Minneapolis is home to two professional basketball teams. Both are owned by Glen Taylor. However, both have achieved very different levels of success.
The Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA came into existence in 1999. After not achieving much success initially, in 2010 the Lynx hired Cheryl Reeve as the team’s head coach. Reeve’s first year with the Lynx didn’t change the team’s fortunes. Then in 2011, the Lynx drafted Maya Moore.
Moore was added to a core that included Lindsey Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson, and Seimone Augustus. In Moore’s very first season, that core won the WNBA title. Then in 2013, that same core won again. In 2015 Sylvia Fowles was added to this core and two more titles were won in 2015 and 2017.
“I would first point to our ability to keep our core group together.”
Yes, this is simple advice (as Coach Reeve noted). And yes, Coach Reeve noted other issues. However, the success of the Lynx suggests that there is a simple formula to building a winning basketball team. First, find a core of productive players. Secondly, work to make sure that the core of players is happy and wants to stay together. If you can do that, a team can sustain success across time.
Although this all sounds simple, there are two clear stumbling blocks.
- The team has to be able to identify which players are truly part of the productive core.
- The team has to make those players happy.
Let’s start with the first step. There is a temptation to think that all players on the team are equally important. The statistics teams track to evaluate players, though, tells a different story.
In Stumbling on Wins, Martin Schmidt and I argue that teams track player statistics so that the team can
“…separate a player from his team. We know at the end of a contest who won. What teams don’t know is which players were responsible for a team’s success (or failure).”
The statistics do make it very clear that some players on any team are more responsible than others for a team’s success (or failure). Specifically, the data — both from the NBA and the WNBA — indicates that about 80% of a team’s wins are generally produced by about 20% of a team’s roster. Although some might want to think that an entire team wins and loses together, the data makes it clear that there is a core of players on most teams that are responsible for the outcomes we see. Yes, most players are outside the core. But those players (i.e. most players) don’t generally change team success.
Given what we have learned from the Lynx and the study of basketball statistics, let’s look at the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Timberwolves of the NBA have existed for 29 years. In all those years the Timberwolves have only made the playoffs nine times and have only made one trip out of the first round. Although this team has been generally bad, for eight years (1996-97 to 2003-04) the Timberwolves made the playoffs every year.
Once again, some people might want to believe that the players on those teams simply came together to produce that string of playoff appearances. But clearly, one player mattered more than all the rest. In 1995 the Timberwolves drafted Kevin Garnett with the 5th pick in the NBA draft. From 1996-97 to 2003-04, Minnesota won 366 regular season games. When we look at the player statistics we can see that Garnett produced 102.4 wins or 28% of the team’s totals.
In sum, without Garnett, the Timberwolves would have have been far less successful. And when Minnesota traded him to the Boston Celtics in 2007, the winning records and the trips to the playoffs stopped.
At least, that was the story before the 2017-18 season. This past year Minnesota finally returned to the playoffs. Yes, the team barely made the playoffs as the 8th seed in the Western Conference. And yes, Minnesota only won a single playoff game. Nevertheless, NBA playoff basketball did return — if only briefly — to Minneapolis in 2018.
As Minnesota saw during the Kevin Garnett years, not everyone on the 2017-18 team was equally responsible for the team’s success. About 29 of the team’s 47 wins can be linked to the play of two players: Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler. The numbers make it clear that without these two players Minnesota would have had yet another losing season. Yes, Minnesota had 14 other players log minutes with the team in 2017-18. But those 14 players did not matter as much as Butler and Towns.
So, Minnesota has the beginnings of a productive core. Unfortunately, the second step — i.e. keep that core happy — doesn’t seem to be happening. Butler is scheduled to be a free agent after the 2018-19 season. He also announced this week that he wants a trade from Minnesota to the Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks, or Brooklyn Nets. In other words, it is fairly clear Butler doesn’t want to re-sign with Minnesota.
There is much speculation about how Butler became disenchanted with Minnesota. Kristian Winfield offered a detailed list of all the parties that might be to blame. What stands out from Winfield’s article is the conflict between Butler and both Towns and Andrew Wiggins. As Winfield argues, Butler became a top talent through hard work. In contrast, Wiggins and Towns — as first overall picks in the 2014 and 2015 NBA drafts — were considered stars before they even played their first NBA game. So, neither Towns nor Wiggins had to work hard first in the NBA before some people thought they were NBA stars.
In the case of Wiggins, the hype around him has never come close to matching his on-court performance. Wiggins has excelled at taking shots in his career. However, he remains below average with respect to shooting efficiency, rebounds, assists, turnovers, and steals. In sum, Wiggins doesn’t help Minnesota win at all. But because NBA players are often evaluated in terms of total points scored, Wiggins was given a maximum contract by the Timberwolves and likely believes he is key to Minnesota’s success.
Once again, the data makes it clear he is not. So although it has been reported that the Wiggins family has been feuding with Butler (and apparently Stephen Jackson), whether Wiggins is happy or not doesn’t really impact the future success of the Timberwolves. In fact, given how few wins Wiggins is actually producing, if he is truly making Butler unhappy the Timberwolves might be wise to either get Wiggins to change his behavior or change where Wiggins is playing.
What ultimately matters for the Timberwolves is the happiness of Butler and Towns. Again, reportedly Butler is not happy. Unfortunately for Towns and the Timberwolves, if Butler does leave it is very likely Minnesota will not be back in the playoffs soon. Yes, Towns is good. But by himself — as Shlomo Sprung argued — Towns is likely going to be the lone star on a lottery team. Meanwhile, Butler could simply sign with a team that is likely to make the playoffs. That might not happen, but Butler certainly has the power to make that happen.
In the end, it is very likely the Timberwolves need Butler more than Butler needs the Timberwolves. Butler was a key part of this team’s core in 2017-18. As Coach Reeve notes, for the team to sustain success the Timberwolves needed to keep that core together. But it appears they have failed in that all-important second step. And now — because the Timberwolves couldn’t make their core players happy — Glen Taylor and the Timberwolves fans might be making more visits to the NBA lottery in the future.
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