics – Minnesota Timberwolves (6-15)

Pace: 98.2 (20th)

OffRtg: 105.6 (10th)

DefRtg: 106.9 (26th)

NetRtg: -1.3 (15th)

Timberwolves links: Team stats | Player stats | Player shooting | Lineups

If the Wolves want to stay within reach of a playoff spot, things need to turn around quickly. But they’re still in the middle of a stretch where 11 of 12 games are against teams currently over .500. So far, they’re 1-5 in that stretch, which continues with a visit to Toronto in the first game of TNT’s double-header on Thursday (7 p.m. ET).

Here are a few numbers to know about the Wolves’ first 21 games…

No. 1

The Wolves are 2-8 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter.

That is the league’s worst mark in close games. Even the Philadelphia 76ers (3-9) have been better.

The Wolves lost their first six games that were within five points in the last five minutes. They have won two of their last four, but their late-game problems have been holding them back.

The Wolves have the point differential (minus-1.5 points per game) of a team that’s 9-12, not 6-15. That discrepancy between their “expected” wins (based on point differential) and their actual wins is the largest in the league. Thus far, the Wolves are the anti-Grizzlies (winners of close games, losers of blowouts).

In fact, the Wolves are 1-2 against the Grizzlies, having outscored Memphis by 10 points over the three games. (It’s worth noting that neither Mike Conley nor Marc Gasol played in Minnesota’s Nov. 1, 36-point victory).

For the season, the Wolves are 1-9 in games determined by single digits and 5-6 in games determined by 10 points or more. That’s how you get such a discrepancy between your point differential and your record.

But how do you struggle so much late in games? The Wolves rank 23rd offensively and 22nd defensively in the clutch. Their defense has issues throughout the game (see below), so the bigger difference late has been with their offense.

Karl-Anthony Towns (7-for-21), Zach LaVine (5-for-15) and Gorgui Dieng (2-for-7) have all shot poorly in the clutch. Those are small sample sizes and the shooting numbers may turn around, but the Wolves’ lack of assists late in games is a concern. They’ve assisted on only 38 percent of their buckets in the clutch and have more clutch-time turnovers (14) than assists.

No. 2

The Wolves have allowed their opponents to score 1.22 points per possession in transition, the highest rate in the league.

Thibodeau has not made the same impact in Minnesota that he made in his first season in Chicago, when he took a Bulls defense that ranked 10th under Vinny Del Negro and turned it into the No. 1 defense in the league. The 2010-11 Bulls didn’t lead the league in defense at this point in the season, but were in the top 10 on that end of the floor. Seeing a Thibodeau team rank in the bottom five defensively is a strange sight.

You can’t really blame the early schedule. The Wolves have played one of the tougher schedules in the league so far, but their first 21 games have come against better defensive teams than offensive teams. Only five of the 21 games have been against teams that currently rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency, while nine have been against teams that currently rank in the bottom 10.

Improvement has to come from within, and it can start in transition. According to SportVU, the Wolves have allowed their opponents to get 15.1 percent of their shots in the first six seconds of the shot clock, the second highest rate in the league.

Preventing those early-shot-clock attempts is important. League-wide, effective field goal percentage drops from 61 percent in the first six seconds of the shot clock to 50 percent with 7-18 seconds on the clock and to just 43 percent in the last six seconds. For the Wolves, preventing early shots is extra important, because their opponents have an effective field goal percentage of 68.3 percent in the first six seconds of the clock and 49.2 percent thereafter.

Better transition defense has to start with the starters. Among rotation players, they have the team’s highest on-court marks for opponent fast break points per 36 minutes.

No. 3

The Wolves have been 13.4 points per 100 possessions better with Ricky Rubio off the floor than they’ve been with him on the floor.

If you’ve paid attention to the Wolves over the last five seasons, you would know that this is the most bizarre thing about the team’s first six weeks. Over the years, Minnesota has generally been at its best with Rubio on the floor.

Last season, the Wolves saw improvement when LaVine was moved to shooting guard and starting playing more alongside Rubio. LaVine had the numbers of one of the league’s best shooters when he was on the floor with the starting point guard.

This year, LaVine’s shooting numbers have still been better with Rubio on the floor, but the Wolves have been bad with the two in the game together. And the Wolves’ starting lineup, with its young talent and the guy that’s typically been a difference maker at point guard, has been outscored by 9.1 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark among 33 lineups that have played at least 100 minutes. The same five-man unit was a plus-3.9 points per 100 possessions last season.

The starting lineup has been particularly brutal (minus-31.8 points per 100 possessions) in the third quarter, forcing Thibodeau to go to his bench a little quicker. It hasn’t really worked, as the third-quarter Wolves have the worst point differential (minus-27.8 points per 100 possessions) of any team in any quarter this season (though the third-quarter Nets are right on their heels). Going back to 1996-97 (when play-by-play data was first tracked), no team has been outscored by more than 20 points per 100 possessions in a quarter over a full season.

When you think of the Wolves, you don’t think of their bench. But they have the league’s fourth best *aggregate bench NetRtg at plus-8.9, a mark that trails only those of three of the six best teams in the league.

* Aggregate bench NetRtg takes the on-court point differential per 100 possessions for guys who come off the bench and weights it by minutes played.

Nobody on the Wolves’ bench has had a particularly great season. But the team’s most successful two-man combinations have all included at least one reserve.

If this trend continues, it will be interesting to see if Thibodeau makes a lineup change or at least staggers the minutes of his starting lineup more than he has. As it is, LaVine is the only starter that plays a lot of minutes with the bench.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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