The Minnesota Timberwolves reached the halfway point of the 2015-16 season last Friday, getting tenderized by the Oklahoma City Thunder, 113-93, in a game that wasn’t as close as that score would indicate.
The pummeling brought the Wolves’ record to 12-29, which telescopes to 24-58 for the entire season, less than the 25.5 wins set by the Las Vegas odds-makers back in September. The Wolves proceeded to blow out the hapless Phoenix Suns on Sunday, however, ending a nine-game losing streak and upping their winning percentage (30.9) to almost exactly what Vegas had predicted for them.
So, the team is as inept as expected. The gut punch for the fan base has been the in-season regression.
It doesn’t help head coach Sam Mitchell and his crew that the high-water mark of the season, 8-8, has such a memorable, aesthetically pleasing symmetry to it.
During those first sixteen games, rookie Karl-Anthony Towns was playing like the second coming of sure-fire Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. Second-year swingman Andrew Wiggins was owning crunchtime with relentless, daredevil drives to the hoop, spinning and slamming his way through the painted area for a bevy of buckets or fouls that sent him to the free throw line.
The other second-year swingman, Zach LaVine, seemed to have received important elements of his long-hidden clue about how to perform in the NBA, with improved defensive awareness, fewer turnovers off the dish and the dribble, and more confidence and accuracy on his jump shot.
Meanwhile, veteran mentors Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince set the template for taut team defense from the starting lineup, teaching cornerstones Towns and Wiggins how to seal the seams with sound positional judgments and aggressive rotations, all of it manna to point guard Ricky Rubio, who has been craving some defensive-oriented grown-ups on the court since he entered the NBA more than four years ago.
After 16 games, Towns and Wiggins were burgeoning superstars and it no longer seemed ridiculous to cite LaVine’s potential to join them in that rarefied atmosphere. With KG and Rubio working their complementary intensity with Prince as the calming ballast, the Wolves rode their top-ten defense to road wins over Chicago, Atlanta and Miami. In what has been a down season for the middle rungs of the Western Conference, some poor, deluded souls among the fan base even dared to consider the Wolves as a contender for the playoffs.
Since then, the Wolves are 5-21, a record of futility nearly as wretched as last season’s chaotic tanking to 16-66. “Bait-and-switch” feels like an understated description of how hopeful fans have regarded this pratfall back to incompetence. Something more vicious, like “sucker-and-fillet,” better captures their sense of betrayal.
How did such a young, promising roster, without any major injuries to deter it, suddenly find itself in the dregs of dysfunction?
A complete answer to that question is multi-faceted, and beyond the space requirements of this column. So today we’ll just pick the low-hanging fruit and study the team’s antiquated offense.
Idiotic shot selection
The Wolves have won just two of the past 15 games. During that stretch, they launched more midrange shots — between 15-19 feet away from the basket — than any other team by a fairly wide margin, 17.4 per game compared to the next-highest mid-rangers, Miami, at 15.7 per game.
By distance alone, analytics have demonstrated that the midrange is not as efficient as a three-pointer or a shot at the rim in terms of points-generated per attempt. But the Wolves compound that flaw by being inaccurate midrange shooters — their 36 percent from that 15-19 foot distance over the past 15 games ranks 27th among the 30 NBA teams.
Those numbers are from the stats page at nba.com. The website Basketball Reference is better at breaking down so-called “long twos,” the shots taken from 16 feet out to the three-point line. Once again, the Wolves shoot more often from this distance than anyone in the NBA this season — 25.8 percent of their total attempts. And once again, their 39.5 percent accuracy from that range is below the league average of 40.1, 16th best among the 30 teams.
Put simply, they are emphasizing an inefficient mediocrity in their offense.
Meanwhile, for the second season in a row, the Wolves are shooting the lowest frequency of three-pointers among their total shot-selection than any team in the NBA. Mitchell maintains that the culprit is a dearth of reliable three-point shooters on the roster, along with his inability to institute a more free-flowing offense at the beginning of the season, due to uncertainty over the health and return of the late Flip Saunders.
Both of these explanations are somewhat justified. But even so, the overwhelming evidence is that the Wolves would be better off taking more threes.
Back to that 15-game sample from the nba.com site. The Wolves are next-to-last in the number of three-pointers taken in that span. But when they do launch from behind the arc, their 34.5 percent accuracy is 17th among the 30 teams.
