Abolish (Useless) NBA Divisions: Stepping Closer Towards Restructure

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

I know saying one conference is distinctly better than the other may be considered oversimplification, but the Western Conference, when compared to the Eastern Conference, is just better. There have been a ton of words written about this disparity around the interwebs this season, so take to Google if you have any confusion about this basic premise.

Recently, Kirk Goldsberry made a postseason bracket (pictured below) that featured what the NBA playoffs would look like if the seeds were determined by record, without divisional/conference based restrictions. Goldsberry’s method is simple; the best record, seed #1, would play the worst record, seed #16. Ethan Sherwood Strauss, also, recently suggested the idea of abolishing conferences. Had the Eastern Conference not been as bad as it’s been, outside of the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers — [We think], Toronto Raptors, and Chicago Bulls [Stretching] —  it’s unlikely that such a vast proliferation of reform suggestions even surfaces in the first place.

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Out West; the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, and Phoenix Suns are competing for two postseason positions, ultimately, one of them will not qualify. Moreover, moving East; at least one, if not two, sub .500 teams will qualify for the postseason. This is not an ideal balance. Goldsberry’s “Sweet 16” includes the Timberwolves, Suns, Grizzlies, and Mavericks but disqualifies the .500 Charlotte Bobcats, as well as the sub .500 Atlanta Hawks.

The New York Knicks, who are fighting for their playoff lives, stand no chance using the Goldsberry method. I particularly enjoyed this bit within Strauss’ column, an essential call-to-arms demanding the league address the issue at once.

“Regardless of tactics, the NBA should at least address this in some capacity. The East/West divide takes a regular season that’s already assailed as “meaningless” and adds some absurdity on top of it. Though the reasons for the status quo are understandable, the status quo makes for bad entertainment. It’s best to try and fix that.”

Enter myself and Matt D’Anna, also known as @Hoop_Nerd. We’ve come together to try and do the legwork that Goldsberry, Strauss and many, many others have suggested before us. D’Anna and I aspire to present a logical solution to the NBA’s issue involving balance between the conferences. However logical, altering the landscape of the league requires significant changes that may seem irrational or illogical without context. Some may consider the entire premise of this proposal to be a knee-jerk reaction because of the unique instance occurring this season. Ultimately, think of it as potentially laying a foundation for changes the NBA may wish to implement sometime in the future.

Abolish Divisions

Back in November, Zach Lowe published Abolish (Useless) NBA Divisions: Step One of a Radical Plan. Lowe states that divisions exist, in theory, to invigorate rivalries and ease travel. He’s right. The clear-cut reason that divisions exist are for creating a set-amount of regional matchups (four times a year). This allows more head-to-head instances between proverbial bitter foes, each year. The Los Angeles Clippers-Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets-New York Knicks are two that come to mind off-the-top of my head. Rivalries exist predominantly because of history and also because of location, but, they aren’t dependent on divisions; postseason meetings and individual player/coach/staff narratives also factor into rivalries.

Why are divisions bad?

Divisions are hurting the NBA’s product, particularly this season. The geographic sorting that determines each division has added salt in the league’s wound that is the current conference structure. Conversely, remember, the format in place is also considerate–in compliance with an 82 game schedule–of travel. This is how each team’s season is divided.

  •  Four games against each of the other divisional opponents, [4×4=16 games]

  •  Four games against six, out-of-division, conference opponents, [4×6=24 games] Ex: The Minnesota Timberwolves, in the grouped with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, and Utah Jazz, play 24 games against teams in the Western Conference, but outside of the Northwest Division. 

  • Three games against the remaining four conference teams, [3×4=12 games] Above, we’ve scheduled a total of 40 games against 10 opponents [four division opponents, and six conference — but not divisional  — opponents]

  • Two games against teams in the opposing conference. [2×15=30 games] Each Western Conference team will play each Eastern Conference team, twice, per season.

  • A five year rotation determines which out-of-division conference teams are played only three times.

This format may be simplistic, and not necessarily unruly, because most are accustomed to the process — it hasn’t always been so detrimental toward one side, or the other. Looking at the standings as of April 7th, 2014, we can see the disparity throughout each division.

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The Central and Atlantic divisions, within the Eastern Conference, host only two teams with records above .500, while the Southeast contains three because the Charlotte Bobcats won their most recent game. Out West, there are three teams above .500 in the Southwest and Pacific divisions, and two in the Northwest. The Wolves are 38-38 and, had they found a way to defeat the Orlando Magic this past Saturday, would be the ninth team in the Western conference with more wins than losses. The East has only seven teams above .500, but it could fall to six before the season ends.

Reverting back to the NBA’s scheduling formula, we know that teams in the East are playing inferior, divisional as well as in conference, opponents more often that teams in the West. The schedule favors teams in the East, because Western Conference teams are forced to face a higher level of competition, more frequently.

Collectively, the West’s record against the East is 281-164. Matt Femrite keeps East vs. West records, updated weekly, at his website; Chicken Noodle Hoop. To the left you’ll see how the West has performed against the East, and table to the right is E/W point-differential by month.

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Clearly, one conference is better than the other. That’s why we’re here.

The Issue of Travel

Matt Winick, Vice President of Scheduling and Game Operations for the NBA, is responsible for all regular-season and playoff scheduling. He also oversees the administration of the NBA Pre-Draft Camp. Winick states: The NBA sets the league schedule to accomplish both competitive balance and a reduction of costs. The goal of the NBA schedule, as it is constructed, is to be “efficient from a competitive standpoint with an indirect consideration of travel costs.

Uh oh.

The competitive balance has left a lot to be desired, this season. Winick and the NBA’s goal, in that regard, has failed, but what about “the indirect consideration of travel costs?”

How much does travel cost to begin with? This study states that ground transportation, for most teams, involves two charter buses and one medium sized truck to carry people, equipment and luggage. Ground transportation costs average $3,000 per day, narrowed down to the rate of $85 per person, per day, which makes the typical average cost per person in the traveling party total $432 per day (including hotel and per diem). A ‘traveling party’ may include, but is not required/limited to, 35 people. Players, coaches, trainers, administrative staff, and media personnel [that of which is owned by the franchise] are all members of a team’s traveling party. From 1999-2000 to 2001-2002 (three complete seasons) there were 1,867 trips taken by all teams. This includes ground transportation as well as travel by airplane.

Obviously, airfare for the NBA isn’t sold at the average rate. Most teams are part of the NBA charter program. The program allows individual franchises to contractually rent passenger planes, avoiding maintenance and upkeep of owning their own jet. The service involves transporting a team to a city and then flying to another city to transport a different team. “This lowers the average fixed cost by increasing the quantity of trips the plane makes and not having to sit idly on the ground while a different team uses a separate plane,” according to Randy Pfund, former General Manager of the Miami Heat. [cited within aforementioned study].

Winick and the NBA’s method that aims to achieve a ‘competitive balance’ has proven to be flawed. Without having the leagues budget/expense numbers, I’m unable to determine the NBA’s annual spending towards travel, per season. However, there is data that reflects that the geographical clustering of divisions, conferences, paired with the current scheduling format is unbalanced. The league has opportunity to be more efficient with each team’s annual travel expenses, in theory.

A Structure That Needs More Balance

Here is a map of the NBA’s current landscape, and how ‘geographically clustered’ each division is.

Note: The more black space between colored dots, the less clustered that division is. 

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D’Anna also constructed a chart that reflects each team’s Estimated Season Distance, or, ESD.

ESD is the Arena-to-Arena distance for every team in the league. It is not the actual distance travelled for each team in a season; rather, it is a metric representing the distance a team travels from game to game, relative to the rest of the league. ESD assumes travel to each away game begins at the team’s home arena.

