The Minnesota Timberwolves’ representation in the National Basketball Association may be the most frustrating and/or tantalizing team that the league has to offer. The burgeoning superstar, the veteran scorer, the burly Eastern European center and the diminutive magician spreading the ball from the point. No team in America is more aesthetically pleasing and upsettingly useless at the same time as the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Attributing value in basketball has never been more complicated. In the previous decades, followers of the game were always content with the rudimentary ideas: points, rebounds, assists, the last shot (made or missed), who led the comeback, who wanted it more.
But this is not your father’s NBA. More is measured and analyzed than ever before, we know your point guard’s true shooting percentage, the likelihood of a possession of his ending in an assist (or a turnover), we know the opponents’ field goal percentage at the rim and we can all look up defensive win shares irrespective of having any clue what they even are.
This NBA is not so forgiving to the blind accumulation of statistics as years past. Efficiency isn’t preferred now, it’s required.
As the clock turns into 2014, we too as basketball fans are turning our backs on the perceptions of old. In 2014, we get that Rudy Gay (who once was awarded an $82.5 million, five-year deal) may be more of a burden than an asset. Omer Asik may look like a sad, unemployed clown on the court, but we can see that he is also capable of making essential contributions to winning teams. Glancing at box scores can fool a casual fan into thinking that Monta Ellis is an all-time offensive force, but we know better now — at least, we act like we do.
Some advanced metrics are good for little more than furthering LeBron James’ case for global deification, but in collating all these numbers it’s clear teams and general managers (and fans!) believe they are on a path to be able to measure and appreciate the success a player can bring to a basketball in a more comprehensive manner than ever before. Teams are built like never before. The aforementioned Asik contract is one example, the aversion to awarding skilled veterans with moderate contracts is noticeable, gunners and scorers are less valuable than ever before. The positionless revolution (‘small-ball’) and the almost paradoxical emphasis on rim protection and “verticality” have had a widespread effect on roster construction. All due primarily to statistical advancement!
But one thing we will never be able to eliminate in the constant search for numerical perfection is ourself. Most believe that the numbers can only be put to use in conjunction with good observational analysis of the games themselves, this seems a very reasonable opinion. However, our mind will take any opportunity it can to swing the conclusion in our favor. Our own bias, in this case, is our own worst enemy.
By bias, I do not mean overestimating the abilities of the team that you support. That is a common curse of being a fan of any team/sport, but I mean to look beyond that. The bias I speak of is that of entertainment and beauty. The San Antonio Spurs of the early 2000s were the most brutally effective team in the league, this was clear, they proved it multiple times, in multiple different championship years. They are polar opposites to this current Minnesota franchise. The Wolves can score from all over the court, Ricky Rubio can make passes at impossible angles, Kevin Love’s jump shot knows no failure and Nikola Pekovic hasn’t been seen on the losing side of a scrap yet. Unless, of course, the fight involves an opponent driving to the basket for a layup.
The talent on the Timberwolves is undeniable, but at some point we must ask the question as to whether the skills translate more towards entertaining us rather than winning basketball games. Maybe this is why the team is relatively well-liked and probably overrated around the league. People want this team to be good, it would be great if this is what winning basketball was all about. Slick passing, sharp movement, refined offensive play without letting defense get in the way. Our own bias pushes towards the entertaining teams, convincing us that they are good teams, when in fact excellent basketball teams are produced from predictability and consistency. It is disheartening to think of in this way, but flair and trickery are impostors compared to reliable fundamentals.
I believe it’s this bias that has shaped our image of the Timberwolves. They push the pace, they run the floor, they score points and usually forget to prevent them. I am in no place to criticize this, they play great basketball that is a pleasure to watch, but it is my place to illuminate a certain perspective. In this sense, the Wolves are built like a casual fans dream. A true embodiment of video game basketball. For this approach they are praised, but it is this exactly that should be the cause of concern.