How Are The Wolves This Bad Without KAT?

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Swinger (USA TODAY Sports)

In case you have not noticed, the Minnesota Timberwolves are bad right now.

By Synergy’s Points Per Possessions metrics, they have the 5th worst offense and the worst defense in the entire NBA. Using NBA.com’s Team Ratings, which factor in the effects of rebounding, they have the 8th-worst offense and, again, the worst defense in the NBA.

But, wait, it gets worse. Not only do the Wolves give up the highest defensive efficiency on a per-play, and per-possession basis, they also grab the lowest amount of defensive rebounds per opportunity in the NBA, allowing an offensive rebound on almost 32% of their defensive rebounding opportunities.

So, basically, they are the worst at all the defensive aspects of play. Makes the offense look downright potent by comparison. They sit at 2-5, and considering the way the team has played without Karl-Anthony Towns, they’re lucky to not be 1-6 (their expected record according to Pythagorean Wins), or even 0-7.

Through this tiny sample of seven games, the Timberwolves effectively have two states, both on the extreme edges of the spectrum of team performance.

1. In the 60 minutes KAT has been on the floor, the Wolves have outscored their opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions. Last year, the Milwaukee Bucks led the entire NBA by outscoring their opponents by 9 points per 100 possessions.

This number seems gaudy, and it definitely is, but it’s worth noting that over the course of an entire season, even the worst NBA teams will invariably outscore their opponents by 15, 20, even 30 points per 100 possessions at some point, if not multiple points, over an 82-game sample size. Even the 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers, who were deep in the Process and went 10-72, had a 60-minute stretch where they outscored their opponents by a combined 25 points.

2. In the 276 minutes KAT has been off the floor, Minnesota has been outscored by their opponents by 18 points per 100 possessions. Last year, the Golden State Warriors were outscored by their opponents by 9 points per 100 possessions — last in the entire NBA.
Again, this number seems gaudy… and it is, and far more concerningly so than the previous on-court hours. While this is still a relatively small sample size over the course of an 82-game season, it’s equivalent to about six full, 48-minute games. You won’t find many teams that are outscored by 109 points over any six consecutive game stretch, and among the handful you’re able to find, very few of them were any good the rest of the time.

Obviously, this analysis is far from a concrete picture. Variability in opponent lineups, in whether or not shots go in (a 50% shot goes in more often than a 60% one, but within a 100-shot sample, a 50% shot has about a 3% chance of going in 60 times out of those 100 shots), and comparing On/Off splits for specific player’s involvement and comparing them to entire teams is shaky. It would be like taking the core out of an apple, then comparing the separate parts of that one apple to the entire composition of 29 other ones. The part with the core will almost always have a more proportional core in it than any whole apple, and likewise to the fruit-bearing parts compared to the whole apples as well.

The problem is, to run a basketball team in any given game, you need the fruit and the core. KAT can’t play every minute of all 82 games. How well the team holds up in its KAT-less core is an integral part of the formula of success. And this is especially true if the fruit-bearing part shrivels, even a little bit.

Last year, the only player whose team outscored their opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions on any decent amount of minutes played was the MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. That’s incredible, even when factoring in that the Bucks’ baseline without Giannis was outsourcing their opponents by 2 points per 100 possessions. You just don’t see 30-plus point per possession swings over large sample sizes, and I doubt you will at the end of the year.

But that’s what’s so troubling about this: I don’t think the Wolves will continue outscoring their opponents by 15 points per 100 with Towns, and I don’t think they will get outscored by 17 per 100 without him… but I could easily, easily see 7 to 11 points per 100 being in play, and that figures to be a larger distance from 0 than the amount the team can outscore their opponents by when he’s on the floor. So, yes, Minnesota can play Towns for more than half the game to mitigate that hit (a 10% gain on $100,000 is greater than a 30% loss on $30,000), but this is currently looking like a house of cards without any towers, great halls, or majestic gardens.

It’s a one-story rambler of cards.

And when KAT is removed, it’s all been laid bare, slow, no training camp, start or not.

