Timberwolves fall heroically, invisibly


        Photo by AJMexico

Considering the state of the economy, not to mention the state of the Timberwolves, Fox Sports North and KSTC's joint decision not to air certain Wolves games does make some sense. But the fact that it caused most of us to miss what looks to have been the most exciting Wolves game since the Garnett trade--complete with three overtimes; not one but two game-tying, last-second threes, one of them from half-court; and a 26-point, 26-rebound performance from Al Jefferson--well that really sucks. Thanks guys. 

Luckily for us, Henry Abbott from Truehoop did get to watch the game and had interesting stuff to say about it. Check it out, right here. The gist of his piece centers on the 43-point performance by the Rockets' Aaron Brooks, a ridiculously hot shooting night amid a sea of Houston misses:

There's Brooks, in the paint, staring down the entire state of Minnesota. Wide open to his left is the cold Battier. Wide open to his right is the colder Trevor Ariza. What's the best play for the Rockets? Small man vs. big world, or wide-open shooters? If you believe Brooks was hot, and Battier and Ariza were cold, then you'll take Brooks. But if you don't believe in the hot hand [since some convincing stats tell us that it doesn't actually exist], then don't you have to go with the open shooters?

Now, I tend to think that the "hot hand" does exist, but that it's a descriptive rather than prescriptive phenomenon; if a guy hits seven shots in a row, then he was obviously hot, but it doesn't mean that he'll make is next one or the one after that. But wherever you fall on this burning issue, it's a great example of one of the most interesting current debates in basketball: the value of what you see as a human observer vs. what you can measure with numbers.

If you're even an intermittent visitor to this particular strand of interweb, you'll know that my interest in the NBA lie largely in the game's aesthetic realms, in (hopefully, humbly) deep explorations and appreciations of stylistics and expression. I'm into the things that basketball does and means that transcend sheer wins and losses, and what it feels like to watch all this wonderful stuff go down.

Given this, you might find it strange or even contradictory that I'll occasionally make use of some pretty nerdy, newer-fangled statistical tools (um, "make use" is a little misleading; more like, "allow myself to be influenced by people whose understanding of math and basketball far exceed my own") in describing the game. You might think that nothing math can tell me can impress me more or give me a fuller impression of the game than what I can see with my own eyes.

But I'm happy to wholeheartedly agree with what the macrophenomenologists over at Free Darko have to say here and here: that statistical and aesthetic/experiential interpretations of the game are just two complementary ways to reach much deeper than the box score, or your average columnist or commentator are willing to take you. Certain wacky stats have helped open our eyes to the fact that players like Nene and Shane Battier are, subtly, really good. On the other hand, our eyes and hearts and imaginations have helped us appreciate, in a way that the numbers probably never could, the stirring phenomenon that was, say Allen Iverson.

Which brings me to a thing called "adjusted plus-minus" and the significance for our Wolves; if you're at all resistant to this kind of stuff, you're probably going to hate this. But, so while stats like True Shooting percentage (basically, a player's field-goal percentage after we factor in the value added by free-throws and three-pointers) and Player Efficiency Ratio pretty useful at telling us how productive and efficient players are offensively, they're not so great at explaining the less measurable but, as any coach will tell you, equally important aspects of the game. Like how do you measure the way a player moves without the ball in order to create a passing lane for a teammate? or how he helps defensively, not to take a charge or block a shot, but to force a run-of-the-mill miss?

When given large enough sample sizes, raw plus-minus--the score differential when a given player is on the floor--can begin to measure the accumulated effects of a such habits on his team's performance. But, notoriously, it fails to take into account the quality of a player's teammates and opponents. Thus, a great player on a terrible team (the Wolves, say) will have a much worse number than an average player on a great team. Adjusted plus-minus, the brainchild of some amazing geeks, attempts to control for these things. The presumption is audacious, the math incomprehensible (to me anyway), the presence of such luminaries as Chris "Birdman" Andersen and Luther Head near the top of the list tells us that you can't just accept this number accept this number uncritically. But it can give us an idea of the player's that help their team without scoring 30-points or dishing out 12 assists per game. And here's what I find interesting: according to the two Timberwolves that rank the highest this year are Kevin Love and Ryan Gomes. These are the two Wolves who, to these eyes anyway, appear to have the surest grasp of the art of the game, who just seem to know how to play.  The presence of these two players in the top-20 gives me the sense that this stat is doing something right. 

And one more item of interest. Gomes's and Love's two-year adjusted plus-minus numbers are both pretty poor, in the negatives in fact. Now its possible that both guys could have improved dramatically in just a year--Love, in particular seems to have made some serious strides. And its also possible that this is just a statistical anomaly, the product of a too-small sample size. But what this suggests to me is that Gomes and Love are now playing in a system that makes full use of their abilities, that encourages and capitalizes on the subtle things--flowing to open space on the floor, creatively moving the ball, playing with sustained effort--that these guys do well. To me, this is real praise for Kurt Rambis and the way he's asking these Wolves to play.