Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota Timberwolves’

McHale, Saunders Face Off In Role Reversal

A hot Houston Rockets team will play the banged up-and-sputtering Timberwolves on a cold Monday night in Minnesota (8 ET, NBA TV). Three of the Western Conference’s 12 All-Stars will be on hand – Dwight Howard and James Harden for the Rockets, Kevin Love for the Wolves if he’s able to play through the thigh bruise that sidelined him Saturday. And the visitors who have won five in a row will challenge the hosts who have lost five of their last six.

Pretty straightforward stuff – except there will be a subplot in play, too, one that seems bounced off a funhouse mirror to those familiar with the history:

Kevin McHale, NBA coach vs. Flip Saunders, CBO (chief basketball officer).

“I don’t think anyone anticipated, 37 years out of college, that’s how it would be,” Saunders said.

Clear early path for duo

Minnesota Timberwolves

Ex-Wolves GM Kevin McHale (left) and ex-coach Flip Saunders led Minnesota to new heights of success in the 2000s.

For a decade – from 1995 to 2005 – the two were partners in the best stretch in Wolves franchise history, stringing together eight playoff appearances and advancing to the Western Conference finals in 2004. They traveled together to Kevin Garnett‘s first audition/workout in Chicago and walked out of the gym mapping their draft strategy.

McHale and Saunders pulled long hours on Draft nights, at least when they had their full set of picks – the Joe Smith salary-cap scandal in 2000 happened on their watch, costing the team three first-rounders as part of the penalties. And the pair, despite some differences in temperament and style, generally presented a unified front.

Always, though, it was McHale sitting upstairs, Saunders working the sideline.

McHale never had wanted to coach. Saunders never seemed to want to do anything but. The former, upon retiring in 1993 after his 13-season Hall of Fame career in Boston, served as color man on Wolves broadcasts until new owner Glen Taylor hired him as VP of basketball operations in 1995. McHale had done the day-to-day grind of NBA life. He had a family to raise, a lake home in Minnesota and an NBA team to run but at something less than a frenetic pace.

Saunders aspired to be a coach from the start, taking the job at Golden Valley Lutheran College right out of school – he was McHale’s point guard for a year (1976-77) at the University of Minnesota – rather than hold a clipboard on some other coach’s staff. He did spend a chunk of the 1980s as an assistant at Minnesota and the University of Tulsa but was in the CBA from 1988-95 in Rapid City (S.D.), La Crosse (Wis.) and Sioux Falls (S.D.). Saunders won two championships, two Coach of the Year awards and 253 games in seven seasons.

His hiring by McHale in 1995 was a foregone conclusion and the realization of a dream that flickered on about the time Minnesota got its expansion franchise. You get the VP job, I’ll come in as coach. Or I’ll hire you to coach when I take get my shot in the front office.

Either way, it was the the natural, logical order of things.

Until the Wolves slipped badly from their 2003-04 peak. On Feb. 12, 2005, at 25-26 after a lifeless loss at Utah the night before, McHale fired Saunders and took over as interim coach.

The move was a stunner but triggered a 19-12 finish and a narrow miss of the playoffs that Minnesota hasn’t had since. McHale went back upstairs for four years before doing the interim thing again in December 2008. This time – with less talent provided by architect McHale but an intriguing rookie named Love – the Wolves went 20-43.

When Taylor turned to David Kahn in spring 2009 to run the basketball operation – an odd hire that got worse from there – McHale was out.

Duo enjoys new life in new roles


VIDEO: Flip Saunders is introduced as the Wolves new GM

Saunders during all this time had kept landing on his feet, his thick offensive playbook accompanying him to Detroit and Washington. The Pistons won 176 games in three seasons for him, reaching the East finals each time before president Joe Dumars canned him. The Washington gig changed beneath him when Gilbert Arenas went outlaw in the locker room, and the Wizards’ plan of contending got turned by a swift purge of knuckleads into a rebuild.

That led to two more stunning moves: McHale returning to coaching and Saunders returning to the Wolves.

Both had strong elements of righting wrongs.

McHale’s wit and personality were serving him well as an analyst for TNT and NBA TV, but all the jokes and chatter felt like riding the team bus without any real games. Larry Bird came back this season with a competitive itch and that’s what his old Celtics teammate is scratching these days too.

“I think the years out of it, he missed the fight,” said Rockets assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who also was on McHale’s Minnesota staff in 2008-09. “He missed the competition. I think that pushed him. You sit in meetings with him, you hear the stories about what it was like competing for championships. And you can see it in him every day.”

Howard appreciates the Top 50 big man who tutored Love and Al Jefferson. “He’s been through the battles,” Howard said. “He understands the grind of an NBA season. So when we have those games where we’re not making shots, he doesn’t come in and off on us. He says what we need to do.”


VIDEO: Kevin McHale talks with GameTime about the challenges of coaching

Said McHale: “It’s more taxing but it’s more fun. You live and die it when you’re a GM, too, really. Now you’ve got more control. I really enjoy it. We’re having a great time in Texas. I really enjoy the guys.”

In Minnesota, Saunders’ return in essentially McHale’s old job – with a sliver of minority ownership – came through his skill in never burning bridges and, frankly, Taylor’s desperation to bring in someone he knew after the Kahn debacle. The Wolves owner was on the brink of selling before Saunders convinced him they should recommit together.

This job isn’t what he loves most about basketball – Saunders often has said of coaching, “There are no highs that are as high and no lows that are as low” – but it’s one that suits him now. And it has way better job security, as Dumars continues to demonstrate in Detroit.

“What makes this more frustrating is that you really don’t have control,” Saunders said, offering the, er, flip side of McHale’s comment. “The coach is the one who watches the film and decides, ‘What do we have to do to get better?’ People ask if I miss it. What’s happened is, we’ve had so many things since I took over to change our vision.”

Friendship frays over the years

Saunders inherited a Hall of Fame-worthy coach, Rick Adelman, with his own proven system and a team still relying on three McHale acquisitions: Love, Nikola Pekovic and Corey Brewer, the 2007 draft pick back for a second stint. Saunders’ own first draft went sideways when the players he eyed at No. 9 were off the board; in an audible, he picked and shipped Trey Burke to Utah for what became Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, neither of whom have shown much in limited roles.

Injuries (Love, Pekovic, key free-agent addition Kevin Martin) are a problem lately, and at 24-27 in the West, the goal of a postseason berth looks lofty, even as Love’s 2015 opt-out makes it urgent.

Saunders’ and McHale’s paths crossed a few times when they were in their previous positions – McHale upstairs, Saunders in Detroit or Washington – and once with both on the sidelines. The Rockets beat the Wizards at the Verizon Center, 114-106, a week before Saunders’ got fired and turned to an ESPN TV job for a spell.

At Target Center Monday, besides the role reversals, there will be another big change: the loss of their friendship. Maybe it’s as simple as what can happen when one pal becomes another pal’s boss, but little or no niceties pass between them anymore.