D’Angelo Russell has been in the midst of a strong regression from his world-class mid-range efficiency of 2019-20. Last year Russell shot a combined 99-of-216 from the mid-range (46%). Not a great shot, but not so bad that it would tank an offense. So far in the 2020-21 season, he’s 18-for-45 (40%). Those 6% points might not seem like enough, and they only account for about six points off of DLo’s 2019-20 rate, but those margins add up.

Look at his pick-and-roll play, where Russell’s PPP has dropped from 0.92 last season to 0.82 so far in this one. Isolating just his time with the Timberwolves, Russell’s PPP in pick-and-roll last year was 0.89, and in the one game he played with KAT (against the Toronto Raptors), he supplied 17 points on his 18 pick-and-roll possessions, for a PPP of 0.94. Any way you want to cut it, Russell didn’t show any great flashes in pick-and roll-with Minnesota, but he wasn’t 0.82 PPP bad, with or without KAT. The team needs more from a max player whose major contributions come on only the offensive end, even if he’s being thrust into a first option role without his All-Star teammate.

For the optimistic piece I wrote about Jarrett Culver last week (and I stand by everything I said), the strain of KAT’s absence has hit him far harder than anybody would hope. Factor out Culver’s pick-and-roll possessions, and he’s about a league-average efficiency player. Factor those 12 possessions back in, and considering that he’s 0-for-8 with four turnovers on them, they tank his numbers into the efficiency zone that is reserved for busts. I contend that should not be judged too harshly considering that it’s his second season, he has proven that he can be an offensive contribution in all over areas, he gives effort on defense (a luxury on this team, apparently), and his work ethic is well-renowned — but those are the current state of his efficiency, and they should be noted as such.

Anthony Edwards’ objective struggles are basically a topic non grata in most Timberwolves spaces. Does he show flashes? Yes. Do I feel strongly about the sustainability of those flashes growing into a consistent, positive influence on the team on a game-by-game basis? No, at least not yet.

Overall, Edwards is scoring at the 34th percentile in per-possession scoring efficiency.

  • Considering he’s a rookie, that’s more than fine.
  • Considering that he is a No. 1 overall pick who plays mostly against opposing bench players, well, that makes me less excited about the 34th percentile ranking.
  • Considering that he’s shot 54% on his guarded catch-and-shoot attempts this season, and so far the points scored off of them account for almost 1/4th of his overall points scored this season and only 1/9th of his possessions, well, that’s concerning.
  • Considering that he’s shot 33% those same shots on over 50 attempts at Georgia, he’s currently shooting better on his guarded catch-and-shoot possessions than Stephen Curry ever has on his unguarded ones over the course of an entire year, and if you factor all those shots out of his season, Edwards would rank 95th out of 98 in efficiency among players with at least as many possessions, well, you get what I’m saying here.

It’s not a guarantee this will go south, but his guarded shooting percentages will (and I’m not even going to throw an “almost certainly” onto this as a qualifier, they will go down, you can bet the farm on that). As for the rest of the highlight plays, I’d rather see Edwards morph into a boring, yet efficient player than try to talk myself into getting excited when poor decisions occasionally end with points or an assist.

Hilariously enough, of the four players who have been entrusted with the bulk of the scoring load in KAT’s absence, Malik Beasley is the only one who currently undoubtedly looks like what the Timberwolves were hoping for when they acquired him. Just a great reminder that the labels of “professionalism” or “morality” doesn’t mean a thing towards on-court performance, despite what the more pious among us might say. Beasley is playing well and hasn’t hurt anybody yet (and I doubt he ever will, by his own admission he learned a lesson, not to mention that the people he pointed the gun at were trespassing), so let Beas live.

All and all, will the Wolves be this bad without KAT for the rest of the year, or as good as they were when he gets back? I lean towards a strong “no” on both counts.

But, while the Wolves have some more room to run in offensive efficiency in regards to DLo and Culver, those gains could easily be offset by a slip from Beasley or this inevitable regression from Edwards.

The Wolves aren’t this bad without KAT. But, I can confidently say that reaching the bar of “better with KAT” won’t be good enough for wherever this team dreams of going.

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