Arguably one of the most talented teams in the NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves have undoubtedly struggled. Many say they are worse than last year, and some go even further by calling for a trade to shake up their young core. With the amount of fans declaring the season over, one would think we are nearing April. However, the month has yet to even to change to December, and the Timberwolves have only played 17 games.
At first glance, it appears the third quarter is the principal issue with the Wolves. This hinderance is undeniable, but despite these struggles, the Wolves have had the chance to win in more than half of their losses. In seven games this year, the Wolves have been within five points of their opponent in the final five minutes (the definition of “clutch” time) of the game. Of these seven games, the Wolves have won one time.
Minnesota is the worst team in terms of clutch performance in the NBA. In the clutch, the Wolves have a defensive rating of 116.9 to go with an offensive rating of 84.6, giving them a net rating of -32.3. This means their opponents outscore them by 32.3 points per 100 possessions in the clutch. To put this stat in perspective, the Wolves have an overall defensive rating of 106.1 and an offensive rating of 105.1 on the season, which means their net rating on the season is only -1.
A net rating of -1 implies that the Wolves should be close to .500 on the season, but possibly not quite there. With a 5-12 record, this is not the case. Why? Because the weight on the shoulders of these young men is too great of a burden.
This comparison of the overall net rating to the clutch net rating of the Wolves confirms this assessment. Minnesota has played well enough for the first 43 minutes of nearly every game to have a .500 record. Yet, when those last few minutes come, the nerves and jitters kick in, and there is nobody right now that can stop it.
Personally, I like to blame the media for hyping up the Wolves as a playoff team and Vegas for setting the Wolves over/under at 41.5 wins prior to the season. 41 or 42 wins is a lofty goal for any team in the most competitive league on the planet, let alone the youngest team in the NBA whose three best players all just turned of legal age.
Despite the pressure to break the Minnesota sports curse, the Wolves have done everything in their power to win games. For the first 43 minutes of games, the Timberwolves have outperformed their marks from last year in almost every category. However, it’s the final five minutes of play, when the pressure mounts, that has defined this team.
First, take a moment and watch two of the best highlights from November below:
Now, back to reality. The team that has shot just under 50% for the season has shot an abysmal 31.3% from the field in the clutch. Tack on an even worse 22.2% from three on 18 attempts this year, and we are looking at a formula for failure. Oh, and these aren’t even the worst of the clutch problems this team has faced.
How does the old saying go? I think it goes something like this: “Free throws win games.” Well, free throws have lost games for the Timberwolves. Minnesota has shot a league-worst 50% from the stripe during clutch time. Considering the “Hack-A-Jordan” plagued Clippers have shot a better free throw percentage in the clutch this year, improvement is needed.
Perhaps the most telling stat is the Wolves’ assist-to-turnover ratio. The Wolves have, again, the league-worst assist-to-turnover ratio in the clutch at .38. Minnesota’s overall ratio is 1.46, insurmountably higher than that in the clutch. This difference once again stems from the weight these young Wolves feel to win the big games, and it all seems to catch up in the final five minutes when the pressure is at its highest.
In no way are the Wolves doomed – in fact, I would argue the opposite. This young team has played its way into just about every game this season having yet to look its best for more than a few quarters at a time. Once the Wolves can win a few of these close games and one of the “Big Three” (composed of Wiggins, Towns, and LaVine) can finally enter the big stage at the end of games, this team will be okay.
Truly, the Wolves are five minutes away from being an above .500 team. The 5-12 record is tough to swallow, but the “it” moment when this team finally figures out how to win will be here soon. We have waited 12 years, Wolves Nation, and we can wait just a bit longer.
Follow Evan Hagen (The Wolf Den) on Twitter: @Hagen_Wolves.