Is Minnesota the Worst NBA Franchise in the History of the League?

Posted on August 12, 2008 by

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Not exactly. 

Today’s post, though, is going to begin with a series of bullets designed to highlight – in rapid-fire fashion (as bullets often are) — the historically bad play of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

A Bad History

  • From 1989-90 (the first year the Minnesota Timberwolves played NBA basketball) until 1994-95, the T-wolves averaged 21 victories per season. For these years the T-Wolves never reached 30 victories.
  • In 1995, general manager Kevin McHale selected Kevin Garnett in the NBA draft.  KG was the first player to move from a high school roster in the spring to an NBA roster in the fall.  So McHale’s move was quite bold.
  • From 1995-96 to 2006-07, Garnett’s Wins Produced per season was 20.7.
  • The Timberwolves as a team, though, only averaged 43 wins per season in the KG era.
  • If we subtract what KG did (20.7 wins) from what the team averaged (43 wins), we see that Minnesota averaged 22.3 non-KG wins from 1994-95 to 2006-07.  In other words, the non-KG wins were only 1.3 beyond what the team did before Garnett arrived.
  • In 2007-08 – the first year after Garnett left — Minnesota only won 22 games.
  • This means that in the 19 year history of this franchise, the Minnesota Timberwolves have averaged only 22 non-KG wins per season.  The best season in this stretch was the 1998-99 season, where the non-KG winning percentage in the 50 game lock-out season was 0.377. This work out to 31 victories over an 82 game campaign.
  • In sum, without Garnett, the Timberwolves would have had 19 years of very bad results.  Such a stretch would have led people to label the T-Wolves as not only the worst team in NBA history, but also the worst team in professional team sports in North America.

Okay, that’s a strong statement.  Certainly without KG we could imagine the T-Wolves selecting higher in the draft each year.  Plus the team would have more money for free agents.  Consequently, we could imagine that more talented players would have landed in Minnesota.

And then we note that Kevin McHale – the much maligned GM in Minnesota – would have been making those selections.  This causes us to wonder if the above bullets really hit the mark.  It seems very possible that Minnesota -without KG – would be a historically bad franchise.

Table One: The Minnesota Timberwolves in 2007-08

Table One illustrates this possibility.  Minnesota traded Garnett to the Boston Celtics last summer for Al Jefferson and a mess of additional players.  With this move, and the other roster moves McHale made, Minnesota only brought back (by my count) five players back from the 2006-07.  In sum, McHale made wholesale changes to this roster.  But despite all these moves, the outcome was basically the same.

Let’s review some stats associated with this trade.

  • Jefferson played 2,919 minutes for Minnesota last year, producing 13.2 wins. 
  • KG played 2,995 minutes the year before in Minnesota, and produced 20.6 victories. 
  • The non-KG wins in 2006-07 was 11.4. 
  • If we add 11.4 wins to what Jefferson gave Minnesota (13.2), we get 24.6 victories.   Again the team won 22 games, so this is not much different.

So there you have it.  McHale, despite changing most of the players, still ended up in the same spot the T-Wolves have been for 19 years.  Without KG, this team wins less than 25 games.

One Good Move

Given this history, can we just pencil the T-Wolves in as a very bad team in 2008-09?  The answer appears to be a re-sounding NO!  On draft night McHale did something amazing.  In the past McHale had a chance at Ray Allen, but he chose Stephen Marbury (68.9 career wins for Marbury vs. 113.1 career wins for Allen).  He could have had Brandon Roy (17.2 wins in his first two season) but he chose Randy Foye (3.3 wins in his first two seasons). In each case McHale chose the flashy player over the solid player.

When the T-Wolves went on the clock in the 2009 draft, O.J. Mayo was on the board and that was McHale’s selection.  Mayo is another flashy guard.   But rather then keep the flash, McHale traded Mayo to the Memphis Grizzlies for the rights to Kevin Love.  As noted before, Mayo might be flashier than Love.  Love, though, posted much better college numbers and is expected to be a much more productive NBA player.

The trade with the Grizzlies, though, was not just about Love and Mayo.  McHale managed to get Memphis to throw in Mike Miller.  Miller led the Grizzlies last year with 11.0 Wins Produced.  A few weeks ago I noted how bad this trade was for Memphis.  What’s bad for Memphis, though, is just amazing for Minnesota.

If Kevin Love can match Al Horford’s rookie production (not a far-fetched thought), he will produce 9.0 wins.  And if Jefferson and Miller maintain what they did in 2007-08, Minnesota’s top trio will produce 33.2 wins.  Such a trio would be the 12th best threesome in the league in 2007-08.  And such a mark would – by itself – set the Minnesota record for non-KG wins.

With a quality supporting cast, the T-Wolves could also make the playoffs.  Unfortunately, McHale has returned to form after the draft.  A trade with the 76ers gave Minnesota Calvin Booth (3.6 career wins) and Rodney Carney (-1.3 career wins).  And just to prove that McHale is not over the pursuit of the flashy guard, he re-signed Sebastian Telfair.  Telfair has produced -4.0 wins in his four year career.  Yes, negative quantities of wins means you really are not helping.

So the supporting cast in Minnesota is probably not going to be enough to move Minnesota into the post-season in the very tough Western Conference.  Still, the Love-Mayo trade looks to be one move the McHale got right. And given the non-KG history we have seen, one right move might be considered a quantum leap forward.

– DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

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.

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