His estimates must be taken seriously, here’s why: Andrew Nutting, currently a Visiting Professor of Economics at Hamilton College in New York, calculated the average miles traveled by NBA Teams in a Season from 1990/1991-2006/2007, omitting the strike-shortened season of 98-99. The larger sample size shows that D’Anna’s estimates aren’t egregious in any way.

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Both collections of data show NBA teams on the West Coast and in the center of the country do the most traveling. Nutting’s study concludes there is little evidence that traveling further distances reduces win production. The purpose of displaying each study is not to imply that teams in the Western Conference are at a disadvantage, the intent is to show how many miles teams are traveling.

The Fun Stuff

Let’s try to restructure the NBA. Remember, we’re trying to find a state of equilibrium between two conferences whilst indirectly considering ways teams can travel, efficiently.

Proposal #1 was conjured with the intent to keep divisions. Because it’s the NBA we’re dealing with, the goal was to change as little as possible in order to appease the formula currently in place. Sure, if it’s not broken don’t fix it, just try altering it a little. The new divisions consist of six, five-team divisions in same East/West conferences that are designed by spatial clustering. Proposal #1 uses the same 82 game schedule. The table below displays the new divisions, the chart shows each team’s ESD.

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Not only does the ESD average per team increase by 329 miles, Proposal #1 doesn’t repair the broken competitive balance.

Proposal #2 features no divisions. It uses the same conferences, and adds four games to the schedule. Under this proposal, teams play an 86 game schedule [43 home/43 away]. Each team plays opponents within their conference four times during the season, making 56 of the 86 games against inner-conference foes. The remaining 30 games are fulfilled by playing each team in the opposite conference, twice.

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You may be thinking; MORE GAMES?!?!?! Adding more games eliminates the unfair rotations currently in place. The other benefits Proposal #2 would provide the NBA are as follows.

  • 2013-2014 ESD: Miles per game is less on average, per team (509 MPG in current format, 506 in this format)

  • The 4 additional games add approximately 440 MPG per team; 69 miles less than the 509 MPG average in the current 82-game schedule

  • More games at a lower per game cost!

Proposal #2 is feasible, but, considering that the current 82 game schedule is already widely considered to be a little too lengthy, it’s doubtful the league would consider this format.

Proposal #3 is where we decided to not only abolish divisions, but conferences as well. It would appease the Goldsberry Method by having the top 16 teams qualify for the postseason, each year. There are two options when it comes time for scheduling.

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Option #1 

  • Play each team three times (87 game season). This option proves to be problematic. Teams would need to rotate every other season (2 home, 1 away vs opponent x in Year 1; 1 home, 2 away vs opponent x in Year 2)

Option #2

  • Play each team twice per season (58 game season). Less games is a good thing! The current schedule is 82 games in approximately 165 days (1 game per 2.01 days). 
  • This option would have the season start on Christmas Day, teams would play 58 games in 112 days and the playoff start date is preserved. (1 game per 1.93 days).
  • More even distribution of travel across the league; Midwest/East coast is reduced significantly.
  • Teams travel less often, while also covering less distance. Theoretically, because we don’t know how much it costs for the league to charter planes, this saves the NBA a significant amount in travel costs each year.

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Proposal #3 is undoubtedly the most logical option of these trials, if someone in the league office is watching — that’s what we’re suggesting as of now. What we do know; the current system is flawed and possesses deficiencies.

Considering the state of the Eastern Conference, in comparison to the West, the NBA’s goal of scheduling to ensure a competitive balance has failed in the instance of this season. While ESD is not the primary focus of the current formula, it’s something the league took into consideration when implementing the scheduling method. While having subservient divisions may not be detrimental to individual and team performance, it still costs the league an unknown amount of dollars in travel expenses.

Enacting Proposal #3 would cut each team’s ESD by at least 10,000 miles per year, shorten the season from 82 to 56 games, and level the travel distance bias. This proposal would use Goldsberry’s “Sweet 16” playoff method, ensuring that the best teams compete in the postseason. Because there are less games, each win becomes more valuable whilst every defeat is more significant  — giving the NBA’s regular season a greater, as Strauss defines it, “meaning.”

Data Visualizations by Matt D’Anna unless noted otherwise. 

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Luck Favors the Deserving

Amir Coffey http://hopkinsrp.org/1061/sports/coffey-named-to-all-metro-first-team/#prettyPhoto

Amir Coffey Photo Credit: The Royal Page 

Even as a student, I wondered why the Minnesota State High School League didn’t use a shot clock. Without the timer a basketball game is shortened, played at a slower pace because teams are never forced to attempt a shot at the basket within an allotted amount of time.

This induces less shot attempts, henceforth less scoring, but also limits the amount of mistakes the youth players are capable of making. Because not every player at the high school level possesses of an abundance of talent, smaller and less prestigious programs, forced to generate more shot attempts and possessions, may walk into a massacre when facing a state powerhouse. But the absence of a built-in pace-booster proved problematic during what was the first of two, state-semifinal, games played at the Target Center in Minneapolis, last Thursday.

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George Mikan was recognized as one of the most dominant basketball players of his time. During the 1950 season, Mikan averaged 28 points and 14 rebounds per game during an era when games were played without a shot clock. On November 22nd, the visiting Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were in Minneapolis taking on Mikan’s Lakers. This in an excerpt from a book written by John Taylor titled; The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball.

In one notorious example of “stall ball,” as it was also known, on November 22, 1950, between the Minneapolis Lakers and the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, the final score was 19-18. The Pistons coach, Murray Mendenhall, had decided not to run the ball but simply to hold it and wait until the end of the game to score the winning point. He succeeded, but fans were reading newspapers in the stands; some walked out and demanded their money back, others swore never to buy another ticket to a professional basketball game.

Not long after after Mendenhall’s Pistons defeated the Lakers by using the, unfavorable, tactic; a different use of ‘stall ball’ surfaced on the East coast.

In January of 1951, the Indianapolis Olympians and Rochester Royals were tied 67-67 at the end of regulation. Both teams deployed zero sense of urgency to score, in fact, the Royals and Olympians each decided to try and freeze the ball when they were in possession, trying to win on one final shot. In the sixth extra period, one of which included zero shot attempts from either team, Indianapolis eventually defeated the Royals of Rochester (75-73) after Ralph Beard made an open, transition layup just before the sound of the final buzzer.

Reference: GoldenRankings.com

The NBA first implemented the shot clock in 1954.

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The Hopkins Royals, ranked as one of the top-50 high schoolteams in the country according to MaxPreps, remained tied with the Shakopee Sabres, 41-41, with 2:49 remaining to play in the game. Kamali Chambers, a Hopkins senior, began dribbling just ahead of half court while the Sabres refused to move out of the compact zone that had given the Royals trouble throughout the evening. Under the instruction from his renowned coach, Kevin Novak, Chambers remained stationary just over the half-court line.

He dribbled until Novak signaled for timeout with 19 seconds remaining in the game; enough time for Hopkins to draw up a play for the final possession. The Sabers never allowed the Royals to play at the pace that they had become accustomed to scoring at throughout the season, but need to make one more stop if they were going to keep their run in the tournament alive.

Shakopee had briefly avoided elimination as Hopkins failed to even attempt a shot at the basket.

The standoff continued for three overtime periods and into a fourth, where the Royals won the tip and — again — held for the last possession. Coach Novak called for a timeout to orchestrate a plan. However, Hopkins committed a turnover out of the huddle with five seconds remaining. Following that, the Sabres failed to convert on a three-point attempt and the ball went back to the Royals with only a sliver (four seconds) of time remaining. It was all Amir Coffee, a sophomore, needed.

