The Minnesota Timberwolves are starting to look like the Minnesota Timberwolves, and that’s a bad thing.
Since opening the season at 7-4 with impressive wins over the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota has cooled down in a major way. The T-Wolves have since lost six of eight, thus resulting in their underwhelming and all-too-familiar sub-.500 record of 12-13.
The latest chapter was a 101-97 heart-breaker against the Boston Celtics in which Minnesota posted a team slash line of .378/.276/.577.
Through it all, one thing has become perfectly clear: if the Timberwolves are hoping to reach the postseason, shooting guard Kevin Martin will be the key to sustained success.
Kevin Love is the franchise player, Ricky Rubio is a rising star at point guard and Nikola Pekovic has been playing excellent basketball. The common theme with those three players is that Minnesota has been here before with them, and to date, the postseason hasn’t been a dream that’s even close to attainable.
What Martin brings to the table is what the Timberwolves have lacked in previous seasons. That’s why he’s the team’s ultimate X-Factor.
It’s rare that an X-Factor is such a prominent individual, but Martin is in an unparalleled situation in his role with the Timberwolves. After all, he’s the first legitimate perimeter threat that Minnesota has possessed since Ricky Davis.
Yes, it’s been that long.
Lone Perimeter Scoring Star
The last time that a Timberwolves guard averaged at least 15.0 points per game was 2008-09, when Randy Foye posted 16.3 on a field goal percentage of .407. Outside of Foye, the most recent T-Wolves guard to average at least 15.0 points in a season was Ricky Davis in 2006-07, when he tallied 17.0 on a field goal percentage of .465.
Why does this matter? Well, 2006-07 was the last time Minnesota won more than 31 games. During its most recent postseason appearance, point guard Sam Cassell averaged 19.8 points and swingman Latrell Sprewell added 16.8 points per game.
If you’re feeling nostalgia, it’s probably because Cassell and Sprewell joined do-it-all star Kevin Garnett in a postseason push during the 2003-04 season. Not only was that the last time Minnesota made the playoffs, but it was the last time it possessed balance.
I’ll let that sink in before I continue.
It’s no secret that Love can shoot the basketball, but he’s in a similar boat as Garnett was during his final years in Minnesota. Love is a spectacular player, specifically on the offensive end of the floor and on the glass, but he’s also a star without the ideal level of support.
Pekovic is a stud down low and Rubio is stellar as both a facilitator and ball hawk, but that’s not enough.
Love has long needed a perimeter player who can create their own shot to alleviate pressure during late-game situations, thus enabling Minnesota to close out and win games. Thus far, he’s never been provided with that type of player.
Martin entered the 2013-14 regular season with a career average of 17.9 points per game on a slash line of .441/.386/.869. Much like Love, he’s been on his fair share of bad teams.
In 2012-13, that changed when he was a Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the Oklahoma City Thunder. In 2013-14, Martin has the chance to play a new role: savior.
Through 23 appearances, Martin is averaging 20.6 points on .408 percent shooting from three-point range. That’s the second highest average on the team behind Love, and it’s the highest scoring mark of any T-Wolves guard since Wally Szczerbiak averaged 20.1 in 2005-06.
It’s safe to say that Minnesota has been missing his quality of play.
The three most notable areas in which Martin’s contributions are needed most are as follows are as follows: he can space the floor as a three-point marksman, attack off of the bounce to keep a defense honest, and consistently makes his free throws in clutch situations.
All three of those points make him absolutely critical to Minnesota being anything more than a fun team with a pipe dream.
During the 2012-13 regular season, Minnesota shot a league-worst .305 percent from three-point range. No other team shot worse than .329, which is a dramatic drop-off from second-worst to the basement, which is where the T-Wolves resided.
The most concerning aspect of that failure is that, one season after shooting the worst percentage in the NBA, Minnesota ranks fifth in three-point field goal attempts per game. Rick Adelman isn’t a bad coach by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a word for doing the same thing over-and-over again and expecting different results: insanity.
Fortunately, Martin has helped Adelman turn one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league into a competent one.
If you’re looking for Martin’s value, try this: in 2012-13, he made 158 3-point field goals on a percentage of .426. Minnesota made 450 on a mark of .305. The team’s individual leader was J.J. Barea, who made 97 on a mark of .346.
Furthermore, Minnesota was 21st in the NBA with a team free throw percentage of .742. Martin, meanwhile, was fourth in the NBA with a mark of .890 from the charity stripe.
Those two shooting deficiencies are a primary reason why the Timberwolves ended up winning just 31 games in a season that was supposed to signal their great turnaround. Injuries also played a factor, but Minnesota’s weaknesses display why Martin is so critical to this team becoming a postseason contender.
Love is still the best player on the roster, and both Pekovic and Rubio deserve their fair share of praise. If the T-Wolves are to turn things around and reach the playoffs, however, it’s going to be Martin whose contributions take them there.