The Minnesota Timberwolves have now played 14 games without their electrifying shooting guard, Zach LaVine. At the time it seemed like an injury that would derail the Wolves season and send the team spiraling into the cellar of the Western Conference. Thankfully, this is not the case. The Wolves continue to find themselves in the hunt for the final playoff spot. Gaining that coveted eight seed would allow the team to not only host their first playoff game in what feels like an eternity, but also to be absolutely demolished by the super team that is the Golden State Warriors. I know, I know, the Timberwolves just beat them. Trust me, that team will look a whole lot different come playoff time.
But we're not here to talk about the playoffs. We're here to see what the Timberwolves look like without Zach LaVine on the floor.
Let's get the basics out of the way first. Before LaVine's injury the Timberwolves had an Offensive Rating of 109.3 which ranked 11th in the league and a Defensive Rating of 110.5 which ranked 23rd in the league. Currently, the Timberwolves are 10th in the league with a 110.2 Offensive Rating and 23rd in the league with a 110.2 Defensive Rating. To break this down simply; before LaVine's injury the Timberwolves had a negative Net Rating. Over the course of five weeks without LaVine, the Net Rating has climbed to an even 0.
Breaking these numbers down further is where the fuel to the "Anti-LaVine" fire is found. Before his injury, LaVine played in two games in February, losing both. The Wolves went on to play 10 more games that month and post a 5-7 record over this span. In those 12 games the Timberwolves had an Offensive Rating of 111.8 and a Defensive Rating of 111.1, good for a +0.7 Net Rating. In the four games the team has played during the month of March they have posted a 106.0 Offensive Rating and a 95.7 Defensive rating, giving the team a +10.4 Net Rating. Keep in mind that these very impressive numbers during the month of March have come against the Jazz, Spurs, Clippers and Warriors; four of the top five teams in the Western Conference.
For those unfamiliar with the Four Factors it's a collection of four team statistics, both offensive and defensive, that are very telling in how successful, or unsuccessful, a team is. These four statistics should always be listed in order of importance; Effective Field Goal Percentage, Turnover Percentage, Offensive Rebound Percentage and Free Throws per Field Goal Attempt.
Offensive Four Factors (league rank)
Pre-LaVine Injury Post-LaVine Injury
eFG% - 50.8 (15) eFG% - 51.1 (15)
TOV% - 13.4 (22) TOV% - 13.2 (20)
ORB% - 26.9 (4) ORB% - 27.4 (3)
FT/FGA - .221(12) FT/FGA - .223 (10)
At first glance it may seem like there isn't much difference with LaVine in or out of the lineup. But wait just a moment. The Philadelphia 76ers currently have an eFG% of 50.0 which ranks 20th in the league. The Boston Celtics on the other hand rank 9th in the league with an eFG% of 52.4. The same can be said for the other statistics; though the differential in the percentages may seem minuscule, it truly separates the good teams from the bad ones.
The bottom line in all of this is that the Timberwolves are shooting better, turning the ball over less and attempting more free throws per field goal attempted since LaVine has been out with injury.
Admittedly, the sample size is small. On the other hand all of these numbers are trending in a positive direction with LaVine out of the lineup. However, offense is only half of the battle. The following numbers are the Defensive Four Factors. This set of statistics include the same categories as the Offensive Four Factors, except for Defensive Rebound Percentage, but are a reflection of how the Timberwolves defense stacks up against the rest of the league.
Defensive Four Factors (league rank)
Pre-LaVine Injury Post-LaVine Injury
eFG% - 52.7 (25) eFG% - 52.5 (25)
TOV% - 13.2 (13) TOV% - 13.3 (13)
DRB% - 76.7 (13) DRB% - 76.2 (18)
FT/FGA - .218 (19) FT/FGA - .209 (14)
This time around there are truly minuscule differences, except for the FT/FGA. My only theory for the positive change regarding the FT/FGA is simply the amount of fouls LaVine committed per game versus how many his replacement, Brandon Rush commits per game. On the season, LaVine committed 2.2 personal fouls per game. Rush, in the 13 games since LaVine's injury has only committed 1.2 per game. It could also be that the Wolves players overall are becoming more disciplined. The only statistic of the four that is not trending in the right direction is the DRB%, which, in this case, does not involve the shooting guards.
The 5-Man Lineup combinations continues to add fuel to the "Anti-LaVine" fire.
In 879 minutes together the lineup of Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Dieng and Towns was outscored by 2.3 points per 100 possessions and had an eFG% of 51.7.
On the other hand Rubio, Rush, Wiggins, Dieng and Towns have played 285 minutes together and this lineup tells a much different story. They are outscoring their opponents by 7.0 points per 100 possessions and their eFG% sits at 54.4
In other words the Timberwolves Efg% rises by 2.7 percent while their Net Rating rises by 9.3 with Rush in place of LaVine.
There are a lot of variables that go into this discussion. LaVine is still growing as a basketball player, both physically and mentally. He has also had three head coaches in three years, hardly an easy place to grow into a NBA player. Another thing to remember is that the longer Thibodeau is head coach, the more comfortable each player will become with Thibs style of basketball. What I mean by this is that since LaVine's injury, every Timberwolves player has continued to play, practice and study what Thibodeau has been teaching. The more you study a subject, the easier it is to understand.
After half of a season it would be foolish to write off LaVine's ability to fit in this system. He's 21 years old and should have a long and productive NBA career. Let's just hope that comes in the form of positive production in a Timberwolves uniform.