Hopkins, despite limiting the game’s possessions during crunch time, would have won handedly (49-46) had both teams been abiding to stipulations of a shot clock. I’m able to show why pace made almost made the difference in this game by combining multiple sets of data. Keep in mind that Hopkins (32 games) averaged 87.82 points per game entering the State Quarterfinals while Shakopee’s averaged stood at a meek 61.64 (31 games).

Because the MSHSL plays a third place game, both teams played an additional game after meeting in the Semifinals — Hopkins and Shakopee played four games during this tournament. Pace, the amount of possessions a team averages per 48 minutes, isn’t tracked to the high school level, but, thanks to Matt D’Anna, and game statistics from Minnesota State High School League website, by using the formula [48 * ((Team Possessions + Opponent Possessions) / (2 * (Team Minutes played / 5)))] we are able to determine them ourselves.

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As you can see, Hopkins averaged nearly four more possessions per 48 minutes than Shakopee did throughout the tournament. Conversely, these numbers are still somewhat useless, because these are only scoring opportunities. It’s fair to assume that Hopkins is the more prolific scoring team, because of their PPG average prior to the tournament. However, we can calculate how many points per possession each team scored using this formula [(Points scored * 100) / Possessions)].

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Although the sample is small, the marginal gap in points per possession separating Hopkins and Shakopee (0.13) is magnified because of their competition’s status as Minnesota’s best basketball teams. Shakopee made it interesting, but in a game with more shot clock induced possessions — the Royals offense would have become undoubtedly overwhelming. But interestingly, with Shakopee playing incredibly well defensively and grinding Hopkins’ offense to a standstill, it was Hopkins who opted to try and use ‘stall ball’ to distill their on-paper advantage to a single possession.

Margolis is a student reporter for Hopkins High School.

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Hopkins would go on to fall to the Lakeville North Panthers last Saturday evening, in the State Championship game. The Panthers averaged 78.84 PPG during the season (A round-difference of nine PPG compared to Hopkins). The Royals average pace was higher during the tournament (34.67) than Lakeville’s (33.03) by a small margin of 1.64 possessions per game, but the Panthers made up for it with their efficiency and scored .12 more points for every 100 possessions than Hopkins.

According to a local CBS column published on March 14th, in the hours preceding the semifinals. The Minnesota State High School League states there’s not enough support from coaches to put shot clocks into effect, albeit the fact that some bigger schools have installed them as they update their gyms. Provided availability,  schools are allowed to use these clocks in “experimental purposes,” like non-conference games and holiday tournaments.

Ultimately, it is too early to implement the shock clock for all teams at the high school level. Considering the vast points per game (season) difference between Hopkins and Shakopee (16.18), it would be unfair to try and force more possessions onto the smaller, less competitive schools. Dominant, superior teams often show mercy on overmatched opponents during the season so that scores aren’t offensive and students, players and coaches aren’t shamefully embarrassed.

Conversely; there should be some experimentation with shock clock implementation. Perhaps the MSHSL can use the timer during the fourth quarter, or final few minutes, of games played in arenas that have the technology. Doing this would prevent instances such as the Pistons victory against the Minneapolis Lakers back in 1950, when Fort Wayne played keep-away for nearly the entirety of the game. This also denies opponents opportunity to play ‘stall ball,’ such as the Olympians and Royals (Rochester) did nearly 64 years ago, when it becomes most convenient, just as Ken Novak instructed his Hopkins team to do during the waning moments last Thursday’s semi final meeting against Shakopee.

There are currently eight states that use shot clocks in at least one class of high school basketball.

Special thanks to Matt D’Anna (Senior Pattern Analyst at BAIR Analytics) and Josh Margolis (Hopkins High School Student Reporter at The Royal Page) for their help in collecting data for this article. 

Lacking an Alpha

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

Countless cliches are used to describe those who are defined as leaders. “Leaders aren’t born, they’re made,” or, “that person is natural leader,” are just a few examples of phrases littering miscellaneous media and literature, delineating those individuals sitting atop society as important, valued fixtures in their respective communities.

Those sovereign few who are able to rise above peers are held to higher expectations because of their elevated status within that particular faction, or social group. No crowd, swarm, or rabble of humans have ever assembled to orchestrate a successful rebellion or necessary course of action against an opposing force without some form of leadership. Leaders are hard to come by, whereas followers are omnipresent. Yet, because great power begets great responsibility, I find it fair to assume that there are those capable of being on the forefront of a revolution, or even simply spearheading a simple group-oriented task, who are fearful of a leadership role and the duties that go along with it.

The Minnesota Timberwolves may lack leadership.

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Rick Adelman is as decorated and credentialed as any other active coach in the NBA, however, he appears incapable of leading the Wolves into the postseason. There’s only so much a coach has control over. The players ultimately decide the outcome of the game but statistical benchmarks, such as the Pythagorean Record, have neatly sketched a proverbial line of expectations for the Timberwolves throughout the season. There was a certain buzz about Adelman and his roster, not only locally, but on the national level as well before play began. His contract won’t expire until the end of next season.

Kevin Love, despite being among the league leaders in scoring and rebounding, doesn’t appear to be the kind of leader the Timberwolves need. He is a versatile power forward with the ability to space the floor and create mismatches because of his familiarity with the three-point shot. He is not a shooting guard or a playmaking ball handler. While he’s a staple in the NBA’s upper echelon, his inability to lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs in his sixth year as a professional poses concern. It seems as if the franchise will miss the postseason for the 10th consecutive season. Adelman is in the twilight of his career, Love, at 25, is still crafting his game, but there just aren’t enough other bullets in the chamber to keep opponents at bay for the length of an entire game.

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The NBA now stands on the analytics-in-sports forefront, but the Timberwolves have set themselves as a peculiar, perplexing anomaly in the new era of advanced statistics. As of March 6th, the Wolves are 30-30, an underachievement in comparison to the aforementioned (39-22) Pythagorean Record (a projection based on their point differential). On paper the Wolves appear to be a lush roster complete with automatic, quick-firing weaponry, but lack an adequate amount of ammunition — as well as a steady hand that can confidently pull the trigger.

Game Averages

  • Average of  points per game ranks fourth in the league (106.2).
  • Pace of play (an estimate of the number of possessions per 48 minutes by a team) ranks third (99.88).
  • Offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) of ninth in the league (105.2).

Initial Jabs

  • Average more first quarter points than any other team (28.4).
  • Score a league high points during the first half of games (55.1).
  • First half pace of play (101.6) is behind only two other teams.

What About Defense?

Some of these deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball appear more distinctly than others. They are now illuminated by the some of the new, more advanced, statistical data recently made more accessible to anyone willing to search for it (For more information, read part-one of Seth Partnow’s Lessons of SportVU Player Tracking Data).

Most of the Wolves defensive shortfalls take place within five feet from the basket.

  • The Wolves opponents are shooting an astounding 63.3 percent from attempts taken within five feet of the rim. No other NBA team allows opponents to shoot that high of a percentage of attempts taken from those places on the floor.  
  • Individually, Kevin Love (57.6%) and Nikola Pekovic  (56.4%) dwell at the bottom of the ranks at their position when defending in these situations.

Outside of the porous defense near the basket, the Wolves opponents are averaging 47.4 percent on attempts from the field — more permeable defending. Only the Washington Wizards, Philadelphia 76ers, and Sacramento Kings allow opponents to shoot a higher field goal percentage, and the Indiana Pacers are the league’s best in this category — limiting opponents to a percentage of 41.6.