“We talk,” Saunder said earlier this season. “When I got the job, he reached out and congratulated me. [The friendship] is not the same, more than anything else, because of where we’re both at. It’s an awkward istuation for someone in my position to be calling and talking to another team’s coach. Even though I talk a lot to Doc [Rivers].”

Asked about it over the weekend in Milwaukee, McHale shrugged.

Two friends who came a long way together have grown quite a ways apart, doing what they love in the other man’s role.

Timberwolves Catch The Injury Bug


VIDEO: Kevin Martin’s Injury

By Jonathan Hartzell, NBA.com

The injury bug which is currently being felt by the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs now seems to have found its way to Minnesota.

All-Star forward Kevin Love will miss tonight’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers with a left quad contusion. Love reportedly suffered the injury in Friday night’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.

Joining Love on the bench is second-leading scorer Kevin Martin, who broke his left thumb Friday night. Martin is averaging 19.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game for the Timberwolves.

Center Nikola Pekovic will miss his sixth straight game with bursitis in his right ankle.

The Timberwolves’ offense has sputtered as of late, and injuries to their top two scorers certainly won’t help. At 24-26, Minnesota will need to weather through this storm if they hope to still be in the playoff conversation come March.

Pistons Can’t Hit From Outside

The List

Lowest effective field goal percentage from outside the paint

Team FGM FGA FG% %FGA EFG%
Detroit 585 1,791 32.7% 44.4% 40.5%
Charlotte 757 2,139 35.4% 52.7% 41.9%
Chicago 722 2,044 35.3% 52.7% 42.2%
Minnesota 728 2,144 34.0% 50.6% 42.5%
Philadelphia 633 1,866 33.9% 43.2% 42.9%

%FGA = Percentage of total field goal attempts
Effective field goal percentage = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

The Context

Who would have thought that the worst jump-shooting team in the league would be the one starting Josh Smith at small forward?

The Pistons rank 29th in mid-range field goal percentage (34.8 percent) and dead last in 3-point percentage (30.6 percent). They’re the third worst 3-point shooting team of the last 10 years, ahead of only last season’s Timberwolves (30.5 percent) and the 2011-12 Bobcats (29.5 percent).

It doesn’t help that the Pistons start the erratic Brandon Jennings and the inexperienced Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the backcourt. In fact, all 10 Pistons who have attempted at least 45 shots from outside the paint have shot them at a level below the league average.

But Smith is the main culprit, having taken 350 shots from outside the paint, with a brutal effective field goal percentage of 34.4 percent.

Pistons shooting from outside the paint

Player FGM FGA FG% %FGA EFG%
Brandon Jennings 139 420 33.1% 60.5% 42.9%
Josh Smith 101 350 28.9% 49.2% 34.4%
Rodney Stuckey 84 215 39.1% 48.2% 42.6%
K. Caldwell-Pope 67 211 31.8% 65.5% 41.7%
Kyle Singler 49 153 32.0% 49.8% 45.1%
Will Bynum 34 91 37.4% 44.4% 43.4%
Greg Monroe 25 84 29.8% 15.9% 29.8%
Gigi Datome 19 66 28.8% 82.5% 33.3%
Chauncey Billups 21 62 33.9% 82.7% 45.2%
Charlie Villanueva 12 45 26.7% 69.2% 36.7%
Others 34 94 36.2% 15.7% 47.9%
Total 585 1,791 32.7% 44.4% 40.5%
League Avg. 793 2,111 37.6% 52.8% 46.2%

The issues of playing Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond together have been addressed in this space before. Of late, the defense hasn’t been as bad as it was earlier in the season, and coach Mo Cheeks isn’t playing the three bigs together as much, but the Pistons still struggle to score with them all on the floor together.

Pistons efficiency with Smith, Monroe and Drummond on the floor

Months GP MIN MIN/G OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Oct.-November 16 300 18.8 100.2 106.7 -6.5 -29
December 17 331 19.5 102.0 111.7 -9.7 -50
Jan.- February 14 203 14.5 101.3 105.3 -4.0 -21
Total 47 834 17.7 101.2 108.3 -7.1 -100

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

So it seems clear that, with the trade deadline now only 15 days away, the Pistons should think hard about shaking things up. Reportedly, they’d prefer to move Smith, who’s in the first year of a four-year, $54 million deal. Obviously, they’d have an easier time finding a taker for Monroe, who’s in the last year of his rookie contract.

Any team trading for Smith would obviously do so with the intent of playing him (primarily) at power forward. But moving Smith to the four on a permanent basis (with the Pistons or some other team) isn’t necessarily going to keep him from shooting jumpers.

Smith has played 834 minutes with Monroe and Drummond. He’s played 97 minutes with *other combinations where you could say he’s the small forward. And he’s played 717 minutes at the four.

* Combinations of Monroe, Drummond, Josh Harrellson, Jonas Jerebko and Charlie Villanueva.

And in those 717 minutes, Smith has attempted about the same percentage of his shots from outside the paint as he has when he’s played the three.

Josh Smith shooting from outside the paint

Position FGM FGA FG% %FGA EFG%
At SF 48 193 24.9% 49.5% 30.8%
At PF 53 157 33.8% 48.9% 38.9%
Total 101 350 28.9% 49.2% 34.4%

In fact, in two of his last three seasons in Atlanta, Smith attempted more than half of his shots from outside the paint. When Smith was with the Hawks, a coaching change seemed to make the difference. In six seasons under Mike Woodson, Smith took only 37 percent of his shots from outside the paint. In three seasons under Larry Drew, he took 49 percent of his shots from outside the paint.

That’s the same rate as this season. The problem is that Smith’s shooting — both inside the paint and outside it — has been much worse than it was in his last few seasons in Atlanta. His defense has also regressed.

That all goes beyond what position he’s playing. The Pistons can improve their perimeter shooting by acquiring a small forward who can actually shoot, but (unless they somehow find a taker for that contract) they still need Smith to play better.

The Video

Here are Smith’s 20 shots in Miami on Monday, when he shot 4-for-4 in the restricted area and 1-for-16 outside it.

On the other hand, Smith had one of his best shooting games of the season a couple of weeks ago against the Clippers. He shot 6-for-8 from mid-range. Here are those eight shots, which aren’t exactly more pleasing to watch (he banked the first one in).

The bottom of the list

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the Golden State Warriors are the best jump-shooting team in the league, with an effective field goal percentage of 49.5 percent from outside the paint. What is a surprise is that Andre Iguodala has been nearly as good a jump-shooter (55.1 percent) as Stephen Curry (55.6 percent).

Next best are the Heat (49.4 percent), followed by the Hawks (49.4 percent), Spurs (49.2 percent) and Mavericks (49.2 percent).

Trivia question

Of the 166 players who have attempted at least 100 shots both in the paint and outside the paint, only one has shot better (we’re talking standard field goal percentage, here) from outside than inside. Who is he?

