Minnesota Discovers it Needs More than Love

Patrick Minton was born and raised in Minnesota.  After graduating with a degree in Psychology, he travelled abroad in Germany.  In Germany he did a number of odd jobs to pay the bills, including coaching basketball at all levels.  He says he has always been a numbers freak, going so far as to enlist friends to score-keep the games he coached, keep shot charts, track turnovers, rebounds and assists.  In his late twenties, he finally turned one of his hobbies into a ‘career’ and became a software engineer at Amazon, where he worked for quite a while before taking a gig at Microsoft.  In 2007, he did an MBA at the University of Washington and discovered a love for economics.  Scouring the internet for economics blogs, he came across the Wages of Wins Journal.  He says he always had a coaching philosophy similar to the tenets of the WoW story (scoring totals don’t matter much, rebounds and turnovers are really important, etc), but this was the first time he had seen someone quantify this philosophy.

In evaluating the Minnesota Timberwolves 2009-2010 season, two thoughts become prominent.  First, it appears that the organization has some large misconceptions about who their “star” player is.  Additionally, it seems the organization is having as much trouble surrounding today’s “star” as the McHale-run front office had surrounding Kevin Garnett with enough talent to compete for championships.  This may be all part of a ‘rebuilding’ plan.  Or, it may be that David Kahn is reluctant to rely on advanced statistics.

Of course, the writers and fans of this site are big proponents of using advanced statistics such as Wins Produced to evaluate players.  With that in mind, let’s take a look how the Minnesota Timberwolves players performed according to Wins Produced in 2009-2010:

All You Need is Love?

As we can see, although Al Jefferson is often referred to as the “franchise” player in Minnesota, the Timberwolves best player (according to Wins Produced) was far and away Kevin Love.  When we look at Kevin Love’s box score numbers, the reasons are obvious; although he is a bit below average in shooting efficiency from the field, blocks, and turnovers;  he makes up for this by committing fewer personal fouls, creating more assists, and by being a rebounding machine.  In 2009-2010, Kevin Love grabbed 18.4 rebounds per 48 minutes — a mark that not only far surpasses the average power forward’s 11.6, but also makes him the best rebounder in the entire NBA (unless we count Joey Dorsey, who managed to grab 43 rebounds in a small sample of 106 minutes).  Of course, the observation that Kevin Love is a good rebounder is a familiar story.  But it’s interesting to put in perspective just how good he is;  of the top 5 rebounders per-48 minutes in the NBA  only Love and Mr. Dorsey play the power forward position;  Dwight Howard (18.3), Marcus Camby (18.1), and Samuel Dalambert (17.7) all primarily play the center position (at least, historically).

So Wins Produced suggests that Kevin Love is not only the best player in Minnesota, but possibly one of the best players in the NBA.   It has been suggested before in this column that the threshold for stardom in the NBA is a WP48 of .200 (a .200 player produces twice as many wins as an average player per 48 minutes) and that the threshold for “superstardom” is .300.  For the record, only 9 players with more than 1,000 minutes had a WP48 above .300 in the 2009-2010 regular season:  Kevin Love, Marcus Camby, Lebron James, Dwight Howard, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Gerald Wallace, Pau Gasol, and Tim Duncan.  That is elite company, and would seem to provide the Wolves with an elite building block, similar to when they had Kevin Garnett.

The Rest of the Wolves

Unfortunately, to win in the NBA, you need more than love, and Kevin Love’s teammates didn’t contribute much.  Only Al Jefferson was significantly above average (although Al would probably have posted a higher level of Wins Produced if he had not spent a good deal of time at the center position), and only six Timberwolves managed to post Wins Produced numbers in the positive range. In fact, therein lies the Timberwolves real problem:  many of Kevin Love’s teammates didn’t simply fail to contribute wins; they actively hurt the Timberwolves with production in the negative range.  Table 1 suggests that if every player other than Love, Jefferson, Gomes, Sessions, and Wilkins had been replaced by players who contributed literally nothing to wins (players with WP48 of 0.000), the Timberwolves could have won an additional 11 games.  Yes, switching out those players for a bunch of worse-than-average players would have been an upgrade.

Of course, one might argue that the Timberwolves office is aware of this, and did not care.  Much has been made of the fact that this past season was a “rebuilding” year and Minnesota faces the current free-agent class with copious cap space.  But then, if this is true — and considering the importance that has been placed on salary cap space in the 2010 free agency market — one might wonder why the Timberwolves signed Ryan Hollins to a two-year deal. Hollins has the dubious distinction of being the worst player in the league (according to Wins Produced).   Additionally, why did they chose to pick up the option on Corey Brewer (who is not very far ahead of Hollins with respect to Wins Produced)?  Is the 2010-2011 season also a “rebuilding” year?

Going Forward

In the coming offseason, the Timberwolves have some interesting choices to make.  Al Jefferson and Kevin Love both play the power forward position, and Kurt Rambis (the team’s head coach) was often reluctant to play both players together.  In fact, for much of the past season, Rambis didn’t start Love or give him the most minutes per game (leading to further speculation that management disagrees with us about who the “star player” is).  At the moment, it looks very much as though the Timberwolves might end up drafting DeMarcus Cousins, a very productive college player.  If Cousins turns into a productive NBA player, the Timberwolves could replace Ryan Hollins’ minutes with his, and improve substantially.  What other moves might management make?  Only the summer will tell (and when it tells us, there will be another post on the Minnesota Timberwolves).

- Patrick Minton

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