However Adelman’s defensive philosophy doesn’t prioritize contesting the opponents field goal attempts, this is by design. The Wolves have committed only 1,011 person fouls this season, less than every other team in the league with the exception of the San Antonio Spurs. Minnesota’s opponents average only 19.2 free-throw attempts per game, a league low that results in only 14.7 points, on average. New Orleans Pelicans opponents shoot a league-high 26.7 FT attempts per game and average 19.8 points from these opportunities. A difference of about five points between the two teams.

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The Wolves peppy, rhythmic, aesthetically pleasing offense begins striking at a less effective pace during the third quarter (99.47). They still average to score more during the third quarter than any other NBA team (27.1), despite the marginally small points decrease between the first and third quarters (-1.3), and in pace rating (-2.13). Conversely, the Wolves opponents score only a fraction of a point less (25.2) during the third, than they did in the first quarter of the game (25.7). Slowly, and after halftime, the point-differential candle is being burnt at both ends. This is because as points and possessions increase, or diminish, they do so exponentially*.

Minnesota’s notorious record in games decided by four points or less (2-12) invites many accusations in need of evidence for conviction. Team and individual player “clutch statistics” are recorded during either the fourth quarter or overtime with under five minutes remaining and neither team ahead by more than five points. As a team the Wolves have encountered this circumstance 31 times and hold a record of 12-19 in those games. They’ve allowed a total of 271 points, compared to the 215 the Wolves have scored in such scenarios.

Pace by Quarter/Points per Quarter

  1. 103.59/28.4
  2. 100.14/26.7
  3. 99.47/27.1
  4. 96.16/23.5

The game is shortened during the fourth quarter because possessions become less frequent. *With the exception of averages during the third quarter, as the Wolves pace rating decreases so does their scoring. Their average offensive rating throughout the entirety of a contest is 105.2, but by the fourth quarters it plummets to 97.6. They go from ranking 9th in the league in this category to 27th, only the 76ers and the Detroit Pistons are worse. As opposing defenses clamp-down on what is seemingly one of the league’s most potent offenses during the pivotal final minutes of games, the Wolves degenerate to the point of self-destruction. When they are faced with this adversity there is no leader to be found.

Wolves Team Performance in Clutch Situations (neither team ahead by five points with five-or-less minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, or overtime)

  • 38.5% FG (69-of-179)
  • 28.6% 3PT FG (16-of-56)
  • Defensive Rating — 125.2 (Yikes)

As mentioned before the Wolves’ superstar, Kevin Love, struggles to lead late in games. He’s a power forward, not a ball handling guard or small forward, therefore, in theory, Love is less likely to create shot opportunities for himself in clutch situations. Also, opposing defenses make a point to defend the Wolves’ best player in these scenarios. Why wouldn’t they? Love’s clutch numbers are less than desirable, as he is shooting 38.6 percent (21-of-57) from the field, 33.3 percent from three-point range (9-of-27), and 58.3 percent!!! (14-of-24) on free-throws attempted in these situations. If he’s not going to be the leader, who can?

The term-court general is often used to define certain NBA point guards, Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea do not fit that description. The often discussed poor field goal shooting of Rubio and selfish play of Barea yield the same results. These two players are not leaders, but rather hindrances when their team needs them most — in clutch situations.

Barea /Rubio

  • 36 minutes in 16 games / 77 minutes in 26 games.
  • 2-of-17 FG (11.8%) / 5-of-20 FG (25%)
  • 0-of-10 3PT FG (0%) / 1-of-3 (33.3%)
  • 1-for-1 FT / 8-of-9 FT (88.9%)
  • 5 assists and zero turnovers / 20 assists and 5 turnovers.  
  • Offensive Rating: 88.8 / 98.2 
  • Defensive Rating: 124.0 / 124.5.
  • Net Rating: -36.0 / -26.3.
  • Assist Percentage: 23.8% / 40.8%.
  • Assist Ratio: 22.3 / 40.8.
  • eFG%: 11.8% / 27.5%
  • TS%: 14.3% / 39.6.
  • Usage%: 19.9% / 15.2%.
  • Pace: 100.03 / 105.5
Ricky  Rubio in clutch circumstances

Ricky Rubio in clutch circumstances

J.J. Barea in clutch circumstances

J.J. Barea in clutch circumstances

On Monday, Kevin Martin converted eight free-throw on as many attempts during the final thirty seconds against the Denver Nuggets. However, this does qualify him to be the player his team needs most in clutch situations. Martin’s shooting percentages insinuate that he may be the player capable of rising to the challenges the Wolves often face in the final minutes of close games, but, the anomaly continues. Martin’s small scoring and attempts numbers during the final frame are too small to label him as a capable leader. He averages 20 points per game, but only 4 come in the fourth quarter and on an average of only 3 field goal attempts. As for Martin’s clutch performance, albeit shooting 48 percent from the field (13 of 27) and 57 percent from three-point range (4 of 7), the sample size is just too small to justify him as a player capable of being the Wolves leader.

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So, where does a leader come from?

Paul Sullivan is a business columnist for The New York Times and the author of Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t. Sullivan claims that no clutch leader was born that way: even generals had to learn to excel under pressure. He also believes there are three things emerging leaders can learn from military cadets:

  1. They are focused on a goal.
  2. They work in an organization that is continually striving to be better.
  3. They practice.

Before the season began, Adelman and his roster full of young, talented players carried the weight of playoff expectations on their shoulders. The goal is in place, but what about the organization?

The insertion of Flip Saunders as the new Head of Basketball Operations signifies that the Timberwolves franchise are making strides to take the next step in climbing out of the NBA’s doldrums where they’ve remained for so long. As for the practice, despite multiple failures — which have come to be repetitive as the Wolves have continued to meet adversity as the season has gone on — Adelman’s team is learning, this is season may be construed as practice.

Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, both of which are still honing their craft in today’s NBA, have time to become what fans in Minnesota want them to be, and what the Timberwolves need most — a leader, something that they haven’t had this season.

Nikola Pekovic: Large Man, Large Contract, Large Impact on Wolves Success

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

Last night against the Chicago Bulls, Nikola Pekovic left the game after playing only seven-minutes of the first quarter. Pekovic has been playing despite pain in his achilles for the past week, tried to give-it-a-go last night, and will see a doctor on Tuesday. The following was written before the Minnesota Timberwolves tipped things off against the Bulls.

Flip Saunders and Kevin Love both understood the importance of signing Nikola Pekovic in the offseason. Both agreed that Saunders needed to ‘do what he has to do,’ in order to retain the one we call, “Big Pek.” The Wolves also signed Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer to considerable deals before Pekovic and were, and still are, budgeting against the salary cap/luxury tax wall. Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, and Chase Budinger were 100 percent healthy going into the year, so, some thought because of the expected production around him — Pekovic need not increase his production and the Wolves wouldn’t be any less successful, in theory.

The nature of the free-agent market in the NBA often ends with teams overpaying for the services of a player(s). This, in-turn, affects a franchises’ cap space which can lead to the departure of a different asset(s) or prevent the addition of another viable player that would potentially improve the roster. Consider Minnesota’s situation with their all-star power forward; fans believe Love (if you’ve had your head buried in the ground) may leave for greener pastures when his contract expires at the end of next season. One of the questions for the Wolves during the offseason was how much will Saunders offer Pekovic and will the inevitable overpaying to attain the Montenegrin center affect Love’s future with the team. Saunders is replacing the notoriously debatable decision-making of the David Kahn regime, and much has been made about his relationship with Love — will it somehow affect the all-star forward’s future with the team?

With Love’s blessing Saunders signed Pekovic to a contract worth $60 million over the following five years; he’s been worth nearly every penny.