More jump-shooting notes

  • Smith isn’t the worst jump-shooter in the league. Of 223 players who have attempted at least 100 shots from outside the paint, Tyreke Evans has the lowest outside-the-paint effective field goal percentage at 25.2 percent. If you’ve ever watched Evans take one of his lazy-looking jumpers, you shouldn’t be surprised.
  • It should also be no surprise that Kyle Korver is at the top of the list, with an effective field goal percentage of 64.2 percent from outside the paint. No. 2 is Anthony Tolliver (62.9 percent).
  • Smith ranks 216th on the list, and no one below him has taken anything near 350 shots from outside the paint.
  • East teams have an effective field goal percentage of 45.4 percent from outside the paint. West teams: 47.1 percent.
  • Eight of the 10 teams with an effective field goal percentage of less than 45 percent from outside the paint also rank 20th or worse in offensive efficiency. The exceptions are Memphis (18th in offensive efficiency) and Minnesota (ninth). While they don’t shoot very well, the Wolves rank in the top 10 in offensive rebounding rate, turnover rate, and free throw rate.

Trivia answer

Damian Lillard has shot 41.2 percent in the paint and 42.4 percent outside the paint. On the opposite side of the spectrum is teammate Nicolas Batum, who has the biggest discrepancy between paint field goal percentage (71.7 percent) and outside-the-paint field goal percentage (36.3 percent).

Pacers A Different Team After Half


VIDEO: Pacers fall to Suns for second home defeat

The List

Highest standard deviation, quarter-to-quarter NetRtg

Team VOff Rank VDef Rank VNet
Indiana 7.2 1 3.7 14 10.4
Toronto 4.2 9 4.8 9 8.3
Minnesota 5.3 5 3.1 19 8.3
Milwaukee 3.5 13 4.9 8 8.0
New Orleans 5.8 3 6.5 1 7.9
Portland 2.2 26 5.5 5 7.4
Detroit 5.1 7 2.2 25 7.2
New York 2.6 20 5.5 6 6.5
Philadelphia 2.5 21 5.7 4 6.2
Boston 2.8 19 4.0 12 6.1

Standard deviation measures variance or, for our purposes, inconsistency.
VOff = Offensive variance (OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions)
VDef = Defensive variance (DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions)
VNet = Net variance (NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions)

The Context

So essentially, the Pacers are the most inconsistent team in the league from quarter to quarter, which is weird, because they’re, by far, the best defensive team in the league. As we pointed out last week, they’re the best defensive team of the last 37 years (though that differential is down to 9.2), and strong defense is supposed to be the backbone of consistent success.

The Pacers have the No. 1 defense in the first, third and fourth quarters, and the No. 4 defense in the second, though there’s a pretty big difference between the (ridiculously good) 88.8 points per 100 possessions they allow in the third quarter and the (still pretty good) 97.7 they allow in the second. Still, it’s on offense where there’s a lot more fluctuation.

Pacers efficiency, by period

Quarter OffRtg Rank DefRtg Rank NetRtg Rank
1st quarter 96.1 27 94.7 1 +1.4 15
2nd quarter 96.4 27 97.7 4 -1.3 16
3rd quarter 110.1 3 88.8 1 +21.2 1
4th quarter 107.3 12 94.8 1 +12.5 2
Half OffRtg Rank DefRtg Rank NetRtg Rank
1st half 96.3 28 96.2 2 +0.0 15
2nd half 108.7 4 91.8 1 +16.9 1

There have been two different Pacers teams this season. The First Half Pacers have scored about as efficiently as the Bucks. The Second Half Pacers have an offense more closely resembling the Heat.

Indiana has had the lead at halftime in 24 of their 45 games. They’ve outscored their opponent in the second half of 35 of the 45.

In general, there’s a big offensive drop-off when the Pacers go to their bench. (Thursday’s loss to the Suns was the definition of a bench loss, as well as an example of how they’ve played better after halftime.) But the half-to-half offensive drop-off has been spread rather evenly among their starters and bench units.

Efficiency of Pacers’ starting lineup, by half

Half MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
1st half 403 101.5 96.5 +4.9 +35
2nd half 395 112.0 89.6 +22.4 +172
Difference   10.5 -6.9 17.4  

Efficiency of other Pacers’ lineups, by half

Half MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
1st half 676 93.2 96.1 -2.8 -32
2nd half 684 106.9 93.0 +13.9 +180
Difference   13.6 -3.1 16.7  

The Pacers have turned the ball over at the same rate in both halves and are only a slightly better offensive rebounding team in the second half. But they’ve shot much better and gotten to the free-throw line a lot more often in the second half. They’ve also assisted on a greater percentage of their buckets.

Paul George and Lance Stephenson have been much better shooters in the second half of games. George and George Hill have much higher free throw rates. And both Stephenson and Hill have had higher assist rates. Off the bench, C.J. Watson has shot a lot better and also dished out more assists after halftime.

The Pacers’ half-to-half discrepancy has lessened some over the last seven weeks. Through their first 22 games, they were scoring 20.4 more points per 100 possessions in the second half. Over their last 23, the difference is only 4.8.

Amazingly, the Pacers had the second most consistent offense from quarter to quarter last season, behind only the Suns, who were just consistently awful on that end.

This season, Indiana has found a new gear on both ends of the floor in that third quarter. Their plus-21.2 NetRtg in those 12 minutes is, by far, the best of any team in any quarter. Next best are San Antonio’s plus-13.3 in the second quarter and Toronto’s plus-13.3 in the fourth.

Whether they’re consistent or inconsistent from quarter to quarter, the Pacers are a much better team than they were last season. But it will be interesting to see if their third-quarter dominance is a big factor in their quest for a championship.

The Video

Here are the Pacers’ 19 field goals from the second half of their Dec. 10 win over the Heat. They shot 19-for-35 to outscore Miami 50-37 after halftime, and they assisted on 16 of the 19 buckets.

The bottom of the list

The Brooklyn Nets have been the most consistent team from quarter to quarter. That’s not really a good thing, because they’ve had a negative NetRtg in all four periods.

But it is good that they’ve turned their early-season, third-quarter struggles around. Through their first 19 games, the Nets had been outscored by 20.9 points per 100 possessions in the third. Over their last 24 games, they’ve been a plus-8.8.

Trivia question

Among 200 players that have played at least 150 minutes, who has been the most inconsistent from quarter to quarter (in terms of our PIE statistic, which measures overall production as a percentage of all the stats accumulated while that player is on the floor)?

More quarter-by-quarter notes

Trivia answer

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been the most inconsistent player from quarter to quarter. MKG has recorded a PIE of 12.4 percent in the first quarter, -1.1 percent in the second quarter, 6.5 percent in the third, and 5.4 percent in the fourth. See his quarter-by-quarter numbers here.

Next on the list are Brandon Knight (very good in the second quarter, pretty bad in the fourth), Jamal Crawford (a slow starter and strong finisher), Jimmy Butler (he puts his best numbers up in the third), and Kevin Garnett (first-half KG has been a lot better than second-half KG).

