The longer the Wolves deny the importance of three-pointers, the worse off they’ll be

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Kevin Martin

The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves beat a team with a winning record, they staged a gorgeous clinic in how to execute an old-fashioned half-court offense and walloped the Portland Trailblazers with 121 points on March 7.

Seventy of those points came in the 24 minutes of the second half, 40 of them in the final period. It was the quintessential display of what coach Flip Saunders can do with big men who know how to set picks to free up midrange jump shooters with quick releases.

The big men were Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Garnett. The shooters were Kevin Martin and Gary Neal. It certainly didn’t hurt that Portland had recently lost their primary wing stopper, Wes Matthews, to a season-ending injury and were still adjusting. But when it was over, Martin and Neal combined for 35 points in the second half and 25 of them in the fourth quarter.

By contrast, Pekovic and KG combined for two points after halftime — an 11-foot shot by Pek that was the closest bucket to the hoop executed by the Wolves over the course of a 12-for-18 fourth quarter shooting spree that only included two three-pointers.

“Both Neal and K-Mart, we ran our one play and they couldn’t stop it,” said Saunders after the game. Later, he added, “KG is probably the best power-forward screener in the game. The guys wait because they know they are going to get a good screen.”

That win over Portland was the last time KG has played for the Wolves. For his part, Pekovic has missed the last seven games. After playing Sunday night at Target Center against Charlotte, Neal and K-Mart were likewise on the shelf as Minnesota rolled into Utah Tuesday on the tail end of a back-to-back with only seven healthy players remaining on its decimated roster.

Four of those seven were rookies. Three of the seven weren’t on the Wolves roster when the season began, and two others were teenagers at the time. To say they were unprepared to properly orchestrate Saunders’ sets is an understatement.

Instead, the Wolves sprung a major upset with an overtime road victory by chucking from long range. For the first time this season, three different Timberwolves sank at least three three-pointers. One, Zach LaVine, has been a disaster as a point guard but continually offers beguiling flashes that he might become a dynamic shooting guard. Another, Chase Budinger, has been ravaged by injuries and is such a huge disappointment that the Wolves unsuccessfully tried to unload him at the trading deadline, and would be thrilled if he declined to pick up his option to play in Minnesota next season for $5 million. The third, Sean Kilpatrick, was signed because he was literally the nearest warm body that could arrive in time for a Wolves game last week. He was playing in the second game of his NBA career.

This motley trio combined to score 12-for-18 from three-point range, while the other four Wolves shot 0-for-1 from that distance.

The manner in which Minnesota triumphed over Portland and beat Utah is like night and day. But here’s the real kicker: The Wolves will need to score more like they did in Utah and less like they operated versus Portland if they are to become a successful playoff team in the Western Conference.

What’s more, the longer Flip Saunders denies this reality, the less assured his grip on the fortunes of this franchise will eventually become.

Flip’s history of no threes continues

I dealt with Saunders’ historical disdain for three-pointers in this column, written near the end of the first month of the 2014-15 NBA season. It showed that in 11 of his 13 full seasons at the helm, Saunders’ teams ranked in the bottom third of the NBA in the percentage of three-pointers taken among total field goal attempts. The column also cited research from a writer at nba.com that showed Saunders teams more often than not rank first or second among all NBA teams in the frequency of midrange jumpers that are neither three-pointers nor high-percentage shots at the rim.

With twelve games remaining in the 82-game season, only 17.5 percent of the Wolves field goal attempts are from three-point territory, way behind Memphis, which is next-to-last at 18.4 percent. The NBA average is 26.8 percent. At the same time, the Wolves are third in the NBA, behind only the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers, in the percentage of long two-pointers taken, a measured distance beginning at 16 feet and moving out to the three-point arc.

In the first portion of my two-part interview with Saunders in January, I pressed him on his disinclination to launch three-pointers. One of the ways he justified not shooting many threes is because it leads to transition baskets for the other team. Here is the entire quote:

Somebody can put a stat out there that it is better to take a contested three than an uncontested two-point shot. But what you don’t take into consideration is that if you take that contested three, that you make just thirty-one percent on, that the guy [guarding you] flies by and they get the rebound and so they get a layup off that [at the other end]. Or maybe you are taking a contested two but the guy is right there for an offensive rebound. So you need to look at the entire context. It is not just the shot, it is what happens right after the shot.

