The Minnesota Timberwolves don’t need to play the final 18 games of the season to firmly cement their identity into place. In a season of 19 wins and 45 losses, their preferred style of play became abundantly clear. With Gersson Rosas at the helm and with Ryan Saunders pulling the strings, this team is going to play a specific way.
It’s time to start identifying the Wolves the same way we do the Houston Rockets. There’s so much more to basketball than math, but in Houston, math is a defining part of their ethos. It’s been buried in the losses, but the same has become true in Minnesota.
In the abbreviated 2019-20 season, the Wolves laid out the blueprint, and it looks a lot like Houston North. Not having a full roster of players who fit the system left black splotches on the design, but the pattern was clear: a team that wants to outrun opponents in transition and out-math them on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
The goal is to take shots from the most profitable places on the floor while limiting those same looks defensively. That’s the plan. It sounds simple and, frankly, obvious — but many teams around the league do not apply this theory. Houston does.
Regarding the pace element, the plan on both sides of the floor will be clear: run wild. Theoretically, playing faster has a two-part value in the eyes of Rosas and Saunders.
- Part 1 is basic in theory: Playing with more possessions equals a greater advantage when playing mathematically sound on both ends.
- Part 2 is about taking advantage of the opponent in transition: Logic says that forcing a team to scramble back defensively will weaken their defensive shell.
Therefore the thesis is more possessions will progress the math advantage while catching the opponent in transition should exponentiate said advantage due to the quality of shots created. The Wolves played with the third-fastest pace in the league this season, and the fastest pace since the trade deadline.
In a Zoom conference call Tuesday afternoon, Rosas and Saunders made it clear that those philosophies and systems are not changing any time soon. In fact, they made it clear that they plan on leaning further into this style by adding more personnel — in the draft, free agency and through trades — to expand the theoretical advantage.
“Our focus remains the same philosophically, especially offensively,” said Rosas on the call. “We’re fortunate we have a very young base to get better from, and a lot of upside and talent. But there’s also going to be personnel opportunities to address and upgrade different positions in order to get better defensively and to be more balanced.”
The especially offensively quip makes sense. While the Wolves shooting effectiveness was a bit of a mess this season, their shot profile was on-point.
Okay, let’s run through this:
- At the rim: They got a heavy volume of their looks in the restricted area (good), but were only able to convert 62.2 percent of those shots (bad).
- Mid-range: Only Houston and Charlotte took fewer mid-range shots per game (very good). Those shots only went in 38.2 percent of the time (pretty bad — but less hurtful given the low volume).
- Beyond the arc: Only Houston and Dallas took more 3s per game (great), but those 3s only went in 33.6 percent of the time (very bad).
- Free Throws: Fueled by persistently attacking the basket, the volume of free throws attempted has been high this season (very good). Those free throws were only converted at a 75.3 percent clip (bad).
Focusing on acquiring personnel that addresses the defensive side of the ball also makes sense. In the shots that the Wolves surrendered defensively, the outlines of the plan were also there. But since they were unable to deter shots from being attempted at the rim, the defense began rotting — causing an effectiveness imbalance throughout all other zones.
This also requires a context run through.
- At the rim: Opponents only made the shots they took at the rim at a league-average rate (OK), but got a heavy volume of their looks from there (very bad considering the whole defensive scheme was designed to take away those shots).
- Mid-Range: They successfully forced a high volume of shots from the mid-range (good), but left those looks so open that no team in the league allowed a higher percentage of mid-range shots to be made against them (bad).
- Beyond the Arc: They limited the number of 3-point shots attempted (good), and were particularly frugal in the corner-3s they allowed to be taken (very good), but opponents made those looks at a fairly high rate (bad).
- Free Throws: They gave up a ton of free throws (very bad) and opponents made those free throws at a high rate (bad — but mostly just unlucky because free throw percentage against is uncontrollable).
The black splotches on the blueprint are the bads and very bads. The thought is that those dark marks can be polished out through the addition of players this summer who better fit the system. Some of that cleaning has already taken place with the trade deadline roster overhaul.
“When we made roster changes, we feel we got a number of players that fit into what we feel is going to be a successful system,” said Saunders via Zoom. “That’s why we’re committed to this system.”
The offensive shot profile has only improved since the deadline. Shots at the rim and from beyond the arc have increased and the rate those shots have gone in from both of those areas has also spiked. Mid-range volume — and effectiveness — also remains low. The only step back has come from a slight dip in free-throw volume, which does make some sense given that Karl-Anthony Towns played in 34 games before the deadline and only in one game after it.
