Timberwolves

Why Are the Wolves Having So Much Trouble Against the Zone?

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves have needed help finding offensive consistency this season. Whether that is the team as a unit functioning together to move the ball, find open looks and knock them down or the players individually finding consistent rhythm throughout, it has been a mixed bag of results. All of this comes as a bit of a surprise, considering the new additions, Rudy Gobert and Kyle Anderson, are very low-usage players. Consistency has been a lingering problem regardless of matchup, but what has driven the Wolves into true chaos has been when teams deploy a zone look against them.

That’s precisely what the Miami Heat did for most of the game on Monday. They were on the back half of a back-to-back and had numerous players inactive. The Philadelphia 76ers deployed a similar strategy on Saturday. When they took Joel Embiid off the floor, they ran a zone most of the time. Doc Rivers used a zone in the fourth quarter, and the Wolves scored five points in the final 8:45 of the game. Only three of those points were a live made basket via an Anthony Edwards three. And we saw a lot of the same in the Orlando Magic game. They had injury issues and deployed the zone to make life easier on their young bigs.

Here is what Chris Finch had to say after the Miami game surrounding the Wolves’ offense against a zone look:

I would like to see our wings and our guards penetrate a little bit more against the zone. That’s one thing we showed them at halftime we had opportunities to penetrate. Yeah, these are open threes, but we can also put the ball on the floor because there might not be anyone for 20 feet. So go in there, drive and collapse the defense; it could be anybody. We did a good job of finding KAT in the middle of the zone to keep us alive offensively.

We seem reluctant to drive or let it fly; we tend to overlook our passing. We have to do more with the ball to make a player commit to the ball.

A lot of Minnesota’s recent team success has come from the ability to use a ball screen to jumpstart the offense in the half-court. It really limits those opportunities when teams have run the zone against them. That has enabled D’Angelo Russell to set teammates up and get to his spots in the midrange and Anthony Edwards to have more open looks in the flow of the offense.

When opponents use the zone against the Wolves, DLo is delegated to be the linkup between ball reversals and initiating basic passes. While Ant does a great job at splitting the seams of the zone for rim attacks, his playmaking still has a long way to go to make those reads within the zone. KAT did a nice job attacking the zone’s seams for drives against favorable matchups, but you can only rely on one guy to do that for so long.

Here are some clips that show the success of attacking the heart of the zone can lead to baskets.

That’s where the offense-deflating stagnation can set in throughout the game. In the second quarter, the Wolves had a dry spell where they took heavily-contested layups or threes that were not falling. Minnesota’s misses led to Miami rebounds, pushing the ball up the floor through their bigs and finding the open man for a good shot in transition.

That’s how most of Miami’s points were scored during their 15-1 run to take a nice lead in the second quarter. It all comes back to shot-making, shot selection, and moving the ball to find a better shot. Often the Wolves appeared hesitant to take threes, coinciding with settling for an alright shot instead of possibly finding a better one.

While still a bottom-tier defensive team that was still injured, we saw success when the Wolves moved the ball against the Magic a week ago. Things were very stagnant for the offense that game outside of Edwards going nuclear to begin the game and getting things rolling. The team had to find other ways to play through each other, and that’s exactly what they did. Orlando deploying the zone look forced the Wolves to move the ball more than they were before and jumpstarting things to become more of a comfortable win.

We should keep a close eye on how teams deploy their defense against the Wolves shortly. If they lack consistency against the zone looks, don’t be surprised to see more teams mix this in when they go to a smaller lineup against the Wolves. There is a plan in place to beat it. But you will get beat during those stints when you lack quick decision passing, actions within the middle of the zone, and any sort of shot-making.

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Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

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