Last season Pekovic averaged 16.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, and played 31.8 minutes per game — all career numbers. He ranked sixth among centers with a PER of 20.26, but he also missed 22 games due to injury. So far this year Pekovic has upped his PER by a slim margin (20.89) while dropping to seventh among the league’s most productive centers — playing to the tune of the preseason predictions. Although this season, surprisingly enough, Pekovic is playing slightly less minutes (31.1). It’s remarkable to think Pekovic is playing less minutes per game simply because the Wolves starting-five of Rubio, Martin, Brewer, Love and Pekovic play more, per game, minutes together than any other unit in the league (22.4mpg). Pekovic is scoring two-more points (18.4) and collecting almost one more rebound (9.3) than he did season, and (for those concerned about health) he’s started in 43 of Minnesota’s games thus far.

Mike Prada exposed what makes Pekovic such a load offensively in a column last October, but, here’s a video clip to use as a reminder.

Prada has shown how Pekovic gets most of his open looks. The following photos slow things down a bit more.

The defender can afford to leave Brewer space on the weak side, Brewer is not a premier, or even an average, three-point shooter. His man is essentially fronting Pek.

The defender can afford to leave Brewer space on the weak side, Brewer is not a premier, or even an average, three-point shooter. His man is essentially fronting Pek.

Rubio approaches the top of the key and receives the ball on a handoff from Love and makes his way crosscourt.

Rubio approaches the top of the key, receives the ball on a handoff from Love and makes his way crosscourt.

Rubio passes to Brewer on the wing because of the help defense preventing the pass to Pek on the inside.

Rubio passes to Brewer on the wing because of the help defense preventing the pass to Pek on the inside.

Pek manages to get the ball on the inside with somewhat of a clear lane toward the basket.

Pek manages to get the ball on the inside with somewhat of a clear lane toward the basket.

Pekovic failed to convert this particular opportunity but these are the type of high-percentage looks Rick Adelman‘s offense is designed to create. Minnesota’s ability to execute on the offensive end has them rated as the second-highest scoring team in the league (106.8 ppg). Pekovic scores more points on close shots — points that are scored by a player on any touch that starts no more than 12ft away from the basket — than anyone in the NBA (8.9ppg). Brooke Lopez (6.6) is the player closest on this list of close points per game, while neither Al Jefferson (5.7), Dwight Howard (5.5), or Roy Hibbert (5.2) come within three-points of Pekovic in this category. As mentioned earlier, Pekovic is scoring 18.4 ppg, that’s 17 percent of the Timberwolves total ppg which is pretty significant considering the Wolves problem is not being able to win close games. Imagine where this team would be without him. Here’s how Pekovic stacks up offensively against players that will earn more than him this season.

Rk Player Season G MP FG% 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST BLK TOV PF PTS
1 Andrew Bogut 2013-14 43 27.2 .640 3.8 6.0 .640 0.4 1.2 .346 2.7 7.6 10.3 1.6 1.9 1.7 2.9 8.1
2 Marc Gasol 2013-14 19 32.0 .442 .000 5.1 11.3 .447 3.8 4.5 .859 1.3 5.2 6.5 3.5 1.1 1.7 2.6 13.9
3 Pau Gasol 2013-14 41 31.6 .463 .308 6.7 14.4 .467 3.0 4.0 .744 2.1 7.9 10.0 3.4 1.5 2.5 2.1 16.7
4 Roy Hibbert 2013-14 43 30.2 .460 .500 4.4 9.5 .460 3.0 4.0 .749 2.9 4.9 7.8 1.3 2.6 1.9 3.4 11.9
5 Dwight Howard 2013-14 46 34.0 .577 .400 6.5 11.3 .579 4.8 9.2 .523 3.4 9.1 12.5 1.8 1.8 3.1 3.6 18.0
6 Nikola Pekovic 2013-14 43 33.1 .533 7.4 14.0 .533 3.6 4.7 .754 4.2 5.2 9.3 1.1 0.5 1.6 2.4 18.4
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/26/2014.

Pekovic – though he’s an abnormally large one – is human, he does have deficiencies in certain areas. He’s a poor defender at the rim because it’s tough to jump high when you weigh 290 pounds (I can only assume). Pekovic allows opponents to shoot 57 percent at the rim and that’s one of the reasons the Wolves are the worst in the league defending field goal attempts from the rim. Minnesota allows teams to shoot 65.3 percent from the area closest to the basket. (Love is another reason, he is allowing opponents to shoot 60.2 percent at the rim, although his defensive rebounding compensates for that [somewhat]). With how much he compliments Love on the offensive side of the ball, the defensive weaknesses of both players won’t be the end of the world — the Wolves rank eighth in defensive rating, anyway. That’s a pretty solid place for the worst rim defending team in the league to be.

Regardless of the struggles defensively — it’s certain the Timberwolves are getting the most bang-for-the-buck from something they were supposedly unavoidably overpaying for. Pekovic is also playing for financial bonuses. He could potentially earn $1.6 million per year in incentives. Although the finer-print that requires that Pekovic earn MVP, or All-Star honors, in order to qualify for the bonuses. Pekovic can earn the most in incentives if he plays over 70 games in a season, something he’s never done in his four-year NBA career.

The question now: can Pekovic continue playing basketball at this level? He’s averaging at smidge-over 21 points during the previous 20 games at an efficient shooting rate of 54 percent, yet, the Wolves have forsaken this production because of failing to emerge victorious in close games (insert pathetic 1-12 record in games decided by 4 points or less statistic here). As “Pek’s” play pertains to Love’s future, nobody has any control of that, he will make his own decision. It’s certainly be tough to leave one of those most productive offensive centers in the game, assuming he stays healthy — right now Pekovic is certainly fulfilling his contractual obligations, and then some, that Saunders and Love unanimously agreed would be money well spent prior to the season.

An Old Dog Named Larry

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

As a dog becomes old, his tail wags with the same ambition, but the body betrays the youthful spirit. The elder canine is wise of mind and rarely curious, content on sitting and having a bone for dinner. He no longer ventures out the ‘doggy-door’ to pursue moonlit adventures. He knows the nature, the neighbors, and the other fixtures of suburbia, but as they get older, dogs begin keeping to themselves. Dogs, like humans, are creatures of habit.

Larry hails from New York City, and he’s a basketball official during the springtime for a recreational league in the area. He’s usually in a sweatsuit, officiating shirt visible underneath and wearing a hat with the early 90’s Knicks logo on it. We speak almost daily, but Larry doesn’t know any recent news or the latest trade rumors. Larry usually asks how my weekend was, or how things are going, but it’s never “how are the Knicks doing?! (who can blame him) or “what about those Wolves?!”

Of all the basketball minds I’ve met and talked with, Larry is one of those relationships the game of basketball has forged that is special to me. We share our favorite intangibles and explain our own subtle tendencies while telling stories of our experiences on the court.  He loves the game and he knows it, I know it too — Larry’s just not the type to keep pace with all the intricate details anymore. He would rather talk about the richer things in life, as opposed to listening to the 23 year old standing before him. It’s unfortunate, yet inevitable, basketball will definitely outgrow all of us just as it has done to Larry. He’s an old dog now. Larry has the respect of the youthful pups, but can no longer keep up in frisbee or fetch — Larry is left with only the memory of being fast enough to dominate the competing dogs.

_____

Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Jerry Sloan, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, George Karl, Larry Brown and Rick Adelman have each won over 1,000 games. Seven of these all-time greats have moved on to life away from the sideline, or life on the world’s largest — and most competitive — stage has moved away from them. Although the game of basketball is as simple as putting the ball through the hoop, it’s a game that is always in motion.