But the numbers show very little correlation between the numbers of three-pointers taken and the number of fast break points allowed. The top ten teams in frequency of three-point shooting include three of the four most porous teams in allowing fast break points, but others rank fourth, sixth, eleventh, and fourteenth (in the top half of the league) in fewest fast break points permitted. When it comes to fast break efficiency — how often the defense stops a transition opportunity — the numbers are similarly all over the map.

By the way, the Wolves are 24th in the number of fast break points allowed and 16th in efficiency. Memphis, which also shoots very few threes and is a very good defensive team, ranks 18th in fast break points and 22nd in efficiency.

As one would imagine, there is a pretty good correlation between teams that successfully make a lot of threes and their ranking in offensive efficiency (defined as points per possession). But what is at least somewhat surprising is that teams that merely attempt a lot of threes also tend to boast very efficient offenses. The top seven teams in offensive efficiency also rank in the top ten teams in the highest percentage of three-pointers launched among their total field goal attempts. Part of this the ability to spread out defenders and discourage double-teams (or foster unguarded teammates) by spacing the floor to set up three point shots.

The average number of three-pointers taken by a team in a game is slightly over 22. The Wolves have shot more than 22 three-pointers just twice this season and lost both times. But on games where Minnesota attempts 20 or more treys in a game, the team’s record is 2-5. Lessen the minimum number of threes attempted to 16 in a game and their record is 8-21. That’s better than their record of 8-33 when shooting fewer than 16 treys in a game. 

A damaging oversight

For those who believe that Saunders is outmoded and otherwise behind-the-curve when it comes to three-pointers, the most incendiary quote in my January interview with him was his statement that, I don’t run anything — and I don’t think many teams in the league do — just to set up a three. In retrospect, he would probably like to expand upon or otherwise contextualize that remark, because — at least when it comes to the strategy of other teams — it is not accurate.

But the germane element of the quote is Saunders’ apparent admission that he doesn’t purposefully design his sets to specifically create three-point opportunities. I’m not positive this is true, but if it is, he will have to change, or eventually fail on the job. Because three-point shooting is an integral part of the modern NBA offense. You don’t incorporate it or fail to implement it at your peril.

This is the real crux of the matter: In a season devoted to development, the opportunity to establish patterns and systems to promote better three-point shooting has been ignored, even as the accuracy of the team’s two-point shooting has floundered. (The Wolves 27th in two-point shooting percentage at 45.9 percent. They are 23rd in three-point shooting percentage at 33.6 percent.)

Take Rookie-of-the-Year heir apparent Andrew Wiggins, the obvious cornerstone of the franchise moving forward. One of the ways you establish a skill against NBA competition is by repetition and experience. But if anything, Wiggins’ three-point shooting prowess has been allowed to languish and thus deteriorate.

In November, 16.8 percent of Wiggins’ field goal attempts were three-pointers and he was making 41.7 percent of them. After a dip in both proclivity and accuracy in December, Wiggins again put up relatively solid numbers for his development during January, with 17.3 percent of his shots from behind the arc and 34 percent accuracy. But in February and March, Wiggins has disappeared as a three-point threat. In February, just 7.3 percent of his shots were treys and only 18.2 percent of them went in. In March, the freefall continued: A measly 6.7 percent of his shots were from distance and a laughable 9.1 percent found their way through the hoop.

Sure, some of this is due to fatigue. But instead of challenging Wiggins to find his own areas of the court to score, rather than calling plays for him as before, Saunders could be saving the energy of his burgeoning star by putting him in the weakside corner or on the wing to receive skip passes for catch-and-shoot threes.

Then there is Rubio. Last season, the Timberwolves’ other cornerstone player was beset by criticism over his inaccurate shooting, which threatened to overwhelm the goodwill created by marvelous ball distribution and defense. In response, the Wolves hired shooting coach Mike Penberthy.

Anyone who watched Penberthy work with Rubio after practice or before games noticed the rigorous pattern of the drills they executed. The vast majority of the time, Rubio would receive the ball or dribble the ball while moving right and then launch a midrange jumper. It happened over and over and over again.

Consequently, thus far this season, Rubio has been a much-improved shooter—from midrange, moving to his right. Ten percent of his shots are from 10-16 feet (a titch above his career percentage of 8.5 from that distance) and he is sinking a robust 45.5 percent of them, way above his career mark of 28.8 percent from that distance.

