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

There is a pretty good correlation between teams that successfully make a lot of threes and their ranking in offensive efficiency. So why don’t the Wolves take more threes? 

Kevin Martin
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

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.

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“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 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.

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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.)

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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.