The Minnesota Timberwolves are Bucking Trends


Within the realm of basketball-philosophy exists an eternal struggle: prioritizing the players’ strengths or the coaches will. On one hand, a coach (or organization) can believe that a certain style of basketball produces the best results. Alternatively, maximizing the players’ best skills, regardless of the resulting style, might be the optimal solution.

Most likely, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Most coaches will suggest that there is delicate a balance. But in today’s NBA, there seems to be a growing disconnect to this equilibrium.

It’s no secret that the NBA limelight sits behind the three-point line and at the rim. Consequently, a team like Houston is building an entire organization around two critical skills: three-point shooting and rim protection—the two most mathematically efficient areas. For Houston, this even includes their G-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, who devour the three-point line and the paint. As a result, they have attempted the least amount of mid-range shots nine years running and currently average about four per game in the G-League.

In Cleveland, previous General Manager David Griffin chose to surround his superstar with a barrage of three-point shooters, trusting that LeBron could handle the rest. Not to mention what Golden State has accomplished in leading the three-point revolution.

And perhaps, these organizations are right. There is an inescapable efficiency to this method of basketball. But if your team lacks some of these specialized traits, at what point does a lack of execution outweigh the modeled gains? In Minnesota, there’s a case study brewing.

To begin, Minnesota currently sits a game behind San Antonio in the Western Conference at 29-17 (a 52-win pace). They flaunt the NBA’s fourth-ranked offense with an offensive rating of 110.4 and eighteenth ranked defensive rating of 106.4.

Moreover, since December 3rd, allowing for over a 20-game sample size, Minnesota ranks second in offensive rating and ninth in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com. And they’ve done so counterintuitively, at least according to the aforementioned generalized beliefs. 

Beginning with the offense, the Wolves take care of the ball, pound the offensive glass, and survive at the charity stripe. They rank third in free throw rate, fifth in rebounding their own misses, and third in turnover rate. But their eFG% is closer to league-average at 13th.

As for shot distribution, it’s mostly mid-range and closer. They rank third in mid-range shots attempted while conversely 29th in three-point attempts and 20th in shots at the rim. Their field goal percentages follow suit in the mid-range (6th ranked) and from three (26th ranked) but they rank third in FG% at the rim at 67.7%, all numbers via Ben Falk’s CleaningTheGlass.com.

 

Rim

Mid-Range

Three-Pointer

Frequency (NBA Ranking)

21/30

3/30

29/30

% Made (NBA Ranking)

3/30

5/30

24/30

Altogether, these numbers suggest that Minnesota has capable mid-range shooters, but lack an excess of three-point shooters. Consequently, they let their mid-range shooters roam free.

The shots at the rim are a bit more troubling. Theoretically, they should attack the rim more, especially considering their ability to convert a high percentage of their opportunities. But, could they just be efficiently pick-and-choosing their spots? More on that thought later.

The final piece to Minnesota’s offensive success is their offensive rebounding. The team rebounds 27.6% of its own misses, ranks fifth in eFG% on putbacks, and has the third most putback points of all teams. Altogether, the Wolves gather a lot of their own misses and have the talent to finish the play.

Based on the putbacks, inherently an easier shot as the offensive player is at the rim and the defense is already out of position, the Wolves FG% at the rim is likely inflated. However, is it enough to warrant only taking 32.1% of their shots at the rim?

Defensively, the Timberwolves create turnovers, avoid fouling, but allow a suspiciously high amount of offensive rebounds. Examining the whole season shows an average defensive team at best. They rank 26th in opponents eFG% (53.9%) and allow opponents to shoot over two-thirds of their shots either at the rim or behind the arc (67.6%).

However, since December 3rd, Minnesota has evolved into the sixth-ranked defense.

In large part, Karl Anthony-Town’s improvements have had a bolstering effect. Over the past thirty days, Minnesota has limited its opponents to 64.5% at the rim (21st ranked). Before that? From opening day to December 3rd, opponents finished 69% of their shots, the worst defensive mark in the NBA.

KAT’s transformation over the past couple of months feels instantaneous. Over his first two seasons, KAT was constantly tardy to help-side defense. Suddenly, a switch flipped. Early this season, KAT chased after every shot-blocking opportunity. He began to overzealously swat at opponents’ attempts, but was still mistiming his leaps and to compound the issue, his man could slip in for easy weak-side putbacks. Then, he stumbled into a defensive sweet spot. 

