The Minnesota Timberwolves Are Better Than Their Record Suggests

At 4-9, the Timberwolves are off to a disappointing start to what was supposed to be a big season. The numbers suggest, however, that they've been better than you may think.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have not exactly lived up to expectations in the early-goings of the 2016-17 NBA season.

Many pundits had the Wolves taking the leap to becoming a playoff contender this year with another season of experience under the belts of young superstars-in-the-making Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Vegas even had their over/under for wins set at 40.5, an 11.5-win jump from their 29-53 record last season.

But the young team has struggled out of the gate this year with a disappointing 4-9 record. They are currently the 13 seed in the Western Conference, and their .308 win-loss percentage is only outpacing the Philadelphia 76ers (.286), Phoenix Suns (.267), and the Dallas Mavericks (.154) across the Association as a whole.

But hang in there, Wolves fans: that record is not very representative of how the team has played so far this season.

By our NBA Team Power Rankings, the Timberwolves are playing like the 11th-best team in the entire league (6th in the Western Conference), with a team nERD of 57.0.

If you're not familiar with our proprietary metric, team nERD is a ranking on a scale from 0-100 (with 50 as the league average) that is predictive of the team's ultimate winning percentage. With a 57.0 team nERD, the Timberwolves are actually playing like a team with .570 win-loss percentage, which would be a record of 47-35 over a full 82-game slate (and last year's 5 seed in the West, for comparison's sake).

And most of their other numbers bear out the idea that their record is not a fair representation of their performance as well.

They are currently 11th in the entire NBA in margin of victory at 1.08. They have suffered blowout losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Memphis Grizzlies, but all four of their wins (against those same Memphis Grizzlies, the Orlando Magic, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Philadelphia 76ers) have also been of the blowout variety. Other than that, their other six losses have all been by single-digits.

Their average margin of victory gives them an expected win-loss record of 7-6 (based on Pythagorean wins), a full three wins better than their actual 4-9 record (the biggest discrepancy between real and Pythagorean wins in the whole NBA).

They currently rank ninth in the league in offensive rating at 109.9 and 23rd in defensive rating at 108.7. The defensive efficiency stinks, but they are the only team in the top-12 in offensive efficiency with a losing record. Something's not right there.

Also, if you look at Dean Oliver's "Four Factors of Basketball Success", you can see that the Timberwolves are performing at a high level on the offensive end, while showing a few promising signs on the defensive side of things:

Offensive Four Factors

CategoryScoreNBA Rank
Effective Field Goal Percentage51.0%7th
Turnover Percentage13.5%21st
Offensive Rebounding Percentage28.6%2nd
Free Throw Rate0.2356th

Defensive Four Factors

CategoryScoreNBA Rank
Opponent Effective Field Goal Percentage51.6%24th
Opponent Turnover Percentage14.1%6th
Opponent Offensive Rebounding Percentage22.4%12th
Opponent Free Throw Rate0.25928th

The Wolves are a top-seven team in three of the four offensive four factors, while showing a good enough ability to force turnovers and control the glass on the defensive end. Those numbers alone suggest that the team's 4-9 record might be a bit of a mirage of circumstance.

Their own turnover percentage and their opponents' scoring efficiency stand out as issues, but those are problems often associated with young teams like the Wolves (the youngest team in the league with an average age of 23.6), and they could certainly improve in those areas over time.

After all, they are well positioned for defensive improvements with their new head coach, Tom Thibodeau. In his five years as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, they never once had a team that ranked below 11th in defensive efficiency, including three separate 2nd-place finishes. A lot of that had to do with personnel, but it would still be surprising to see a Tom Thibodeau-led team in the bottom-third of the league in defensive efficiency over a full season.

Even without considering future improvements, the Timberwolves have already played better than their 4-9 record suggests. With the combination of improving youth, a strong showing on the offensive end, and a relentless, defensive-minded head coach calling the shots, it shouldn't be long before the Wolves set their record straight and get back into a bid to make the postseason for the first time in 13 seasons.