“Within the offense, we haven’t changed what we do set-wise,” said Saunders. “It may just look different because you don’t have a defense reacting to a guy like Karl at the top of the key. There will be tweaks, but tweaks that we feel stay within that philosophy, stay within that system.”
Defense has been the post-deadline problem. Even though they weren’t forcing the exact shot profile they would have liked, the Wolves still ranked 16th in defensive efficiency before the deadline. Since the trades, they have ranked 29th.
“Defensively, it’s been hard with Karl out to really execute our vision there,” said Rosas, acknowledging the drop-off. “But what we’ve tried to do is be creative, make the most out of what we have.”
While Towns isn’t necessarily a high-level individual defender, they have missed his size. In his absence, the 6-foot-9 Naz Reid and 6-foot-8 James Johnson have taken over the center duties. This reality, as Rosas noted, has forced Saunders to get creative. According to Synergy’s tracking data, 90 of the 104 possessions the Wolves have run zone in this season have come in the 14 games since the trade deadline.
For example, Saunders showed zone on 19 possessions against New Orleans in the final game at Target Center before the league shut down.
Even when not playing zone, the Wolves man-to-man principles have changed. When Towns was active, Saunders ran what is called a drop scheme that asks the center to drop back to the rim defensively against a pick-and-roll rather than switching.
Without Towns, Saunders has had his team play up against ball-screens, frequently asking Reid or Johnson to switch in those situations (something they almost never did with Towns).
“When a Karl-Anthony Towns is not playing, you’re playing a much smaller five. Then, you’re automatically going to switch a little bit more,” Saunders explained. “You’re going to bring that guy up a little bit as opposed to put him in a full drop like what we were doing with KAT when he was healthy earlier in the year.”
This presents an interesting inflection point as it connects to the offseason. How much of the super-small ball was necessity forcing invention? Could this post-deadline sample be more than just creativity? Perhaps a tea leaf in the cup that is the summer of 2020?
“We’re probably a little bit more aggressive about playing smaller,” said Rosas when asked about what he sees the team’s frontcourt identity being going forward. “At the end of the day, we feel like that complements our best players, whether that’s Karl or D’Angelo.”
This could be prescient information as it connects to this summer’s upcoming draft. It’s only natural to connect the dots and believe that this could preclude the Wolves from selecting James Wiseman, Obi Toppin or Onyeka Okongwu — three traditional big men prospects who project to be available when Minnesota is on the clock.
Rosas says this stoppage of play does not stop his staff from pursuing answers to those questions.
“This is probably a busier time for us,” Rosas explained. “You look at other sports leagues and the NFL where they’ve continued to move on with their draft date. As a result, we have to be prepared for anything and everything.
“We have a strong staff of scouts breaking down video for the draft, breaking down video for trades, for free agency. Our analysts are doing incredible work in terms of modeling for each of those platforms.”
Rosas says they’ll be ready, and they’ll have to be. The summer of 2020 is a crossroads for this franchise. While it may be made more complicated by the stoppage of play, the importance of this time does not change.
If the regular season does not resume, the Wolves will finish with the league’s third-best lottery odds — which means their pick can fall anywhere between first and seventh. The Wolves also own Brooklyn’s first-round pick in this draft, which would land at 16th overall if there are no more regular-season games played this season.
“For us, it really never stops,” Rosas continued.
“Even though when we’re isolated, it gives a lot of our staff an opportunity to continue the work during this time. Because, with technology now — whether it’s video, whether it’s meetings, whether it’s research and background, medical, whatever the case may be — this is a critical and formative stage for this organization.”
The connections to the Houston model are not limited to the style of play and shot selection; this Minnesota franchise is looking for a strategic advantage in the roster construction process. These uncertain times bring an element of chaos to offseason preparation. But buried in chaos lies opportunity.
The landscape of the league will totally shift in response to the cascading impacts of COVID-19. With the up-in-the-air status of the salary cap, a unique draft process and with a free agency and trade period that will look completely different than it has in any previous offseason, the tectonic shift will be felt. The teams who are best prepared once the aftershock has passed will be the ones best set up for future success.
“Going into this draft, we’re going to be fully-prepared and diligent to make the best decisions there. Going into free agency and the trade season, whenever that is, we have to be prepared,” said Rosas. “There’s no safe stop and go in terms of the business of basketball.
“We have a lot of big decisions to make moving forward.”