Minnesota's Offensive Success Starts With Ball Movement

Photo Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves got a decisive 136-115 win over the Atlanta Hawks. Anthony Edwards dropped 32 points in his hometown. He also made a huge impact on defense, getting 1 steal, 2 emphatic blocks and 8 defensive rebounds. Mike Conley had a big scoring night, putting up 21 points on an efficient 9 of 13 shooting. And Jaden McDaniels only missed two shots on his way to 19 points, while having to fight through screen after screen chasing Trae Young around all night.

Still, Kyle Anderson most defined Monday night’s win. He got his second triple-double of the season, and became the first Wolves player with multiple triple-doubles in a season since Kevin Love in 2013-14. Slow Mo also became one of three players in Timberwolves history to get a triple-double with multiple assists and blocks.

Slow Mo did everything all night, putting up 14 points on 5 of 6 from the field, 10 rebounds, 12 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. He was also a ridiculous +33 for the game against talented opponents. In a postgame interview, Katie Storm asked Anderson how the Wolves were able to be so effective at attacking the paint. They scored 82 paint points as a team, the second most in franchise history. “Attacking the paint,” Anderson responded. “Looking to make a play for a teammate as opposed to finishing over two to three guys, just being unselfish. We all did a good job, I’m not sure how many assists we had, but we did a good job of getting to the paint and finding our teammates.”

Slo Mo’s response was music to Timberwolves fans’ ears. In games where the Wolves have good ball movement, their offense looks fantastic. Although Anderson didn’t know at the time, Minnesota had a season-high 39 assists in the game, making his statement ring even more true.

The Timberwolves play better when they move the ball well. They average 25.7 assists per game, which is 9th in the NBA. Minnesota is 22-9 when they exceed their average assist numbers of 26 or more. However, they are 13-25 when they are below their average (25 or fewer). Assist totals aren’t the perfect way to gauge ball movement because off shooting nights can drag down assist numbers regardless of the pass quality. However, it’s still representative of a trend for the team. Ball movement forces defenses to work harder, and keeps them guessing. That gives the offense more opportunities to get uncontested shots, which are more likely to lead to assists.

Over the course of the season, it’s become clear that Ant is going to get buckets regardless of how many different looks a defense gives him, or how many double-teams they throw at him. He’s just that talented of a scorer. Still, for the role players on the team who may not have the physical gifts to blow by defenders in isolation or the shooting poise to hit a step-back three with a hand in their face, ball movement is essential to getting easier and higher quality shots.

That’s been especially important for the Wolves since they traded D’Angelo Russell for Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. With Karl-Anthony Towns out for most of the season, DLo was the only player outside of Ant who could consistently get himself a shot and knock it down regardless of how good the defense was playing. After the trade, it was evident how much they missed DLo in times when nobody could make an open shot, and the defense could fully commit to focusing their efforts on stopping Ant.

However, as we saw before the trade deadline, relying on two players to make a bunch of high difficulty shots is not an efficient or consistent offensive strategy. Don’t get me wrong, it was super fun to watch the offensively dynamic DLo-Ant backcourt get hot and drain a bunch of contested threes, and win games on their shot making alone.

Still, at other times, it was just as aggravating to watch them take turns playing hero ball and shooting ill-advised threes in the first 8 seconds of the shot clock without running a single action to create space for themselves or their teammates. This showed the most in last season’s playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies, when the Timberwolves blew several big leads in the second half. All too often it felt like the Wolves didn’t know how to make easier shots for each other when the Grizz would lock in on defense in the clutch. That resulted in the my-turn-your-turn clunkiness that has often plagued Minnesota’s offense in the past two seasons.

Part of that came from Ant’s inexperience as a playmaker and distributor, which he’s already improved a lot on this season. However, it also came from DLo’s playstyle. In the past, Russell has spoken about how people have labeled him as a point guard, even though he considers himself more of a combo guard. It makes sense when you watch him play, because for as good of a passer as he is, he also likes to hunt his own shot. That’s part of why he’s been a great fit for the Los Angeles Lakers. They were in desperate need of someone who can confidently go get a bucket and take some of the scoring load of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, while still running some of the offense.

The Timberwolves already have their star combo guard of the future in Ant, though. Therefore, it makes sense philosophically to start a guard next to him who is more of pure point guard, and table-setter for teammates. Conley has been great at that. The style in which he plays seems to lead to better ball movement for the entire team, even if he isn’t as dynamic of a scorer as DLo.

Since Conley arrived, the Wolves are averaging 26.7 assists (8th best) and 14.8 turnovers per game (24th best). The Wolves averaged 25.3 assists (11th best) and 15.8 (28th best) turnovers with Russell. Both averages omitted the game against Utah where neither guard played for the Wolves. Conley has only played 11 games with the Wolves, but the team is averaging 1.4 more assists per game, and 1 less turnover. That suggests that their ball movement is trending up along with their quality of passing.

Additionally, the two veteran creators, Conley and Anderson, can impart some of their wisdom on the young players on the team. They can teach them good habits about how to get easy offense for their teammates. I’m not saying Edwards became a chucker because DLo was on the roster. Ant was already doing that in college (and probably most of his life) because he was far and away the best player on their team. And frankly, he’s always been a pretty efficient high volume shooter for his age.

Furthermore, a player like Conley can help Ant get better at a few of the things he’s less familiar with. For example, how to create passing lanes for his teammates with the angles he takes to the basket, and how to recognize cutters or mismatches quicker. That could be invaluable for the team in the present and future. Additionally, Ant may still be the best player on the Wolves like he was in college. However, now he has much higher-level teammates who can all score in various ways, which means moving the ball will result in better possessions. That may be stating the obvious, but players have to learn new habits when entering the NBA. They are playing against all the best players in the world, and they can’t dominate with their physical gifts alone.

Anderson and Conley are bringing winning habits to the Wolves and providing a steady hand that will help the team mature as they play more together. If the Wolves continue to move the ball at a high level consistently, it may help break them out of the inconsistencies that have kept them in the bottom 10 of offensive rating most of the season and excel on both sides of the court just in time for the postseason.

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