On Tuesday evening, with 55.9 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Washington Wizards were tied at 89 when Tom Thibodeau called a timeout. The Wolves head coach drew up an “Iverson Cut” for his star player, Jimmy Butler.
The Iverson Cut runs the second guard off a screen from the big man on the elbow. When the lead ball-handler delivers the pass, this action clears an entire quadrant of the floor for a player to pull-up or isolate. Of course, this play was made famous by Allen Iverson in the early 2000s.
This action Thibodeau drew up for Butler may as well serve as a mission statement of sorts for this Wolves team; clear space in the mid-range for a wing to isolate.
Not a pick-and-roll, not a screening series for a 3, a pick to free up isolation at 16 feet.
Butler did come off the Karl-Anthony Towns screen. However, the isolation was not there. Towns’ man, Ian Mahinmi, sniffed out the action and Butler was forced to create. This ensued:
Following Butler’s creation, Andrew Wiggins received the pass in the corner but determined that was not a good look, opting to skip to Towns. The Wolves big man — who shot 43.4 percent from 3 after the All-Star break last season — also determined his open 3 was not good enough. But Towns quickly had a change of heart. He, then opted to step back and take the most difficult shot of the possession.
This confusion has plagued the Wolves all season as the definition of “good 3-pointer” has become muddled.
Where Are The 3s?
At practice earlier this week, Wiggins told Zone Coverage, “Coach wants us to shoot more 3s.” However, he remained vague on when and where those 3s are supposed to come from.
“We just play within the rhythm of the game,” Wiggins said. “If it’s there, it’s there.”
The Timberwolves are shooting 23 3s per 100 possessions this season. Only the Sacramento Kings shoot fewer 3s. For the Wolves, this is only a slight uptick from a league-worst 21.5 3s per 100 possessions last season. Suggesting, maybe, the Thibodeau-led Wolves have a stringent definition of it’s there.
When asked about finding high-efficiency shots, Thibodeau explained his thought process on the shots he wants his team to take.
“It’s a balance of how many layups can you get and, of course, your free throws — that is the most valued shot, it’s worth the most points per possession — and then your 3s. And, are they good 3s?”
The latter part of the quote is potentially the holdup in Minnesota. It seems Thibodeau has a definition of “good 3-pointer” that is unique in today’s NBA.
While his words suggest a push towards efficiency, Thibodeau’s players’ actions convey this Wolves team is operating under the same strategies of Thibodeau-led teams from years past.
“They are probably shooting more 3s than his teams have ever shot,” Orlando Magic head coach, Frank Vogel said in regards to the Timberwolves low 3-point volume prior to his Magic’s matchup with the Wolves on Nov. 22. “But that is because of the way the league is playing now. They are still a threat to hit from there.”
While the Wolves may have players who statistically are a threat from deep, there is a foil in the perception of 3-point percentage — it does not take quantity into account.
Yes, Butler, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Teague can shoot 3s but, broadly, they do not.
In each of his prior two seasons, Butler shot exactly 19.8 percent of his total shot attempts from deep. Teague, a historically low-volume player from deep, also has a shot chart that indicates he too prefers shots from the midrange or at the rim — 24.2 percent of his career field goal attempts are 3s. Even Crawford, the team’s biggest 3-point shooting acquisition this offseason, prefers the midrange.
“For me, the best player ever was Michael Jordan and he was more of a mid-range guy anyways, so I think you can always get back to that,” said Crawford when asked about discerning shot selection. “I try and get an easy basket, get closer to the basket… Get into the midrange, not just living and dying by the 3-ball. I think there is more than one way to skin a cat.”
While Crawford isn’t completely wrong – after all, Jordan was pretty good – there is an issue when Jordan-esque shots become the mainstay of an entire offense’s diet. In Minnesota, this is the mainstay.
Finding An Effective Identity
“The general rule for most teams is the 20-game mark,” said Thibodeau when asked how many games it would take for this team to find an identity. “That doesn’t mean it’s an end-all, that’s who you are, but it gives you an idea of what you need to improve upon, that sort of thing.”
Twenty-one games into this season, opponents have begun to glean what this team identifies their offense to be. Thus far, the Wolves strive to get to the free-throw line. A feat they perform admirably — only the Charlotte Hornets derive a higher percentage of their points at the line than the Wolves. However, when the team is not effectively attacking, they are a team that settles for isolation. Shots often end in long and contested 2s. Butler, Crawford, Wiggins, and Teague all shoot more than one-fourth of their shots in the midrange (defined as deeper than 10 feet but within the 3-point line).
A barrage of free-throws and mid-range shots come at an expense. For Minnesota, that is the 3-ball.
|Player||Minutes Played||% Of Shots From 3||% Of Shots From Mid-Range|
The Toronto Raptors are a good example of this strategy somewhat inverted. Toronto, like Minnesota, functions around a premier mid-range specialist, DeMar DeRozan. Nearly half of his shots (49.1 percent) are 2-point shots taken from deeper than 10 feet.
Again, having a player that focuses on the midrange should not be seen as malpractice but does require external adjustments. Toronto compensates for DeRozan’s inability to stretch the floor by having nearly everyone else bomb 3s.