I’ve likely oversimplified his transformation. The Wolves are still ranked 21st in rim-protection leaving plenty of room for improvement. But regarding Towns, Minnesota basketball pseudo-legend, and acclaimed announcer, Jim Petersen, offered a unique perspective on Zach Lowe’s recent Lowe Post podcast: “I’m thinking that because [Karl Anthony-Towns] was not thinking about being a weak-side defender, [the coaches] just told him to come every time … it’s hard to get a guy that inactive to become active, but you can pull back the reigns.” While Minnesota's rim protection remains a work in progress, Wolves fans can rejoice in a positive development from their budding star.

However, Minnesota’s defensive upgrade is more than a one-man show. Since early December, a newfound cohesion has emerged. Players are executing on-ball pick and roll schemes (often trapping), smoothly communicating off-ball switches (an important nuance that eradicates constant mismatching), and perhaps most importantly, sharpening their attention to transition defense.

Opponents hounded the Wolves in transition throughout the first two months. Minnesota ranked 23rd in points allowed in transition per 100 possessions. Even more troubling, 16.7% of opponents’ possessions began in transition, the 28th ranked mark. Since December 3rd, Minnesota has contained opponents with 13th ranked points allowed in transition per 100 possessions, which now includes only 14.6% of opponents’ possessions beginning in transition, a top-ten mark.

Minnesota was taking a lazy approach to transition defense. Players were often caught in the middle, floating between chasing an offensive board and returning to the defensive home base. Typically, when a shot goes up, if a player is at the extended free-throw line or above, it’s his duty to immediately retreat—big men included. At times, you can still find an errant KAT chasing boards from above the break, leaving his teammates scrambling.

The other common issue was players left stuck in the corner. It takes only a moment of indecision to leave a wing trailing in transition. While Wiggins was not Minnesota’s only culprit, you could usually find him lagging behind the play at least once a game.

Thibodeau stressed in post-game conferences the importance of discipline in transition defense. And it’s beginning to materialize. As mentioned, only 14.6% of opponents’ possessions now begin in transition. But most notable is the change in how these transition opportunities are started.

When a Minnesota opponent snags a steal, 68% of the time it results in a transition play, a slightly below-average mark. However, generally speaking, a steal is likely going to lead to a transition opportunity. Instead, the Wolves have cut transition opportunities to only 29% (18th ranked) when the opponent grabs a defensive rebound. Before December 3rd, 34.1% of opponents rebounds lead to a transition play, last in the league. (All transition stats courtesy of CleaningTheGlass.com).

Take a step back and consider that. When Minnesota missed a shot, a third of the time that miss led to a transition opportunity. Cutting that to just a league-average mark has lifted the Wolves’ defense.

Minnesota has shown tangible improvement over their past twenty games. An entire season remains to see whether these numbers are indicative of the future or if Minnesota will regress. But there seems to be enough proof in the style of play, rather than an aberration in luck (think how many open shots a team makes and misses) that the Wolves can sustain this recent streak of success.

Moreover, Minnesota is suggesting that there is a winning formula beyond the modernized three-point heavy schemes. Thibodeau is leveraging his players’ skill sets, but time will tell whether Minnesota’s style can be sustained or is enough for playoff success.

This article is not meant to bash analytics or claim that Minnesota is playing the most efficient form of basketball available to them. Instead, it aims to push basketball’s philosophical boundaries. 

It’s an imperfect sport littered with inefficiencies. The best teams leverage their talent to create any minute advantage. Recently, organizations have emphasized three-point shooting more than ever, in an effort to leverage the math behind their shot selection. But as every generation of the NBA has proven, there will be new developments.

Nick Sciria, a writer for Nylon Calculus, exemplifies the frustration in the “anti-analytical” community's stubbornness.

 

Analytics can offer invaluable insights just as scouting and personal knowledge can too. Moreover, “analytics” doesn’t solely imply "three’s and dunks.” If you really want to generalize the term, consider “analytics” to equate efficient shots. And for each team, and each player, the most efficient shot can vary. 

Minnesota manifests analytics by coaching to their players’ strengths. They don’t buck three-point shooting. Karl-Anthony Towns is second on the team in 3P% (41.9%) while simultaneously shooting the second most threes per game. Even Dieng and Gibson have been given the green light for the corner three-point shot. However, for example, Dieng’s focus remains from the mid-range. He ranks in the 97th percentile for his position in long mid-range shots taken and at the 84th percentile for percent made. Why shoot threes when you can make half of your mid-range shots?

Altogether, as Minnesota continues to mold into its final product, they offer a fascinating take on what can and cannot survive during this NBA’s generational revolution.

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