Monday Musings: Predicting the Future

What can the first month of the NBA tell us about the rest of the season?

The Minnesota Timberwolves are currently 7-5, with the first positive record in a very long time. The team has been up and down like we thought it would be in the beginning of the season, as the shortened preseason and training camp schedule lends itself no favors to teams who are trying to fit together a bunch of new players. The Wolves, in particular, likely were impacted by this even more so, as not only are they fitting three new starters into their lineup, but the other two starters are both young players that are still trying to learn Thibodeau’s system.

So, it is hard to be disappointed with a 7-5 record thus far. There have certainly been a few excruciating losses, but there have also been thrilling victories.

However, what is a slightly concerning is the larger picture. Some of the issues that we knew would be a problem, namely a lack of three-point shooting, spacing, and wing depth, have been represented.

The defense is still not at the point it should be, with the Wolves ranking 28th in the NBA in defensive rating. However, the offense is holding up so far, as the team has the 11th best offensive rating in the NBA. But the Wolves are in the odd place of having a positive win record with a negative net rating of -3.0. They also have a negative simple rating system number, from Basketball Reference of -2.31, which is 23rd worst in the NBA.

This weird feat is due to the types of wins and losses they have had. Blowout losses to the Pistons, Warriors, and Pacers have pushed them down in the rankings while most of their victories have been close games.

As we are still in the first month of the NBA season, it is hard to put too much stock into the results. Teams are still figuring things out. It is not as if we expect the Thunder and Cavaliers to not make the playoffs. The Wolves have some leeway.

But yet, I was curious to see how useful of a prediction tool the first month of NBA season was last year. I simply examined the final defensive and offensive rating of each team and compared them to their defensive and offensive rating from the first month.

Right away, a few numbers jump out that we can expect due to how the season turned out. The Wizards and Heat had dramatic rises in net rating, as both teams got off to bad starts and caught fire throughout the season. The Nuggets raised their offensive rating by 8.2 points by unleashing Nikola Jokic. The Clippers started off hot, but came back to earth. A few teams, like the 76ers and Mavericks, simply became not as bad throughout the year.

As a whole, the average team’s defensive rating went up approximately 2.46 points throughout the season. That makes intuitive sense, as NBA offenses and players develop cohesion as the season goes on, thus making defensive ratings generally worse. Similarly, offensive ratings go up, on average, by 2.63 points if we take an average of league-wide variance.

The interesting note is that there is, in comparison, very little volatility in the average net rating change. From the first month of the season to the end, the average net rating variance was 0.16. There were certainly teams that had large jumps, but there were only five teams that had net rating jumps of 4 points or more. Worth noting, there was not a single team with a negative net rating that made the playoffs.

Similarly, there were only three teams that had a negative net rating in the first month that ended up with a positive net rating. Those teams, the Heat, Trailblazers, and Wizards, give us examples of how teams slowly come together. The Wizards may provide the best model of another high-profile collection of talent that simply just needed a bit more time to gel together.

More troubling, however, is the lack of defensive improvement across the NBA that we can see from last year. Only the Spurs, Raptors, and Trailblazers were able to improve their defensive rating by more than one point and no team improved it by two points.

The Wolves would need to improve their current defensive rating (108.9) by at least two points to even sniff getting out of the 10th worst defensive rating teams. Now, the Wolves are in the company of the reigning Eastern Conference Champions as the Cavs have the worst defensive rating in the league at an abhorrent 112, but the Wolves certainly do not have the track record that the Cavs do at “flipping the switch.”

The oft-quoted Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” At this point, it is hard not to think that the Wolves have already revealed who they are going to be this season. A team with a great offense and a terrible defense. Using last year’s first month compared to the end of the season as a predictive tool shows us that who the Wolves are as they close out this first month is likely the team that they will be all season long.

Barring a dramatic change in results, which may certainly happen and we know that teams can improve over time, this Wolves season is revealing a few cracks in the foundation.

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