MINNEAPOLIS — Luke Ridnour on Kobe Bryant. Mickael Gelabale on LeBron James.
These things should not happen.
These things involve two future Hall of Famers, among the greatest players of all time, a 32-year-old, undersized point guard and a forward who was playing in France three months ago and who took two 10-day contracts to get his current gig.
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In recent weeks, this has been the state of the Timberwolves, a team whose defense has fallen from fourth-best in the NBA in terms of points allowed on Dec. 15 to 15th as of Monday. Injuries have decimated defensive efforts and caused mismatches, and the team’s small size doesn’t help. Defense, the point that every coach in the NBA hammers home ad nauseum, has become a concern — at least you’d think. The numbers say as much. But Rick Adelman has bigger things to worry about.
Through 60 games, the Timberwolves are the worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA, making 29.3 percent of their long-range shots. They’re the worst, and they’re the worst by a pretty large margin; Phoenix, No. 29, is making a whopping 32.9 percent of its shots. To add insult to injury, Minnesota is also 28th in the league in overall field-goal shooting, at 43.1 percent, and it is dangerously close to falling behind the Wizards, who have made 43.0 percent of their shots this season. Even at the free-throw line, with no distractions or impediments, these Timberwolves are particularly atrocious, ranking 24th in the league at 73.2 percent.
Obviously, Minnesota’s offense has solidified itself as downright woeful, and with the season nearly three-quarters over, the point has long passed when one could chalk up the numbers to a funk that would eventually lift. It can’t stay this bad for long was the prevailing dictum a few months ago, but that’s ceased in favor of a shrugging, sighing, who-knows attitude. And really, what else is there to say at this point?
On Nov. 15, the Timberwolves had the second-best defense in the NBA, allowing opponents 88.5 points per game. On Dec. 1, they’d fallen to fifth, Dec. 15 bumped back up to fourth, and on Jan. 1, the 14-13 team was still sixth-best in terms of points it allowed opponents.
Then things fell apart, or so it appears. Between Jan. 1 and 15, Adelman’s team gave up an average of 104.5 points per game, defense went down the toilet, and by the middle of the month, the Timberwolves ranked 15th in the league. Since then, not much has changed, and on March 10, they’re allowing an average of 97.9 points per game, tying them with the Hornets for the No. 14 defense in the NBA.
There are plenty of factors to which this decline might be attributed: Andrei Kirilenko’s nagging injuries, the disintegration of any notion of team defense, bad matchups . . . the list goes on. All are factors, of course, and an exhausted, undermanned, nine-player team is going to falter protecting its basket. Ask Adelman, though, and he’s not pointing at those problems. He’s pointing at the other end of the court.
“You get worn out after a while,” the coach said. “It’s just a fact of life. If offensively you’re struggling and you’re trying to find ways to do things, it’s going to affect you at the other end. When you shoot under 30 percent on 3s and you’re not finishing at the basket and getting easy baskets, the other team’s getting out on you and running at you.”
But the issue isn’t that the Timberwolves are giving opponents more cracks at the ball; they’re allowing an average 95.0 opponent possessions per game, better, actually, than the 95.1 they averaged on Jan. 1, when they had the league’s sixth-best defense. It’s just that their defensive rating (average points allowed per 100 possessions) has worsened from 94.7 on Nov. 15 (best in the league at the time) to 105.4, which on Monday was good for 14th overall. It’s a sign of being worn down and mismatched, and when a team doesn’t have one lockdown defender, it’s all too easy for any notion of team defense or a cohesive system to fly out the window.
“All the really good teams in our league, everybody talks about defense,” Adelman said. “All the talking heads. But you can defend the hell out of people, and if you can’t make a shot in this league you’re in trouble. That’s what’s happening to us.”
