Lacking an Alpha
USA Today Sports
Countless cliches are used to describe those who are defined as leaders. “Leaders aren’t born, they’re made,” or, “that person is natural leader,” are just a few examples of phrases littering miscellaneous media and literature, delineating those individuals sitting atop society as important, valued fixtures in their respective communities.
Those sovereign few who are able to rise above peers are held to higher expectations because of their elevated status within that particular faction, or social group. No crowd, swarm, or rabble of humans have ever assembled to orchestrate a successful rebellion or necessary course of action against an opposing force without some form of leadership. Leaders are hard to come by, whereas followers are omnipresent. Yet, because great power begets great responsibility, I find it fair to assume that there are those capable of being on the forefront of a revolution, or even simply spearheading a simple group-oriented task, who are fearful of a leadership role and the duties that go along with it.
The Minnesota Timberwolves may lack leadership.
Rick Adelman is as decorated and credentialed as any other active coach in the NBA, however, he appears incapable of leading the Wolves into the postseason. There’s only so much a coach has control over. The players ultimately decide the outcome of the game but statistical benchmarks, such as the Pythagorean Record, have neatly sketched a proverbial line of expectations for the Timberwolves throughout the season. There was a certain buzz about Adelman and his roster, not only locally, but on the national level as well before play began. His contract won’t expire until the end of next season.
Kevin Love, despite being among the league leaders in scoring and rebounding, doesn’t appear to be the kind of leader the Timberwolves need. He is a versatile power forward with the ability to space the floor and create mismatches because of his familiarity with the three-point shot. He is not a shooting guard or a playmaking ball handler. While he’s a staple in the NBA’s upper echelon, his inability to lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs in his sixth year as a professional poses concern. It seems as if the franchise will miss the postseason for the 10th consecutive season. Adelman is in the twilight of his career, Love, at 25, is still crafting his game, but there just aren’t enough other bullets in the chamber to keep opponents at bay for the length of an entire game.
The NBA now stands on the analytics-in-sports forefront, but the Timberwolves have set themselves as a peculiar, perplexing anomaly in the new era of advanced statistics. As of March 6th, the Wolves are 30-30, an underachievement in comparison to the aforementioned (39-22) Pythagorean Record (a projection based on their point differential). On paper the Wolves appear to be a lush roster complete with automatic, quick-firing weaponry, but lack an adequate amount of ammunition — as well as a steady hand that can confidently pull the trigger.
- Average of points per game ranks fourth in the league (106.2).
- Pace of play (an estimate of the number of possessions per 48 minutes by a team) ranks third (99.88).
- Offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) of ninth in the league (105.2).
- Average more first quarter points than any other team (28.4).
- Score a league high points during the first half of games (55.1).
- First half pace of play (101.6) is behind only two other teams.
What About Defense?
Some of these deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball appear more distinctly than others. They are now illuminated by the some of the new, more advanced, statistical data recently made more accessible to anyone willing to search for it (For more information, read part-one of Seth Partnow’s Lessons of SportVU Player Tracking Data).
Most of the Wolves defensive shortfalls take place within five feet from the basket.
- The Wolves opponents are shooting an astounding 63.3 percent from attempts taken within five feet of the rim. No other NBA team allows opponents to shoot that high of a percentage of attempts taken from those places on the floor.
- Individually, Kevin Love (57.6%) and Nikola Pekovic (56.4%) dwell at the bottom of the ranks at their position when defending in these situations.
Outside of the porous defense near the basket, the Wolves opponents are averaging 47.4 percent on attempts from the field — more permeable defending. Only the Washington Wizards, Philadelphia 76ers, and Sacramento Kings allow opponents to shoot a higher field goal percentage, and the Indiana Pacers are the league’s best in this category — limiting opponents to a percentage of 41.6.
However Adelman’s defensive philosophy doesn’t prioritize contesting the opponents field goal attempts, this is by design. The Wolves have committed only 1,011 person fouls this season, less than every other team in the league with the exception of the San Antonio Spurs. Minnesota’s opponents average only 19.2 free-throw attempts per game, a league low that results in only 14.7 points, on average. New Orleans Pelicans opponents shoot a league-high 26.7 FT attempts per game and average 19.8 points from these opportunities. A difference of about five points between the two teams.
The Wolves peppy, rhythmic, aesthetically pleasing offense begins striking at a less effective pace during the third quarter (99.47). They still average to score more during the third quarter than any other NBA team (27.1), despite the marginally small points decrease between the first and third quarters (-1.3), and in pace rating (-2.13). Conversely, the Wolves opponents score only a fraction of a point less (25.2) during the third, than they did in the first quarter of the game (25.7). Slowly, and after halftime, the point-differential candle is being burnt at both ends. This is because as points and possessions increase, or diminish, they do so exponentially*.