Furthermore, Rubio is attempting nearly half of his total shots — 47.5 percent — from a distance 16 feet out to the three point arc, well above his career frequency of 30.4 percent from that range. And he is making 40.4 percent of those shots, above his career mark of 34.9 percent.

But from three-point range, Rubio is faltering. He is taking slightly more than usual from deep — 23.3 percent versus 20.6 percent for his career — but he is making a career-low 25.5 percent. As a result, his effective field-goal percentage is 38.6 percent, tied with his second season as a career low. All that practice, with no payoff.

Ironically, the most noteworthy trey Rubio converted this season happened in that March 7 win over Portland. Even in Flip Saunders’ penultimate half-court showcase, the trey was the dagger.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/24/2015 - 12:14 pm.

    Relegation

    The problem with the NBA is that bad teams aren’t relegated. If there was a risk that the Wolves would be sent to a minor league, I don’t think they would been as historically awful as they have proven to be. Or perhaps they would be, and they would be playing in a part time YMCA league by now.

    • Submitted by Adam Gerber on 03/24/2015 - 02:59 pm.

      Madness

      While I agree that the NBA needs to have better competitive balance, relegation is pure fantasy. Football in Europe enjoys a system of multiple leagues at multiple levels of talent. Player contracts and transactions work completely differently from the NBA. Comparing the two sports in terms of competitiveness does both systems a disservice. I think you’d be better off directing your frustration at the way NBA teams are forced to develop talent.

      The NBA largely relies on a free semi-pro developmental league, the NCAA. Top talent from college is shoe-horned onto bad teams at the highest level of play. This is a terrible system for competitive balance in the NBA, and for young basketball players. Until a viable (and professional) talent development system is in place for NBA-bound players, competitive balance will be a problem.

  2. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 03/24/2015 - 12:18 pm.

    Flip (the coach) holding us back

    Strongly agree with the general thoughts here regarding modern offense, and that’s one of the reasons I’m most pessimistic about this team’s future. The three most efficient places to score are from beyond the arc, at the rim, and at the free throw line. This team has the personnel who can succeed in those positions: Wiggins can do all three, Martin can draw fouls and shoot the three, and LaVine can also shoot the three but has not been very aggressive taking it to the rim and drawing contact (presumably because he’s usually tasked with running the offense rather than manufacturing points).

    But it’s not just about threes. Flip’s system is designed to get open looks for shooters (Martin especially succeeds with it), but it comes at the expense of some of our playmakers who could thrive on different types of action. I’m not seeing lots of pick and roll (one reason I was excited to have KG back: great ball screens), and I’m not seeing slashing angles being consistently exploited by LaVine and Wiggins. Instead, a player like Wiggins catches on the wing maybe 15 feet out, where’s he’s already jostling for position and has to back his man down. While that’s a decent scoring position for Wiggins, I’d like to vary the looks he gets a bit more, as I think his creativity is an underutilized asset.

    I also think the longer quote from Flip displays some intellectual dishonesty regarding stats. It’s like he made up one in his head and then easily refuted it. I’m not sure he meant to do that, and it’s likely he was referring to a real statistic that he didn’t have the context to explain, but it’s definitely recognizable as a strawman argument. It sounds a case of selective bias, where he heard some stat that meshed with his offensive philosophy and uses it for justification.

    • Submitted by Adam Gerber on 03/24/2015 - 03:24 pm.

      Well Said

      “This team has the personnel who can succeed in those positions…”

      I think this is the most damning underlying point. Britt lays out a great case, but it is important to note that Flip is NOT stuck playing this way due to personnel inflexibility. Ideally, a consistent low-post scoring option would help space the floor more (alas, Pek), but you go to war with the roster you have…

      I wish this were a next-level tanking strategy, but history indicates its just garden variety incompetence. Stick to the front office Flip…

  3. Submitted by Andy Grimsrud on 03/24/2015 - 12:21 pm.

    Great stuff, Britt, I’m glad you continue to hammer on this important point.

    There has been some prominent NBA writing that – in my opinion – goes too far in calling for as many threes as possible as the logical way to play basketball. That isn’t necessarily the point. In practice, that would eventually mean jacking up shots like the hero shot LaVine made last night to force overtime.

