It has been a mess of a year for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Kevin Love has broken his hand twice. Ricky Rubio missed most of the first half of the season and still is not at 100 percent. And Minnesota still isn’t sure what to make of former No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams.
While the optimist will point to the surprise development of younger players like Alexey Shved and Dante Cunningham and the outstanding play of veterans Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic, the pessimist will note that the team can’t make a playoff run without Love and Rubio at full strength.
Because of all the injuries this team has sustained, there are a lot of players who have played significant minutes for the Timberwolves. Therefore, when (if) the dust settles for Minnesota, management must choose whom they’re going to play in the second half of the season and, of those players, which ones they’re going to hang onto going forward.
By looking at the best pairings for the team this year, I hope to shed some light on which players the team needs to put on the court and retain for the future. Keep in mind, however, that injury has skewed some of the numbers, and there are players on this team who would play well together if they were both healthy (e.g., Love and Rubio).
All stats are per 36 minutes and courtesy of NBA.com Player Comparison.
Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea
Helps Rubio: Field Goal Attempts, FG%, Three-Point Attempts, Rebounds and Plus/Minus (Decrease in Free Throw Attempts and Increase in Personal Fouls)
Helps Barea: Points, Field Goal Attempts, Three-Point Attempts, 3P%, Free Throw Attempts, Rebounds (Decrease in Assists and Plus/Minus)
Perhaps it is the Spanish-speaking connection because the Spaniard and the Puerto Rican have been like bread and butter—or maybe tequila and margarita mix—in the Timberwolves backcourt.
Rubio shoots 30 percent from the field with Barea by his side. Without Barea he shoots only 20 percent. He also attempts more field goals and three-pointers, something he’s going to have to get more comfortable shooting in order to increase his shooting percentage from both the field (25 percent average) and beyond the arc (he’s missed all of his threes this year).
Barea also benefits from this pairing.
He scores 26.4 points on average with Rubio, well above his 17.1 average, and averages only 15.3 points when he’s on the bench. He also attempts more field goals, shoots and makes more threes and attempts more free throws while grabbing more rebounds.
This team needs to pair these two players in the backcourt as often as they can.
Kevin Love and Andrei Kirilenko
Helps Love: Points, FG%, 3P% and Plus/Minus (Decrease in Free Throw Attempts)
Helps Kirilenko: Field Goal Attempts, Assists and Plus/Minus (Decrease in 3P%, Rebounds and Increase in Personal Fouls)
Moving closer to the basket, Love and AK-47 have dominated the frontcourt when playing together.
Love shoots 39 percent from the field when Kirilenko is on the floor. When he’ s on the bench, Love shoots a mere 25 percent. Love also hits 26 percent of his threes (13 percent without Kirilenko) and has a better plus/minus when playing with the Russian veteran.
Kirilenko attempts more field goals, racks up more assists and has a better plus/minus rating when playing with Love. His three-point percentage drops from 34 percent to 17 percent without him, although that’s not a key part of his game, and Love’s rebounding acumen also (and inadvertently) boxes out his teammate when he’s on the floor.
Having said that, fewer three-pointers and rebounds for Kirilenko is a small loss in exchange for the production that Love brings when he’s on the floor.
Alexey Shved and Andrei Kirilenko
Helps Shved: Assists, Decrease in Personal Fouls and Plus/Minus (Decrease in FG%)
Helps Kirilenko: Field Goal Attempts (Decrease in 3P%, Increase in Player Fouls and Worse Plus/Minus)
Kirilenko has also been helping Shved out too.
When paired with his fellow Russian teammate, Shved passes better (6.9 assists to 4.3), commits fewer fouls (2.0 to 3.0) and has a better plus/minus rating (-0.9 to -3.9).
However, Shved's shooting percentage takes a big dip when Kirilenko is on the floor (33 percent versus 45 percent when Kirilenko is on the bench). Subsequently, Shved scores more with Kirilenko's presence, averaging 15 points (as opposed to his 13.4 overall average).
This would make sense, because Kirilenko shoots more (11.7 to 8.4 FGA) while he’s playing with his comrade, but his three-point percentage takes a hit (dropping from 35 percent to 22 percent), and he also commits more fouls and has a worse plus/minus rating.
This may be a case of a veteran player feeling he has to do too much because the younger player defers to him. There appears to be a positive relationship between these players on the court, however, and they have the potential to be a great tandem if they can get the veteran-youth dynamic figured out.
Derrick Williams and Alexey Shved
Helps Williams: Points, FG%, Three-Point Attempts, Free Throw Attempts, Plus/Minus
Helps Shved: FG%, 3P% (Decrease in Rebounds and Increase in Personal Fouls)
There is no veteran-youth problem here, as both Shved and Williams are in their early 20s, but it should be noted that the former has exceeded expectations this season while the latter is battling the stigma of being a bust.
Fortunately, these players have the ability to help each other out.
Williams, 21, scores more points, attempts more threes, gets to the line more often and has a better plus/minus rating while playing with the 24-year-old Shved. On top of all that, he’s making more of his shots from the field (52 percent) with the Russian in the lineup than he is when he’s on the bench (37 percent).
Shved grabs fewer rebounds with Williams on the floor and commits a few more fouls, but that appears to be a good tradeoff for his improved overall shooting percentage (jumps to 43 percent) and three-point percentage (from 29 to 41 percent) when playing alongside the former Arizona Wildcat.
With Love out, the Wolves are in need of scoring. Pairing these two young players together will help the team replace Love’s production in the second half of the season.
There are a couple of things to note here:
First of all, J.J. Barea’s veteran presence and championship experience may be helping younger players like Rubio out. This is important for Rubio especially as he tries to get back to the last season's form.
Second, the acquisition of Kirilenko, the longtime Utah Jazz forward, has done wonders for younger players like Shved and Love—two guys who should be part of this team’s foundation moving forward.
Third, don’t leave Williams out of the discussion when talking about Minnesota’s future. Right now it looks like the team will be build around Love (if he stays), Rubio, Pekovic and Shved, with a quality three-point shooter being the biggest need. Williams is a stretch forward that was able to knock down threes in college. Perhaps more playing time with Shved will bring out the best in the maligned second-year player.
Tom Schreier covers the Timberwolves for Bleacher Report and writes a weekly column for TheFanManifesto.com.