The Minnesota Timberwolves are a bizarre bunch anyway, they look like a third-rate crew of international pirates on the hunt for an adventure to pass the time. It’s not surprising at all to mention that they look pretty strange, but I wouldn’t have thought they were a strange team, until I looked at the numbers on how they have scraped their wins together so far.
Basketball is a simple game. One ball, two hoops and multiple participants attempting to put the ball through the hoop to acquire points. The points are tallied up and at the end of the game, the team with the most points is the winner.
The game has undoubtedly moved on since its invention but putting a ball through a hoop will forever remain the central principle. This is important to remember as we deal with such an enormity of data in the modern NBA. Though It would definitely make a lot of sense that the team putting the ball through the basket at the best rate should win the game. This however, is not the case. Especially not with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Ten years ago, statistician Dean Oliver wrote a book called Basketball On Paper outlining various trends in the NBA and the statistics that are indicative of good and bad play. Part of his work was outlining the Four Factors, considered the 4 most important statistics (on each side of the ball) for projecting likelihood of victory.
1. Effective Field Goal Percentage
2. Turnover Percentage
3. Offensive/Defensive Rebound percentage
4. Free Throws per Field Goal Attempted
The significance of these stats descends with the list in this case, so according to Dean Oliver the most important stat is the first, eFG%. Which brings us to the Minnesota Timberwolves, 17-17 and 2.5 games back from the playoffs they are a tough team to have a good read on. Part of this is their unconventional path to victory. They do not seem odd in playing style or personnel but the numbers seem to reveal an unlikely formula for victory.
Offensive Four Factors:
eFg% – 48% (25th league wide)
TOV% – 12.4 (4th)
ORB% – 29.4 (3rd)
FT/FGA – .242 (5th)
Defensive Four Factors:
Opponent eFG% – 52.1% (29th)
Opponent TOV% – 15.6 (2nd)
DRB% – 75.3 (9th)
Opponent FT/FGA – .158 (1st)
Simply put, Minnesota are a team fighting for the playoffs despite being one of the worst teams in the league at scoring (eFG%) and the second-worst in the NBA at letting the opposition scores. On the surface this makes no sense, how can you be bad at scoring and terrible at stopping your opponents from scoring and still win games? Also, the Minnesota Timberwolves undeniably have a great offense, so how do they manage that with such a low effective field goal percentage?
It appears under Rick Adelman this team has strategized to overcome their weaknesses (shooting and rim protection) by making up for it in other less noticeable aspects of the game. By being such a turnover-free offense whilst dominating the offensive glass the Wolves rarely waste a possession and are often able to manufacture extra possessions. In addition to this, they have around five or six players capable of racking up foul shots on a regular basis. So they may not get the ball through the hoop as easily but by getting up more shots than the other team it turns out they don’t need to.
On defense, I along with anyone who’s ever watched the Timberwolves have criticized their ability to block shots and alter opponents shots at the rim. But what I hadn’t seen was how these seemingly generous offerings were underlined by a specific and deliberate aversion to fouling. There is little other way to describe the opponent FT/FGA rate other than it being on a historical level for low fouling. Only the 1971-72 Lakers have ever gone on to foul teams at a lesser rate than the 2013-14 Minnesota Timberwolves. With Love and Pekovic using most of the available minutes for big men, with reputations as defensive turnstiles, the strategy appears to be damage limitation. Allowing field goals is one thing but add extra free throws on top of this and soon Minnesota’s average defense would sink to the depths of the league.
Needless to say, forcing turnovers at the second-highest rate in the league is no small help either in keeping this defence at an average level with below-average talents. But that is the point. All these numbers matter and there is no evidence to prove that the Wolves’ method arose from statistical analysis or naturally, however, with the numbers we can see how the Wolves are not just overcoming a fundamental disadvantage, but masking it to the point where we don’t even realise how strange they are.