No offense taken: Dissecting a disappointing Timberwolves season

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
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.

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.

Mitchell was quite critical of LaVine during the long interview I had with the coach earlier this month, which you can find here and here.

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.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 01/19/2016 - 12:47 pm.

    A semi-defense of Mitchell

    I appreciate the research that went into this column, but I’m a little surprised there wasn’t even a casual mention of Andrew Wiggins’ shooting woes. He shoots the second-most threes on the team (behind LaVine), and at a 25 percent clip. I know he does other great things on the court, but his inability to stretch the floor makes it more difficult for everyone (himself included) to score.

    To understand the lack of threes coming from this team, I look at the roster as a whole. Two of our starters (Prince and KG) cannot shoot them at all. Rubio has always been reluctant to shoot, Wiggins cannot shoot them, which makes Towns the default best option. The starters’ collective inability to stretch the floor only makes it more difficult when other players try to get clean looks. If Bjelly or Muhammad come in first off the bench, they’re usually the only long distance wing threats on the court, making them easy to close out on. If our second unit had better vision, there would probably be a far different outcome, and far higher percentage looks. I honestly can’t remember the last time we were able to reverse the ball along the perimeter to find an open shooter, for example.

    All of that is to say that I lean towards what Mitchell pointed out in those interviews – we don’t have the personnel to shoot them (all the more ironic that we are shopping Kevin Martin, but that must be done). Replacing Prince with a more capable 3-and-D wing player would at least have the effect of stretching the floor for everyone else and generating more efficient shots.

  2. Submitted by Matthew Arnold on 01/19/2016 - 04:58 pm.

    This brings me back to Mitchell’s philosophy on offense

    Brit, thank you for your response to my feedback on your part 1 interview. I went back and re-read part 2 (it was a great read once again) focusing on that core offensive philosophy. I still feel that the space and pace is an incomplete answer from Sam Mitchell. I have a response (semi-tangent and then a question on this piece).

    I can answer your great response on how 20-year old kids respond to the detail in those binders that they need to sign off on simply: nodding, yes coach, with limited to no retention.

    Not Zach, your focus this week is the long two. Do you feel that this is an issue in your game? Okay, how is the team affected if instead you can (unless we are under 10 seconds in the clock) pass, space to 3 or cut hard? By the way, we’re putting Demar Derozan on your ipad showing changes from his game last year to this year. He’s an all-star, he’s going to get a max deal. His team is better. I’m going to ask you to show me what you learned tomorrow after practice and explain why it matters for the team. Spoiler alert, he is driving to the basket much more but primarily has ignored his beloved long 2. Oh, and both you and an assistant are going to track how many of these you take in a game after each game until we get down to 0-1 attempts. Then we are moving on to the next focus.

    Sam probably does individual drills and guided instruction well. Then the concept goes into a long list that they sign off on once a week. Kids do not grow that way. Neither do adults, who we know retain up to 3 concepts/value propositions in a meeting. Not a full binder. I can only imagine the cobwebs from those folders.

    My tangent aside, Brit how can this team become more efficient on offense with 3 non-shooters in the starting lineup? Prince is not going to be starting next year and that lineup is going to have a harder time ignoring the long 2. I understand he is a bandaid on defense but we have a revolving door of unproven wings with at least rotation level upside. Sam can still reward and punish as he does with minutes for poor defense between the better floor spacing options.

    Zach Lowe highlighted Baaz’s defensive effort as one of his 10 things that he likes/doesn’t like for this week. I think we know which side he made.

    Looking forward to your feedback.

    Thanks,
    Matt

  3. Submitted by Jeff Peters on 01/20/2016 - 09:07 am.

    Mitchells’s rotations

    Mitchell’s offensive philosophy is the number one problem with the wolves, the second biggest problem has to be his rotations. Last night they put up 38 in the first quarter and play good defense, Mitchell puts the second unit in and the lead disappears. Towns and Rubio both sat until 5 minutes were left in the game and the outcome was decided. Rubio only played 29 minutes last night. Wiggins, Towns, and Rubio should all be playing at least 35. Britt did you get any any sense of what Mitchell’s thoughts are on this?

  4. Submitted by Steve Larson on 01/20/2016 - 11:05 am.

    T-Wolves Television Broadcasts

    Britt,

    As a long-suffering T-wolves fan, let me whine about an aspect of T-wolves culture that I’m guessing you would disagree. To wit: why must long-suffering fans put up with the wall-to-wall noise of the T-wolves television announcing team of Jim Petersen and Dave Benz? It is ghastly and without let-up. Have they never heard the phrase: “Less is more?” Game reporting is often secondary to listening to their extended opinions (mostly Petersen’s) that seem to go on for several times up and down the court with no relation whatsoever to the actual game action and even extend over commercial timeouts.

