Expectations don’t always match reality when it comes to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota’s core pieces, Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and D’Angelo Russell, are all offensive players. Therefore, you would assume the Wolves would have a competent offense. That hasn’t been the case, though.
Currently, the Wolves rank 25th in the league in points per possession and 28th in half-court points per play, per Cleaning the Glass. Although they have quality scoring options, the negatives around them have weighed this team down tremendously. In order to generate half-court offense, the Wolves are either going to have to make a move at the deadline or change their offensive focus immediately.
Tertiary Players Aren’t Doing Their Job
This offseason, the Timberwolves brought in two shooting threats, Taurean Prince (36.7% career) and Patrick Beverley (38.3% career). They got rid of Jarrett Culver (28.9% career) and Ricky Rubio, who shot 30.8% in his comeback season. Malik Beasley was coming back after shooting 40.5% from downtown in his first 50 games in Minnesota. It wasn’t hard to conceive of the Wolves as a sharpshooting team.
Pat Bev has done his part, shooting a sustainable 36.8% from three. But Prince (16.7%) has fallen out of the rotation, and Beasley is shooting a career-low 30.5% to begin the season. Two other rotational players, Jarred Vanderbilt and Josh Okogie, are little to no threat from deep. Defenses sag off them and dare them to shoot, focusing their help elsewhere.
Opponents will gladly settle for a wide-open look from these guys, or go to a zone and disregard Vanderbilt and Okogie. The Los Angeles Clippers and Orlando Magic have heavily deployed the zone when they have favorable matchups. They are forcing the ball to KAT in the post and doubling, which allows them to mix up personnel against the Wolves and still play solid defense. Minnesota beat themselves up by turning the ball over or clanking threes.
With the way they have been shooting this season from downtown, leading the league in attempts and 24th in percentage, teams will continue to focus on forcing the Wolves to beat them by jacking high volume from behind the arc.
It’s Affecting the Big Dogs
Minnesota’s lack of three-point threats has most affected KAT. But it’s also affected Ant. He’s been forced to shoot more threes because off-ball defenders have been in ultra help side defense to limit his elite downhill attacking ability.
The Magic did this by laying off Vanderbilt when he was playing heavy minutes that game with Jaden McDaniels in foul trouble. Mo Bamba or Wendell Carter Jr. would sit on the weak side low block just waiting to come over for help-side defense. This is a simple fix for defenses and takes away at least one of their top two options or significantly affects them both. And it doesn’t take incredible personnel to do so.
What happens when a more skilled team uses this technique? We saw the Suns do it on Monday. Deandre Ayton was switched to Vanderbilt while Jae Crowder was on Towns. Ant already had a tough matchup in future all-defensive player Mikal Bridges. KAT’s matchup limited his shot attempts. If Edwards were to drive to the rim, Ayton would actively slide over to help out Mikal and force Ant into a difficult shot attempt or push him back to the midrange.
Meanwhile, KAT would get front-faced by Crowder, forcing a post entry in front of him. This would sandwich Ayton coming off Vanderbilt and Crowder recovering into a double team on KAT. It made life difficult for Towns, who was anywhere but the three-point line, where he flourished.
What Can Be Changed In-Season?
DLo is the final piece of the puzzle, and it’s a tricky one. He has been a rough fit in Minnesota thus far. The Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors used him much differently than Chris Finch has used him here. Furthermore, he was a focal point of Brooklyn and Golden State’s rosters. Steph Curry was injured during most of Russell’s time in San Francisco. And he got the primary usage in Brooklyn because their key ball-handlers were out.
He flourished as a spot-up shooter and coming off of screens with those teams, and we don’t see him do that as often in Minnesota. Kenny Atkinson paired him with DeMarre Carroll and Ed Davis as big men in more small-ball lineups. When he was with a big, it was with Jarrett Allen, a pick-and-roll lob threat. The small ball lineups would accentuate his floater game and driving ability shine because of the spacing available. In Brooklyn, he shot the highest frequency from inside 14 feet in his career. Golden State used him in Curry’s role when Steph was out. They used him similarly on- and off-ball, and he flourished. If the Wolves want anything near that, they must find ways to play him in a similar way.
How do they do that? More pick-and-roll offense, which ironically was what sold fans on the KAT-DLo pairing. They seemed like a natural pick-and-roll combo. This season, they rank third-to-last in pick-and-roll frequency per NBA.com. Finch usually uses KAT in the pick-and-roll, which makes sense in theory. But Vanderbilt lacks gravity in the corner. Therefore, KAT and Vanderbilt should switch spots. This will make KAT just as effective of a shooter and Vanderbilt more of a roll man or lob threat.
If the Wolves want to figure out their half-court offense, they must take advantage of everyone’s skill sets. Currently, their sets are not beneficial for anyone. DLo’s shot-creator ability combined with Ant’s driving prowess and KAT’s generational shooting ability should be working out much better.
They need to act now. They’re 5-9, and the season is on the brink.