Rich Kraetsch profiled Adelman during Hickory-High’s “Profiles in Coaching,” and noted that he’s the coach who “sticks out like a sore thumb.” Kraetsch revives the days in Portland when the Blazers, under Adelman’s instruction, competed in three consecutive Conference Finals — twice advancing to compete for an NBA Championship, but to no avail. Two years and two first-round playoff exits later, he moved down the coast to coach the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors would fail to qualify for the playoffs, or even win 40 games, in both of Adelman’s years at the helm.

He then left the Bay Area but stayed within California to become the new head coach of the Sacramento Kings. Kraetsch mentions that although the Kings never made an appearance in the NBA Finals, the roster compiled of a disgruntled star and misfit castaways wouldn’t have the same accomplishments had it not been for Adelman’s scheme. He and the Kings parted ways after eight consecutive appearances in the post-season, none of which resulted in a trip to the Finals. Adelman’s next destination was Houston, where the sob-story of injuries to Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming prevented the Rockets from ever becoming the championship caliber team they were supposed to be.

“As encouraging his (Adelman) run in Sacramento was, this Houston run was equally disappointing. He should have done more there, Houston should have done more.” says Kraetsch

Adelman, 67, is now the head Coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. He’s one of the league’s “Old Dogs” in the game, but the same trend seems to be following him wherever he goes. Adelman is constantly claiming that his young “Timberpups” roster — 17 -17 so far this season — hasn’t accomplished anything yet.

_____

Last Monday, the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Wolves, 100-98. The starters for Minnesota scored 93 points. J.J. Barea was the only player to score off the bench; he played 17 minutes. Luc Mbah a Moute and Dante Cunningham each played 14, while Robbie Hummel and Alexey Shved combined for close to 12 minutes on the floor…and none of them managed to score. Barea’s five points were the Wolves only bench points, but star forward Kevin Love and coach Adelman remained optimistic about the season.

“I think if we can bring consistent effort every single night we’ll be OK,” Love said after the two-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks last week, “Coach hits it on the head when he says we haven’t done anything yet. We have to be one of the scrappiest, if not the scrappiest team, in the league.” – Love

“Sooner or later we have to break through. That’s the bottom line. We’ve got to have a mentally tough mind-set.” – Adelman

This wasn’t the first time fans have been reminded the Wolves “haven’t done anything yet.” In fact, the passive and conservative nature of the phrase is reminiscent of Adelman’s entire career. Dating back to last season, the Old Dog seemed to lack motive, desire or a drive to make things happen and conducted himself with a “sooner or later” or “we’ll see what happens” outlook about the future. When asked about his return for what would be the 2013-2014 season, Adelman told the media prior to an April 15th game against the Utah Jazz that he didn’t want to didn’t want to “hang out for a month or two,” but it was likely he would return as coach because the situation would, in his words, “work itself out”.

The Wolves coach missed 11 games last season due to a medical issue involving his wife, Mary Kay. After returning to the team and finishing out the season, the likelihood of Adelman’s return to Minnesota was everything but official until mid-September, something that was supposed to have worked itself out in a matter of weeks. There weren’t many doubting the return of Adelman, but the situation was curious nonetheless.

While everyone assumes Rick Adelman will be back, it is a bit unnerving that the move hasn’t been made official yet, right? #Twolves

— timberpups.com (@timberpupsblog) September 14, 2013

The phrase describing the Wolves achievements–or lack thereof–resurfaced in the locker room after another disappointing performance from the rotation players that resulted in another close defeat. Earlier this season, back on November 27th, the Denver Nuggets bench outscored their Wolves counterparts 47-10. Barea, with six, scored the majority while Cunningham, an established role player, added four points in the loss.

“We haven’t done anything in this league. This team has the potential to do something, but we just have to commit to be a team on defense.” — Ricky Rubio told media after the loss in Denver

“We just came in and allowed them to do whatever they wanted to do at the offensive end. We put up no resistance,” Adelman said post game, “There’s been all this talk about what kind of team we can be. I don’t care about what people talk about or what it looks like on paper. We’ve done nothing.”

Britt Robson, who covers the Wolves for MinnPost, wrote a column on December 3rd calling for Adelman to live up to his reputation.

“It is right about this time, when a team is underachieving in ways that are both understandable and troubling nearly a quarter of the way through the season, that you hope to rely on a superior coach to strategize, motivate and position talent in ways that shake off the doldrums and alter the prevailing context.”

The Wolves left Los Angeles in late December having fallen to the Lakers and the Clippers over the weekend prior to Christmas. Steve McPherson’s recap of the loss to the Lakers described Adelman as an “Old Fish”.

“I also think it would be crazy to think that his age doesn’t (at least partly) play into that conservatism. He may have been brimming with revolutionary basketball ideas when he started in Portland, but he now has a sense of the way the game should be played, and he’s not about to change that.”

On Saturday the Wolves fell victim to Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, another loss that may be blamed on the performance of the players outside the starting lineup. However, there was a chance to overcome the second unit’s lackluster effort.

Love, the team’s only superstar, was at the line with four seconds remaining, having been fouled on a three-point attempt. He missed the first, the second and intentionally missed the third, Durant grabbed the rebound, time expired and the Wolves lost their ninth game by four points or less this season. That’s a statistic that suggests there is an inability to execute in late-game situations, an unusual characteristic for a team that’s supposed to be well-coached. However, the scapegoat for the Wolves struggles remains ripe — the bench only managed to score five points, again, Saturday against the Thunder.

Adelman isn’t by any means on the hot seat in Minnesota, but the abundance of close losses progressively eliminating the excuses for why his team hasn’t done anything yet poses the question: when do fans start becoming more objective?

The Wolves have yet to attain any consistency when it matters most, even though Adelman appears to have the pieces. Things aren’t quite fitting the way they’re supposed to.

The Timberwolves replaced a misfit piece and traded Derrick Williams to Sacramento last November. Williams was simply a bad ‘fit’ for Adelman’s unique corner offense. He played fewer than 15 minutes, averaging only five points and two rebounds per game. The way Williams career in a Wolves uniform panned out poses doubt that rookies Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad are receiving ample opportunity to contribute.

Have Adelman’s method of doing things, ethics and strategies that have constructed a resume of admirable success, finally passed through time as old tricks? Has the coach of the Timberwolves become a dog, one so old and stubborn, that he’s incapable of making the adjustments required to find present day success?

On January 3rd, after losing the Mavericks but before going against the Thunder, President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders and Adelman made the decision to assign Muhammad – a first round draft selection and Saunder’s first pick as Minnesota’s President of Basketball Operations – to play with the Timberwolves shared D-League affiliate, the Iowa Energy.

In his only season playing at UCLA Muhammad scored 23.2 pace adjusted points per game. Muhammad accounted for 12.5 percent of the offense throughout the season, but only 1.1 of his possession per game came in isolation or pick-and-roll situations, signifying he wasn’t asked to do much creating offensively. Despite not having the same opportunities to play with possession of the ball, much like other college phenoms, Muhammad found ways to contribute in other areas. He shot over 40 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities and showed the ability to get up-and-down the floor in transition. Muhammad found himself in transition, an area where it’s highly likely for an offensive player to score, an average of 4.8 possessions per game.

With all the trouble Barea, Shved, Cunningham and the other bench players seem to have putting points on the board, couldn’t a first-round talent provide a spark of any kind? Muhammad scored 12 points in 42 minutes of playing time, shooting only 25 percent from the field and 33 percent from three, before being assigned to the D-League.

Dieng, Minnesota’s second selection of the first round, averaged nearly 13 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per 40 minutes at Louisville last season. He ranked 23rd of Division I in blocks per game. He was one of, if not the largest, factor that made the the national champion Cardinals defense No. 1 in the nation last season. However, a broken hand kept him from appearing in the first five games and hindered his playmaking ability throughout the year.

