Wolves' troublesome issue must be addressed come playoff time

Mar 31, 2024; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (5)
Mar 31, 2024; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (5) / Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves will finish with a top-three record in the strenuous Western Conference and potentially surpass the 2003-04 Wolves for the most wins in franchise history. Yet, a troubling problem persists as the postseason nears.

Although the biggest problem certainly seems like the ongoing majority ownership battle between the current owner, Glen Taylor, and prospective owners, Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez. This issue is an on-court matter. It relates to the Wolves' ineffectiveness in the clutch.

This season, Minnesota ranks 27th in the NBA with a minus-1.3 plus-minus in clutch time. The 28th-30th squads have a combined win total of 45, a total Minnesota reached on March 13. The Wolves are an obvious outlier. When assessing the Wolves' performance on a more recent scale, their plus-minus drops to minus-2.8 since the All-Star break—29th in the association.

While plus-minus isn't always the best metric, we can instead shift focus to net rating. Among the league's 30 squads, Minnesota ranks 26th in net rating at minus-15.6 in the clutch. Both the offense and defense rank amongst the bottom 10 in offensive and defensive rating.

As we did with plus-minus, we'll also take a look at the Wolves' net rating in the clutch since the All-Star break. The Wolves' net rating has dropped to minus-34.6 since play resumed on February 22. Since the break, Minnesota ranks 29th in net rating during clutch time.

Interestingly enough, a poor clutch net rating and plus-minus haven't coincided with a porous record in the clutch. The Wolves are 5-6 in the clutch since the All-Star break and 19-15 overall.

What makes the Wolves' crunch time issues most concerning is there doesn't appear to be a straightforward solution. Minnesota ranks in the bottom third of the league in field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and turnovers.

When assessing each Wolf's contribution in the clutch, the issue makes far more sense. Minnesota's best player, Anthony Edwards, shoots it at 41.7 percent from the floor and 22.6 percent from three when the game's on the line. His net rating is an abysmal minus-21 in the clutch.

The Wolves' second-best player, or perhaps the best according to Edwards, is shooting 37.5 percent from the field and 26.1 percent from downtown in clutch time. Unlike Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns' net rating is better than most players on the roster at minus-11.4.

Even Minnesota's most-steady player Mike Conley Jr.'s shooting numbers dip in the clutch. Conley Jr. shoots sub-40 percent from the field and only 31.6 percent from deep. Only one starter performs average in the final five minutes of a close game and that's Rudy Gobert. However, Gobert's profile is not fit for a high-usage role in the clutch.

What makes the Wolves' problem so damning is the fact that their best clutch players are all second-unit guys. Since the All-Star break, Nickeil Alexander-Walker is shooting 50.0 percent from the field and Naz Reid is at 44.4 percent in the clutch. Despite the above-average percentages, the duo has combined for only 11 attempts.

Sure, Alexander-Walker and Reid are great players. But Chris Finch isn't likely to put the ball into one of their hands when the game's on the line. Plays will be drawn up for Edwards or Towns. While Reid will likely get looks as Towns remains out, Edwards will have the ball in his hands and he'll be flanked by Conley Jr. and Jaden McDaniels.

Edwards, who's attempted the most clutch field goals, tends to take tough shots in isolation. Far too often the Wolves lack a go-to action. A seldom-used Edwards-Towns pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop would be an ideal action when the game's on the line.

For whatever reason, Towns is only used as a pick-and-roll man two possessions per game despite Edwards using 7.4 possessions per game as a pick-and-roll ball handler.

In the Wolves' most recent loss in the clutch, against the Denver Nuggets, the offensive moved the ball and the Wolves scored 19 points in the final five minutes. However, they allowed Denver to score 16 points.

The late-game offense isn't always the problem, the usual frenetic defense also struggles within the final five minutes. Whether it be switching too often which leads to mismatches or providing too much help on the opposition's star player, the Wolves' defense goes from first to 22nd in the clutch.

All in all, Minnesota's ineffectiveness in the clutch isn't a linear problem. The Wolves struggle in multiple facets of the game when the clock is ticking. On the bright side, having a winning record despite poor results in the clutch bodes well once the squad figures it out.