Let’s paint a hypothetical picture.
Several months after sneaking into the playoffs on the strength of their contrarian offensive scheme, an NBA franchise kicks off its new campaign abetting a disgruntled star. Things run amok in a calamitous fashion; on the floor, viewers are surprised not by a flailing defense – the team has been bad on that end for a number of years – but by an offense taking a meaningful step back. Despite finishing high in scoring efficiency during that postseason run, they sat in the middle of the pack through the new season’s first month.
With four wins and nine losses etched into the archives, that star is finally unloaded via trade.
If this team had a chance to hit the ground running and surge through the standings with a reshuffled roster, how would you imagine their success is achieved?
Intuitively, it should rely on regression toward their previously potent offensive attack. But by now you’ve realized that this is not hypothetical – the Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of seeing it through. And while they’re certainly enjoying a turnaround of sorts – nine wins, six losses since Jimmy Butler was dealt – it’s being accomplished in an unexpected manner; instead of an offensive resurgence, the defense has paved their return to relevance.
That defensive makeover has been deservedly documented. Not only are the Wolves fourth by efficiency on that end since acquiring Robert Covington and Dario Saric, but they’ve also climbed all the way to 15th for the season. The strides have been nothing short of astounding; they’ve raised the perceived ceiling of what this collection of talent could eventually become.
But those same steps forward have also deflected attention from any other area that warrants evaluation: namely, the Wolves’ idling offense.
Scoring hasn’t been an issue for the Wolves, not in the era of Karl-Anthony Towns; ever since he was drafted first overall – one year before Tom Thibodeau took control – the Wolves’ offense has steadily improved. They sat 13th by offensive rating when Towns was a rookie, an impressive mark given the roster’s overall youth, and then jumped to 10th in 2016-17. After Butler was acquired and added to the equation, that unit joined the NBA’s elite by amassing the league’s fourth-best mark.
Then came the theatrics: Butler demanded a trade, played as he pleased and was ultimately removed on Nov. 10. Given the dire circumstances that enveloped the organization throughout this past summer and fall, it might be disingenuous to put much weight into – or draw many meaningful conclusions from – those 13 games when Butler was present. But relative offensive struggles have persisted even since his departure; over this most recent one-month stretch, the Wolves have been a league average group on that side of the ball. Given their talent and history of success, why can’t they escape mediocrity’s grasp?
If a teacher made clear to a collection of students that taking notes in class would improve their test scores, they’d be likely to see an uptick in diligence. But if that same class of kids was to do as they’re told and enjoy no boost to their G.P.A.’s, collective bewilderment would be bound to ensue.
That’s sort of what’s happened to this Timberwolves offense over the last calendar year.
They finished the 2017-18 season ranked fourth by efficiency, but an invisible ceiling was said to be present as a result of their unwillingness to shoot three-point shots. In the modern NBA, theoretically, there’s only so much a group can achieve without embracing the virtues of pace and space. So that’s what Thibodeau and the Wolves have done; compared to last year, they’ve risen from 30th to 24th by 3-point attempts per game, a jump more significant than that figure suggests. And they aren’t just taking them, either – they’re making them, too. To date, the Wolves are sixth by 3-point percentage (36.7 percent).
Frankly, they’ve followed the instructions any savant would suggest but have yet to reap an anticipated reward.
That being the case, a natural follow-up question should be: what kind of shots have these threes been replacing? After all, an offense has a finite number of possessions to take advantage of throughout a matchup – it’s great to be productive from outside the arc, but not as much if it comes at the expense of other efficient action.
That hasn’t really been the problem for the Wolves – the group has essentially shifted one-third of last year’s mid-range production out beyond the arc. Further strides could certainly be made; they still hoist the 10th-most mid-range shots, but it’s an unabashed step in a constructive direction.
What’s noted above that is cause for concern is the decline in points generated from the free throw line. A season ago, the Wolves were fifth by free-throw attempt rate (FTAR) – a measure of trips to the charity stripe per offensive play. But since the trade that triggered their surge, they’ve slipped all the way down to 17th. It follows logic that this figure would wane after Butler’s exit – he’s always had a knack for getting to the line – but not to the extent the numbers bare out.
Before Butler arrived, the Wolves ranked seventh by FTAR.
It will always be true that 3-pointers are efficient. But statistically, free throws are better – Thibodeau has consistently made that fact known. As the Wolves settle into their new identity from deep, it will be important that they don’t forsake drives to the rim and the bunnies they can eventually provide from the line.
Though shooting more free throws would help the Wolves offense, it isn’t enough to explain the totality of their decline. And for the most part, the other numbers are solid as well: despite what has felt like an uptick in giveaways, the Wolves own the seventh-lowest turnover rate since Covington and Saric were added to the fold. What’s more, they’ve grabbed offensive boards at a similar rate to what they did last season while sharing the ball even more willingly.
But there is one factor that continues to weigh down the new-look Wolves’ offensive stature, and it’s simple: they aren’t making enough of the shots that they’re taking.
That the Wolves’ field-goal percentage has slipped this season is a natural side effect of taking more threes. That their effective field goal and true shooting-percentages (two measures that account for the surplus value of a three-point shot) have fallen as well should trigger concern. Regardless of their long-range precision, this group is struggling from other spots on the floor.
If you believe in the logic of positive regression, missing shots that you might normally make can be a good problem to have. To that end, some of the Wolves’ shooting struggles should naturally improve as the sample size grows – but there’s reason to believe that others may not.
The Wolves’ offense is designed to succeed at the rim. But over this past month, a majority of their personnel has a field-goal percentage within the restricted area that’s considerably worse than it was last season.
Because they attack more than most of their teammates, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague stand out as the most notable culprits; their declines at the rim near or exceed a 10 percent clip. However, based on years of prior data, these drops highlight talent due for a turnaround — that positive regression.
All of their shortcomings won’t naturally recoil, though – from the mid-range, the Wolves’ struggles may be destined to sustain.
In 2017-18, the Wolves ranked 12th by field goal percentage from this inefficient area – their relative success was shouldered by career-high marks from a number of contributors: Towns, Teague, Taj Gibson and Gorgui Dieng. Though their slide from last season has been precipitous, there’s not much evidence – outside of Wiggins’ eye-popping 23-percent clip – that regression is inevitable.
All things considered, that the Wolves’ biggest dilemma on the offensive end has been an inability to hit their shots should quell some fears that the problem will persist. After all, these players have only shared the same jersey for 28 days – their chemistry should become more and more reactive as the season moves forward.
But a team with Towns as its offensive linchpin should never dip far through the offensive ranks, his borderline unique versatility on that end will always provide a floor for the Wolves’ scoring chops. What that floor should be is difficult to define, but this league average stretch feels about right. If the Wolves are to continue to struggle, a more serious evaluation of the scheme that’s creating these shots will eventually be warranted.
For now, this new two-way competence provides an unforeseen balance. After all, had you imagined as Butler was traded that the Wolves would force their way back into the playoff hunt, you would have rightfully assumed that the offense was cooking. And if the defense persists while the Wolves work through their new scoring struggles, there’s hardly a ceiling to what this team can become.
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