The Timberwolves currently rank 29th in opponent field goal percentage at the rim, allowing opposing players to shoot 68.2 percent in the area around the basket. That’s nearly a 10 percent difference from the Indiana Pacers (59.1) who are the NBA’s best team defending shot attempts taken around the rim. Dieng has appeared in 18 games so far this season. He’s scored a total of 28 points on 10 of 24 shooting from the field (41%) and is also averaging 4.9 blocks per 36 minutes. Albeit the small sample size, Dieng makes a difference on defense when he’s in the game. The rookie is allowing opponents to shoot only 37.5 percent around the rim.

There’s no signs indicating that Muhammad is going to see significant playing time this season. Dieng remains with the team but hasn’t played more than 10 minutes since the Wolves lost to the Boston Celtics back on December 13th. In addition to the offseason acquisition of Martin and Brewer, Muhammad and Dieng represent Saunders’ first moves as leader of the new regime in Minnesota — personnel that appease Adelman’s system.

_____

Larry never identifies a basketball subject to discuss with me during our conversations. It’s more likely for him to ask how my night, weekend or recent period of time away from work has been. Genuine questions such as how my siblings are, or how my writing is doing. Larry won’t be the first to talk about the NBA, or his beloved Knicks. He knows that if we begin conversing about basketball I’m going to say something he didn’t know, something that will blow him away. Larry understands parts of basketball, but it’s impossible for him to keep with the current players, coaches and gossip news. That’s beyond what he cares to know. Larry doesn’t care to understand basketball as anything different than how he learned the game as a youth.

_____

Rick Adelman, I fear, is a dog that knows how to fetch, but can never quite get to the ball first. He’s always right there, but misses out just before Adelman is able to sink he’s teeth into it. That’s the same problematic characteristic his Timberwolves are playing with this season. Minnesota is currently 17-17, but have battled through injuries and absent – to mediocre – bench performances and approach the more forgiving portion of the schedule. It’s a pivotal portion of the season and the Wolves must play well if they’re going to qualify for the post-season. Adelman is running low on options, but holds a steady hand and going about doing things the way he always has.

Any method, or formula, capable of yielding successful results for over a decade should be considered something timeless. However it’s possible Adelman’s system, a timeless craft he designed to achieve successful against an entire generation of basketball before us, may be the reason for his demise. Granted his basketball knowledge and experience is vastly greater than mine, or anyone else’s — Adelman’s not experimenting with the – potential and combustible – solutions to fixing the Wolves deficiencies.

Adelman and the Wolves are depending on Chase Budinger and Ronnie Turiaf to rescue the starters from the burden of potentially carry nearly the entire load offensively. Budinger is shooting 49 and 36 percent from the field and three-point range, respectively, and played in the corner-offense as a member of the Rockets. Turiaf is a veteran, a presence with experience on a championship team, and is a leader on – and off – the floor for the Timberwolves. Seeing as the return of these two players is imminent, can they manufacture points off the bench and provide a defensive presence around the rim?

Adelman has earned the spot at the foot of the bed, and a bone each night for dinner. He’s the old dog that’s been around the neighborhood as long as anyone can remember, and no dog dare define his legacy. For years Adelman’s bark intimidated strangers passing through the yard and anyone else visible from his home’s front window. Unfortunately it seems as if he’s become so prideful, undoubtedly confident that things will happen the way they’re supposed to, that Adelman may not understand that there may be more to the game he once believed to have mastered. Perhaps he’s lost every last drop of spirit necessary to inspire the young Timberwolves roster into a winning streak.

The Wolves are .500, 17 wins and 17 losses after a win last night over the 76ers in Philadelphia. This is the time for Adelman’s team to piece things together in Minnesota, the old dog trusts his Timberpups can execute all of his old tricks and get to coveted proverbial playoff ball, just to show everyone competing that he’s still capable of crafting success participating in an era that may be beyond his time. Maybe things will figure themselves out, but as of right now — they haven’t done anything yet.

Rubiowoahs

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

Ricky Rubio‘s ostentatious passing is main the reason the 24 year old from Spain is mentioned when there’s discussion of the NBA’s best point guards. Rubio ranks sixth in the league in assists per game and only Chris Paul has more total assists on the season.

However; it’s impossible for Rubio’s graceful, and seemingly effortless, passing ability to completely mask his shooting deficiencies — the lack of scoring is displayed in the box score. He’s scoring only eight points per game and shooting 35 percent from the field, hitting 28 percent of pull-up-jumpers with an effective field goal percentage of 34. All are well-below league averages.

The Wolves are currently 9-11 with losses of; 1,13,2,5,4,4,11,14,7,6, 10 and 21 points. With the exception of Saturday’s loss the to Miami Heat, Minnesota’s average margin of defeat in eleven losses is hovering around eight points. Because hardly anyone is producing outside of the starters, it’s foolish to depend on production from the bench. If there’s a way to turn close games into W’s, more production needs to come from somewhere.

It’s easier to justify a defeat it comes by only a small margin. It’s been the schedule playing scapegoat for the Wolves struggles, 4 of the 11 losses were played on the second night of back-to-back games. Traveling to play games on consecutive nights engenders fatigue. They will travel more miles than any other team this season and competing for the postseason, especially in the Western Conference, increases the significance of these losses.

After a perilous start, 60 games remain, it’s paramount Minnesota makes a postseason appearance. Rubio is as lovable as any superstar in the NBA, but; his frail scoring poses an implicit problem for the Wolves, one that’s outstandingly detrimental moving forward.

Expectations and Implications

In 2012 Wolves Owner Glen Taylor and General Manager David Kahn pinched a penny and signed Kevin Love to a four-year, $61 million dollar, deal. Love had missed significant time due to injury, the Wolves struggled and Taylor and Kahn didn’t think the forward from UCLA was capable of leading a playoff campaign. It hasn’t always been about Love in Minnesota.

To Taylor and Kahn, Love hadn’t performed well, nor often, enough to be considered an elite, MVP player worthy of a deal comparable to Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook. All members of the 2008 draft class; Rose and Westbrook received five-year deals with their respective teams. Love was disappointed, but kept from combusting into outrage at those handling his basketball future.

 “I don’t know who labels people stars, but even [T’wolves owner] Glen Taylor said: I don’t think Kevin Love is a star, because he hasn’t led us to the playoffs,” Love told Yahoo! Sports. “I mean, it’s not like I had much support out there.

Taylor and David Kahn budgeted to potentially sign another star-caliber player to a max deal in the future. Love wasn’t going to do it on his own. Rubio was, and still is, the ‘theoretical’ chip that kept money that could – and perhaps should – have gone to Love. The Wolves are depending on these two to do great things; only one of them is completely honoring their end of the bargain.

 So Close, Yet So Far

It’s shooting the basketball, particularly around the rim, where he struggles most; Rubio is making just 35 percent of his attempts under the basket and is scoring just 2 points on drives per game.

 To put Rubio’s numbers, when he’s driving to the basket in perspective — here’s a list.

Well he’s right next to CP3, that can’t be all bad?

Paul’s assists account for 26 of the 106 points the Clippers are averaging; a little more than 20 percent of their points. Although it’s the same percentage of his team’s points as Rubio provides the Wolves, 26 points generated by Paul’s assists are more than anyone in the league. (John Wall is second with 22). Paul is also averaging 19PPG — something Rubio hasn’t shown he’s capable of doing.

If Rubio is going to make more shots, he must begin finishing around the rim. It’s been a known weakness in his game and he’s never shot over 50 percent around the rim in his career, including a dismal 43 percent to-date this season. Why around the rim and not somewhere else on the floor?

