It’s pretty amazing how the regular season turned out. At the beginning of the year, I don’t think many people would have predicted that Indiana would have the best record in the league, and the Wolves would be the team to beat in the West. Before the season started critics were shouting to break up the Lakers, who acquired two hall of fame players, albeit past their prime. The Lakers made a decent second half push, and ended up with the number two seed, barely ahead of Sacramento.
How did Minnesota improve? Thanks to 82games.com (is there anything they can’t do?), it looks clear that they did it by upgrading their defense. Last year they averaged 108 pPts and their opponents 105 pPts (pPts is points per 100 possessions). This year their offensive output is the same, but they shaved their points against down to 101 pPts. Just to give you an example, this year their defense is ranked about 6th, while if they still had last year’s production, it would have been about 15th.
Knowing that they improved their defense, we can try to identify who the culprits are. We can look at the Wolves minutes last year, and compare it to this year. They took minutes away (by either trading or relegating to a smaller role) from Szczerbiak, Nesterovic, Kendall Gill, Peeler, Joe Smith, and Gary Trent, and gave them to Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell, Fred Hoiberg, Michael Olowokandi, and Mark Madsen. To me that looks like a defensive upgrade at every turn, save for Nesterovic.
Offensively, the Wolves are an efficient team. While they’re not in Sacramento’s class, they are 4th in eFG% behind Seattle and Dallas. Garnett and Cassell are very efficient and handle the majority of the shot attempts. Sprewell is their achilles heel in this area, as his .448 eFG% is very low, especially for some one that hoists it up about 15 times a game (same as Cassell). Put it this way, the worst team in the league, Chicago managed a .446 eFG%. Surprisingly Hoiberg leads the Wolves in eFG%, with .564, with his high percentage on three pointers (44%). The return of Wally Szczerbiak (.492 eFG%) gives the Wolves another scoring punch off the bench.
If anything I’m glad the Wolves will (in all likelihood) advance to the second round. I was tired of bad sportswriters using it as a tool to justify not voting for Garnett for MVP, and perpetuating the stereotype that one player is responsible for his team’s entire fate (hear that T-Mac?).