For as much as we *joke* around here about my annual prediction that the Wolves are ready to turn a corner, there really have been two seasons in the past decade in which the franchise had legitimate playoff hopes going into the season.
The first was 2013-14, when veteran coach Rick Adelman had Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, Kevin Martin and a bunch of other veterans/depth players. The second was this season, when a young core led by Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach Lavine and Rubio, under new coach Tom Thibodeau, seemed poised for a breakthrough.
The two teams were quite different. The squad three years ago was filled players ready to win now, mixed in with Love and Rubio who were on the way up. This year’s group is definitely centered around youth.
But while the styles and makeup of both teams were different, both seasons came up (or at least started out in the case of this one) far short of expectations in large part because of one specific failure: not being able to perform well in the clutch and as a result losing a ton of close games.
The 2013-14 Wolves were 16-25 in what NBA.com deems “clutch” games. They were even worse to start the year, losing their first 11 games decided by four points or fewer. They finished 40-42 for the year, meaning they were 24-17 in games that weren’t all that tight. Their expected win-loss record based on the sum of their numbers was 48-34. Those close losses killed them.
This year’s Wolves are an NBA-worst 5-15 in clutch games (.250 winning percentage). They aren’t great otherwise (just 6-11), but again those close losses have doomed them.
Both teams could build leads with the best of them … and lose leads with the worst of them when it mattered most.
There are more than two reasons that has happened in both of those seasons, but examination of both years does reveal a pair of common denominators: Ricky Rubio at point guard plus bad team defense.
*First, Rubio. I’m not trying to pick on him, even if it’s been about a year since I wrote about he’s the worst shooter in NBA history. But these are facts:
Only one player was in the top 10 in minutes played for both the 2013-14 Timberwolves and this year’s Wolves: Rubio. He was tied for second in 2013-14 at 32.2 minutes per game. He’s fifth this season at 31.1 minutes per game. Otherwise, the rosters are almost entirely different. Only Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, two lightly used rookies in 2013-14, remain on the active roster from that year to this one.
Rubio isn’t on the floor for every clutch minute, but as the team’s starting point guard he’s out there more often than not.
And frankly, end of game situations are where his style of play causes the offense to bog down. Rubio’s best offensive attributes — a great feel for passing and an ability to set teammates up for open shots, particularly in open-court situations — are great during the first 42-44 minutes of a game.
Crunch time on offense often requires a player to beat his man off the dribble to score or dish for a good look — or to pull up and make a tough shot. Those are not Rubio’s strengths, and the Wolves have often struggled to get good shots (and therefore score) in the clutch as a result.
Look at 2013-14: their offensive rating — a measure of offensive efficiency — in crunch time was 100.7, which was 22nd in the NBA. For the season as a whole, it was 108.9, which was 9th in the NBA.
Same goes for 2016-17: their offensive rating in clutch situations is a dismal 92.7, which is 26th in the league. Overall it’s 108.8, which is 12th in the NBA.
(Additional fuel: in 2014-15, when Rubio played just 22 games, the Wolves finished 7th in the NBA in clutch offensive rating. Last year, with Rubio playing 76 games, they dropped to 22nd).
In their most recent loss this weekend to Utah — their fourth in a row, all of which were decided in the final three minutes — the Wolves led 92-85 with 3:35 left. They didn’t score the rest of the way in a 94-92 loss. Their empty possessions included a turnover on a bad pass by Rubio, plus long missed 2-pointers by Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng and Zach LaVine.
To mitigate this deficiency, the Wolves sometimes put the ball in the hands of LaVine or Wiggins in end of game situations. Both are capable of scoring in a number of ways, but neither is a great passer. If one of them develops better end-of-game skills, it would take some pressure off Rubio. But it’s not crazy to think rookie point guard Kris Dunn could also start to see more crunch time minutes.
*The defense, too, should take a good share of the blame for late-game woes. Here Rubio’s style as a steals-machine but not an elite on-ball defender also isn’t terribly helpful, but he’s hardly the main culprit. This is a team effort and has been for many years.
The 2013-14 squad had a 124.3 defensive rating (worst in the league, since higher numbers are bad in this case) in the clutch, while posting a respectable 106.2 (12th) overall.
This year’s Wolves are at 111.6 in the clutch. That’s only slightly worse than their overall mark of 110.7, but both numbers are among the league’s worst.
Minnesota this season doesn’t have an elite defensive stopper on the perimeter and lacks bulk on the interior. And then there are times when young players just have bad lapses at the worst times, like this play with Wiggins against Philadelphia that gave the 76ers the winning basket.
The best teams win close games. The Cavaliers, Warriors and Spurs are a combined 37-10 in clutch games this season.
But if you don’t win close games in any league, you are not a good team. And until the Wolves figure out this longstanding shortcoming, they will be a bad team.