Dissecting Wolves' clutch problem.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Another day, another gut-punch loss in the closing seconds for the Minnesota Timberwolves. This time it was the Sacramento Kings that nipped the Wolves by a measly three points.
As we wrap up the regular season this week with detailed postmortems, the Timberwolves might be an afterthought. After all, they just missed the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season. What else is new?
Well, let's stop right there, because this Timberwolves season has been historically heart-wrenching. Of all the numbers we've come across this season, nothing quite hits us like the Timberwolves' crushing late-game performance.
I present to you the single craziest stat of the 2013-14 season: In one-possession games (score within three) in the final minute -- also known as "superclutch" situations -- the Timberwolves have been outscored by 49 points in 22 minutes of action this season. I repeat: 49 points.
Minnesota's opponents have scored 96 points to the Timberwolves' 47. The Timberwolves have been more than doubled up in these tight situations. The result is that, when it should be a coin flip in these situations, Minnesota has lost 18 of those 25 games.
So what happened in Minnesota this season?
Actually, we probably should have seen this coming.
The curse of Kevin Martin
If you were going to engineer a clutch NBA player in a laboratory, it would not look like Martin. By almost all accounts, he is one of the most inspiring underdog stories in the league. The wiry shooting guard has averaged 20.8 points per 36 minutes in his NBA career, which is a higher rate than Tim Duncan, James Harden, Stephen Curry and Derrick Rose. For a Western Carolina product who weighs 180 pounds soaking wet, that's a stunning achievement that no one could have predicted.
But despite his remarkable scoring numbers, Martin is almost unplayable in clutch situations. He doesn't thrive in the clutch play call of choice, the standard pick-and-roll. He hunts for foul calls, which is not a profitable venture in crunch time when referees tend to swallow their whistle. And to top it all off, he's a matador on defense waiting to be exploited.
If you have followed Martin's career, you may have noticed that most of his teams are horrible in the clutch. When dissecting the Timberwolves' crunch-time woes earlier this season just before the All-Star break, I discovered that only two teams in almost two decades (since the NBA StatsCube database began tracking this stuff in 1997) had been blown out in final-minute-game-within-three scenarios like this season's Timberwolves: the 2008-09 Sacramento Kings and 2010-11 Houston Rockets.
The common thread? Yep, Martin was on all three teams.
But that was before the All-Star break when I ran those numbers. Chew on this one: Of the seven worst teams in superclutch plus-minus since 1997, four of them employed Martin.
Ten worst plus-minus teams in superclutch situations since 1997 (game within three, final minute)
* Kevin Martin teams
2008-09 SAC* -60
2013-14 MIN* -49
2002-03 LAC -48
1999-00 NJN -46
2010-11 PHI -43
2010-11 HOU* -42
2006-07 SAC* -41
1996-97 PHX -40
2003-04 SEA -39
2008-09 DET -39
Falling apart in clutch situations is nothing new for Martin. Granted, on Sunday he watched the closing minutes from the bench after he shot 0-for-8 in his return from his heel injury, so he didn't have a hand in the heartbreaking loss this time around. But ever since he became a go-to scorer in 2006-07, Martin's teams have been outscored by a staggering 37 points every 48 minutes with him on the floor in these clutch situations. A total of 99 players have seen at least 100 superclutch minutes over that time, and no one has fared worse on the scoreboard than Martin.
Of course, Martin isn't solely responsible for all of that hemorrhaging. But it's mind-boggling to see how much Martin and his teams melt when the light shines brightest. Martin has registered a PER of 18.7 since 2007, but that plummets to 12.3 in superclutch situations.
Looking at the team perspective, you won't be surprised to learn that his teams score 107.3 points every 100 possessions with him on the floor overall but that scoring output bottoms out to 94.7 points in superclutch situations. That's a massive drop-off of 12.6 points every 100 possession -- roughly the equivalent to the gap between the Miami Heat's and Philadelphia 76ers' offenses this season.
Martin's basketball twin
This brings us to another question: Have we seen a decline of this magnitude from any other go-to scorers?
This is where it gets downright eerie. I took that list of 99 players who have played at least 100 superclutch minutes since 2007 and whittled it down to the 25 players who have an overall usage rate of at least 25 percent. This is your "go-to scorers" group. Did any one of them see his team's offense dry up quite like Martin's?
One: Richard Hamilton, another wiry shooting guard with a similar off-the-ball game.
If there was such a thing as basketball DNA, Martin and Hamilton would be twins. Hamilton's teams scored 13.0 fewer points per 100 possessions when it came to superclutch situations over that time, just a hair worse than Martin's. No one else was even all that close. (Interestingly enough, Carmelo Anthony's teams have seen a 10.3-point decline on offense.)
This could be a lesson for future teams looking to assemble a potent crunch-time offense. With so-so handle and marginal defensive value, both Martin and Hamilton should be used like starting pitchers. You can ride them for most of the game, but the closing duties may be better suited for others.
The perfect storm of unclutch
After considering Martin's track record, perhaps we should have seen these issues coming when the Timberwolves inked the 31-year-old to a four-year, $28 million deal this past summer. But Martin, for all his warts in crunch time, isn't acting alone. You don't get outscored by 49 points in 22 minutes because of one guy. And as was the case Sunday, Martin sometimes watches the unraveling from the bench.
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images
Ricky Rubio's inability to score has contributed to the Wolves' late-game problems.
Martin's effect is exacerbated by the compromising presence of Ricky Rubio, who is notoriously inept at scoring. In tight spots, Martin needs a point guard who can suck defenders into the paint and give him space on the 3-point line where he's an elite marksman. But who's going to shade off Martin to help defend Rubio (who is shooting 38 percent this season)? Nobody. At least nobody in their right mind.
What ends up happening, more often than not, is that Martin is left standing in the corner while Rubio and Love run their predictable pick-and-roll actions. Martin's talents become neutered as every defender knows that Rubio wants to get rid of the ball. Martin has made one shot in 16 minutes of superclutch action this season, but it's not his fault that Love is just 1-for-6 from the free throw line in such situations. And as Zach Lowe broke down on Grantland, Minnesota's crunch-time defense has been more flammable than a roll of toilet paper soaked in gasoline. Love certainly is far from innocent on that end as well.
We also can't leave coach Rick Adelman out of the discussion. He oversaw Martin in the 2010-11 season when Houston struggled down the stretch with a blue-collar cast featuring Martin, Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry and Chuck Hayes. Nonetheless, the fact that Adelman squeezed out 43 wins from that roster is incredible and shouldn't be considered a disappointment.
But this Timberwolves team? Yikes. On a per-minute basis, we haven't seen anything like it. Martin has been on some unclutch teams, but this one takes the cake. Getting outscored by 49 points in 22 minutes of action (or 105 points per 48 minutes) is the highest rate since the league started tracking this in 1997. In a season of zany storylines, it's hard to top the debacle that is the Timberwolves with the game on the line.