Minnesota’s notorious record in games decided by four points or less (2-12) invites many accusations in need of evidence for conviction. Team and individual player “clutch statistics” are recorded during either the fourth quarter or overtime with under five minutes remaining and neither team ahead by more than five points. As a team the Wolves have encountered this circumstance 31 times and hold a record of 12-19 in those games. They’ve allowed a total of 271 points, compared to the 215 the Wolves have scored in such scenarios.
Pace by Quarter/Points per Quarter
The game is shortened during the fourth quarter because possessions become less frequent. *With the exception of averages during the third quarter, as the Wolves pace rating decreases so does their scoring. Their average offensive rating throughout the entirety of a contest is 105.2, but by the fourth quarters it plummets to 97.6. They go from ranking 9th in the league in this category to 27th, only the 76ers and the Detroit Pistons are worse. As opposing defenses clamp-down on what is seemingly one of the league’s most potent offenses during the pivotal final minutes of games, the Wolves degenerate to the point of self-destruction. When they are faced with this adversity there is no leader to be found.
Wolves Team Performance in Clutch Situations (neither team ahead by five points with five-or-less minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, or overtime)
- 38.5% FG (69-of-179)
- 28.6% 3PT FG (16-of-56)
- Defensive Rating — 125.2 (Yikes)
As mentioned before the Wolves’ superstar, Kevin Love, struggles to lead late in games. He’s a power forward, not a ball handling guard or small forward, therefore, in theory, Love is less likely to create shot opportunities for himself in clutch situations. Also, opposing defenses make a point to defend the Wolves’ best player in these scenarios. Why wouldn’t they? Love’s clutch numbers are less than desirable, as he is shooting 38.6 percent (21-of-57) from the field, 33.3 percent from three-point range (9-of-27), and 58.3 percent!!! (14-of-24) on free-throws attempted in these situations. If he’s not going to be the leader, who can?
The term-court general is often used to define certain NBA point guards, Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea do not fit that description. The often discussed poor field goal shooting of Rubio and selfish play of Barea yield the same results. These two players are not leaders, but rather hindrances when their team needs them most — in clutch situations.
- 36 minutes in 16 games / 77 minutes in 26 games.
- 2-of-17 FG (11.8%) / 5-of-20 FG (25%)
- 0-of-10 3PT FG (0%) / 1-of-3 (33.3%)
- 1-for-1 FT / 8-of-9 FT (88.9%)
- 5 assists and zero turnovers / 20 assists and 5 turnovers.
- Offensive Rating: 88.8 / 98.2
- Defensive Rating: 124.0 / 124.5.
- Net Rating: -36.0 / -26.3.
- Assist Percentage: 23.8% / 40.8%.
- Assist Ratio: 22.3 / 40.8.
- eFG%: 11.8% / 27.5%
- TS%: 14.3% / 39.6.
- Usage%: 19.9% / 15.2%.
- Pace: 100.03 / 105.5
Ricky Rubio in clutch circumstances
J.J. Barea in clutch circumstances
On Monday, Kevin Martin converted eight free-throw on as many attempts during the final thirty seconds against the Denver Nuggets. However, this does qualify him to be the player his team needs most in clutch situations. Martin’s shooting percentages insinuate that he may be the player capable of rising to the challenges the Wolves often face in the final minutes of close games, but, the anomaly continues. Martin’s small scoring and attempts numbers during the final frame are too small to label him as a capable leader. He averages 20 points per game, but only 4 come in the fourth quarter and on an average of only 3 field goal attempts. As for Martin’s clutch performance, albeit shooting 48 percent from the field (13 of 27) and 57 percent from three-point range (4 of 7), the sample size is just too small to justify him as a player capable of being the Wolves leader.
So, where does a leader come from?
Paul Sullivan is a business columnist for The New York Times and the author of Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t. Sullivan claims that no clutch leader was born that way: even generals had to learn to excel under pressure. He also believes there are three things emerging leaders can learn from military cadets:
- They are focused on a goal.
- They work in an organization that is continually striving to be better.
- They practice.
Before the season began, Adelman and his roster full of young, talented players carried the weight of playoff expectations on their shoulders. The goal is in place, but what about the organization?
The insertion of Flip Saunders as the new Head of Basketball Operations signifies that the Timberwolves franchise are making strides to take the next step in climbing out of the NBA’s doldrums where they’ve remained for so long. As for the practice, despite multiple failures — which have come to be repetitive as the Wolves have continued to meet adversity as the season has gone on — Adelman’s team is learning, this is season may be construed as practice.
Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, both of which are still honing their craft in today’s NBA, have time to become what fans in Minnesota want them to be, and what the Timberwolves need most — a leader, something that they haven’t had this season.