There’s a notion around basketball that defense is what matters, at least more than offense, that it’s what drives teams to greatness. That notion is true, at least when it comes to separating the good from the great. According to a regression run on basketball-reference.com in 2010, an average team has a 0.9 percent of winning a championship. One with an offense that’s five points better than average and an average defense, then, has a 5.2 percent chance of doing so, and one with a defense five points better than average and an average offense a 7.6 percent chance. That disparity — better defense gets you further than better offense — only grows as each metric increases; a team with an offense 10 points better than average has a 43.8 percent of winning a championship, while one with a defense 10 points better than average has a 63.9 percent chance.
The problem, though, is that no one is running any regressions that isolate the differences between the terrible and the mediocre. For that, we have to trust our own opinions, eyes, and the words of coaches, and according to Adelman, good defense isn’t going to help his team jump from where it sits now — which may be rock bottom after losing Sunday by 23 to a mediocre Mavericks team — to an even halfway respectable record. To do so would be impossible with the current state of Minnesota’s offense, and any notion that defense can push a team to the next level relies on the implicit assumption that said team is making more than, say, 45 percent of its shots.
Therein lies the problem: The shots just aren’t falling, and to the point that the phenomenon is impossible to explain. The team’s field-goal shooting as a whole is a concern, and its 43.1 percent mark ties it for 58th-worst of all teams since the 1980-81 season. Really, though, that’s nothing compared to the woes from long range. Right now, the Timberwolves are not only the worst team in the NBA in terms of 3-point shooting; they’re also tied for 12th-worst of all time. (Among teams that attempted 500 or more 3-pointers in a season, culling out those in the early days of the 3-point line that rarely shot from long range.) Minnesota’s 29.3 percent mark is close to the worst in franchise history — the 1992-93 team, which shot 29.2 percent from long range, takes that honor — and no team has shot so poorly from 3-point range since the 17-win Denver Nuggets of 2002-03 finished the season shooting 27.8 percent.
The worst 3-point shooting teams of all time, the 1997-98 Warriors and 1991-92 Bullets, are within the Timberwolves’ sights with their 27.2 percent marks, but it would take quite a fall-off for Minnesota to set a new record. In order to do so — if it were to continue attempting 3-pointers at its current rate — the team would have to shoot 21.2 percent over its final 22 games; even in this particularly dismal eight-game stretch, it’s still shot 22.6 percent. It’s a long shot that the Timberwolves get there, and pretty close to irrelevant at this point — but if you ask J.J. Barea, it’s not out of the question: After Sunday’s loss, the point guard, who leads the Timberwolves with a 34.4 percent mark from long range, said he thinks his team will set the record for worst ever.
There’s something close to a consensus in Minnesota that this is yet another lost season, and Barea mentioned the notion of getting all the misses out of the way this year so that next season will be better. That’s a farcical take on a very real issue, but Barea is right about one thing: It’s time to start looking to the future and figuring out whether this a problem so deep-seated that the presences of Kevin Love and Chase Budinger (if he re-signs this offseason) won’t combat it.
“It’s an area that we’re going to have to really look seriously at because it’s pretty obvious that our shooting this year, regardless of the injuries, has been really poor,” Adelman said. “We’re the last team in the 3-point field goals. . . . It’s hard to win games if you can’t make shots in this league.”
That’s what Minnesota is left with: a hope for next year and a decisive shrug. Players are making shots in practice, the Timberwolves say, and even if they’re not, no amount of practice is going to fix this, not so deep into the morass of the season.
And so there’s Adelman at his most positive, before a game against the Wizards last Wednesday that looked at least somewhat winnable but proved otherwise: “We’re just trying to find something that works.”
There’s Adelman at his most negative, after his team shot 11.1 percent from 3-point range against the Mavericks Sunday, which was actually just its fourth-worst performance of the year: “We’re not making anything.”
It’s a close spectrum, the swing between positive and dispirited these days, and even the most hopeful comments are beginning to sound like downright resignation. Offense fails, defense sputters as a result, and it’s impossible to address the consequence when the root problem is so bad. This deep into the season and the slump, it’s hard to say what to do next or how to salvage any shred of optimism, apart from perhaps proving Barea’s guess wrong. Keep that 3-point shooting mark above 27.2 percent, and retain some dignity.
Somehow get it above 30 percent, and hell, that’s looking downright spectacular.