    But getting to the appropriate limit is the key, because, as you explain, the framework that threatens good, catch-and-shoot threes also spaces the floor for other easy baskets. And the Wolves are nowhere near approaching that limit.

    Look no further than what most decent opponents do to the Timberwolves: we’re among the worst in the league at defending both the three-point line and the paint. Often times, getting burned on a couple threes leads to panic-stricken close-outs and help attempts, only to leave a wide open dunk for an opposing big man.

    Think about how bad the Wolves’ power forward position has been this year. Some of that is inexperience or maybe just lack of ability, but not all of it. Thad Young was an accomplished player coming into Minnesota, and in 1605 minutes here he posted his worst numbers since his 21-year old season in Philly. It seemed like he NEVER had space for uncontested shots. This has obviously been true, for the most part, for the others forwards, too.

    This system is so heavily geared around bigs screening for cutting wings that — in today’s game — it would probably require a 2 and 3 like in-his-prime Ray Allen and Kevin Durant in order to crack a top-tier efficiency mark. There isn’t enough space generated by an off-ball screen like that to create a relatively easy shot. What most teams are doing is what Frank Vogel calls “bringing two to the ball” which causes (assuming a competent lead guard and a halfway-decent screener) almost automatic help rotations, which then create either a standing shooter (preferably standing behind the 3 line) or an open driving lane to the basket.

    Great modern defenses seem to do everything in their power to run opponents off the three-point line but limit them from getting close to the rim: In other words, they encourage the precise shot location that the Wolves offense seeks as a primary option.

    It’s been frustrating and needs a major overhaul.

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 03/24/2015 - 01:42 pm.

      Not to mention

      That Thad Young has been pretty darn effective in Brooklyn since the trade, too. Maybe part of that is the rounding into form we saw here, but I have to believe that the system is having an impact, too. Not surprisingly, there’s a big shift in the types of shots he’s taking. 25% of his shots here were jumpers from 10 feet out to the three-point line, a rate that has been cut in half in Brooklyn, replaced by more threes and more shots inside 10 feet.

  4. Submitted by Mike Pfieffer on 03/24/2015 - 01:03 pm.

    Square Peg Round Hole

    I understand it’s a different administration, but the Zach LaVine at PG seems as much of a misfit as Jonny Flynn in the triangle.

  5. Submitted by Mike Reynolds on 03/24/2015 - 02:08 pm.

    The most frustrating aspect of season (even though D SHOULD be)

    Thanks Britt. Many call this topic redundant, but I feel the more it is hammered into the ground, the better. I offered my emotional rant on your last piece so will attempt a more calculated approach here.

    Really enjoyed Andy’s post above as well. The simplest way to describe Flip’s offense is a complicated set of screens, curls and passes that ultimately result in the Wolves shooting from the exact area the defense wants you to.

    My favorite part of this post was your hearty refutation of some of Flip’s utterly baffling and immensely frustrating comments on 3 pointers from your earlier interview which continues to be circulated today. I wonder most about the bench dynamics. Does Flip know these things? Does he have people in his ear challenging/telling him that he should be a little more open minded? Is it worth pushing on him a little bit more with fact rebuttals as a reporter or is that generally a no-no in these circumstances? I really wonder not as much why Flip dislikes 3’s (because he does), but why the LONG 2’s instead? Does a 20 footer vs. a 23 footer not create those same make-believe fast break problems? I would love an actual answer from him on the subject instead of his trademark “we like good shots” nonsense.

    While I know deep down the defense is the main hurdle the Wolves must overcome, as a longtime fan of 3’s and offense in particular, this topic is what has easily caused me the most frustration this season.

    Lastly, 3 more stats to add a little more fuel to the fire:
    -The Wolves are 4-1 when making 10 or more 3’s and 2-21 when making 3 or fewer. (disclaimer: cherry picked tollgates, and correlation does not equal causation of course).

    -They shoot, as a team, the same whole percentage (34%) from 3 as they did under last year Adelman and better as a team than each of Rick’s first few seasons but apparently “lack personnel” according to Saunders and a select few remaining homers. This is also surely without near as many corner 3 attempts.

    -I’m struggling to navigate through bball reference to find an update of team total shooting splits (help anyone?) but at least up through 3/10 the Wolves as a team shot 36.5% on long 2’s and are now 34% on 3’s. This is, of course, a difference of 29 points over 100 shot attempts in favor of 3’s

    And so on. You could spend hours finding things to pick at.

