Vegas Is Selling the Timberwolves Short

Photo Credit: Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve never been one to gamble. I tend toward safety and security. I also recognize in myself a tendency to hyper-fixate on my interests, and something about a hyper-fixation on gambling just doesn’t seem like a good idea. But, now more than ever, I’m considering putting some money on the line because of a bet that seems so evident that I would be a fool not to go in on it.

You’re reading that right, folks. DraftKings has the Minnesota Timberwolves’ over/under line set at 47.5 wins. I’m telling you right now, the Wolves are almost a sure bet to hit that over.

Let’s start with some low-hanging fruit, shall we? Last season the Wolves won 46 games. Though this was a spectacular success, the numbers tell us that the Timberwolves actually underperformed. Using Cleaningtheglass.com’s expected wins per 82 metrics, based on Minnesota’s offensive and defensive efficiency, they played at a 49-win pace.

Admittedly, I am in the camp that believes the Wolves caught lightning in a bottle last season. A combination of good health and a palpable sense of team chemistry helped send the Wolves to heights I had not imagined before the season. Unexpected success can often lead to regression because it can be hard to capture that same magic two seasons in a row and keep the injury bug away. The Wolves built on last year’s success by adding talent, thus mitigating the risk of regression such that winning fewer than 48 games would be a full-blown catastrophe. It’s a scenario that would probably only result from a major injury.

The Wolves’ starting lineup was one of the best high-minute lineups in the league last season. With a +12.9 net rating, the Wolves starters ranked fifth among five-man lineups that played at least 500 possessions. Replacing Jarred Vanderbilt and Patrick Beverley with Gobert and McDaniels has the opportunity to be a huge boost for the Wolves. Gobert provided 11.7 win shares for the Utah Jazz last year, more than Beverley and Vanderbilt combined. Though I acknowledge that cumulative win shares are a rough way to approximate future success on the court, Gobert has been a plus player for his entire career.

So, where is the downside in this bet? Vanderbilt and Beverley provided a lot of that magic I spoke of earlier. All of Minnesota’s best lineup combinations last season included those two. Vanderbilt had a powerful effect on winning as he was second on the team with an impressive six win shares last season. That’s nearly two more win shares than Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell. The Wolves will sorely miss those two and their performance on the floor. Therefore, the key to the team’s success is how they’ve replaced them.

Assuming that Chris Finch chooses to replace Vanderbilt and Beverley in the starting lineup with Rudy Gobert and Jaden McDaniels, let’s do a one-for-one comparison to see what Gobert and McDaniels can bring to the starting unit.

Gobert has a long track record of success, and it doesn’t take too many mental leaps to understand why his game will fit in with what the Wolves were already doing on the court. Offensively, Gobert can drop into the role that Vanderbilt played last year and give the Wolves a huge boost. Here are two Statmuse screengrabs of Gobert’s shot chart and Vanderbilt’s shot chart. Can you tell whose is whose? The similarities are striking.

Here’s a hint: Vanderbilt took a handful of corner threes last season. Defensively, Gobert is a three-time defensive player of the year. Though he is a far less versatile defender than Vando, Gobert has never anchored a defense that was ranked lower than 13th league-wide. Vanderbilt’s presence will be missed, but Rudy is clearly a significant upgrade.

Replacing Beverley with McDaniels is not as clear an upgrade. In fact, from a statistical standpoint, it’s actually a significant downgrade. Though McDaniels has shown some impressive flashes on the court, the numbers don’t paint him as a particularly effective basketball player yet. His -2.9 BPM was among the worst on the team, and he contributed a measly .065 win shares per 48 minutes. On the other hand, Beverley was one of Minnesota’s best players last year. His veteran savvy and secondary ball-handling ability was a huge boon for the team. The logical line here is that McDaniels will have to do less than Beverley did. Edwards should see his usage tick up, and Gobert should take some of the offensive load as well, which can make up for some of what Beverley brought to the team.

The theory of the case is that McDaniels should be able to slot into a low-usage offensive role while being the primary perimeter defender on the other end. There are a few issues with this idea. First, for McDaniels to succeed in this role, he’ll need to take a major step forward in his three-point shooting. Even though Beverley only shot 34% from three last season, he added to the offense with his ability to play off the dribble. McDaniels has shown some ability to attack in transition and take advantage of close-outs with his dribble game. But he hasn’t demonstrated an ability to run pick-and-roll, nor should he be expected to be able to do that. He showed off a real bag in The CrawsOver Pro-Am, but I find it unrealistic to think that we’ll see many opportunities for him to show that off in an NBA setting.

On the defensive end, McDaniels should be able to fill the Beverley role quite well. Players that McDaniels was defending shot 4.9% worse from the field when he was the closest defender last season. He’s got the ability to defend 1 through 4 pretty competently and should be able to pick up the most difficult assignment every night. The one question that remains for McDaniels defensively is his fouling. Last year, he averaged 4.4 fouls per 75 possessions, which is untenable if the Timberwolves are relying on him to be the primary perimeter defender. He’ll have to cut down on his fouling and improve his 3-point shooting if the Wolves’ starting unit is going to find the same success it did last season.

I won’t tell you how to spend your money, but the bet here is obvious. The Wolves need only to be as good as they were last season to play at a pace that hits the 47.5 over. If the Wolves only slightly improve, they’ve got a chance to blow that line out of the water and win 50-plus games. The biggest concern is the Jaden McDaniels factor, but I’d bet on his upside more than anything, especially in the simplified role he’ll be playing. My guess is that the Timberwolves will win 52 games this season. Fans should be racing to bet the Wolves over before Vegas realizes the line is way too low.

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