The Shocking Success of the Timberwolves Offense

How the Timberwolves have shockingly earned the leagues third best offense.

Let’s start off with a thought experiment. Take a second and think of some of the best and most memorable offenses. Ready? Got a few? I’m guessing some that came to mind are the Showtime Lakers, or the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, or the Heatles or today’s Warriors and Rockets. These teams all consisted of transcendent talent and innovative offenses other teams weren’t ready for.  This year the Warriors and Rockets are the two highest rated offenses with an offensive rating of 113.1 and 112.9 respectively. They are known for pushing the pace, launching threes, and taking high percentage shots. When you combine their style with their talent it makes all the sense that they are the top two offenses in the league. What doesn’t make sense is the third-ranked offense of the Timberwolves. No, you didn’t read that wrong and no it isn’t a typo. The slow-paced, isolation-heavy, three-point evasive Timberwolves are currently the third best offense in the NBA. The factors we covered for those previous historical offenses do not apply to the Timberwolves at all so how do they do it? They do it by focusing on what they do well and not trying to be something that they aren’t.

Winning the Four Factors

The author of Basketball on Paper, Dean Oliver, discovered that there are four factors that often lead to teams being successful throughout a season. He identified the “Four Factors of Basketball Success” as Effective Field Goal Percentage, Turnover Rate, Offensive Rebounding Rate, and Free-throw Rate. Winning these four categories is important for team success and the Timberwolves are proving that.

Effective Field Goal Percentage accounts for threes being worth more than twos (I know, pretty mind-blowing fact right there). Naturally, teams that shoot a lot of threes, and shoot them well, will have a higher eFG%. The Timberwolves average the second fewest three-point attempts per game with just 22.1 and make just 35.9% of them. Despite their lack of focus from outside, they still have the ninth best eFG% in the league at 52.6%. Their work near the basket and quality of shot selection allow them to succeed here. This year the work of their big men has been key as they are the team's top four leaders in eFG%. Most notably is the work that Towns and Bjelica do who have an eFG% of 60.3 and 60.5 respectively. Their ability to stretch the floor, the team’s top two three-point shooters, allows them to boost these numbers and help their team convert high percentage scoring opportunities.

Taking care of the ball is extremely important and the Timberwolves excel at this by posting the lowest (tied with the Mavericks) Turnover Rate of 12.7. While some often complain about the slower pace the Timberwolves play with, this low turnover rate is one of the results. Offensively it allows them to work the ball around the floor to find the best shot possible and manipulate any mismatches they can find. While it clearly helps the offensive flow, it, more importantly, limits their opponent’s possessions. Let’s be honest, the Timberwolves have been bad on defense this year. Ok, I guess bad is a compliment as they’ve really been one of the worst defenses in the league. Preventing the other team from having the ball as much as possible is very important.

While the Timberwolves do a great job of limiting their opponent’s possessions, they do just as good of a job creating extra possessions for themselves. They have the fourth best Offensive Rebounding Rate of 24.9. They frequently play Gibson and Towns together, 26.8 minutes per game, which allows them to constantly attack the glass with at least one strong rebounder off of their own misses. Towns averages 2.9 offensive rebounds per game (10th in the league) while Gibson averages 2.5 (16th in the league). These two guys account for a lot but they also work well as a team as they average 10.4 per game which is sixth in the league.

Getting to the line is an easy way to slow the game down, get the other team in foul trouble, and get easy points. The Timberwolves are currently ranked seventh in the league with a free-throw rate of .281. Their hard work inside often leads to them drawing fouls and earning chances at easy points. It is important to get to the line but it is even more important to make the shots once the opportunity is earned. The Timberwolves are one of the best in the league by making 79.5% of their 24.1 attempts per game. Winning the Four Factors is very important to successful basketball and the Timberwolves have been dominant in these categories.

How They Score

Many teams try to force a style of play and not focus on what they are actually good at, simple right? You would be surprised at how many teams try to be the Warriors when they are more like an NCAA team. The Timberwolves are not a good three-point shooting team so they don’t actively look for or force threes as just 21.8% of their points (lowest in the league) come from threes. Taking this few threes in today’s pace-and-space era would be an issue if the Timberwolves weren’t so selective with their attempts. They only force three-pointers when they have to as 75.3% of their shots come when the defender is four feet or farther away from the shooter. They focus on getting the best shot available. Teams like the Warriors and Rockets may not need much room from three, but the Timberwolves self-awareness allows them to not force heavily guarded threes.

Since the Timberwolves aren’t a strong three-point shooting team, they focus on their strength in the paint and mid-range efficiency as 60.7% of their points come from twos (second in the league). A lot of this success comes from their ability on the offensive boards which results in easy put-backs and mid-range jumpers. This is evident by the success of Towns averaging 1.361 points per possession (87th percentile) and Gibson with 1.25 (74th percentile) on putback attempts per Synergy. As a team, they average 1.25 points per possession on putbacks which is second best in the league. 

Per Synergy, the Timberwolves are also one of the best in the league at jump shots within the three-point line. From 17' and in they average .966 points per possession which ranks fourth in the league. More impressively though is their success when posting up. They are the best team in the league at this as they average .985 points per possession. 

The Timberwolves are proving that to have a successful offense, you don’t need to shoot the most threes and have the fastest pace. They are the 23rd slowest paced team and shoot the second-fewest threes. By focusing on winning the Four Factors and playing to their strengths, they are proving to be one of the best offenses in the league. The Timberwolves are a strong rebounding, tough interior team. They run their offense to take advantage of this and to work for the best shot on every possession. By focusing on their strengths, not forcing a style that doesn't compliment their abilities, and winning the Four Factors, the Timberwolves have earned the third best offense in the league.

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