The Outside Shooting Struggles of the Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves are one of the least three-point focused teams in the league. Will that hurt them as the season goes on?

The game of basketball is constantly changing. Throughout the years the only thing that has stayed constant is the need to put the ball in the basket. The ideal way to do that though has never been more different than it is now. We are currently in an age of basketball where all of the shots should come either at the rim or from beyond the three-point arc. By doing this teams are able to maximize their point opportunity by taking the high percentage shot or taking the risk at a harder shot but for more points. It is amazing to look at how the mindset of teams has changed over just the past five years. This year the Houston Rockets are leading the league in three-point attempts with 44.3 a game.

That is almost 20 more attempts a game than the league-leading Knicks from five seasons ago who averaged 28.9 per game, which would rank just 18th in the league this year. To be able to stay in games, teams have had to try and keep up with this increased pace and recognition of the true value in the three-point shot. To do this, offensive mindsets and roster construction have had to change. Big men that are unable to stretch the floor are seen as liabilities, while guards with a poor jump shot are just sagged off of and not considered a threat. The Timberwolves went through a pretty drastic roster overhaul this year but failed to improve their outside shooting.

As a Team

The Timberwolves are one of the least three-point oriented teams in the league as they average just 22.7 attempts per game which is 29th in the league. Of these 22.7 attempts, they are only making 36% of them which is 15th in the league. So the question right now is are they just picky when it comes to three-point shooting and aren’t getting their shots to drop right now or is it that their poor shot selection is leading to an average percentage and a tendency to move away from the three? I lean towards the latter. A set that often produces high percentage three-point attempts is the drive-and-kick three. The ball handler is able to draw the defense to him and then kick it to an open shooter. Some of the main factors that go into this are the shooter not holding the ball long and getting the shot off without a defender in his face. The Timberwolves do not excel at either of these.

A quick release is essential for high-level shooting. When players hold on to the ball too long it increases the ability for the defender to close out. When it comes to the three-point frequency on catch-and-shoot attempts, the Timberwolves rank close to the bottom of the league with only 21.9% of the shot attempts occurring from beyond the arc when the shooter touches the ball for two seconds or less. Comparatively, the Rockets are at 36.5% and the Cavaliers are at 31.6%. As you can see in the below clip, Wiggins has some space once he gets the ball but instead of putting it up right away or moving the ball, he gives a half-hearted jab step and then forces a contested three.

While you want the ability to have open attempts, a sign of a good shooting team is the ability to hit shots while closely guarded. When the Timberwolves are tightly guarded (defender within 2-4 feet), they are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league. They only make 25% of these attempts. A more concerning sign though is their percentage when they are wide open. When the closest defender is more than six feet away, they are only shooting 37% from three which is sixth worst in the league. The ability of the roster as a whole to drive-and-kick often produces these wide-open opportunities but the Timberwolves lack of shooting often lets them down. The below clip illustrates the quality opportunities that the team is able to create just to be squandered by the inability of the team’s shooting.

Individual Performances

While the team numbers aren’t impressive, the individual numbers aren’t too bad. The most impressive performance this year has been by Nemanja Bjelica. He is currently averaging a career high in points while shooting 51.2% from three. The problem with this is that it is only on 2.3 attempts per game. While most of the team struggles with catch-and-shoot threes, Bjelica thrives in that area. On catch-and-shoot attempts, he is shooting 51.3% from three and 50% of his shot attempts are in these scenarios. He also doesn’t force shots when he is heavily defended. On attempts where the defender is six or more feet away, he is shooting 59.3% from three and 34.6% of his shots are in these scenarios. The problem is that Bjelica is only playing 15.3 minutes a game and is currently hurt. Once he returns, the Timberwolves should look at increasing his minutes to the 18-20 range in order to allow him more looks from three while not overworking him.

Bjelica is clearly having the best shooting year on the team but Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, and Karl-Anthony Towns are all having productive years from beyond the arc. Teague is currently shooting 40.3% from three on 3.7 attempts compared to his career mark of 35.7%. Butler is shooting 38.3% from three on 2.6 attempts. It is great to see this up from last year’s 36.7% but the concern is that last year he averaged 3.3 attempts per game and over the past four years he hasn’t dropped below 3 attempts per game. Towns is right around his career average this year shooting 35.6% but on an increased 3.7 attempts. The ability for someone of Towns’ size and athleticism to space the floor provides another aspect to the offense that a lot of teams don’t have.

All of the above numbers look pretty good and like a team that is a threat from behind the arc but here is where the numbers get ugly. The most egregious offender is Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins is one of the best in the league at getting to the rim and has a solid mid-range game but his outside shot has not developed as hoped. Over his career, Wiggins has shot just 32.8% on 2.6 attempts from three. This year he is down to 31.7% on 4.1 attempts a game. While Wiggins can get drawn into forcing shots at some points, the biggest detriment to his shooting has been the inability to hit the wide open three. Of his three-point attempts, 16.3% of them are considered wide open and he is shooting a meager 27.1%. The below clip is one of many examples of Wiggins inability to knock down the open three after a great pass.

Wiggins isn't the only one struggling from behind the arc as the Timberwolves have very little shooting ability on the rest of the team. Tyus Jones is shooting just 31.8%, Gorgui Dieng is shooting 26.7%, and Shabazz Muhammad is shooting 21.1%. Muhammad's percentage has risen a tad over the last few games after it took him 14 games to make his first three-pointer.

The upside

Despite being one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league, the Timberwolves still have the sixth highest rated offense. Their offensive rating of 107.9 ranks only behind the Warriors, Rockets, Raptors, Cavaliers, and Pacers. Even without being a great shooting team, they have the ability to score in many different ways due to the individual talents of Towns, Butler, and Wiggins. As a team, they also have an offensive rebounding percentage of 25.7% which is third in the league and a turnover percentage of just 14.3% which is tied for second lowest in the league. Since the Timberwolves have the ability to finish at the rim, create second-chance points, and take care of the ball, they are still producing one of the league's best offenses despite their inefficiencies from beyond the arc. If they continue to develop their offense and start to make the open threes, they could turn them into a legitimate contender.

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