With 5:18 remaining in the what turned out to be the worst loss of the season, the Wolves needed a bucket desperately against the Memphis Grizzlies. After having led by four points at the end of the third quarter, the offense had only made two baskets — both by Andrew Wiggins — in the seven minutes that led up to this possession that went awry.
On this play, late in the shot clock, the Wolves ran a high ball-screen action between Karl-Anthony Towns and Jeff Teague when, traditionally, this would have been Jimmy Butler time.
With Butler healthy, all season he has been the Wolves ‘I got this’ guy. Time and again, Minnesota has found a way to put the ball in Butler’s hands so as to let him isolate.
The seminal example of Butler Time came in late December during what became an overtime win against the Denver Nuggets fueled by Butler who scored 23 of the final 40 points all by himself. In that game, as he so often does, Tom Thibodeau ran the late game offense through actions that allowed Butler to penetrate the defense in a solo act.
On Butler’s crucial and final bucket of that game, Gorgui Dieng comes to set what turns out to be a dummy ball screen that he does not use on his way to the bucket.
That there is the difference between Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns. At seven-feet tall, Towns cannot simply head to the top-of-the-key and demand the ball like Butler can. Utilizing a big in these type of situations — not just in Minnesota, but everywhere — is inherently different in that it requires teammates. For Towns to be the ‘I got this’ guy, someone has to give him the ball.
That is not an impossible proposition. Wednesday night against the Atlanta Hawks is a perfect example in that Towns scored 56 points on 32 attempts. Time and again, to his teammate’s credit, Towns was found as he propelled the team to a much-needed victory.
However, end-of-game situations can be different — as they were on Monday. Against Memphis, specifically with 5:18 left in the game, getting the ball to Towns was Teague’s job. Here is that play again:
The way Teague decides to find Towns is not wrong, per se, but it is illustrative to how the Wolves prefer to get him the ball. Through Teague signaling for Towns to come set a screen rather than simply allowing him to seal his man in the post, Teague is dictating how Towns will be used on the possession.
Again, this is not wrong; Towns is a beast in pick-and-roll action, but it is arguably the reason there has been a great deal of hand-wringing over the frequency of post-up touches for the Wolves center.
To be fair, this is largely how the NBA functions these days; the back-to-the-basket center as a mainstay of a team’s offensive diet retired whenever Shaq did. Spreading the offense around high screen-and-rolls is now what dominates actions across the league. Despite some of Thibodeau’s perhaps antiquated tactics and schemes, he too has embraced the notion that in 2018 big men are found through popping or rolling; not simply sealing.
However, with Towns — the preeminent back-to-the-basket post-scorer in the league — there is reason to believe the Wolves should be zagging back toward finding ways to feature their big man with his rear-end planted on the block.
Traditional Post-Up Basketball
While the shift to ball movement has rendered some of traditional posting-up obsolete — or ignored — it is still present on teams with the right personnel because it can be effective.
Traditionally, this comes from the wing dumping the ball into the post and then cutting along the strongside baseline so as to clear space for the big to work — as Jeremy Lamb does here:
After Lamb cuts through, Dwight Howard becomes the only player on the strongside of the floor. For Howard to face more resistance than Myles Turner, a Pacers player would need to completely leave his man to bring a double team. Because of this, Howard is free to go to work.
In Minnesota, post-ups look different; there is very little movement in the offense following a traditional post-entry to Towns.
This is not an isolated incident. The Wolves frequently dump into the post and become stagnant while on the perimeter. Inherently, this hinders Towns’ effectiveness because the double or “dig” — Teague’s man is the digger — is closer to Towns.
For Teague to simply stand there, he not only is adversely affecting Towns through the presence of his man, but he is essentially rendered obsolete for anything other than a kick out. Particularly three minutes into the game — when he has fresh legs — this makes little sense.
Split Cut Action
If Teague isn’t going to cut alongside the baseline like Lamb did for Charlotte, there are other options. One example would be the split cut.
The biggest advantage of the split cut is that, in theory, the digger — again, the man shading towards the post for the double team — is removed from the equation. Watch here as Gary Harris split cuts through the middle of the lane after entering the ball to Nikola Jokic.
Harris’ cut forces his defender, Trevor Ariza, to turn his back on the Jokic post-up. With Ariza’s back turned to defend the Harris cut, he cannot dig into Jokic and is thus no impediment on the shot attempt.
As it pertains to Towns and the Wolves, it is these little moves that lead to fractions of points over the course of the game. Over the course of a season, the impact could be massive. For Towns specifically, it could be the difference between being a perennial All-NBA candidate and being thrust into the MVP conversation.
Towns already shoots a beastly 71.5 percent within three feet of the hoop, per Basketball Reference, and when specifically in post-up situations, he is the league’s most efficient. Of the 19 players who have tallied over 150 post-up this season, Towns is the only player to average more than a point per possession (1.04), per NBA.com/stats.
The scary thing — for opponents — is that this number could be higher if Towns’ teammates got in on the fun. The scarier thing — for Wolves fans — is that this has not been put into motion.
Minnesota is not tapping into Towns’ back-to-the-basket game as much as the other teams who employ similar caliber weapons. Topping the list of possessions in post-up situations this season is LaMarcus Aldridge and Joel Embiid who have 571 and 543 post-up possessions, respectively. Towns has 276 despite playing 119 percent of the minutes Aldridge has played and 139 percent of Embiid’s.
Yes, as is, the Wolves have a great offense — fourth-best in the NBA when measured by points per possession — but the playoffs, like end-of-game situations, are a different beast. Watching any prolonged offensive slog by the Wolves inspires real concern for how their offense will matchup in a seven-game playoff series. In the postseason, offensive diversity is key due to the time opponents are given to strategically counter opposing strengths.
Distributing Out Of The Post
Utilizing Towns in the post frequently and in more proactive ways could unleash a bit of diversity for what is currently a predictable Minnesota offense. Cutting around the post would not only benefit Towns individually but likely the offense as a whole. There are a plethora of ways to do this by capitalizing on Towns’ presence as not only a scorer but also as a distributor.
Watch Al Horford here:
Kyrie Irving appears to be clearing out to let Horford isolate when he is actually setting up a split cut off of an Aron Baynes screen.
Or here, Goran Dragic is the one to set the screen for the split cut after entering the ball to James Johnson in the post.
Other than cuts to the rim, the split cut can also inspire a level of defensive confusion and gravity that leaves the 3-point line clear.
Related: The Wolves are 29th in the NBA in 3-point frequency, per NBA.com/stats.
On this play, Thad Young and Cory Joseph are both well aware that the cut is coming and retreat into the lane. In response, Nikola Mirotic quickly sets up to receive the pass for the 3.
If it wasn’t already clear, Towns’ 56-point performance on Wednesday proved that the Wolves have an absolute monster starting for them at the center position. But, in the playoffs, Karl-Anthony Towns is not going to be defended by players the like of Mike Muscala; he will have full defenses swarming to take him away. Becuase of this, the Wolves will need to find new and diverse ways to utilize him as not only a scorer but a cog in the offensive machine.
When Butler returns, Thibodeau will again have his I got this guy. The team can go back to just handing the ball to Jimmy if they desire, but adding a second go-to option could go a long way.
It could make the Wolves a force to reckon with, regardless of playoff opponent.
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