Minnesota has beaten bad teams, and lost to the good teams.
The Minnesota Timberwolves blitzed their first seven games with a 5-2 record — "blitz" being the operative term, since they were averaging a league-high 102 possessions per 48 minutes, per NBA.com.
They've cooled to 100 possessions per 48 minutes in their last 12 games — still very, very fast — and their defensive efficiency, which was 10th in their first seven games, dropped as well. With a slightly less breakneck pace, Minnesota shaved off some turnovers, and their offense improved to just above-average.
The dirty little secret of Minnesota's first seven games? They didn't play very many good teams.
They defeated a couple of Eastern Conference doormats (Orlando, New York), the Kobe-less Lakers, the Mavericks (a bonafide No. 3 seed if they were in the East) and they split their two matchups with the Warriors and Thunder. They gifted Cleveland a 17-point lead at halftime, which they nearly botched because that's what Cleveland does. The Cavaliers are the 11th seed in the Eastern Conference, which is the equivalent of being the smelliest piece of poop in the litter box.
The Timberwolves are 4-8 in their last 12 games, with seven of their losses coming against teams in the top 10 of net rating. They also lost to the Wizards — if you squint a lot, and punch yourself in the face a few times, they're a decent team, too. Meanwhile, they picked off Cleveland, Boston and the poor Brooklyn Nets for three wins.
This isn't a knock; it's tough to beat legitimately good teams. Minnesota isn't quite there yet, though they have enough pieces — Kevin Love, Ricky
Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Rick Adelman — to sneak into the playoffs.
Their current stretch — at Oklahoma City, a "home" game in Mexico City against San Antonio and a (legitimate) home game against Miami in a span of six days — isn't very charitable of the NBA.
Good thing they have Kevin Love.
It's just a shame that they'll probably have him for two more seasons, before he opts-out, joins Andrew Wiggins, Kobe and Robert Sacre in Los Angeles, and they win titles or something like that.
But I won't go there.
Love has been awesome this year, and Minnesota can't approximate anything close to his passing, shooting, rebounding or scoring when he hits the bench. Their offense is scoring 85.4 points per 100 possessions without Love — the equivalent of the Milwaukee Bucks' offense if they were somehow worse and allowed Gary Neal to shoot one-legged 3-pointers every possession — and 109 with him on the floor. It's a massive disparity.
Love is fourth in touches per game, and he's the only non-guard to appear in the top 10. He leads the Timberwolves in rebounds and points and he's second in assists. There is a lot of opportunity for him to touch the ball, and Minnesota runs some fun quick-hitting stuff to get him open.
They have some staggered screen sets in their repertoire — either with Rubio dribbling off a couple picks, and Love spotting up; or with Martin bee-lining around a pair of screens, while Love pops out simultaneously — and these have generated good looks. Pekovic can also set a traditional high screen to free Rubio, then set an additional screen on Love's man. These actions utilize Love, the team's leading scorer, as a weak-side option and that stretches opposing defenses to their limits.
Love is one of the most proficient big man passers in the game (creating 9.5 points per game via his passing), and he's habitually in the right spot to rebound the ball. His 21.2 rebound chances are first by a wide margin, and he's first in contested rebounds and second in uncontested boards, respectively.
He still is a mediocre defender, especially in space, though he does try hard. Opponents have made 96 of 164 shots (58.5 percent) when he's defending the rim according to SportVU.
Love is finally on a decent team and, boy, is that a lot of fun to watch.
Ricky Rubio can't shoot, but he's still damn good.
Rubio scores under 10 points per 36 minutes, he makes less than 37 percent of his shots and he turns the ball over on a fourth of his possessions. 11 San Antonio Spurs score more points per 36 minutes than Rubio.
Minnesota's offense is 15.1 points per 100 possessions better when Rubio is on the floor. Obviously.
Rubio isn't required to score; driving to the rim and facilitating the offense in the half court and in transition are enough. He's driving to the hoop 6.7 times per game according to SportVU, and Minnesota is scoring 1.09 points per drive, a higher mark than when JJ Barea drives.
Rubio is creating 18.4 points per game solely from his passes according to SportVU. He's essentially, producing 25 points each night. To wit: Rubio has assisted on about a third of Love and Martin's field goals this season, and their field goal percentage dips when Rubio sits.
Eliminate Rubio from the lineup, and Minnesota's offense doesn't hum; it's like driving with three wheels on the highway. (Do not try that at home.)
Go watch some of his assists, and bring an extra pair of pants. You're going to need it.
Random SportVU tidbits.
– Pekovic takes two-thirds of his shots in the restricted area, and he's made 64 percent of them. He's scoring 0.57 points per half court touch this season. (And he does not eat children.)
– Martin's effective field goal percentage (adjusts for 3-pointers) on catch-and-shoot attempts is 11th in the league. Martin is second in points per touch, among players with at least 50 touches per game.
– Alexey Shved is 0-for-13 on pull up shots according to SportVU.
– Love's field goal percentage on close shots is the second lowest in the NBA according to SportVU, among players with at least three close points per game.
– Minnesota takes 31.9 shots in the restricted area per game, third in the league.