Why The Timberwolves’ Playoff Hopes Are Officially Dead

When Chase Budinger spoke at his introductory press conference this offseason, he called Minnesota “a young Oklahoma.” Set aside that such a self-compliment would have made zero sense just four years ago; it’s the highest aspiration a recent lottery team can dream to be now. For that reason of hope — if a Finals contender can spring up somewhere where a small market, a torturous move and a painfully awful roster all converged, why not us? — it’s also one of the most common comparisons you’ll hear about a roster believed to be on the come up. Budinger barely knew his team when he said it, but he was sort of right — and now it’s all blowing up in Minnesota’s face.

Budinger is out three months with a torn meniscus in his left knee, an injury announced today. On Saturday, Brandon Roy left the game with knee pain, the harbinger NBA fans had waited for ever since he emerged from retirement (because of said knee pain) to sign with Minnesota in July. Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love‘s injuries are already known, and already grieved. In OKC terms, gone is the explosive point guard (a Westbrook), the All-Star, floor-stretching forward (a Durant), a slashing shooter (a Harden). Nikola Pekovic carries on as the emerging, rugged center who often finds himself out of position (an Ibaka), followed a cast of capable bench contributors. With the exception of Love, the T-Wolves’ pieces compare best to the Thunder of three years ago, nothing like the present-day. Still, every team’s other favorite team to watch on League Pass (sound familiar?) was ready to give Minnesotans something to look forward to this spring other than Twins spring training and thawing snow.

To make its first playoffs since 2004, Minnesota needed Love and Rubio healthy. With them out, despite a surprisingly verile defense (sixth in defensive efficiency, best in opponent’s efficient field-goal percentage), things needed to break their way all season like a Rube Goldberg machine. Without Budinger, however, slim just hit a Rick Adelman fast break to become none. There was a thought, one I believed, that this team could possibly hold on until Love returns around the New Year and the team could sneak into the eighth playoff spot in the West. In no way is Budinger the most important of all Minnesota’s injured players — but he’s the one who breaks the playoff chances because of timing and his play. Yes, Budinger has been one of the biggest surprises this season, a surprise by necessity but a surprise nonetheless. Of all fourth-year players, Budinger’s 18.1 points per game per 36 minutes this season ranks third, behind James Harden and DeMar DeRozan, if you eliminate “leader” Austin Daye, who’s appeared in one game. Before I get into how he’s changed as a player, it’s important to see that Budinger hasn’t changed his approach to his buckets, instead following his trend of shooting just threes and short shots to an almost exaggerated point. Budinger’s highest percentage of shots have always been at the rim or behind the arc. This year, though, he’s spiked his scoring by shooting almost exclusively those shots that are the highest percentage or highest reward. Of his 50 attempts this season, 38 have been in those two zones. Just look at his shot chart by Basketball-Reference.com

He’s also been one of the Timberwolves’ biggest assets by changing his game. Budinger had reached a career-high PER of 18.5, edging closer to the 20.0 PER that is assumed as All-Star worthy, from his past career high of 14.96 by becoming a different player.* Coming out of Arizona he was best known for his hops (in thanks to his All-American volleyball skills) and his passing from the forward position. This year his assist rate is at a career low, as is the percent of his baskets he’s assisted on, a sign he’s taking more players off the dribble in isolation — only half his buckets this season have come off assists, whereas 77 percent of his buckets were from assists last season. Because of that, his usage rage and turnover rate have spiked. The latter (15 percent) is more than double his rookie rate. It doesn’t seem like it would work, but he’s been better by being more selfish.

A gifted scorer since he was a high school McDonald’s All-American, he now had the leash taken off to be that kind of player again despite a limited 23 minutes per game. He responded by shooting a career-high 48 percent from the field. Is it a little odd to put this much responsibility for a surprising 5-2 start on a player who was averaging just the sixth-most minutes per game? Maybe. It’s hard to make a case other T-Wolves were doing as much in their time on the court, though. Go Twins?

* All stats for Budinger via HoopData.

What do you think the Timberwolves should do?

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