Interestingly, the most consistent player from quarter-to-quarter has been Kidd-Gilchrist’s teammate. Gerald Henderson‘s PIE gets worse every quarter, but only drops from 9.8 percent in the first to 8.8 percent in the fourth. After Henderson, it’s Klay Thompson, Jameer Nelson, Joakim Noah and Richard Jefferson.

Jefferson Hits Stride With Bobcats


VIDEO: Al Jefferson dominates in the Bobcats’ win over the Knicks

Few NBA observers were wowed last summer when veteran big man Al Jefferson, 10 days after hitting the free-agent market, signed with the Charlotte Bobcats. That whole dance that goes on every year when notable players seek new destinations – “I want to win. I want to get a ring” – was conspicuously absent. The Bobcats were a long way from winning, conventional wisdom said, and everyone knew it. Jefferson included.

So when Charlotte guard Kemba Walker, who shares the same agent (Jeff Schwartz), nudged Jefferson in New York with the idea in the days prior to his team-shopping, “Big Al” scoffed.

“At first I thought it was just a joke,” Jefferson told NBA.com in a phone interview Monday. “I was like, ‘Heh. Yeah, right. Whatever,’ “

Then Schwartz suggested Jefferson make a visit to Charlotte to at least hear the Bobcats out. The rest has been a happy half-season of history for all concerned.

“I met the coaching staff. That was the first impression right there,” Jefferson said of Steve Clifford and his assistants. “That showed me that MJ [team chairman Michael Jordan], Rod [Higgins, Charlotte president of basketball operations] and those guys, they went and got a great coach and staff. That let me know right there they were trying to turn this franchise around.

“Then I looked at the young talent: Jeff Taylor, MKG [Michael Kidd-Gilchrist], Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson. Bis [Bismack Biyombo], a great high-energy big. Brendan Haywood and [Jannero] Pargo, guys who have been around the league and know what it takes to win.

“You add a guy with my talent and the things I’m able to do on offense. And then you look at the East, I really thought that was the best decision for me.”

To the outside world, Jefferson’s decision to leave the Jazz and choose the Bobcats looked like a cash grab. It was pretty nice grab, too: three years, $40.5 million. But for a player entering his 10th NBA season whose teams in Boston, Minnesota and Utah were a combined 160 under .500, with just one playoff appearance (four games) after his rookie year, it seemed like misplaced priorities or a competitive surrender.

Jefferson shrugged off that perception much like he did Walker’s initial suggestion.

“I could care less what the world says about what I was trying to do,” he said. “It wasn’t just about the money. I told Kemba when I first signed, ‘I’m not coming here to lose. I’m not coming here to be the best player on a bad team.’ I was coming here to try to turn this thing around. So far, I feel like everybody’s on the same page.”


VIDEO: Al Jefferson talks about his footwork-focused game throughout his career

No kidding. At 19-27 on the eve of a four-game trip out West that begins at Denver Wednesday, the Bobcats are eight games better than they were at this point a year ago (11-35) and only two victories shy of their 2012-13 season total. If they maintain their current .413 pace the rest of the way, the Bobcats will finish 34-48, an increase of 13 victories.

And based on the East’s mediocrity so far, that would be good enough for a playoff spot. Last season, only Orlando (20-62) finished behind the Bobcats out East.

Individually, Jefferson is averaging 18.9 points and 10.5 rebounds, with nine consecutive games of 20 points or more – most recently, 32 on 15-of-26 shooting against Chicago Saturday – and 19 double-doubles. He missed nine of Charlotte’s first 12 games with a bruised ankle suffered early in the preseason but clearly has caught up and hit his stride. His January numbers: 22.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 53.3 percent shooting.

“What we’re seeing now is really the fruits of his labor,” said Clifford, who considers Jefferson a leader and his best player. “Both doing a lot of extra rehab and a lot of extra conditioning, to get his ankle stronger and get into the kind of game shape he needed to be in, in order to do well. Now he’s not just back to where we hoped he could be, but really playing at a level more efficient than we could have hoped for.”

Even on defense, never a Jefferson strength. Clifford is happy with the results overall – defensively the Bobcats rank in the top 10 in points per possession, points in the paint and free throws attempted – and suggests the veteran’s good instincts at that end are being matched more often with greater effort. When he’s on the floor, Charlotte’s defensive rating goes up but its net scoring differential goes down.

Clifford is happy with how Jefferson has fared on defense, which has never been Big Al’s strength. Overall defensively, the Bobcats rank in the top 10 in points per possession, points in the paint and free throws attempted, which suggests the veteran’s good defensive instincts are being matched more often with greater effort. When he’s on the floor, Charlotte’s defensive rating goes up but its net scoring differential goes down.

Jefferson credits the system, along with some extra work with assistant Patrick Ewing. “He feels like my offensive game really don’t need that much work. So he’s trying to get me to be more of a defensive-minded player,” Jefferson said. “Just being more of a helper. I’m the big man. I’m not a shot blocker like some of the great bigs in this league, but I can be over to help a lot earlier, just to get them to see a body and make it more difficult.”

Jefferson has been playing well enough lately that, as the conference coaches make their picks for All-Star reserves, he is worthy of consideration. But he learned a long time ago not to get too hopeful about honor.

“I don’t really get caught up in it no more,” he said. “Because there were some years where I was really disappointed. I remember that one in Phoenix [in 2009], I was so close to buying flights to get my family out there, ‘cuz I knew I had an opportunity that they’d vote me in. But they didn’t. So I made a promise to myself then that I’m not going to worry myself about it.”

Jefferson had 30 double-doubles in his first 50 games with the Timberwolves that season, averaging 23.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. No sooner had he learned he wasn’t selected, though, than his season ended with a blown right ACL in a game at New Orleans.

Said Jefferson: “It’s something every player dreams about, just because it’s recognition, having ‘All Star’ behind you name. If they vote me in, I’ll be very thankful and very happy. But if they don’t vote me in, I’ll be OK too.”

He isn’t nearly as casual about the Bobcats’ quest for success. “

“The Charlotte Bobcats always have been one of the laughingstocks in the league,” Jefferson said. “But where we at right now, two games of tying the victory total from last year, to me, I’m not satisfied with that. The other guys aren’t satisfied with that.”

Sooner rather than later, Jefferson doesn’t want anyone scoffing or smirking at the idea of joining the Bobcats the way he did last summer.


VIDEO: Bobcats coach Steve Clifford praises Al Jefferson’s play of late

Long, Bumpy Road Finally Smooths Out For Former Dunk Champ Gerald Green


VIDEO: Gerald Green has emerged as a solid contributor for the Suns this season

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The dunk was so unbelievable that TNT analyst Kenny Smith hyperventilated to broadcast partner Charles Barkley during the 2008 NBA All-Star slam dunk contest.

He blew it out, Chuck!” Smith gasped. “Chuck, he blew it out!

