The Timberwolves Change Coaches

Yesterday the Minnesota Timberwolves fired their head coach, Dwane Casey. Currently Minnesota has a record of 20-20, which apparently is not what the general manager – Kevin McHale – expected.

Before I get to the quality of this decision, let me just comment on the team Casey was charged with leading.

Last year this team won 33 games. This past summer McHale added three new players. Veteran Mike James was brought in to handle the point guard duties. In the draft the team added Randy Foye and Craig Smith.

James produced 8.7 wins last year for the Toronto Raptors and posted a Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] of 0.143 (average is 0.100). So James was good last year (and the year before, and the year before). Thus far this year, though, he has been below average.

Foye was acquired on draft night in exchange for Brandon Roy. So far Roy has a WP48 of 0.137 while Foye has only offered a WP48 of 0.017. Looking at each player’s college performance, one would have expected Roy to be more productive in the NBA. Despite such evidence, McHale took Foye and thus far the early returns on this move are not promising. One should note that college performance does not forecast professional productivity perfectly, and players can improve once past their rookie campaign. So there is still hope that the Foye-Roy trade will work out for McHale.

The early returns on Smith are much better. It’s not clear that Minnesota expected much from a second round draft choice. Thus far, though, he is second to Kevin Garnett in wins production.

Of course, Smith is a distant second to KG, the clear star of this team. Garnett has been discussed a few times in this forum.

The Decline of Kevin Garnett?

The Minnesota Timberwolves in 2005-06

The Tragedy of Kevin Garnett

Early in the season I noted that the inevitable decline might be setting in for KG. After 40 games KG is still very good – boasting a WP48 of 0.352 – but he has fallen off the levels we saw over the past four seasons. Still, he is far and away the best talent this team employs.

Unfortunately, there is little else beyond KG. The WP48 of all players not named Garnett is 0.044. If Garnett had a collection of average teammates, the T-Wolves would be on pace to win close to 60 games. As it is, Minnesota is lucky to be at the .500 mark. The expected wins for this team – given its level of offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency – is only 38 wins. One can see this clearly when we look at this team’s Wins Produced.

Table: Minnesota Timberwolves after 40 games

Is this mediocrity the fault of the head coach? If we project the wins for this team based on what each player did last year (taking the rookie’s performance as given), we would still expect this team to win about 38 games. Some players are a bit better this year. Others are a bit worse. But the net is about the same.

In sum, given the talent the T-wolves employ – talent chosen by McHale – we should expect this team to be about average.

The quotes from the AP story announcing this decision, though, suggests that management in Minnesota – which includes the general manager, McHale, and the new head coach, Randy Wittman — expected this collection of talent to do more than their past performance would suggest.

“Every time you thought, ‘I just don’t know how this is going to go,’ we’d turn around and win three or four in a row,” McHale said. “With 42 games left to go, we wanted to make sure Randy had the time to get things going.”

“We all feel part of the problem, and we all are,” Wittman said after practice Tuesday in Portland, Ore. “Now we have to rectify why is it. I’m going to try to figure that out.”

Ultimately it’s the players who have to perform better, McHale said. The ups and downs have been too drastic this season for the former Boston Celtics great who epitomized hard work. “I’ve seen us play and beat some of the best teams in the league and I’ve seen us play and lose to some of the worst teams in the league,” McHale said. “I just don’t know.”

“We don’t want to be the eighth seed,” McHale said. “I think we’re better than the eighth seed.”

The Timberwolves are an average team. This means that we can expect this team to win around half their games. Although average is the expectation for the season, it’s not the expectation for every week or month. It’s not unusual for an average team to defeat won of the league’s best (after all, even the best have to lose some time) or to lose to the league’s worst (after all, even the worst have to win some time).

The problem appears to be that when McHale observes this team win a few games in a row, or beat a good team, that this implies that if the T-Wolves just put forward the same effort every night this team could contend with Phoenix, Dallas, and San Antonio.

For that to happen, though, the players Minnesota employs would have to play much better for the entire season. And the data we have on these players suggests that this is not a reasonable expectation.

Will changing coaches make a difference? Wittman’s previous coaching experience came with Cleveland, where his team won 38% of its games in 2000-01 and 2001-02. So his record suggests that he is not Phil Jackson or Don Nelson (two coaches who have been shown to impact player performance).

The data, I think, suggests that the problem in Minnesota is not the coaching. It’s the choices McHale has made in building the roster. McHale did choose Garnett, one of the first decisions he made in his tenure as general manager. After that choice, though, McHale has had trouble finding productive players to play with KG.

Garnett is now in his 12th season, and his performance this year suggests that he may be in decline. Soon the opportunity the T-Wolves have to build a team around Garnett will have passed. And then, Minnesota fans can start to wonder “what might have happened if…?”

– DJ

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