T-Wolves Minus Garnett Equals the Worst NBA Team

Posted on December 10, 2007 by

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On Saturday night the Minnesota Timberwolves – the team with the worst record in the Association – defeated the Phoenix Suns (one of the best teams).  Judging by the AP story of the game, this victory stunned the winners and losers alike.  The Suns are legitimate contenders for the NBA title.  And Minnesota’s record is not an accident.  Despite the win over Phoenix, this is one of the league’s worst teams.

One suspects that just as the acquisition of Kevin Garnett vaulted the Boston Celtics to the top of the league, the loss of KG has sunk the Timberwolves.  And when we look at the numbers, this is true.

But let me hold off on today’s numbers for a moment.  What I want to do first is play a game of “what if?”  Specifically, what would have happened if Minnesota’s general manager, Kevin McHale, passed on Kevin Garnett in 1995 and instead acquired just an average big man.  For example, what if he chose a player like Kurt Thomas or Gary Trent; or what if Joe Smith or Antonio McDyess fell to the T-Wolves [see the review of the 1995 draft for the career numbers of these players]? How much would this have impacted Minnesota’s fortunes over the past twelve years?

Minnesota History Revised

The Minnesota Timberwolves joined the NBA in 1989.  In their first six years this team never won more than 29 games and averaged only 21 victories per season.  In sum, Minnesota was consistently one of the worst teams in the Association.

And then in 1995 the Timberwolves took a chance on a high school kid named Kevin Garnett.  And after a rookie season that was more of the same, the T-Wolves with KG suddenly became respectable.

And yes, respectability for this franchise was tied to the decision to take The Kid.

The Timberwolves won 517 regular season games with Garnett on the roster.  Of these, 247.8 – or nearly half — can be connected to the statistical production of Kevin Garnett. To illustrate KG’s impact, consider the numbers in Table One.

Table One: Minnesota With and Without KG

In Table One we see an estimate of how many wins the Timberwolves would have had with KG replaced by an average player (average WP48 is 0.100) each of the past twelve seasons. What we see is rather stunning.  With KG replaced by an average player the highest Wins Produced the Timberwolves achieve is 34.3 in 1999-00.  The average Wins Produced – in the world without KG – is 27.4. 

So let’s review.  Before KG this team averaged 21 wins.  In the world with KG replaced by an average player, Minnesota only averages 27 wins.

This means that if we leave all of McHale’s decisions in place, but we simply change one of the first he ever made, he would have been presiding over one of the worst NBA teams for more than a decade.

Minnesota Today

Simulations are always neat (if you like such things), but reality is even better.  This year we get to see what KG meant to Minnesota.

Table Two reports two projections of the Timberwolves this year.  The first projects what would happen if Minnesota’s players (except for the rookies) played as well as they did last year.  The second projects what will happen if Minnesota’s players keep playing as well as they have thus far this year.

Table Two: Projecting Minnesota in 2007-08

Heading into this season, here are the four players we would have expected to be the best in terms of WP48: Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Craig Smith, and Marko Jaric.  Given what these players did last year, and the minutes they are playing in 2007-08, we would expect these players to produce 26.7 wins this season.  As for the rest of the roster (again, taking the rookies as given), we would have expected all of these players to combine to produce -5.2 wins. 

When we look at the numbers this season we see our expectations are being confirmed.  Jefferson, Gomes, Smith, and Jaric are combining to produce 24.1 wins.  The remaining ten players on the roster are producing -5.8 wins. 

In sum, this team has very few players who can produce wins in the NBA.  And if we are search for “good” performers, our list in 2007-08 includes only Al Jefferson and Marko Jaric. 

Reviewing the Trade

When the T-Wolves traded KG to the Celtics, people noted the quantity of players Minnesota received in return.  But when we look at Jefferson, Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, and Theo Ratliff, we see that only Jefferson and Gomes were expected to be above average.  And so far, Gomes is not living up to this expectation.  Consequently, one could argue (at least, I am going to do this) that this trade is really just KG for Jefferson.

So far, the best year Jefferson has had – in terms of WP48 – was last year.  With a mark of 0.252 in his third season, he was clearly above average.  And one could note that Garnett’s WP48 in his third season was 0.250.  So perhaps Jefferson could develop into a player like Garnett.

Given the similarities in wins production between Jefferson and Garnett in each player’s third season, maybe this specific trade can work out for Minnesota.  Still, even if that happens, the Timberwolves are still just one star player and not much else.  And this is what Minnesota has been since McHale came to town.

Certainly we see evidence that McHale can identify very productive big men. Okay, we only have two examples, but it’s better than nothing.  Unfortunately, I don’t think you need to have years of NBA experience or even a sophisticated statistical model to know that Garnett and Jefferson are good players. 

When it comes to finding the rest of a good team, though, McHale comes up short.  When we look at the data, we see that how far McHale has comes up short was hidden for years by the brilliance of Kevin Garnett.

And now KG is gone and the T-Wolves are hoping Jefferson develops.  And against the Suns on Saturday night, it looks like Jefferson has arrived (I am kidding, but bear with me).  In 42 minutes he scored 32 points (on 50% shooting), with 20 rebounds, and four steals.  His WP48 for this one game was 0.658.  If Jefferson maintained this for an entire season he would produce 47.2 wins and Minnesota would be a playoff team.

If this happened, McHale wouldn’t have to worry about finding “the rest.”  Unfortunately, Jefferson is not going to be this good every night.  He’s going to need help if Minnesota is ever going to contend.  And this means the current cast around Jefferson is going to have to change.  In sum, Minnesota is going to need some new faces.

Consequently we come to the big question facing Minnesota: Given McHale’s record, is he really the one you want looking for those new faces?

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.