    One may excuse Benz because he seems to have an almost instinctual need to toady up to Petersen. An example: last night in the New Orleans game there was an incident between Anderson and Garnett. Benz dared (surprisingly) to suggest Garnett was the aggressor, but Petersen quickly jumped to a knee-jerk defense of Garnett. Benz – now chastened – backed off his first (and correct) observation. As it turns out, if you watch both initially coming down the court, Garnett did indeed give Anderson a shove and when Anderson retaliated, Garnett quite obviously clipped Anderson above the shoulders with an arm. No big deal, but instructive in terms of the dynamic between Benz and Petersen.

    Petersen seems to make pronouncements that turn out with great frequency to be wrong. While I get that he’s an analyst and it’s his job to have opinions, I seldom if ever hear him cop to any of his wrong assessments (ie. for two years telling us how great Chase Budinger would be once he was healthy; or somehow overlooking Kevin Love’s defensive inadequacies until they became undeniable to even the most novice fan). And don’t get me going on their slavish devotion and unending recitation of meaningless statistics, though I’m guessing Mr. Benz is once again being influenced by Petersen. Both seem to think that spouting numbers equals cogent broadcasting.

    Finally, I rest my case on the stark difference between a nationally-broadcast T-wolves game and our local broadcasts. A week or so ago, Jeff Van Gundy did a game. There was interesting analysis, humor, and even some quiet. This was followed by another nationally-televised game, which also proved much more enjoyable to watch and listen.

    So, okay, I feel better now. I’ll stop ranting.

    • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 01/20/2016 - 12:56 pm.

      “Meaningless statistics”

      While they’re “meaningless” to those who refuse to take the 15 seconds to look up their meaning, those stats are what the best coaches and front offices are using to determine strategy and team building. They’re just trying to help the fan see some of the information that teams value. The meaningless stats are the per game ones because they provide superficial knowledge.

    • Submitted by Erick Sorenson on 01/21/2016 - 08:04 am.

      The grass isn’t greener

      JVG is one of the best in the business, which is why he’s getting the ESPN money to do games. If you watch a few local broadcasts of other teams, I think you’ll quickly appreciate how good Peterson/Benz are. Say what you will about his bias/opinions (again, much less pronounced than most other teams’ announcers), at least Peterson takes time to educate/explain what’s happening on the court in language casual fans can understand.

      That said, I wish modern cable/satellite TV technology allowed the option of muting announcers but allowing you to still hear the other game sound. Especially in pro football. I think ALL play-by-play and color commentators talk too much. In the meantime, I recommend turning on your favorite music, and muting the sound altogether.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 01/20/2016 - 04:30 pm.

    A fall should’ve been expected but not to this level

    Their skid has been worse than it should’ve been, but it was also misguided to assume the 8-8 start was sustainable. They snuck up on teams and probably had some extra emotion to start the season because of Flip. That extra emotion is unsustainable in an 82-game season, and teams have figured out their tendencies. Since then, only Rubio, KG, and Prince have really adjusted by being more aggressive offensively. Every time these young players taste success, they seem to rest on their laurels and think they’ve got it figured out; then, they get smacked like they did in the second half in New Orleans. A team’s success is often based on how they adjust when the opponent doesn’t let them do what they want to, and many in this young group haven’t seemed to accept that they can’t just exert their physical will every night and expect to win. That might still happen; the last 2 seasons saw the young guys look a lot better in March than they did in December. But young don’t win in the NBA, for physical and mental reasons.

    Here’s the main reasons behind their offensive slide, in my mind: poor spacing by design and by the players’ lack of court awareness, Towns doesn’t roll often after setting a screen, the young guys hold the ball too long and turn it over too much, their best defenders haven’t stretched the floor aside from Rubio’s recent hot streak (it’s totally true that Prince shoots long twos because defending the elite scorers puts too much fatigue on his legs), they refuse to do anything that would help their good vet scorers (Martin, Pek, Bjelica) get into a rhythm, and their main sets feature way too much of bigs handling the ball early in the shot clock. Bjelica has probably been taught his entire career to move the ball and make the defense work; he comes here, gets the ball with about 18 seconds on the shot clock, instinctively passes it, then doesn’t get it back. The opponent wants Towns to shoot that elbow jumper early in the clock because it puts no pressure on the defense and gets none of his teammates involved.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 01/20/2016 - 02:25 pm.

    An offense that is going to use pace and space as its foundation needs quick decision makers (do not hold the ball), do not have that, need court spacers, nope, need natural cutters and movers, Wolves have ball stoppers and standers, need well rounded players, catch, pass, drive & shoot (how many Wolves players have those 4 qualities). The Wolves are not a good NBA team right now end of story. The good news is they have 2 pieces to work around, style of play should determine what pieces stay and what other unproven pieces go. The whole point of the rest of this season should be to see who compliments Towns and Wiggins

Leave a Reply