Gerald Green indeed puffed out a candle stuck into a cupcake on the back of the rim. The reigning slam dunk king soared above the cylinder, blew out the flame and flushed the basketball in a single, stunning move.

The joint blew up. Green lapped it up. And for one night, the then-22-year-old Green was no longer just a bench warmer for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Green is now days from turning 28, and he has never been happier. He is worlds removed from that sizzling February night in ’08, his cupcake dunk never more meaningless. These days, he is a key contributor for the surprising Phoenix Suns.

The wildly athletic wing wants substance to define the rest of his career, a journey that began as a straight-out-of-high-school phenom, the Boston’s Celtics’ first-round pick in the 2005 NBA Draft.

A rocky NBA start

Gerald Green (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Gerald Green
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Green came out of high school with a remarkable athleticism and a tantalizingly smooth jumper. He was a mostly good-natured but naive kid, a skinny baller from Houston’s southeast side. His dunks soon became the stuff of legend.

Still, Green was incapable of thinking the game beyond a playground level, oblivious to the pressures and demands of the NBA world.

“I always treated basketball when I was younger like a hobby, something I loved to do, something that kind of kept me away from doing something bad or doing something crazy,” Green told NBA.com during a phone conversation on the team’s recent road trip. “It was an extracurricular activity in my life. But once I did it for a living, I still kept treating it as a hobby instead of a job.”

After a forgettable 2008-09 season with the Dallas Mavericks, his fourth NBA team in four years, owner Mark Cuban laid out Green’s essential flaw in front of an audience of NBA executives and basketball writers at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the context of explaining how valuable advanced statistics can be, Cuban turned to fellow panel member and Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren and famously said: “We had Gerald Green. You had Green. He does stuff [athletically] that makes you say, ‘Oh My God!’ …  He just doesn’t understand the game of basketball.”

Most NBA executives were in agreement. Green just didn’t get it.

‘The tools to be successful’ now

There is irony today in Cuban’s comment. In ’05, Suns first-year general manager Ryan McDonough was cutting his teeth in the Celtics’ front office. He scouted Green extensively and liked what he saw. Boston drafted Green with the 18th pick overall, but two unimpressive seasons later packaged him in the deal to Minnesota that landed Kevin Garnett.

This summer, McDonough traded forward Luis Scola to Indiana for young center Miles Plumlee and Green.

“The way coach [Jeff] Hornacek and I wanted to play, we wanted to go up and down and try to make the team younger and more athletic and shoot a lot of 3s, and Gerald checked all of those boxes,” McDonough said. “I think he’s proved now that he does have the tools to be successful. It just took him a little while to put it together.”

It doesn’t mean Green’s sharpening basketball IQ is quite Kobe-esque yet. Last week at Minnesota, Green swished a difficult baseline fadeaway in the final seconds, first freeing himself to get the ball and then rising high to release it over the defender. On Monday, he went 2-for-16 in a painful overtime loss at New York to end a disappointing trip at 1-4. (more…)

Might Saunders See Timberwolves’ Answer In Mirror?


VIDEO: Wolves coach Rick Adelman talks about disappointing loss to Kings

Sometimes it’s the malaise that gets you, not the disaster.

When things go haywire for an NBA team – when the losses come four or five in a row, the locker room sours and both parties in the coaching/playing relationship hit the mute button – grabbing at a fix is relatively easy. You change up everything, or as close to that as possible, turning whatever dials and pulling whatever levers are available. Downside is minimal because desperation equals justification, and the alternative to trying anything is doing nothing, at which point a wink-wink about tanking becomes the last refuge of scoundrels.

Malaise is trickier. Malaise is less the presence of awful than the absence of OK. It’s that pervasive uneasiness, that general sense of something lacking in the strategy, on the roster or in their hearts. It is sputtering along two games below .500 almost halfway through the schedule, and burrowing back down each time they break the surface. It is the lack of legit winning streaks, and awkward losses to losers.

Malaise is offense without defense, talent without leadership, instructions without inspiration, velvet glove without iron fist. It is the Minnesota Timberwolves right about now.

Losing at home to Sacramento and slipping to 18-20 Wednesday night was merely the latest symptom of a season gone sideways. And as the Wolves face another challenge Friday in Toronto against the resurgent Raptors (7 p.m. ET, League Pass) and former coach Dwane Casey, the bright spot is that at least they’re not at home, where Minnesota has dropped four of its last six and, according to Andy Greder of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, things have turned – worse than hostile – apathetic.

Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic dribbled the ball a couple of times between free throws Wednesday night; the bouncing ball seemed to echo throughout Target Center.

“Wake up!” one fan yelled from behind the Wolves’ bench between those free throws in the fourth quarter.

The Wolves started the night by hitting the snooze button and trailed the rebuilding Sacramento Kings by 10 points entering the fourth quarter.

“It was dead,” Wolves guard J.J. Barea said. “Couldn’t hear anything out there.”

Flatlined is as flatlined does, and the Wolves are kidding themselves if they think a raucous home crowd is going to save them. If it’s cause-and-effect they’re seeking, it’s going to have to start with them rather than the fans. In the mirror rather than in the stands.

What was billed as a breakthrough season has been anything but. The purging of David Kahn as chief basketball executive was followed almost immediately by a bungled draft night that played almost as homage (the No. 9 pick parlayed down for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng). The guy the Wolves took and traded to Utah, point guard Trey Burke, has been better than both of them, and the equal of zestless Ricky Rubio, who has been playing as if his dog is lost, shrinking in lockstep with his shooting percentage.

A season in which Kevin Love‘s commitment to the franchise and to the market was supposedly reaffirmed, to hear new Wolves president Flip Saunders tell it, mostly has ground on, leaving Love in an emergency-exit row, window seat, for 2015. The roster is full of nice guys without much bark, never mind bite – despite Pekovic’s oft-noted “Bond villain” appearance – and the saltiest guy on board, the smallish Barea, wouldn’t scare a chessmaster.

As a result, the Wolves have been wandering through the hinterlands in January, jumper cables in hand, the battery in their jalopy pretty much dead. If head coach Rick Adelman has said it once – “I don’t know who we think we are” – he has said it a dozen times, a reasonable guess given his team’s 0-11 record in close games (four points or less).

The malaise, mind you, is starting to stick to Adelman, too. His methods haven’t noticeably changed any more than his postgame material, making him appear more detached from the situation than he might be. Benchings? A revised rotation? Less adherence to corner-3 tactics? A heightened commitment to defense – not just from Corey Brewer or Luc Mbah a Moute but by all five on the floor at any time, including two Kevins (Love and Martin)?

Adelman has more NBA know-how in his proverbial little finger than the Wolves franchise had for several years prior to his arrival in 2011. But his ongoing frustration – “It almost takes an act of Congress for us to go out and foul somebody. You have to get after people in this league,” he said after the Kings loss – is reminding folks that he re-committed late to this team last fall (after his wife’s illness last season). Adelman will turn 68 in June and the longer the Wolves bump along, the more out of sync they’ll look with their head coach’s timeline.