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 03/24/2015 - 03:57 pm.

      The Mayor

      The fascinating thing is that Fred Hoiberg is presumably “Flip-approved” as a future head coach here, but his teams at Iowa State show an active disdain for the long jumper, focusing on 3-pointers and shots in the paint.

      Here’s an article looking at the 2013-14 Cyclones — where no rotation regular shot more than 12% of their shots from mid-range.

      http://blog.shotanalytics.com/2014/03/18/iowa-state-eliminated-mid-range-jumper/

      • Submitted by Mike Reynolds on 03/24/2015 - 04:22 pm.

        And same with Adelman, really. Though I think based on many of Flip’s comments following last season, they disagreed on many things.

        In my opinion, where there is smoke there is fire and that smoke is Mike Malone. He has accompanied the Wolves on two road trips and even met with Taylor personally during this season. I think they could do a lot better but Malone has a reputation as an excellent defensive coach, though just like Flip his Kings teams did not take 3’s and took many mid range shots though it is unclear how much of that really was personnel-driven vs. Flip’s maniacal and utterly preposterous backwards take on the matter.

        As a whole, it simply remains highly frustrating going through this whole Flip thing again a decade after his Wolves teams grossly under performed during his tenure. Despite the Wiggins miracle, I would have zero remorse with this era ending as soon as possible.

  6. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 03/24/2015 - 05:01 pm.

    His words are the biggest issue

    He’s stubborn to a degree that makes me wonder if he’s learned anything from the evolution in the game. Now, that doesn’t mean the Wolves are doomed to 15-25 wins in perpetuity, but the offense’s ability to score against the best defenses becomes hamstrung.

    With that said, the issue seems more about personnel, which is still on Flip to solve but not inherently based in strategy. The elite 3 point shooting teams have 1 or more of the following players: a scorer who forces help and double teams, a dangerous off-screen catch-and-shoot guy from 3, and/or a guy who can hit pull-up 3s. Defenses rarely double Wiggins, even in the post. Martin has a 44.6% effective FG% off screens, which isn’t efficient and leads me to think defenses are okay with him taking that shot. Neal is a good pull-up shooter from 3, but how many more games does he have in a Wolves uniform? The rest of their guys are catch-and-shoot guys who need their defender drawn away from them. For example, how is Wiggins going to get an open corner look if he’s the only offensive guy the defense doubles? I get that they respect Martin, but they’re not sending an extra defender at him. Going forward, they have 1 reliable guy in Martin and a bunch of unprovens (Rubio, Wiggins, LaVine, Muhammad, Hummel, Payne, Hamilton). On the elite shooting teams, those unproven guys are mostly open standstill catch-and-shoot guys. Even creating more movement would have limited success if the players don’t stick with the play or if they don’t have an elite offensive threat to draw the defense.

  7. Submitted by joe smith on 03/24/2015 - 06:29 pm.

    By using the 3 pt line as a weapon you open up the court for the 2 highest percentage shots in basketball, the layup/dunk and free throws. Having corners filled with two 3 pt shooters opens paint for drivers and rollers. Iowa St uses a typical pro offense, 3 guys spaced behind 3 pt line while 2 guys play pick n roll, dribble hand off or pinch post 2 man game. Most of the pin downs are wide corner picks that end up with the guy getting picked coming off with weak side spread out past 3 pt line. This results in mistakes leading to dunks by picker rolling to hoop or 3 pt shot from weak side on over help on roller. Last thing in using 3 pt line is running wide and having 1st big on O rim run to collapse D and open up the trail 3. Wolves do little of this and don’t use the 3 pt line as many do.

  8. Submitted by Fern Vander Hart on 03/25/2015 - 09:19 am.

    Theory and practice

    Sure you make a case for the theory of shooting more threes, but who is going to take those shots on the Wolves? Do all of you experts (I mean that seriously) really think the Wolves have the personnel to shoot a lot of 3s and make them? I haven’t seen that as a likely situation from the games I have watched. In reading about the Utah game it sounds like a couple of guys were let loose and had a good night behind the line–but would that be the way to play on regular basis? Just asking. I want more 3s, but I don’t think just wanting them will make the guys any better at making them.

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