The Timberwolves: The Trauma Ward

The Numbers

  •  Average Seed
  • 📉 Pessimist
    20.3 wins
  •  Realist
    33.9 wins
  • 📈 Optimist
    47.5 wins
 First Seed
⋆ Division
 Top 4
👍 Over (41)
ğŸ‘Ž Under (41)
ğŸŽ€ Playoffs

Kindnesses are easily forgotten; but injuries! what worthy man does not keep those in mind?

William Makepeace Thackeray

The Brief

The Timberwolves could have had something. They could have been contenders. Instead they'll be lucky to be fighting for the privilege of letting the Spurs or Rockets trounce them in the first round (while Popp plays with a couple of playoff lineups or McHale gives Asik some good run). The main (but not only) reason for this is that Flip Saunders overcompensated for last year's horrendous three-point shooting by letting Andre Kirilenko go.

The Story

Last year, during the offseason, I (in)famously proclaimed that the Timberwolves had a shot at 57 wins. Arturo's guess was at 52.7. I was so sure of this that I was upset that I couldn't make it to Vegas in time to put a fortune on the over/under of 38 wins. When a friend offered to bet the under at 43 against me, I felt sorry for him.  

And then, knuckle pushups happened. That was obviously a setback, but I still held out hope that 43 was achievable, because they had depth. Then, players started dropping like flies. Meniscus tears (Budinger), back spasms (Kirilenko), bionic knees (no one really thought Roy would be a star again but I was hoping they'd get 40 games out of him), and ankle sprains (Pekovic). Hell, even the guys they brought in to replace the injured guys got hurt; Josh Howard and Malcolm Lee each tore an ACL.

At one point during the season, the Wolves had Kevin Love, Nicola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, Chase Budinger, and Andre Kirilenko on the bench in street clothes. They had a playoff team on the sidelines watching. You can't make this stuff up.

Last Year

  •  Actual Wins: 31
  •  Expected Wins: 34.4
  • ⚅ Lucky Wins: -3.9
Player Minutes Age WP48 Wins
Luke Ridnour  2474 33 .070 3.6
Andrei Kirilenko  2034 32 .252 10.7
Dante Cunningham   2010 26 .069 2.9
Nikola Pekovic   1959 28 .144 5.9
Derrick Williams   1916 22 -.009 -.4
Alexey Shved   1840 25 .018 .7
J.J. Barea   1713 29 -.006 -.2
Ricky Rubio   1691 23 .169 6.0
Greg Stiemsma  1209 28 .004 .1
Mickael Gelabale   644 30 .175 2.3
Kevin Love   618 25 .077 1.0
Chase Budinger   508 25 .054 .6
Malcolm Lee  289 23 .090 .5
Chris Johnson   284 28 .160 1.3
Josh Howard   207 33 -.013 -.1
Louis Amundson  161 30 -.026 -.1
Brandon Roy   122 29 -.029 -.1
Lazar Hayward  31 27 -.063 0
Will Conroy   20 30 -.766 -.3

 Indicates that the player is no longer with the team.

  • 34.4 total Wins Produced
  •  6 players leaving
    (6198 minutes, 14.8 wins)

The main consequence of losing both Love and Budinger for most of the season was that their three point shooting was awful. A team can win in the NBA without having fantastic three-point shooting but it's nearly impossible to win unless it has at least mediocre shooters outside.

A rational person might conclude that when Love and/or Budinger return, this situation would rectify itself. No need to panic. And other than injuries, the big problem the Wolves had all season was at shooting guard. Almost all of the minutes there were played by point guards, most notably Ridnour but at times also Barea. So, all they needed to do was sign a good two guard (or let Chase play the 2), get healthy players back, and away we go! ...Right?

The coaches and general managers of the teams you follow are not rational actors.

This Year

  •  Projected Wins: 33.9
  •  Conference Rank: 10
  • % Playoffs: 26.9
Player Position Minutes Age WP48 Wins
Kevin Love   4.5 2727 25 .255 14.5
Kevin Martin  2.0 2627 31 .099 5.4
Chase Budinger   2.7 2257 25 .113 5.3
Ricky Rubio   1.6 2043 23 .177 7.5
Nikola Pekovic   5.0 1969 28 .106 4.4
Jose Barea  1.3 1583 29 .016 .5
Derrick Williams   3.9 1387 22 .029 .9
A.J. Price  1.0 1278 26 .079 2.1
Alexey Shved   2.2 1209 25 .025 .6
Corey Brewer  2.6 989 27 .032 .7
Ronny Turiaf  4.9 802 31 .100 1.7
Shabazz Muhammad  3.0 677 21 .001 0
Dante Cunningham   3.9 528 26 .074 .8
Gorgui Dieng  5.0 398 24 .016 .1
Lorenzo Brown  1.0 282 23 .009 .1
Chris Johnson   4.6 194 28 .089 .4

 Indicates that the player is new to the team.

  • 📅 26.7 WP last year
    by these players
  • 🔀 -8.9 WP (roster changes)
  • ⏲ 17.0 WP (age/experience)

In the offseason, Flip signed Kevin Martin to a 3-year, $24 million contract. As good as Kevin Martin is offensively, we don't think there is a big difference between him and Luke Ridnour defensively, so this seemed like a sideways step. It got worse, however; he also signed Chase Budinger to a 3-year, $15 million contract. There are two big problems with this:

  • Both players serve essentially the same function, especially within the context of Adelman's offense. Both have defensive deficincies.
  • Signing both players used up so much cap room that it was nearly impossible to offer AK-47 a contract that would keep him here

Players like Andre Kirilenko are extremely important. It's true that his outside shot isn't the greatest. But isn't that what the team was paying Kevin Love and Chase Budinger for? Every player on the team does not need to be a three-point threat. Worse, the team signed Corey Brewer, who's basically a poor man's Andre Kirilenko. In the same way that my Hyundai Elantra is a poor man's Ferrari. It frankly amazes me that Corey Brewer is still in the NBA. He has somehow managed to get a reputation as a solid defender, despite the fact that he's a horrible defender who displays an astounding lack of judgment. He helps when he should stay on his man (i.e. when guarding a deadly corner 3pt-shooter) and commits terrible fouls (if he is such a great defender, why does he commit so many fouls?). Unlike Kirilenko, he doesn't make up for his poor outside shooting by being a great passer or great rebounder.

In short, and this should not surprise us from a team chosen by Flip Saunders, it's obvious that the Timberwolves don't employ many people who put much faith in advanced stats.

Projected Playoff Rotation: KLove, KMart, Rubio,Pek, Budinger, JJ and a great opportunity to listen to Pop humiliate some hapless sideline reporter in.

The Wrap

But the news may not all be bad. I'm a little more optimistic than Arturo is about Martin, Pekovic, and Cunningham. Cunningham will improve by reverting to his 7th-man role; he'll likely get fewer chances to take ill-advised shots from the top of the key, since there will be better offensive players surrounding him. Pekovic will be healthier. Martin will get to the free throw line again now that he isn't just a spot-up target for Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant. And notice that the variance is extremely high in our models; It's the highest in our database. In other words, it's really hard to tell what versions of these players will trot out on the court this year.

As a fan, I kind of like that. I'll just focus in on that optimistic 47.5.

The biggest problem with this roster (besides how fragile it is at the top) is how shallow it is. The top five account for 37 wins by themselves. If roster spots 6-15 were any good this team would be much more likely to contend. I actually think a healthy version of this team would be a very dangerous round 1 opponent, particularly if Kevin Love gets back to form.

But it's going to be really hard for them to survive the season out west and make it there. The lesson is that drafting well and making smart small signings can make a huge difference.