What Caused Minnesota's Offense To Occasionally Stall Out Last Year?

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the plethora of offensive talent on last year’s Minnesota Timberwolves roster, they ranked 23rd in the league in offensive rating, scoring 113.3 points per 100 possessions. Last season was Minnesota’s first with Rudy Gobert, and Karl-Anthony Towns missed significant time due to his calf injury. The Wolves often fell into far too many dry spells and had to lean heavily on Anthony Edwards’ talents.

Last year felt like an experimental season. The coaching staff was trying to figure out how to best execute the offense, and the players had to reciprocate it through their on-court play. The Wolves elected for a more free-flowing offense. However, things quickly became difficult when they could not create advantages, leading to poor shots late in the clock or players falling back into bad habits. Specifically, when it mattered the most late in games.

When the offense faltered, was it the players not executing? Or did the coaching staff misjudge the personnel of the team and their abilities?

The offensive schematics that allow players to open up the game for the rest of the team need a consistent engine. The Wolves did not run ball screens as frequently as other teams around the league. They relied more on KAT post touches against mismatches and Edwards opening it up through his elite driving traits and pull-up shooting. Ball screens would help this team immensely. However, Mike Conley was one the few Timberwolves players who has shown the ability to operate successfully off of ball screens.

The rankings of the Wolves players in points per possession as the PnR ball-handler breaks it down effectively.

Conley often used his floater driving downhill. However, he was also the best PnR ball handler partner with Gobert, who was often open. Conley did a great job at throwing lobs his way or bounce passes directly into his hands, something that the team struggled with immensely prior to Conley’s arrival. Mike and Rudy found the most success when operating from the wing and having an empty corner, especially after inbounding the ball, almost always leading to an open look or basket.

What stands out from these PnR ball handler statistics? Edwards is toward the bottom of the list in PPP despite leading the team in possessions per game. That’s a facet that Edwards needs to develop if he wants to take a leap as a player and help the team succeed. The only way to learn and progress is by getting more reps.

As a PnR ball-handler, Ant has excelled at using the threat of the screen to his own advantage, often rejecting the screen in favor of a pull-up jump shot or rim attack. Both are shots that he excels at off the dribble and open up more comfortable play. The overarching issue is always going to be teams knowing this and doing their best to take it away.

Developing more counters and screen manipulation could only lead to more playmaking potential. It allows Minnesota’s players to find a teammate on a skip pass or the roll man. Sometimes it allows them to make the right pass to the nearest player on the perimeter to move the ball. The opportunities for success are there, but they must be refined.

Screen usage may not be Minnesota’s forté, but they still need to find better ways to implement them into their freelance offense. Other players like Jaden McDaniels, Kyle Anderson, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker can serve as versatile pieces playing on the ball or off as catch-and-shoot three-point shooters. That should allow the Wolves to find more ways to regain rhythm in the offense while still keeping it open and simplistic. It also could keep them from fatiguing Ant on every single possession.

Finding this rhythm and structure is something that Finch briefly spoke about in his recent appearance on JJ Redick’s podcast The Old Man and The Three. Here is what he had to say.

To be an efficient offense, you still have to get to the right shots. The distribution of the shots is different though. The year when I first went to New Orleans, when we had DeMarcus (Cousins) and Anthony Davis, we were elite at the rim and we were elite at getting to the free throw line. But we didn’t shoot a ton of threes and we didn’t make a ton of threes but because we played with a enough pace and were able to live at the rim and benefit from the offensive rebounds and free throws — it was one way to have an efficient offense.

With certain players, they always need structure and I think there has been players that we have not been able to maximize in certain systems that we have had because of that – I believe right now as we head into this next year which is hopefully a complete season with KAT and Rudy, we need more structure. The structure is going to provide us the right spacing for the two bigs to stay out of each other’s way – we didn’t take enough threes probably, we were a pretty low volume three point shooting team.

The Wolves simply still need to figure out spacing with KAT and Rudy-based lineups. His final point about three-point volume being a problem sheds light on an issue that can be easily solved. Nonetheless, one that will only bring out the best of the current personnel.

Last year, Mike Conley (46.2%), Anthony Edwards (41.7%), Kyle Anderson (41.5%), and Jaden McDaniels (38.6%) had outstanding catch-and-shoot numbers from beyond the arc. That showcased that they have the functionality to use players in different spots and roles across the floor. It is ultimately about streamlining it to make players and finding a satisfactory balance between offensive structure and freelance.

Additionally, Towns has four seasons with 40% or higher catch-and-shoot three-point percentage in his career. Finch indicated how KAT can increase his three-point shooting numbers. However, the Wolves do not want to limit him to being a spot-up shooter because of how talented of a player he is.

Towns may be the biggest piece of the puzzle for the coaching staff to figure out. He has proven to be an excellent driver, passer, and shooter. However, he can still find ways to slow the offense down and be a subpar quick decision-maker. If the Wolves want to find more success, they must find ways to get KAT in a groove early while not putting limitations on his game.

It is not only an important year for this core but for the coaching staff. They have seen their team continuously find ways to stagnate when it matters the most. But the players are not completely free of blame. No matter how well the blueprint is drawn up, they still must execute effectively on the floor. Ultimately, the Wolves must find more ways to add structure to their offense and allow it to play out.

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