Which gets us to the elephant that recently squeezed through the door.

Adelman is one of the most accomplished coaches in NBA history. He has 1,020 victories and has taken his teams to the playoffs 16 times in 25 seasons. But he happens to have a boss in Saunders who won 638 games and took 11 of his 16 teams to the postseason. When Saunders was hired last spring, he said he no longer craved the sideline and he can argue persuasively that he not only has a better, safer job now but a less consuming one as well.

From the start, Saunders has said the right things: “I will be the general manager that most coaches want. Because I understand what it is like to sit in that seat.” But he also has a distinctly different, more enthusiastic personality than Adelman. Saunders isn’t big on confrontations or conflicts but he’s a closer when it comes to confidence. His willingness to sell, sell, sell came through in a recent Q&A with MinnPost.com’s Britt Robson:

Part of coaching is managing frustration. Unfortunately that’s we have to do. We have to continually get ourselves up the next day and present a front to the players, a very confident front, a front that we are not in a panic situation.

Until they are, anyway.

So Minnesota finds itself in a predicament that is more than vaguely familiar. Nine years ago, a Wolves team desperate to improve on its prior year’s performance meandered through the season’s first half. A skid of seven losses in eight games left them one game under .500 (25-26), at which point the team’s general manager (Kevin McHale), with owner Glen Taylor‘s blessing, reluctantly fired the head coach and took over on the bench himself. Minnesota went 19-12 under McHale the rest of the way but it wasn’t enough; the Wolves finished ninth in the West and still haven’t been back to the playoffs.

Back then, Saunders was the coach. This time he’s the “GM that most coaches want,” but with a tiny sliver of minority ownership and an impatience with what’s playing out right now.

It might not happen and, given the pitfalls inherent in breaking down that today vs. tomorrow wall between administrating and coaching, it probably shouldn’t. But it has to be tempting in the midst of a malaise.

Morning Shootaround – Jan. 11


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Rondo may return before All-Star break | Report: Love to join Lakers in 2015? | Report: Rockets, Nets discussed Williams trade | James accuses Kirilenko of flopping

No. 1: Rondo may return before All-Star break — New head coach Brad Stevens has the short-handed Boston Celtics playing slightly above expectations so far this season at 13-24. While that record doesn’t seem too impressive, the Celtics are only two games out of the playoffs and 5.5 games behind the Toronto Raptors for the Atlantic Division lead. The return of All-Star Rajon Rondo would certainly help the Celtics’ playoff push (if they don’t sell at the trade deadline) and it sounds like the guard may be back soon, as he told reporters during shootaround prior to the Celtics’ game last night in Golden State and as reported by Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe

“It may be this month, next month. It’ll be before All-Star break,” Rondo said.

Rondo suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee a year ago. He had surgery in February 2013, performed by Dr. James Andrews, and has been rehabbing since.

“I haven’t had any swelling,” he said. “I’m wearing my brace. At times when I play, it doesn’t feel like I have it on. No setbacks. It’s just, I’m taking my time.”

At this point, conditioning remains a key hurdle.

“I’m just trying to get back into shape,” he said. “I haven’t played ball in 12 months. You can do all the cardio, treadmill, running you want, it’s still different from basketball shape.”

Rondo didn’t rule out a possible stint in the NBA’s Development League, either.

“I might go practice with them when I get back,” he said. “Still just not sure yet.”

Since he was first cleared to participate in full-contact practice in December, Rondo said, he has made considerable progress.

“I feel 10 times better,” he said. “I feel more confident, stronger, more explosive. What I’m doing in the weight room, it’s productive.”

He also said he’s getting more comfortable with his teammates, many of whom haven’t played with him before.

“I’m getting a feel for them, they’re getting a feel for me,” he said. “I’m hitting a couple guys in the face or the chest, not knowing the ball is coming. The biggest thing is, I’m always telling guys, always be ready, even though it may not seem like the ball is coming to you.”

Still, the hardest part, he said, is “just not playing.”

“I don’t even like to watch the game anymore,” he said. “It’s frustrating. You see things that you just can’t help. It’s only a matter of what you can do from a vocal standpoint on the sidelines.”

***

No. 2: Report: Love to join Lakers in 2015? — Although the Minnesota Timberwolves’ commanding win over the Charlotte Bobcats last night helped ease the sting, things have not been going too well for them as of late. They’ve failed to win a close game this season (now 0-10 in games decided by four points or less) and after Wednesday night’s heartbreaking loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kevin Love called out the poor body language of some of the team’s bench players. Now, to make matters worse for Timberwolves fans, a league executive believes Love is destined to become a Laker in 2015. This rumor seems to always swirl around each season which gives credence to the recent report by CBS Sports’ Ken Berger:

Love, in his sixth season and the second of a four-year extension (more on that later), has yet to make the playoffs in Minnesota. The team’s highest win total since drafting Love fifth overall in 2008 was 31 last season.

When time came to sign Love to an extension during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, [David] Kahn declined to give Love a five-year, 30 percent max deal under the newly minted Derrick Rose rule. Love had to settle for a four-year deal in which he demanded — and received — a player option after the third season.

That opt-out is coming in July 2015 and will be a guiding force in every decision that the new GM, [Flip] Saunders, makes between now and then. Essentially, Saunders will be faced with the same predicament that encumbered Masai Ujiri in Denver with [Carmelo] Anthony; Otis Smith in Orlando with [Dwight] Howard; Kevin O’Connor in Utah with [Deron] Williams; and, once upon a time, Danny Ferry in Cleveland with [LeBron] James.

So what do Saunders and the Timberwolves do about Love? Play their hand to conclusion and hope for the best, as Ferry did in Cleveland and Smith did in Orlando? Or get out in front of the problem, like O’Connor did in Utah?

There’s no clear answer, and no guarantees that one strategy will work better than the other. It’s worth noting, of course, that Love shares the same wanderlust for a bigger market that led to Williams’ departure from Utah. He also shares the same agent, New York-based Jeff Schwartz.

“They should trade him,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “No one thinks he’s staying. Everyone knows he wants to go to the Lakers.”

But not all executives agree, and while none would wish Saunders’ dilemma on his worst enemy, there’s another situation that bears comparison to Love’s. That would be the one involving LaMarcus Aldridge and the Portland Trail Blazers.

***

No. 3: Rockets, Nets discussed Williams trade – The Brooklyn Nets have finally found their chemistry in 2014 as they’ve won five-straight games, including an impressive win over the Miami Heat last night. However, this recent surge by the Nets has been without star point guard Deron Williams, who is out with an ankle injury. This fact, plus the recent report by Ken Berger of CBS Sports that the Houston Rockets and Nets briefly discussed a deal centered around Williams, may cause some in the Nets’ front-office to consider Williams expendable (it’s important to emphasize that this deal was reportedly just discussed and didn’t gain much momentum):

Among the interesting tidbits floating around the D-League Showcase in Reno, Nev., this week involved the possibility of the Rockets pairing Dwight Howard with Deron Williams in Houston — an arrangement that now seems farfetched if not impossible.