Most notably, Kyle Lowry attempts 60.7 percent of his shots from 3, and C.J. Miles attempts a whopping 76.7 percent of his shots from distance. Outside of DeRozan and Valciunas, every Toronto player shoots more than a third of their shots from 3.
|Player||Minutes Played||% Of Shots From 3||% Of Shots From Mid-Range|
The point of emphasis to shoot 3s is not resonating in Minnesota anywhere near the way it is in Toronto. Instead, “Trying to take what is there” or “are they good 3?” or “if it’s there it’s there” bears out on the stat sheet and on tape.
Often times an open 3-point shooter is flat-out ignored so as to pursue a shot that could render, Thibodeau’s preference, an isolation that leads to free throws.
Even when the shooters are found on the perimeter in 3-point situations, there is a tendency to look for another pass and a hesitancy to shoot. Some 3s, like this one from Bjelica, would need to be consistently fired without hesitation to boost the team’s total.
Little Defensive Change
The Wolves living strategically in the past is not limited to their offensive scheme. The defensive strategy is also tethered to concepts of decades prior.
With Thibodeau comes the institution of the ICE-system when defending pick and rolls. ICE, on the simplest of levels, aims to restrict the ball-handler from using the ball screen and is done so by the on-ball defender. Here, Butler and Joakim Noah effectively ICE a Brooklyn Nets pick-and-roll.
With Butler angling himself vertically he has cut off the route to the screener Brook Lopez (GIF pauses here), opening the lane for Williams to penetrate. Williams is then met in the lane by Lopez’s defender (Noah) and a trailing Butler.
At this point, penetration has shrunk the floor. Williams has the option of pulling up from mid-range or passing to Lopez for a similarly inefficient mid-range shot. These are shots you can live with.
“You’re trying to force your opponent into long, contested twos. That is what you are striving for,” Thibodeau said when describing the goals of his system.
Generally, the Wolves still use the principles of ICE when defending pick and rolls because mid-range shots are still inefficient. However, a key issue with this scheme goes back to the ways in which the NBA has changed. In today’s game, offenses have found counters to ICE.
One example is the placement of ball screens.
Many teams set ball screens higher than where the Lopez screen was supposed to be set on Butler in the above clip. Here, a ball screen is set on Kemba Walker all the way up at the logo near half-court.
The vertical height of this pick and roll inherently changes the action. The extra ten-feet-or-so of space, defensively, makes things increasingly difficult for Teague who wants to welcome Walker into the midrange.
You’re trying to force your opponent into long, contested 2s. That is what you are striving for.
But Walker pulls up.
The Wolves would have been fine with Walker taking that sort of shot from 16 feet. Towns would have been there at least lightly contesting the shot and if it went in, it would only be worth two points. Instead, this shot is uncontested and worth three.
Walker is not the only player pulling up in this type of scenario. Many lead ball-handlers have been told to embrace this shot.
Charlotte wants Walker to shoot that 3. Last season, Walker shot 378 pull-up 3-point shots. Meaning, 65 percent of the 3s he shot were similar in nature to this over Towns and Teague.
If the Wolves are defending the pick-and-roll in this way while opponents are embracing it, then the shots the Wolves are trying to force have become gifts to the opponent.
Walker shot 35.4 percent on pull-up 3s last year, meaning a pull-up 3 rendered 1.062 points per possessions. If he were to enter 2-point range — where the Wolves want him to shoot — he would need to convert 53.1 percent of the time to hit that same efficiency. Almost no one shoots at that rate on long 2s. For context, Walker is a career 39.3 percent shooter from that range.
When Thibs’ defenses were ICE-ing teams into the ground in Boston and Chicago it was because they were strategically ahead of their time. The shots the Celtics and the Bulls were begging teams to shoot were also the shots opponents were embracing (even if those attempts were, statistically, ill-advised).
The tables have turned.
The Thibodeau-led Wolves appear to be the statistically ill-advised. Teams now better recognize ICE and instead of playing into the defense they pull-up right before the bear trap snaps closed. In the decade that has followed Thibs’ time in Boston, the league has enacted a nearly comprehensive counter that says; if we’re taking a difficult shot, sorry, it’s going to be a 3.
Behind The Times
The Timberwolves have not embraced this mantra.
Thibodeau has a belief and a defensive system that shooting long 2s is the goal, yet he has an offense that renders those exact same shots. This suggests a disconnect of sorts.
When asked how much he pays attention to the higher points per possession shots — specifically layups and 3s — Crawford’s response was telling.
“I don’t, to be honest with you. I just try and take what is there.”
This way of thinking is an issue, not only for Crawford but for all of the Wolves players firing at a high frequency from the midrange.
In 2017, “what is there” is too often going to be a long 2. Even if opponents aren’t specifically ICE-ing, every team’s defensive goal, now, is to force long and contested 2s.
“I would say all teams are trying to do that,” Thibodeau remarked earlier this week. “Trying to force opponents into long, contested 2s.”
Therein lies the irony for this Minnesota Timberwolves team. They live somewhere betwixt and between 2007 and 2017, not sure if they want to be Iverson or James Harden.