Was the Change to Ryan Saunders the Right Choice?

After a drama-filled season, the Timberwolves decided to promote Ryan Saunders to be their head coach. After ten games and a 5-5 record, have the Timberwolves improved under Saunders?

After a 22-point victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on January 6th, the Minnesota Timberwolves decided to part ways with head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau. It was widely expected that Thibodeau would be fired at the end of the season but there were also a dozen times earlier in the season that would have made sense. After the Jimmy Butler fiasco, poor minute distribution, stagnant player growth, poor attendance numbers, and an underwhelming record, the organization decided it was time to part ways and promote 32-year-old Ryan Saunders to head coach.

As the son of the late Flip Saunders, Ryan has been around basketball and the Timberwolves for most of his life. Saunders spent five years as an Assistant Coach with the Washington Wizards and another five years with the Timberwolves with a heavy focus on player development. Saunders may seem like a nostalgia pick for head coach, but his relationships with the players and his modern approach to the game made him the easy pick. Changing how a team looks and operates in the middle of a season is extremely difficult. Full overhauls are rare, but minor changes that lead to improvements can be made. So, after ten games of the Saunders regime, did the Timberwolves make the right decision?

Improvement: Andrew Wiggins

Andrew Wiggins's entire career has consisted of coaching turnover and inefficient play. The one constant throughout his career though has been Ryan Saunders. Saunders is the only coach that has been in Minnesota since Wiggins was drafted. This has led to them forming a really close relationship. So far, this has led to Saunders getting more out of Wiggins than any other coach has been able to. His shot selection has improved, his rebounding has nearly doubled, and his effort level has been up on both ends of the floor.

One of the biggest frustrations with Wiggins over the years has been his reluctance to get to the rim and his eagerness to settle for contested mid-range jumpers. Saunders has clearly been focused on this as Wiggins’s shot selection has improved drastically. Before the coaching change, 36.7 percent of Wiggins’s shot attempts came within 10 feet of the rim. Since the change, this number has risen to 45 percent. He has focused on utilizing his athleticism and footwork to create better scoring opportunities.

In the below clip we see an example of how Wiggins is being more aggressive. The dribble handoff with Karl-Anthony Towns is a play they commonly run. Usually, Wiggins takes the handoff and pulls up for a jumper. Here we instead see him immediately lower his shoulder and attack the rim. He uses his speed to get past his opponent. Once he turns the corner, the basket is wide open for him. He uses his athleticism to then rise for a dunk and draw the foul.

Below is an example of Wiggins initiating the attack instead of having it develop based on a play. He uses the pick to create space from his initial defender. Once he sees that JaVale McGee is hanging back, he knows that he has room for options on how to score. As Wiggins gets through the screen and into the paint, he does a good job of keeping Brandon Ingram behind him to negate Ingram's defensive impact. Since McGee continues to stay back, Wiggins pulls up for an uncontested floater. Instead of assuming the shot is going in or quitting on the play, Wiggins stays with it and uses his leaping ability for a tip dunk.

This improved shot selection for Wiggins is a massive development and clearly something that Saunders has been able to tap into. This aggressiveness opens up the offense and helps Wiggins focus on his strengths. Going forward, this is something that is important for Wiggins and the Timberwolves to continue focusing on.

Needs Work: Defending the Three

The threat of the three-point shot continues to grow as teams regularly set records for attempted threes. Guarding this shot has become not just more important but also more difficult. Whether it is through creative plays or elusive step backs, the three-point shot has become one of the most difficult shots to guard. All year the Timberwolves have really struggled to guard the three as opponents are shooting 36.7 percent on the year; fourth worst in the league.

Some of the reasons for this are a lack of communication, missing rotations, and an outdated defensive strategy. Since Saunders took over though, opponents are shooting just 33.9 percent from three which ranks fifth best during that span and would be third best for the whole season. This improvement has been done entirely without their best defender, Robert Covington. The biggest difference has been their approach to defending. Instead of using outdated schemes, the Timberwolves have been more willing to switch. This results in players not constantly having to recover and puts them in a better position to contest shots.

The biggest hole in their three-point defense though is defending the corner three. Opponents are often able to find open attempts from the corner on drive-and-kick situations. In order to prevent shots at the rim, the Timberwolves have been collapsing hard on drivers, which tends to leave open men in the corners.

In the below clip we see how the Timberwolves leave Jalen Brunson wide open for a corner three. As Luka Doncic starts his drive, we see Jeff Teague at the top of the screen who is already out of position by playing too high up. Teague tries to recover down to DeAndre Jordan as Towns is forced to try and cut off the drive. Doncic recognizes that Brunson is wide open and sets him up for an open shot.

The Timberwolves have struggled with their rotations this year, especially against teams that have really good passers. As a team, they have improved with how they’ve contested the three-pointer but still have some work to do when it comes to limiting the corner three.

Improvement: Creativity in the Offense

Thibodeau has always been pegged as a defensive coach so it isn’t surprising that his offense was rudimentary and didn’t enhance the strengths of the roster. Saunders hasn’t done a complete overhaul on the offense but has implemented little things to help the team get better shots and into the offense quicker.

The most impactful change has come with the opportunities that are created for Towns. Under Thibodeau, the most common way to get Towns the ball was to let him fight to post up for 15 seconds. This process increased the likelihood of Towns earning an offensive foul and tiring himself out by fighting to post up and then fighting for the shot attempt that would follow. Now, the Timberwolves get Towns the ball in space or set a screen to help alleviate the defensive pressure when he is posting up.

In the below clip we see a play that is designed to get Towns the ball close to the rim. After Teague passes to Taj Gibson, he goes to set a pin-down screen on LaMarcus Aldridge. This screen lets Towns establish position right in the middle of the lane and score on an easy hook shot. This seems like a simple change, but it makes life much easier for Towns. Under Thibodeau, Towns would have been required to battle Aldridge to establish position, which would have been exhausting and wouldn’t have produced that quality of a shot attempt.

On the very next possession, the Timberwolves run the same play with a little wrinkle. The Spurs recognize what the Timberwolves are running and actively guard against it. Derrick White positions himself right where Towns caught the last pass to take away that option. Instead of fighting for that spot, Towns fights through the chip by Rudy Gay and pops out to the three-point line for an open shot.

These changes aren’t schematic overhauls, but instead, subtle changes that unlock the strengths of the roster. Towns is one of the most versatile big men in the league. Finding new and easy ways to get him open will only improve the offense. Saunders has continued to slowly implement things into the offense that make the process of scoring easier.

Ryan Saunders inherited a messy situation in a team that has been consumed by drama this year. To judge him solely on his 5-5 record is a mistake. He has unlocked something in Andrew Wiggins that has jump-started his game. His offensive changes have brought in a sense of creativity and joy. He acknowledges and uses his entire roster instead of treating the bench like lepers. The turnaround this team has made since the coaching change has been a breath of fresh air. Sure, there are still plenty of areas to improve upon, but what they’ve done without Robert Covington and a starting point guard for these last ten games is encouraging. Only time will tell if Saunders is the right fit for this job after this season, but giving him the chance this season was the right move.

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