Remember that the thrust of the Nets’ multiple attempts to acquire Howard in a trade two seasons ago was to team him up with Williams, who the franchise was trying to re-sign. Both players were on board with teaming up, but the Nets were never able to satisfy Orlando’s trade demands. Howard, of course, wound up getting dealt to the Lakers and famously bolted LA for the Rockets as a free agent this past summer.

But the subject of a Dwight-Deron duo was broached again in recent weeks, with the Rockets and Nets briefly delving into the particulars of a deal that would’ve sent Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to the Nets for Williams. It made sense on many levels. The Nets would’ve gotten an insurance policy at center for the often-injured Brook Lopez (who has since been injured again and is out for the year). The Rockets would’ve solved their own center problem, as Asik doesn’t want to remain in Houston. They’ve been trying to get off the Lin contract, and the Nets are one team that wouldn’t mind his $15 million balloon payment next season. All the better to stick it to the Knicks.

But the the idea never gained any traction and was shelved. Now, it’s probably dead for good with Williams undergoing multiple injections in his chronically bad ankles this week.

***

No. 4: James accuses Kirilenko of flopping – The aforementioned Heats-Nets game saw LeBron James foul out for the first time since 2008. That’s a mighty long time and James had a postgame reason for his early disqualification, as reported by Stefan Bondy of The New York Daily News

“I thought [Andrei] Kirilenko flopped a few times,” said James, who fouled out for just the sixth time in his career. “To be honest, I thought he flopped and he got the call. I thought the last one that fouled me out (against Shaun Livingston) could have been a foul for sure. … But Kirienko definitely flopped on me a couple times and got the call.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Stephen Curry did what Stephen Curry does. … European football logos designed for each NBA team … Lakers may drive head coach Mike D’Antoni to the bottleNick Young questions the Clippers’ ability to win in the playoffs. … Kobe Bryant didn’t look too happy on the bench during the Lakers’ blowout loss to the Clippers.

ICYMI of The Night: While Blake Griffin‘s dunk over Chris Kaman got the most love last night, this one by Derrick Williams deserves equal attention:


VIDEO: Williams throws it down

Timberwolves Still Finding It Tough To Close The Close Ones


VIDEO: Kevin Love talks to the media after the Timberwolves’ loss to the Suns

Burdened by a failure rate in close games that soon might wrap itself constrictor-style around the team’s entire season — 0-10 in games decided by four points or less, 1-18 going back a full calendar year — the Minnesota Timberwolves might want to try something daring the next time they have a comfortable late lead:

If they find themselves up six or seven points and the game clock under, say, five seconds, they use a timeout to lay a red carpet around the 3-point line. Invite the other guys to hoist one final bomb, uncontested from long range, in the hope that they’ll hit it. Ideally, there won’t be enough time for the opposition to turn that last gasp into a serious comeback and the Wolves will let some air out of what’s becoming a burdensome dark cloud over their season.

It’s bad enough that Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and the rest of coach Rick Adelman‘s squad have been spinning their wheels like a Camaro in a Minnesota snownami – they’re 0-8 in their attempts to push over .500 since slipping below on Nov. 27. Now these repeated failures at winning the sort of tight games wannabe playoff teams need come April is threatening to fray more than just some postseason ambitions.

After Kevin Martin‘s veering layup dropped off the front rim Wednesday night at Target Center in the 104-103 loss to Phoenix, a cranky Love called out some teammates for their demeanor:

“We can’t have two guys sitting at the end of the bench that play good minutes just sitting there and not getting up during timeouts,” Love said, referring to the poor body language exhibited by veterans J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham in the fourth quarter. “We all need to be in this together. That kind of [ticks] me off. We’re supposed to be a team.”

The Timberwolves (17-18) are anything but a team right now. They are a collection of individual agendas tripping each other up as the franchise pursues its first playoff bid since 2004.

And:

“It’s two guys that we expect more from them,” Love said. “I think they expect more from themselves. I’m not trying to single anybody out and I don’t want to make it bigger than it is, but it’s just a team that we needed to beat tonight and we needed everybody in there, even guys that didn’t play any minutes. We need to have a team and a bench that’s really in it together.”

The tension is mounting. After the two-point home loss to Dallas on Dec. 30 – the game in which Shawn Marion‘s foul on Love’s game-tying shot wasn’t whistled until the following morning – the All-Star power forward criticized the bench for its five-point, 2-of-12, nine-turnover performance in 58 combined minutes. Five days later, it was Love bricking four free throws at the end of their 115-111 loss to the Thunder (with the bench again chipping in five points).

On Wednesday, the Wolves’ second unit won its matchup 29-27 but Love had a poor game (15 points, 4-of-20, 12 rebounds but just one assist). Minnesota got outscored 7-0 over the final 1:51 to yank that one out of its 17-8 “split” in games decided by five points or more.

So what is behind all the late-game gaggery? It’s dicey to allege that the Wolves are choking because “choke,” like its flip side “clutch,” are oft-challenged concepts these days in the sports world.

Another reason to tread lightly on what might be a mostly random occurrence is the belief that, if this were diagnosable, it would be correctable. An operation (like Minnesota or any NBA squad) deep in basketball wisdom and financial resources would find a fix before racking up this 0-10 mark.

What’s left, then, are largely theories, several of which the Wolves probably will poke and prod in search of answers. Such as:

  • Inexperience in such circumstances. Uh, 1-18 over a 12-month period seems like ample opportunity to learn something.
  • No proven go-to guy. Seriously? With Love and Martin on the floor?
  • Predictable play-calling in such situations. This is Adelman we’re talking about, folks, a Hall of Fame-bound coach with 1,019 victories and fat stack of kudos for his offensive wiles.
  • Nervous ballhandling. Minnesota did have four of its 12 turnovers vs. Phoenix in the fourth quarter, two in the final 46 seconds. Rubio threw the ball recklessly while in the air headed out of bounds with 24.9 seconds left. But as the Wolves’ primary ball handler, Rubio is not worse late in games (15.6 of his turnovers and 16.9 percent of his minutes come after the third quarter) or in close ones (51 percent of his turnovers, 50.1 percent of his minutes with margins of five points or less).
  • Lack of referee respect. Well, yeah, that one night. And the Wolves don’t have a glamour rep or, depending on what you think of Love, a marquee name like James, Durant or Anthony. But Martin merely dealt with the usual end-of-game traffic in the lane Wednesday.
  • Leadership. That’s it, the Wolves just need another traffic cop pointing and growling directions when everyone else’s heart is in his throat. Come to think of it, Love might need to seize that role more.

More likely, at this stage, they need something cool, the way Joe Montana lifted pressure off hjis 49ers teammates late in Super Bowl XXIII when they trailed Cincinnati 16-13 with 3:20 left in the game.

