Are the Minnesota Timberwolves really pesky, and why do they scare Utah Jazz fans so much?

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

I don't like the term 'pesky', and I do not think that it applies to Minnesota. And I have a set of statements to prove or disprove. Find out if I'm right or wrong!

Yesterday I wrote about how I didn't really have respect for what the Minnesota Timberwolves have done as a franchise as a whole. They haven't won a lot and for large periods of time they are often not even playoff competitive. Their owner is super rich and they've had a lot of lotto picks. There are some fundamental problems with the franchise, but I didn't mean to point out anything that Wolves fans themselves have not already pointed out.

Last night they played, and demolished, the Utah Jazz in Utah with two starters out of the game (Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic) and their first big off the bench also injured (Rony Turiaf). The Wolves now hold a 3-0 lead in the season series against the Jazz, but that's not the reason for this post.

Why I am posting this is because last night the play by play man for the Jazz, Craig Bolerjack, called the T-Wolves "Pesky". I'm not a fan of that word being used against another NBA team. I'm not a fan of these negative monikers or stereotypes put onto sports team (either as the team's official name, I see you Washington Red Skins), or in some other qualitative sense. After all, when you poll most NBA fans who are not Jazz fans when they think of us they think of "white". I'm not saying that being 'white' is automatically a negative thing either, but it's used in a negative way. Similarly, calling the Wolves -- an actual NBA team with adults trying their hardest to win -- pesky seems pejorative.

  1. I don't like the term "pesky", in general
  2. I think the idea of the Wolves being "pesky" is only valid if the Wolves have a history of beating us
  3. And the concept of the Wolves beating us, making us fear them, is a recent construction

Those are the statements I felt in my heart before doing the research. I know some people who don't read this blog may adhere to historical science, but the point of actual science is to test belief and add to the knowledge base.

In my opening salvo I think I explained why I don't like Pesky. I don't like bringing other teams down like this. Would we call the Nets, or Lakers, or Celtics bad names? Not as consistently as the Wolves are called pesky, or the Jazz somehow race related. (Which is a huge double standard -- no one called the Detroit Pistons "black") But moving beyond the greater picture and looking at the name itself, maybe it's fitting if their team was perpetually playing this slapping, gnawing, biting, Golum style defense, or only had guys on it the size of Jose Juan Barea -- but they don't. Their starting point guard, Ricky Rubio, is 6'4 -- taller than Deron Williams was. Their best player is a multiple time Western Conference All-Star who has the most double doubles in the last few seasons. I don't think you can honestly call Pekovic "pesky".

Looking at the second point, I guess pesky could be used as a way to describe a team that we should swat away like flies, but always ends up biting us. For this, thankfully, we have data to look at.

Over the last decade (2003-2004 season till 2012-2013) + this one (2013-2014) we have a long enough look at these two franchises. We've had the rise and fall of both teams, and many coaches at the helm. So let's look at the data:

Utah Jazz Head-to-Head Minnesota Timberwolves
Season W L % West Div UTA - MIN % W L % West Div
1 2003 04 42 40 51.2% 9 7 2 - 2 50.0% 58 24 70.7% 1 1
2 2004 05 26 56 31.7% 14 5 1 - 3 25.0% 44 38 53.7% 9 3
3 2005 06 41 41 50.0% 9 2 3 - 1 75.0% 33 49 40.2% 14 4
4 2006 07 51 31 62.2% 4 1 3 - 1 75.0% 32 50 39.0% 13 4
5 2007 08 54 28 65.9% 4 1 2 - 2 50.0% 22 60 26.8% 13 4
6 2008 09 48 34 58.5% 8 3 3 - 1 75.0% 24 58 29.3% 11 4
7 2009 10 53 29 64.6% 5 2 2 - 2 50.0% 15 67 18.3% 15 5
8 2010 11 39 43 47.6% 11 4 3 - 1 75.0% 17 65 20.7% 15 5
9 2011 12 36 30 54.5% 8 3 2 - 1 66.7% 26 40 39.4% 12 5
10 2012 13 43 39 52.4% 9 3 4 - 0 100.0% 31 51 37.8% 12 5
11 2013 14 19 36 34.5% 13 5 0 - 3 0.0% 27 28 49.1% 10 3
W L % West Div UTA - MIN % W L % West Div
Totals 452 407 52.6% 8.55 3.27 25 - 17 59.5% 329 530 38.3% 11.36 3.91

So, for Utah the team has a cumulative regular season winning percentage of 52.6%. Over that time the Jazz have been around the top 2 of the division four times in these 11 years, and made the playoffs five times. Their average rankings for the division is 3.27th place, and in the Western Conference 8.55th place. That's kind of a playoff team. There was a distinct peak in those Jerry Sloan / Deron Williams / Carlos Boozer / Mehmet Okur / Andrei Kirilenko years. (Let's call this 2005-2006 till 2009-2010).

