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Is the Wolves’ playing style out of step with the modern NBA?

The inclination of teams coached by Flip Saunders is to favor long two-pointers at the expense of three-pointers — a move that increasingly runs counter to modern thinking about the game.  

The inclination of teams coached by Flip Saunders to favor long two-pointers at the expense of three-pointers is significant because it increasingly runs counter to modern thinking about the game.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

One of the great things about the return of Flip Saunders as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves — especially for us media schmoes — is the opportunity to partake in Flip’s post-game press conferences.

He has always been confident enough in his thought processes to sever any editing that might take place between his brain and his vocal cords. And not only does he know a great deal about pro basketball, but his power over the workings of the Wolves is at a pinnacle due to his dual role as coach and president of basketball operations. What he thinks and says is consequential.

On Wednesday night, after a much-needed Wolves win over the New York Knicks, Saunders was his usual candid-yet-obliging self. He ran through the various factors that motivated him to start Mo Williams and Shabazz Muhammad for the first time this season. When it became clear that the daily beat writers wanted to seize on the anecdote of Flip getting a text at 3:30 a.m. informing him that Kevin Martin was sick and probably couldn’t play (he did anyway, and performed very well), Saunders dutifully dug up as many details as he could remember. When he praised players, it was with a nice mix of specific instances and general traits — and usually was leavened with a critical caveat or two. Good stuff.

A hearty time was being had by one and all, until the next-to-last question of the ten-minute session, which functioned like an ambush on the coach’s afterglow. “Was it part of your plan to take more threes tonight?” asked a gentleman in the back row.

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“Always about threes,” Saunders replied, trying not to let exasperation encroach too obviously upon his good nature. “I never tell our guys to take ‘em or not to take ‘em. If the three is there and they are open, they should go ahead and take it. If it is not there, they don’t take it. So I mean, we leave it up to them.”

Then he slightly but significantly contradicted that statement. “The main thing is to get the right guys shooting,” he said. “Tonight we had the right guys shooting them.”

Saunders’ professed agnosticism about whether or not it is a good idea to fire away at long distance does not square with the historical performance of the various teams he has coached during his long career. Judging by the numbers, Flip’s offensive philosophy pretty consistently discourages three point attempts in favor of lower-value “midrange two-pointers.”

The website Basketball Reference uses a statistic known as 3PAr, or “3 Point Attempt Rate.” It is a very basic measure based on simple division, calibrating what percentage of a team’s total field goal attempts are taken from behind the three-point arc.

There have been thirteen times in Saunders’ career where he has coached a team for the entire season, without replacing another coach or being replaced himself. The first eight of those occasions came during Saunders’ initial stint with the Timberwolves. At that time, there were 29 teams in the NBA. Here, in chronological order, is where the Timberwolves ranked in 3PAr during that tenure: 

1996-97:    25th
1997-98:    24th
1998-99:    29th (last)
1999-00:    28th
2000-01:    26th
2001-02:    22nd
2002-03:    28th
2003-04:    27th

It should be mentioned that throughout this period, the Wolves’ best player and most frequent shot-taker was Kevin Garnett, who specialized in midrange jump shots. That said, KG and Saunders were a good fit in that regard, because the offensive sets run by the coach were mostly designed to create open two-pointers, which of course came at the expense of three-pointers.

After leaving Minnesota, Saunders spent three years with Detroit and another two full seasons with Washington before being relieved during his third year with the Wizards. He eventually returned to the Wolves as POBO in 2013. Looking at those five seasons, it is easy to notice that his first year with the Pistons is a dramatic outlier in his three-point resume — Detroit jumped from 22nd to 12th in 3PAr and won a phenomenal 64 games during that 2005-06 campaign. It was the only time a team coached by Saunders bettered the NBA average for 3PAr, and, true to his philosophy, it was largely accomplished by certain players — Chauncey Billips and Rasheed Wallace — dramatically increasing their three-point attempts.

Alas, Detroit’s 3PAr fell (along with their record) to 19th the next season and to 22nd the year after that. And during Flip’s two seasons in Washington, the Wizards ranked 25th and 28th in 3PAr.

Put it all together and in eleven of Saunders’ thirteen full seasons as coach, his teams have ranked in the bottom third of the NBA in the percentage of three-pointers taken.

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John Schuhmann, an excellent analyst and numbers-cruncher at nba.com, has broken down this history a little further, into the percentage of midrange shots taken by Saunders’ teams. This eliminates the two-point shots taken at or close to the rim—still the most efficient way to score—and the less accurate shots from 3-to-10 feet away from the basket.