Longtime Minnesota sports fans might recall what the MLB Twins went through in the mid-1980s, when alleged closer Ron Davis got into an ugly run of pouring gasoline on ninth-inning leads. A collective mental block seemed to develop, certainly a bad case of group pessimism, and after blowing a 10-run lead to Cleveland in late September 1984 to crater out of a division race, third baseman Gary Gaetti famously said: “It’s hard to throw with both hands around your neck.”

That ball club was a frazzled mess by the end, unable to exhale. This Wolves team is headed that way, with six of its next nine on the road and 29 rivals convinced that, when facing Minnesota, merely staying close is the surest path to victory.


VIDEO: The Suns rally to overtake the Timberwolves in Minnesota

Wolves Better Than Their Record Says


VIDEO: Kevin Love leads the Wolves over the Sixers

The List

Biggest difference, Pythagorean wins vs. actual wins

Team Wins Losses Win% PWins PLosses Diff.
Minnesota 17 17 0.500 23 11 6
Toronto 16 17 0.485 18 15 2
Golden State 24 13 0.649 26 11 2
L.A. Clippers 24 13 0.649 26 11 2
Atlanta 18 17 0.514 19 16 1
Orlando 10 24 0.294 11 23 1
Sacramento 11 22 0.333 12 21 1
Denver 17 17 0.500 18 16 1
Chicago 15 18 0.455 16 17 1

Pythagorean wins = Number of games a team should have won based on its point differential.
PWins = PTS^16.5 / (PTS^16.5 + OppPTS^16.5)

The Context

The Wolves have the point differential of a team that’s 23-11, a mark which would be good for fourth place in the Western Conference. But they’re 17-17 and 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. No other team comes close to matching Minnesota’s differential between their Pythagorean wins and actual wins and only two teams – Oklahoma City and Houston – had a bigger differential over 82 games last season.

How did the Wolves manage to underachieve so much in 34 games? By going 1-9 in games decided by five points or less and 8-1 in games decided by 15 or more. In the last two weeks their four wins have been by 22, 22, 12 and 31 points, while their two losses have been by two and four. After Monday’s blowout of the Sixers, the Wolves’ average margin of victory is 16.9 points and their average margin of defeat is 7.4.

So the Wolves are a better team than their record says they are. And though they’re 0-7 when trying to get back over .500 (since falling below on Nov. 25), their point differential says they should win 32 or 33 of their final 48 games. That would give them a total of 49 or 50 wins and, likely, a playoff spot.

Strength of schedule has to be taken into account. And it bodes well for the Wolves’ future as well. Of the 10 West teams at .500 or better, Minnesota has played the fourth toughest schedule. Eighteen of their 34 games have been on the road and they’ve played seven games with *a rest disadvantage vs. four with a rest advantage.

A rest disadvantage is when a team is playing the second night of a back-to-back against an opponent that didn’t play the day before. Only one team – the Clippers (4-5 in those games) – has played more games with a rest disadvantage than the Wolves (1-6). Cleveland (3-4), New Orleans (2-5) and Orlando (2-5) have also played seven such games.

Of course, while success or failure in close games is mostly arbitrary, the Wolves’ record in close games can’t be dismissed as just bad luck. Yes, a foul should have been called on Shawn Marion at the end of the Mavs’ 100-98 win on Dec. 30. And yes, Kevin Love doesn’t usually miss three free throws (that he was trying to make) in a row, like he did at the end of Saturday’s 115-111 loss to the Thunder.

But the Wolves have also had the league’s worst clutch-time defense, allowing their opponents to score almost 120 points per 100 possessions in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with a score differential of five points or less. When the game has been on the line, they’ve been unable to get stops.

In that Dallas loss, the Wolves gave up 11 points in the final five minutes. In the OKC loss, they gave up 17. And only two of those 28 total points were a result of an intentional foul in the closing seconds.

Overall, the Wolves rank 13th in defensive efficiency. But in clutch time, they’ve forced (far) fewer turnovers, fouled (a lot) more, and rebounded (a lot) worse.

Minnesota defense

Timeframe DefRtg Rank OppEFG% Rank DREB% Rank OppTOV% Rank OppFTA Rate Rank
Overall 102.4 13 52.1% 29 75.3% 10 17.2% 3 .210 1
Clutch time 119.5 30 49.6% 30 65.1% 26 12.5% 18 .576 27

DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
OppEFG% = Opponent effective field goal percentage = (FGM + (0.5*3PM)) / FGA
DREB% = Percentage of available offensive rebounds obtained
OppTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions
OppFTA Rate = Opponent FTA / FGA

So, while the Wolves can take some solace in their point differential, they still have things to clean up if they want to perform better in close games.

The Video

The bottom of the list

The team that has overachieved the most is the team the Wolves blew out on Monday. The Sixers are 12-23, but have the point differential of a team that’s 8-27, having lost 10 games by 15 points or more (four by more than 30). The Jazz also have a differential of four games and should be 8-29 instead of 12-25.

Next on the list are the Lakers (with 11 Pythagorean wins and 14 actual wins), the Nets (11 and 13), and the Cavs (10 and 12).

Trivia question

The Knicks led the league with 87 second-chance 3-pointers last season (25 from league-leader Carmelo Anthony). This year, they rank 11th with only 23 (Anthony has just six). What team has 13 more second-chance 3-pointers than any other team in the league?

More Wolves notes

  • The most important thing you can do defensively is defend shots, so it’s pretty amazing that the Wolves are an above-average defensive team (points allowed per 100 possessions) while ranking 29th in opponent effective field goal percentage. Ten of the 13 teams with an opponent EFG% over 50 percent are below-average defensive teams. The other exceptions are the Heat (who rank 24th in opponent EFG% and ninth in defensive efficiency) and the Hawks (18th and 11th). Miami is actually below average in defensive rebounding percentage and opponent FTA rate as well, but has forced more turnovers per 100 possessions (18.8) than any team in the last 15 seasons.
  • The Wolves are the third most improved offensive team in the league this season (behind only Portland and Phoenix), having scored 5.1 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season.
  • But they’re still a poor jump-shooting team. Last season, they ranked dead last in effective field goal percentage from outside the paint at 42.3 percent. This year, despite the additions of Kevin Martin and a healthy Love, they’re only slightly better, ranking 27th at 42.7 percent. They rank 30th in mid-range field goal percentage, 29th from the corners, and 11th on threes from above the break.
  • In games played between the 10 West teams at or above .500, Minnesota has the worst record. They’re 4-11 against the other nine, having gone 2-10 since a 2-1 start. Six of the 11 losses have come by four points or less.

Trivia answer

The Blazers lead the league with 53 second-chance 3-pointers, ahead of the Hawks (40), Warriors (33), Lakers (33) and Sixers (29). Damian Lillard and Kyle Korver are tied for the league lead with 14 apiece, and Lillard’s teammate Wesley Matthews ranks third with 12.