The Wolves have dropped eight of the last nine games after being at .500 at 8-8. The Wolves now find themselves at 9-16 a few games over the quarter mark of the season. The last eight losses have come to the Clippers and Nuggets twice each, Magic, Blazers, Suns, and Knicks. The lone win was against the Lakers in overtime. All the losses were winnable games where the biggest margin of loss was 12, the rest all within 10 points. Some games were games the Wolves held strong leads and lost them. Other games the Wolves found ways to fight back into them and get semi-close towards the end.
A couple things we want to do is examine what has changed after starting 8-8. We wanted to answer, what isn’t working? What are the problems? What can we point out? There is a heavy emphasis on plus/ minus in these game stats. We do this because we want to see the difference a player is making on the court vs their opponents. Lineups are important to this, but plus/ minus seems to be a good way to analyze what that player has done while on the floor.
- Starters not competing: The Wolves starting lineup is not competing with other teams. The Net +/- in every loss has been massively negative. The starts have a Net average +/- of -24.875 in the eight losses, while the bench has an average of -2.625. The bench is surprisingly keeping the Wolves in the game, mostly thanks to the strong play of LaVine and Dieng. In the one win, the Wolves starters demolished the Lakers starters. I would like to believe this would be a simple change of moving LaVine into the starting lineup.
- Wiggins’ Net +/- : it’s -59 in the eight losses the Wolves have suffered recently, which is the worst on the team. He has also had a negative +/- in each of the last 9 games. Wiggins needs to work on getting his teammates involved so that the overall team does better when he is on the floor. To Wiggins’ defense he has one of the highest usages on the team (LaVine has surpassed him) and logs the most minutes so it’s hard to keep these numbers respectable when he is in the game when the Wolves lose most of their leads. Outside of that, Wiggins is going to have to start finishing around the basket at the same rate as he was before all of the losses.
- Bjelica is struggling: Bjelica was a big reason why the Wolves’ bench was one of the best in the league. He was consistently coming in to the game and nailing threes. In the eight losses, Bjelica has averaged less than 4 points. His shot has struggled in this stretch of games: As you can see above, Bjelica is only scoring from the outside or near the basket. The shots outside the arc have not been falling for him. Ever since he went out with a knee injury, he hasn’t quite been the same. With Bjelica not able to knock down as many threes, and quite honestly passing up on a lot of open ones, the spacing on the floor is bad. When the spacing is bad, more shots are contested. When more shots are contested, your field goal percentage dips. When your field goal percentage dips, you typically lose games. So if you are catching the drift here, a struggling Bjelica is not helping the cause.
- Defense: The Wolves defense has assisted in the resurrection of careers for Randy Foye and Aaron Afflalo. The team is not defending by any stretch of the imagination. Teams are getting wide open looks from three. Ball movement collapses the Wolves on D almost exactly as it should. This is where Prince did help in the starting lineup almost where Martin has made the Wolves less reputable in that category. If the Wolves want to win, they have to defend. In the eight losses, the Wolves have allowed a higher FG% than they have shot in all but one game.
- Kevin Martin: The replacement of Martin into the starting lineup has been the most obvious thing that has changed. The Wolves won 3 straight after they put Martin in the starting lineup, but it could not be credited to Martin. The Wolves faced the winless Sixers, Cousin-less Kings, and a Hawks team that should’ve been a loss. Martin has scored well, but has done it in a very inconsistent fashion. On three occasions, he has scored 2 points or less. He has struggled defensively, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. It probably doesn’t help either that trade rumors are swirling around him. Main point is, he probably should be in the starting lineup let alone on the roster at this point.
- Prince less, Bazz more: In the eight losses, Shabazz Muhammad has had a net +/- of 1, where Prince has a -34. Yet, Bazz is only averaging less than two minutes more a game than Prince. Prince is not the player he once was at all. In this stretch of games he has averaged 1 point and a little over a rebound a game. His now average, if not below average, defense is not worth his poor effort on offense. The Wolves should see Shabazz in games more than Prince period. This is the influence behind all of our #FreeShabazz tweets.
The Wolves are approaching an inflection point, similar to previous years. We enter the year thinking we can compete and then we realize, ‘dang, we aren’t that good.’ Mitchell has mentioned that playing the veterans more would help the team win an 8th seed, and I have to respectfully disagree. The veterans on this team should continue to be used more so as mentors than rotation players.
There is time to turn the season around if the Wolves can put the right players together. Sam Mitchell’s recent comments about playing veterans 28 minutes and that development doesn’t happen during the season are not encouraging. First step will be a starting lineup that competes and defends. I don’t think the Wolves have the personnel to do that though and would require some trades. The Wolves need to pursue a 3 and D guy to help on the perimeter and take Kevin Martin’s minutes. But the Wolves entered this slew of games with an amazing opportunity, a sequence of winnable games. They were able to measure themselves against teams with more or less similar records. Unfortunately, they’ve lost nearly all of them.
The Wolves are still figuring things out. They are still trying to understand how to incorporate Karl Towns into the offense. Ricky Rubio’s jump shot remains inconsistent. Sam Mitchell seems to always be defensive when approached by the media about his rotations. These things are season long issues and not necessarily the cause of the losses at this point. But above is what has changed over the last 9 games. The Wolves are no longer a great defensive team. Their starters seem to not be clicking. And members of their bench are not as reliable as they once were.