Schuhmann tabulated 14 seasons, including Saunders’ partial final season in Minnesota the first time around, in 2004-05, when the Wolves were 21st in 3PAr. He discovered that in seven of those 14 seasons, Flip’s teams attempted the highest percentage of midrange shots of any team in the NBA. In three other seasons, teams coached by Saunders took the second-most midrange shots. In the remaining four seasons, his teams were ranked third, fourth, fifth, and sixth one time apiece.

A smaller bang for the swish

The inclination of teams coached by Saunders to favor long two-pointers at the expense of three-pointers is significant because it increasingly runs counter to modern thinking about the game. Fueled in part by the analytics movement, teams are relying more and more on long-range treys as a way to boost a team’s offensive efficiency and scoring power.

The math behind this reasoning isn’t rocket science. If you attempt ten two-pointers and make four of them, you get eight points. If you attempt the same amount of three-pointers and make only three of them, you get nine points. Even a lower shooting percentage from long distance can yield more offense.

This is borne out by the composite NBA shooting numbers over the past few years. With the exception of the strike-shortened season of 2011-12 (when the players didn’t have the benefit of training camp and shooting accuracy declined around the league), the three-point percentage has remained remarkably stable from 2010-11 through 2013-2014, always between 35.8 percent and 36 percent. Even if we take that lower number, making 35.8 percent of your three-point shots will yield just as many points as making  53.7 percent on your two-pointers. That is much higher than the NBA average percentage of two-pointers, which has fluctuated between 48.3 percent in 2012-13 to 48.8 percent last season. Indeed, only one team, the Miami Heat, exceeded 53.7 percent on their two-pointers in 2013-14.

Now flip the equation around. To equal the scoring efficiency registered by the league-average accuracy of 48.8 percent on two-pointers last year, a team would only need to convert 32.6 percent of its three-pointers, a level of accuracy exceeded by 28 of the 30 NBA ball clubs (Detroit and Philadelphia were the misfiring teams).

Put simply, emphasizing the long-range trey pays off, which is why it is becoming more and more prominent in the NBA game. Four years ago, in 2010-11, the NBA’s 3PAr (share of three-point attempts out of the total number of all field goal attempts) was 22.2 percent. It remained at 22.2 percent during the strike-shortened 2011-12 season, but has risen every year since then, to 22.6 percent, then 24.3 percent, and up to 25.9 percent of all field goals last year. Through the first three weeks of this season, 26.4 percent of all field goal attempts have been three-pointers.

For the Timberwolves under Flip Saunders, however, that number is just 17.8 percent, ahead of only the Memphis Grizzlies, who are at 17.6 percent.

Saunders continues to maintain—most recently in his press conference after the Wolves-Knicks game on Wednesday—that he is not opposed to his players shooting three-pointers. So is it just a remarkable coincidence that his teams continually attempt them at a rate much lower than the league average?

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Nope. Saunders himself revealed his bias in an anecdote he recounted to the press on media day back in late September.  He was working with a group of the younger players in informal workouts before the preseason had even begun, a time when, as the personnel chief and newly self-installed head coach, he could make an indelible first impression. As the players were shooting, Saunders told them they could attempt three-pointers whenever they wanted, but if they missed, they would have to run laps. Not surprisingly, the number of long-range attempts suddenly went down. As the workout was concluding, Saunders told them that if they didn’t have enough faith in their long-range accuracy to risk running laps, then they weren’t ready to shoot them in real game situations, when more than mere exercise was at stake.

As he told this story, the satisfaction was evident in Saunders’ voice. “We want makers, not shooters,” he exclaimed, a variation on his constant theme that players only attempt “good shots.”

But there’s the rub. A contested or hurriedly hoisted three-pointer that only goes in the net 34 percent of the time doesn’t look as good as an open two-pointer that swishes 50 percent of the time—but it generates more points. With its multiple screens and players curling around clusters of opponents near the top of the key and on the wings 16-20 feet away from the basket, Saunders’ offense has a smooth rhythm that frequently results in a player with the ball and plenty of room and time to set himself and shoot. But to an alarming degree, the shot is a midrange two-pointer, 10-20 feet from the hoop. The aesthetics are sweet, but the efficiency is limited.

