Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolves?

03/16/2017 at 04:03pm

By Todd Whitehead
Nylon Calculus, brought to you by The Step Back

In short: everybody.

In the month of March alone, the Timberwolves have beaten four elite playoff teams: the Warriors, Clippers, Jazz, and most recently, the Wizards. They also pushed the Spurs to overtime in San Antonio at the end of a four-game road trip. They’ve won nine of their last 15 games to climb within four games of the Nuggets, the current holders of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

There are two elements to the new narrative in Minnesota: the moral of the story is all about the importance of a strong work ethic -- the team’s defensive improvement has been critical to their recent run of success -- and the promise of a young hero -- former Rookie of the Year, Karl-Anthony Towns is at the center of the plot.

The moral: Hard work pays off

Since the weekend of the All-Star Game, Minnesota has experienced a dramatic improvement in their defensive rating. Prior to the All-Star break, the Timberwolves were ranked 23rd in the league, allowing 108.3 points per 100 possessions. Since then, the Wolves have given up a paltry 99.9 points per 100 possessions, second only to the perennial defensive powerhouse, Spurs. This is a massive turnaround in a phase of the game that was holding back the development of the team. But, what exactly has been the difference?

Maybe it’s coach Tom Thibodeau? It’s possible that several months-worth of instructions on intricate defensive schemes are finally seeping into the minds of his young players. You could highlight Zach LaVine. He was not one of the team’s more effective defenders (team defensive rating of 110.1 with him on the court vs. 105.2 with him off) and it’s possible his knee injury opened the door for a better defender to play more minutes. Or credit Gorgui Dieng? He’s had a huge defensive impact since the All-Star Game (team defensive rating of 94.6 with him on the court vs. 108.4 with him off -- those are Defensive-Player-of-the-Year numbers, right there). Or maybe everybody is just trying harder? I’m not entirely sure how to divvy up all the credit, but we can’t forget to include Minnesota’s opponents.

Since the All-Star Game, Minnesota’s opponents have shot unexpectedly poorly on wide-open looks: from the free throw line as well as the field. That is, when facing the Timberwolves they’ve missed more open shots than the league would on average, but also, they’ve missed more than their own individual expectations, based on their personal shooting percentages during the rest of the year.

In all, this poor opponent shooting on wide open looks has accounted for 5.3 points lost per game. Randomness is a part of the game for every team and in every chunk of the season, but here it helps explain the enormous improvement in defensive rating for the Wolves. They have certainly made strides since the All-Star break but more development and a larger sample is probably needed for us to truly consider them an elite defense.

The hero: Karl-Anthony Towns

For his part, Karl-Anthony Towns, is certainly proving that his impressive rookie season was NOT a fluke. He has been at the forefront of Minnesota’s resurgence. Against the Wizards on Monday, he had 39 points and 13 rebounds. During the nine games since the All-Star Game, he’s averaging 29 points and 15 rebounds.

Russell Westbrook probably already has this season’s title of Mr. Triple-Double locked down, but he’s in a heated race with Towns and DeMarcus Cousins for the coveted title of Mr. 20-10.  Westbrook leads the NBA in 20-point, 10-rebound performances with 41, but Towns notched his 39th such game against the Wizards (Cousins has 38).

Towns’ production has been gaudy, but his versatility remains even more impressive. Towns dominates many of the traditional and neo-traditional big-man play types: scoring the fourth-most points in the post of any player in the NBA, the fourth-most points on putbacks, and the second-most points as the rolling man in pick-and-roll scenarios; but, he’ll also work around an off-ball screen. He’s the second-highest scorer off screens among his big-man brethren.

It’s possible to use play-type data like this to group players.  Based on both the frequency and efficiency (points per possession) with which a player uses each play type we can define a play-type similarity score and use this score to identify Towns’ most-similar peers in the league.

For each play type, the scoring rates (frequency x points per possession) achieved by the ten closest play-type matches for Karl-Anthony Towns.

It’s quite an impressive list. Anthony Davis is, by a wide margin, the most similar match for Towns based on the play type data. Other versatile All-Stars, like Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Brook Lopez comprise the list.  Like Towns, these are well-rounded offensive big men who can score effectively in a lot of different ways.

Unlike most of the other characters in this cast, Towns’ story is just beginning. If he and his young teammates can find a way to maintain their recent defensive improvement, they might just squeak into the playoffs. And even if they can’t, they’ll still have earned the confidence to know that they can compete with the best teams in the West next season.

Nylon Calculus covers basketball analytics for The Step Back, a premium NBA vertical at FanSided.com