Let me repeat those numbers. Over the past 15 games, the Wolves take way more 15-19 footers than any other team, and make 36 percent of those two-point, midrange shots. They shoot fewer three-pointers than all but one team and make 34.5 percent. It doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that 36 percent on twos isn’t as efficient as 34.5 percent on threes.
Knock the sample size down to the past ten games — nine of them losses — and you find the Wolves still ranking 29th in the number of threes taken, while rising to 11th among the 30 teams in three-point accuracy.
The positive, generous argument is that Mitchell is slowly but surely tweaking his offense to get better looks from long-distance for his team — hence the recently higher accuracy. The rebuttal is that he either isn’t presenting enough of those opportunities or his players are ignoring them.
The primary culprit
It should come as no great surprise that Zach LaVine is one of the worst offenders when it comes to inefficient shot selection on the Wolves. Thus far this season, LaVine has made 39-of-121 shots from a distance between 16 feet and the three-point arc. He has made 41-of-124 shots from three-point territory.
In other words, if LaVine makes two of his next three “long twos,” he’ll be exactly as accurate from that inefficient distance as he is from three-point range. To buttress Mitchell’s point, he isn’t particularly accurate from either spot — 32.2 percent from long twos versus 33.1 percent from deep. But in terms of effective field goal percentage, which adds in the extra-point value of treys, LaVine’s eFG percentage from behind the arc rises to 49.6 percent.
Shortly after the interview was published, LaVine remarked that Mitchell’s treatment of him is “sometimes unfair.” I agree. Sometimes a fair judgment of LaVine’s game by Mitchell should be harsher.
For example, Mitchell keeps defending LaVine’s struggles at the point guard position by saying that he is “learning a new position.” Well, LaVine played 94 percent of his 1,902 minutes last season (third-most on the team) at point guard. He has played 65 percent of his 981 minutes this season (fifth-most on the team) at the point.
Specifically in terms of shot selection, Mitchell criticized LaVine in our interview for frequently receiving a pass behind the three-point arc and then turning down that open trey by dribbling into traffic for a contested two-pointer. A decent 56.1 percent of LaVine’s 41 three-pointers have been assisted by a teammate’s pass. Just 17.9 percent of his 39 long twos were assisted. Translation: LaVine dribbles his way into long twos, and shoots them slightly less accurately than he does three-pointers.
(For those who think 56 percent is a high assist percentage, the Wolves’ primary point guard, Rubio, is shooting approximately the same frequency and accuracy on his three-pointers, and, despite being the main ball-handler, has been assisted on 92.3 percent of his makes.)
The reluctant marksman
In a much different way, the shot selection of Nemanja Bjelica is also hindering the Wolves’ efficiency on offense. But unlike LaVine, Bjelica is turning down treys in favor of passes rather than long twos.
Following a strong start, Bjelica fell into a horrible slump after coming back from a slight knee injury and reacquainting himself with the more physical play and faster pace of the NBA game. But whether he has been in rhythm or out of sorts, Bjelly has shown a maddening tendency to forego open treys on a team that desperately needs him to knock down those shots and space the floor.
Coming into the season, he and Kevin Martin were regarded as the team’s best three-point threats. Now that Martin has been relegated to spot duty in order to secure more playing time for Wiggins, Bazzy Muhammad and LaVine, Bjelica is the most proven long-range shooter in the team’s regular rotation.
On the plus side, he is attempting more treys per minute than anyone on the roster other than seldom-used three-point specialist Damjan Rudez (a subpar defender) and LaVine. On the other hand, Bjelly is next-to-last on the roster, behind only Tayshaun Prince, on the number of shot attempts per minute.
Obviously, the overwhelming majority of Bjelica’s shots are three-pointers. But just as obviously, relative to the rest of his teammates, he almost never shoots. Some of this is the inability of the Wolves to look for him. But much more of it is Bjelly himself deciding that further ball movement is a better gambit than taking that jumper. That he is only sixth on the team in assists per minute (behind Garnett, among others) despite frequently playing with teammates who hunt for their own shots indicates that this is a self-defeating, and team-defeating, strategy.
In the past couple of weeks, a couple of Timberwolves — Rubio and Muhammad — have conspicuously escalated their three-point attempts. It is time for both LaVine and Bjelica to follow suit.
That won’t address all of the Wolves offensive woes, let alone the decline in their overall defensive prowess. But it is a fundamental start almost guaranteed to enhance both the present and the future of this ball club.