For the Wolves, well, I underestimated how bad they've been. They were the Tops in the Western Conference in the first season then fell off the earth. They win 38.3% of their cumulative regular season games, and have averages of 3.91th place in the division and 11.36th place in the West. They've not been very good at all.

Still, the Jazz are 25-17 against them. When the Wolves were the best in the West the Jazz still went 2-2 against them. Over all Utah has won 59.5% of the time these two teams have played in the post-Stockton-and-Malone era. That's not bad.

Okay, so let's evaluate the two parts of premise 2. Are the wolves bad, and have the Wolves beat us a sufficient amount? I thought the Wolves were more respectable, but they aren't. They are bad enough that it can be considered a blemish to lose to them consistently. But does Utah lose to Minnesota consistently enough for it to be a problem? Why do we call them pesky and fear them?

Well, this is the subjective part. The Jazz are beating them 6 times out of 10. Should the Jazz be beating them 7 times out of 10 during this stretch? You could argue either way. Should the Jazz, going up against the best Wolves team ever, and then another core of Wolves teams with an All-Star on it feel bad about beating them more than half the time? Or should this Jazz team that went to the playoffs and had a great core feel bad about beating this team only 60% of the time?

Honestly, I can go either way on this point which brings us to the last thing.

I do think that the concept of the Wolves beating us IS a recent construction. We feel like the Wolves put up more of a fight against us, and we lose to them more than we should, because of a brief period in time. Between 2005-06 and 2009-10 the Jazz were one of the best teams out there. They were powered by Deron Williams and won 60.2% of their cumulative regular season games. During this stretch they had an average Western Conference seed of 6th, and were 1.80th place in the Division.

By comparison the Wolves were winning only 30.7% of their games, and had average seeds of 13.20th in the West, and 4.20th in the Division. We were much better than them -- but we lost games to them instead of sweeping them.

And you know what the record in head-to-head games was for that period? It was 13-7. The Jazz won 65.0% of the time against the Wolves in that period, and that was higher than the Jazz regular season win percentage of 60.2%. So we did better against them than normal -- but because we lost at all we felt like we under performed.

The bigger issue here is that we're short sighted. The Jazz, during that "woe is us, the pesky T-Wolves are in town!" period, beat Minny 65.0% of the time. Over the entire period of these 10+ seasons the Jazz only beat the Wolves 59.5% of the time.

So when we developed this fear of Minnesota it was because of perceived quality disparities in the two franchises, and that any losses to them were something to over-react to. I was caught up in it too, my first submitted article to Spencer Ryan Hall at Salt City Hoops was on this topic -- but he wisely never published it. (And if he did, the history of our two sites would have been forever changed.)

SINCE that period when we were great and knocking on the door of the NBA Finals the Jazz have actually been a bad team that has effectively put their boot on the throats of the Wolves until THIS season. From 2010-2011 till 2012-2013 (the Tyrone Corbin era not including this season) the Jazz are 9 and 2 against the Wolves. If the Wolves were really pesky and always beat us more than they should we shouldn't be 9-2 against them during the weirdest point in Jazz history when we trade away a franchise player weeks after a Hall of Fame coach retires.

So how did I do?

I don't like the term pesky, and I still do not.

Pesky is fitting if a) Minnesota was really, really bad, and b) we lost to them sufficiently enough for it to look like a problem. Well, Minny really, really was bad. But I don't think we lost to them more than normal, in fact our over-all winning percentage against 'Sota is greater than our over-all winning percentage over the same amount of time. And in these 11 seasons the Jazz have only lost the season series TWICE (this year is one of them), and in Minny's best season ever as the #1 seed in the Western Conference they only split with the Jazz 2-2. You can argue that we lost to them enough to have the fear of Wolves put into us, but over all, I'd say that we did NOT lose to them enough for losing to them to be evocative of some blemish.

And yeah, I think we started to really fear them because we would lose to them back when we felt like we were invincible and capable of being dragon slayers -- not prey to other teams themselves. Though, the data shows that even in those years where we felt like we lost to them more than we should -- we still lost to them less than we did THE REST OF THE NBA. And we lost to them less than we did during that period than we did during the larger sample size of over a decade.

I feel like the first idea can't be proven or disproved -- though I wouldn't classify the team that is a high octane offense with a high pace where their best player is a double double machine who hits threes as "pesky", nor a team that had Kevin Garnett on it. Perhaps their futility makes them pesky, and I did under-estimate how bad they have been.

But for the most part I feel like the data backs the major points of my hypotheses.

It does suck to lose to them though, because data aside, some biases are hard to shake. I'll kind of always think of them as this expansion team fodder in this way until they start making the playoffs again. Maybe winning 6 times out of 10 instead of 7 or 8 makes them pesky to you. It doesn't to me, not during this stretch of Jazz basketball that has seen us have our own troubles. If we were still the Stockton and Malone Jazz I'd be right there with you. We're not.

And even if the Wolves *are* pesky I don't think we should call them that either.

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