With the Minnesota Timberwolves' season coming to a close without playoffs once again, it's time to reflect on the positive and negative from their season. It's also time to look ahead for them to see what work must be done during the summer when they'll have an important draft pick and a lot of decisions to make.
What went wrong: The best way to describe it is this Wolves team was ineffectively good.
Assuming the Wolves beat the Utah Jazz Wednesday night in the final game of the season, Minnesota will be the third team in NBA history to have a margin of victory of at least 2.78 points per game or better while finishing with a winning percentage of .500 or worse. The other two teams were the 2007-08 Toronto Raptors, who made the playoffs as a 6-seed, and the 1958-59 Syracuse Nationals, who made the playoffs as the fifth best team in an eight-team lead. The Wolves were statistical anomalies by being able to have such a great point differential and yet not being a playoff team or even close to it.
Why did this happen? Well, they were really bad in close games. The Wolves were 6-13 in games decided by four points or less, and lost their first 11 games of the season in which games were decided by this margin. It wasn't until Kevin Martin hit a winning shot late in a road game against the Golden State Warriors on January 24 that they could buck this soul-crushing trend. They ended up finishing out the season pretty good in these games, winning five of their last six, but it came after the pressure of the season had been alleviated by the standings.
Boosting their margin of victory was the fact that the Wolves won 17 games by 15 points or more, which tied them for seventh with the Chicago Bulls, and 12 of those games were by 20 points or more, which tied them with the Oklahoma City Thunder for third in the NBA. It seems like the either lost close games or won by a lot for most of the season.
The Wolves had a solid defense that lived on shaky ground. They have the 14th best defensive rating in the NBA, and for most of the season they were top 11. A swoon in March after they were realistically eliminated from the playoffs and didn't commit as much to defense dropped them down to their current position. Their overall defense measured out well because they lead the league in opponents' lowest free throw rate and are sixth in forcing turnovers.
However, their free throw rate was so low simply because they would allow teams to score around the rim instead of delivering a hard foul, which helped contribute to the fact that they gave up the fifth highest effective field goal rate. They gave up the second highest field goal percentage in the restricted area and the 11th highest 3-point percentage.
And there's that whole thing about the team going a 10th straight season without the playoffs and their star Kevin Love becoming a free agent in a year while everybody outside of Minnesota thinks he's destined to leave.
Bright spots: Youth.
There were a few things that really kept morale somewhat high when it comes to this team:
1) Ricky Rubio improved. I know most people think he sucked because we stopped paying attention to the Wolves after January, but Rubio has had his best season in his first full season in the NBA. His rookie campaign was cut short by tearing his ACL and his second season was incomplete because he was coming back from his ACL after missing almost two months. During his third season, he'll have played a full 82 games and his ability to make shots has improved.
Granted, it's still not at a totally acceptable percentage but from January 1 through the end of the season, he's made 40.5 percent of his field goals in a 50-game stretch. Considering he's been one of the worst shooters in NBA history through his first three seasons, that's an encouraging sign. His 3-point shot fell from being a league average shooter this season to making just one-third of his downtown shots during this stetch, but there is some improvement there.
2) Shabazz Muhammad wasn't that bad. After a month or two, people seemed to have already given up on Muhammad. When he got a little bit of run and extended minutes, he proved to be a valuable scorer on the low left block, utilizing a really good left-handed baseline hook. He was also an incredibly effective offensive rebounder during this time too. He has a lot to work on but he showed an ability to score and bring energy.
3) Gorgui Dieng's emergence late in the season as Nikola Pekovic went down has been morale-saving for the Wolves and their fan base. In his 14 starts this season, Dieng has averaged 12.8 points and 12.4 rebounds in 32.4 minutes. He's also blocked 23 shots in those 14 games. Not only has he been a good presence on the court, but he's been so good that some are wondering if the Wolves should even keep Pekovic.
4) Corey Brewer inexplicably scored 51 points in a game. None of that is a typo.
2013-14 MVP: Kevin Love.
I'm not sure you could have asked Love to do much more than he has this season. The initial reaction to that sentence is probably, "What about play some defense?" That's a fair criticism. He's still not a good defender, but he was more engaged and in better help this season than in years past. He also did less complaining instead of making it up the floor to play defense after he felt he didn't get a call. Amazingly, those are positive things you can say about his defense this season.
On the offensive end of the floor, he was once again historically unique. He became the seventh player in NBA history to average at least 26 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists in a game. The other guys on that list are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six times), Elgin Baylor (four times), Wilt Chamberlain (three times), Billy Cunningham, Bob McAdoo, and Oscar Robertson. Love's the only player to do it in the 3-point era, meaning he's the only guy to ever do this while making at least one 3-pointer in that same season. He's hit 189 of them, which is a franchise record.
But the Wolves didn't make the playoffs yet again. Can you blame Love for that? Possibly. His defense still isn't good but it's probably good enough. The team was 0.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than off. Where the huge difference happens to be is offensively. The Wolves were 11.0 points worse per 100 possessions on offense when he was on the bench.
Overall, the disparity from when he was on the bench to on the floor was a plus-11.3 points per 100 possessions. The team was horrendous without him on the floor and he just couldn't make up for it often enough.
2013-14 LVP: J.J. Barea and the entire bench.
J.J. Barea probably exemplified everything that was wrong with the Wolve's bench and he was villified in the process too. Due to some injuries but mostfully woeful play, the Wolves' bench was the fifth worst scoring bench in the NBA. They had the second worst 3-point percentage and field goal percentage of NBA benches. It was ugly. Maybe their most consistent scorer off the bench was Dante Cunningham or Barea. Alexey Shved has been a mess since the league got a decent scouting report on him, Chase Budinger battled big knee surgery twice in a year and couldn't return to form, and it was rare when the second unit gave the starters some help.
It was just an all-around ugly season for the Wolves' bench.
What's ahead this summer for the Wolves: Convince Love to stay.
In a similar situation to what we witnessed with LaMarcus Aldridge and the Portland Trail Blazers last summer, Flip Saunders' second season as Wolves' president will be convincing his star player that there is enough help moving forward to making staying in Minnesota a reality. Love likes the city a lot and is very involved with local charities and activities. But losing season after losing season with inadequate help is something he can only play through for so long.
The Wolves will have the 13th pick in the draft unless they move into the top 3 or the Phoenix Suns move into the top 3 (and then the Wolves' pick goes to Phoenix because it's top 13 protected). They'll have two second round picks as well and the midlevel exception. There isn't a lot of work to be done with this bench. Upgrade the backup point guard, find a wing who can start so you're bringing Brewer off the bench as was originally intended, and maybe grab a shooter or two so this team can finally make outside shots.
They'll also have to figure out the coaching situation with Rick Adelman and the Wolves having a mutual option to have him coach next season that will be decided in the next couple weeks. If he decides to stop coaching, they'll have to find a replacement Love can get behind and boost their team's prospects. The Wolves are unlikely to move Love because they feel they can show him this is the place to be. They have a year to prove it.