2011-2012

2011-2012

2012-2013

2012-2013

2013-2014

2013-2014

From these shot charts we can see there’s no real place Rubio’s been consistent shooting from inside-the-arc.

Zach Lowe at Grantland recently touched on Rubio’s struggles this season, he encapsulated the problem in one sentence.

“There’s a reason Rubio so often dribbles down one side of the floor, under the basket, and back out the other side: He can’t find a clean passing lane and he’s reluctant to shoot.”

Trying From Elsewhere

If there’s an area to remain optimistic about Rubio’s jumper, it’s between the free-throw line and the three-point-arc at the top of the key. I determined this a ‘hopeful’ place where he may find some comfort over the summer in FIBA’s EuroBasket. Prior to the Semi-Finals Rubio was 5-of-12 in this area, which is just over 41 percent. Through his first two-NBA seasons he averaged nearly 37 percent in this area. At that point in the tournament Rubio had attempted 12 shots inside the lane, he made four of them.

In a slightly larger sample, so far this season, he’s shooting 37 and-a-half percent; an improvement from over the summer.

Rubio is attempting, on average, six two-point attempts per game and making two of them. From behind the three-point line he’s hitting every one of two shots. He’s only averaging two free-throws per game — remember; combining these two-FT attempts with six two-pointers and one shot from downtown TOGETHER have produced eight points per game. A- reasonable- improvement the Timberwolves could hope for would be for Rubio to make one additional two-pointer per game.

 Valuable Contributions, and a Lack Thereof

Rubio is doing the best he can to help his teammates score. He passes the ball 70 times a game and, on average, 9 of those become assists; 1 of them earns a teammate a trip to the free-throw line and 17 of the 70 passes are assist opportunities — passes by a player to a teammate in which the teammate attempts a shot, and if made, would be an assist. In other words, over a quarter of Rubio’s passes turn into assists or free-throws and account for 20 points per game, the sixth highest total in the league. The Wolves are scoring 105 points per game, 19 percent of those points are created from Rubio assists; that’s close enough to be considered 20 percent of the team’s points. These are solid contributions, the foundation of the Wolves offense.

Rubio, Love, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Nikola Pekovic (the Wolves starting five) have played more minutes together this season than any other set of players — a whopping 409 of a possible 917 minutes. Every starter is averaging over 30 minutes a game, outside of that? No reserve is averaging more than 20mpg other than Luc Mbah a Moute, who has only played three-games since being acquired by trade from the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Derrick Williams. Here are the numbers from the rest of the bench.

Rk Player G MP ▾ FG% 3P% 2P% FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
7 Dante Cunningham 19 19.2 .473 .000 .481 .000 3.8 1.1 0.7 0.8 0.4 1.8 5.5
8 Jose Barea 19 18.4 .401 .283 .462 .750 2.0 3.4 0.4 0.0 1.3 1.2 7.9
9 Derrick Williams 11 14.7 .352 .133 .436 .875 2.4 0.1 0.4 0.4 0.5 0.8 4.9
10 Robbie Hummel 14 11.8 .326 .250 .467 1.000 2.7 0.4 0.4 0.1 0.2 1.5 2.7
11 Ronny Turiaf 2 9.5 .250 .250 1.000 1.5 1.0 0.5 0.5 0.0 2.0 1.5
12 Alexey Shved 16 8.5 .238 .150 .318 .750 1.1 0.6 0.3 0.3 0.5 0.3 2.2
13 Gorgui Dieng 11 5.8 .462 .462 .250 1.9 0.6 0.3 1.1 0.7 1.3 1.3
14 A.J. Price 7 4.6 .300 .200 .400 0.4 0.4 0.0 0.0 0.4 0.4 1.0
15 Shabazz Muhammad 6 4.2 .167 .333 .111 .500 1.3 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.3 0.3 1.0
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/3/2013.

Yea — yikes.

 A House Built for Love

Flip Saunders, Minnesota’s new President of Basketball Operations, unlike Kahn, is an accountable and trustworthy executive. With the way Taylor and Kahn structured Love’s contract, it’s crucial for this team to make the playoffs this year. Love, Rubio and Adelman will reach the end of their servitude with the franchise at the end of the 2014-2015 season.

It took awhile, but Wolves signed Pekovic to a $60 million contract during the offseason. Saunders and Love understood the importance of ‘Pek’ and his complimentary presence on the roster.

“More than anything, Kevin wants to win. As we talked about Pek, he just said, ‘You have to do what you have to do.’ I think Kevin really knows and believes I’m going to have a certain way I’ll do things. I don’t know what has been done in the past. I really don’t care.”

Bringing back Corey Brewer and signing Kevin Martin have also proven to be pivotal acquisitions. Since his arrival Saunders has made the personnel decisions suited to appease Love. It’s December, early in the season and if things fall into place like they’re supposed to — this is a talented, deep and capable Wolves team.

  • Trading for Mbah a Moute brings aboard an above average perimeter defender, someone Adelman is going to play consistently. Something he wasn’t doing with Williams.

  • Budinger re-injured his left-knee and underwent Meniscal Transplant Surgery days before training camp. He is familiar with, and has played well in, Adelman’s Princeton Offense in the past. He’s struggled to remain healthy during his stay in Minnesota.

  • Ronnie Turiaf suffered an elbow fracture back in early November. He was labeled out indefinitely because of the relative amount of time it may take to recover. The second-unit misses his physical and vocal presence on the floor.

Observations and Imminent Judgement

“This league has proven you have to have three quote-unquote ‘star’ players,” Saunders told reporters during a teleconference. “I really believe Ricky, Kevin and Pek all have the ability to be in the top five at their respective positions, and some a lot higher than that.”

There will be a day when Love will determine if the surrounding assets are complimentary enough for him to continue playing in Minnesota. He’ll become one of the most coveted players in the league once his contract expires. Taylor and Kahn budgeted to potentially sign another star-caliber player to a max deal in the future. Make no mistake, Rubio was on their minds.

Rubio is the beneficiary of many, many excuses that justify his imperfections as a basketball player. He’s endured numerous modifications to the Wolves front office and player personnel. He’s missed considerable amount of games because of injuries. Neither are ideal conditions for a player hoping to develop into a star.

Vibrant passes render spectators speechless and instill awe of his uncanny display of court-vision. Rubio’s carefree, surfer boy, long-haired persona make him one of the most marketable players in the league. When healthy he can do no-wrong; fans everywhere adore him. It’s nice, heck — it’s some of the most amazing and flamboyant passing basketball has ever seen. But it’s imperative that Rubio finds a way to score more often and more efficiently, despite what his distribution produces. Barely averaging 10 points per game and shooting under 40 percent from the field, 50 percent around the rim with an inability to score consistently, from anywhere on the floor, aren’t the characteristics of a championship point guard. 

The Wolves welcomed the Heat to Target Center on Saturday. It was a frigid -2 degrees outside, but inside, Minnesota was burned by the defending champions, 103-82. Love did not play, and was away mourning the death of his late Grandmother. Rubio scored one point, had six assists and five rebounds. He was 0-of-4 from the field, had three steals and six turnovers in 27 minutes of play.

The infatuation with Rubio may never cease to exist. Since the aesthetically pleasing passer’s arrival there’s been reason to be excited about the Timberwolves, something that hasn’t existed in nearly a decade. But Rubio’s flaws are becoming more and more transparent, some will begin to notice if the Wolves continue losing close games — especially those that are playing alongside him.

(Unless otherwise noted, all statistics provided by NBA.com/stats and are based on games played prior to the night of 12/7/2014)