The Wolves long-range accuracy has jumped from 34.1 percent on three-pointers under coach Rick Adelman last year to 37.3 percent under Saunders thus far this season—“makers, not shooters.” But the average number of treys attempted per game has plunged from 21.4 last season to 15 this year. Furthermore, without a healthy Ricky Rubio around to choreograph Saunders’ point guard-centric offense, Minnesota’s accuracy on the two-pointers that are Flip’s bread and butter has declined. The irony is that, as of Thursday morning, the Wolves ranked ninth in three-point shooting accuracy and 26th in two-point shooting percentage. And because they are such a predominantly two-point shooting team, their effective field goal percentage—and average of two-point and three-point accuracy—ranked 23rd.

The paucity of three-pointers under Saunders stems at least in part about the limited personnel he wants taking them. Remember his comment after the Knicks game, about having “the right guys” pulling the trigger from long range? Well, as the Wolves most accurate outside shooter and one of the more efficient scorers in NBA history, Kevin Martin certainly qualifies. Offensively, at least, he is thriving under Saunders system, on pace to launch the second-highest percentage of three-pointers in his long career, and making and eye-opening 48.1 percent of them. Thus far it eclipse his performance last year, when he’d come to Minnesota specifically to play with Adelman, an early mentor whose system was supposedly tailor-made to his skills.

But then we remember the anecdote regarding risks and laps and makers and shooters with the young players. Then we look and see that Andrew Wiggins is hitting 60 percent of his three-pointers but has only taken ten of them in ten games, which amounts to just 10.8 percent of the field goal attempts. By contrast, more than a third of Wiggins’ shots, 32 of 93, have come from the area 16 feet away from the basket out to the three-point arc, which ranges from 22 feet away in the corners to 23.75 feet out by the wings. These are the classic “long twos” that NBA players converted only 39.5 percent of the time last season, according to Basketball Reference. Wiggins is above that thus far at 43.8 percent, but why not encourage him to move out a little further for that extra value of the trey, given that he is shooting them well already?

To put it succinctly, if the NBA average is 36 percent on three-pointers and 39.5 percent on long two-pointers from 16 feet and beyond, isn’t it wise to start honing that three-point range at a young age, so the player can develop more efficient shooting skills and habits?

Another interesting example is second-year forward Anthony Bennett. During the preseason, Saunders was pretty firm about discouraging Bennett from shooting three-pointers. There is some cause for that, as Bennett shot only 24.5 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie last season. But this year, he hasn’t attempted a single three-pointer, even while a phenomenal 60.5 percent of his field goal attempts have been “long twos” of 16 feet and beyond. Like Wiggins, Bennett is beating last year’s NBA average from that distance at 42.3 percent — Saunders offense reliably provides players with open looks in that zone. But it seems persistently counterproductive to have a player shoot 26 of his 43 field goal attempts as long twos and zero from the other side of that three-point arc.

And so it goes. Thad Young has made 54.5 of his three-pointers this season, but they represent only 11.5 percent of his total field goal attempts. Shabazz Muhammad has made 60 percent of his treys this season, but that represents only 5 of his 64 field goal attempts. Before he got hurt, just four of Rubio’s 47 attempts were from three-point range.

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Saunders can correctly counter that those gaudy accuracy rates from three-point territory being posted by Wiggins, Young and Muhammad (along with Bennett’s higher conversion rate on long twos) are precisely because they have been more judicious with their shot selection.

But, once again, does “more judicious” translate into being “wiser”? Sometimes. If you’re Corey Brewer and have been in the league long enough to have hoisted more than a 1000 three-pointers yet have a paltry career shooting percentage from that distance, it’s probably wise to dial back those long-range missives.

But the three-pointer is becoming a more crucial component of NBA offenses with each passing year. Developing a reliable three-point shot is akin to developing better techniques on post-defense or pick-and-roll defense at the other end of the court: You will need that skill to become a complete player.

Right now, the players with the highest individual 3PAr rates on the Wolves are Robbie Hummel, Chase Budinger, Martin and Mo Williams. The first two are seldom used players off the bench, ranking 12th and 13th in minutes-played. Martin is a three-point ace but probably won’t have his contract extended with the Wolves when it expires two years after this season. And Williams is working on a one-year contract. That isn’t the future.

No, the “Eyes on the Rise” guys are Wiggins, Young, Bennett and LaVine. When it comes to these players, Saunders doesn’t have to embrace the catechism of the analytics crowd, which posits that the vast majority of field goal attempts should be from the fertile point-producing areas either right at the rim or from beyond the three-point arc. (Right now the Houston Rockets are launching more than two-thirds of their field goal attempts from these areas, compared to just 49 percent for the Wolves.) But he needs to realize that his offensive philosophy is bucking a prevailing trend, and his future cornerstones are following his lead.