It was supposed to be the second-coming of Showtime. The scoreboard was supposed to spin like rows in a slot machine, while the abaci ran amok, the wooden beads required to register the point totals too numerous to be contained. The 2021-22 Minnesota Timberwolves were supposed to count to 120 in bunches of twos, threes, and complimentary free throws, and they were supposed to do it in ways that left your mouth open.
After all, the Wolves have Anthony Edwards, able to leap tall building-sized people in a single bound — just ask that hapless leviathan from the Toronto Raptors — and treats NBA-certified hoops like those Fisher Price plastic contraptions you abused as a five-year old. For hair-pulling grins and giggles, he’ll toss in an impromptu Euro-step before a slam or the off-handed scoop and help you relive it in his description after the game.
The Wolves have Karl-Anthony Towns, the most efficient multi-purpose scoring big man in the history of the NBA. Too grandiose? Okay what Basketball God do you want to slay by comparison? Larry Bird? The Legend shot 49.6% from the field and 37.6% from long range. KAT counters with 52.6% and 39.9%, respectively, although Bird has him in free throw percentage, 88.6% to 83.4%. Or let’s go contemporary with Kevin Durant. The current MVP candidate has career marks of 49.5%, 38.4% and 88.2% for a true shooting percentage of 61.5%. That’s good enough to rank 11th all time in the NBA.
KAT is 7th all time in true shooting percentage. The six players ahead of him are a bevy of rim-runners: Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan among active players; Artis Gilmore, Tyson Chandler and Cornbread Maxwell among the retired; and Steph Curry. That’s it. If you are looking for one player who can deliver a trey from the slot, a jump hook from five-feet out, a midrange pick-and-pop and a gritty putback in traffic on the offensive glass, KAT is currently your best bet.
The Wolves have D’Angelo Russell, a cat-and-mouse maestro who specializes in changing your mind about the quality of his shot selection. When DLo is corralled by three players at midrange distance, he often literally has the upper hand, creating a circle of confusion that begins with stop-and-go dekes, followed by slow up-fakes to entice fouls on his jumper. Or, failing that, a burst of extension by those spidery arms with a flick of the wrist at the apex. The whole process looks like a strategic blunder right up until the ball goes through the net.
As part of his greatest hits package, DLo is also noticeably adept at playing “Variation on a Theme by James Harden,” featuring a low-dribble incursion like an audacious movie-goer cutting into line the moment the velvet rope is lowered. He holds the ball outstretched (in case the newly displaced opponent wants to take a whack at it) before tossing it toward the hoop while stumbling forward as he feels or anticipates contact. Last, but certainly not least in his arsenal, is a pull-up three-pointer, executed in rhythm off his dribble down the court.
Unlike KAT, none of this is especially efficient, but when DLo is the third-best scorer on your roster, your offense figures to be robust.
Two more characters belong in this should-be-Showtime narrative. One is Malik Beasley, a tightrope walker in the precariously narrow lanes where three-pointers can be launched from the corners. Willowy as a blade of grass, Beasley’s invasive catch-and-shoot from these areas is a study in suave contortion. Ballet fans would appreciate the way he receives the ball in full scamper, using his momentum to twist his torso in line with the basket as his leap sends him flying toward the baseline, his arms raising to lock the load of his jumper, the shot set free when its straight-line path to the hoop is shortest, the ball going through the bucket at roughly the same time his feet hit the hardwood.
Then there is head coach Chris Finch, whose long tenure as an assistant coach stamped him as a guru of offensive innovation, a guy who helped structure the offense around Harden in Houston and mentored Nikola Jokic in Denver and Zion Williamson in New Orleans, while also figuring out a way to synergize seven-footers Boogie Cousins and Anthony Davis in their brief time together in the Crescent City. Finch is known for the freedom he accords his most potent scorers, flexing the structure to accommodate skills while preaching that ball movement and player movement off the ball are the path to points prosperity.
It is not unreasonable to regard these components as a recipe for some highly productive razzle-dazzle. Maybe not to the standards of Steph and company in Golden State or the Durant-Harden tandem in Brooklyn, but a highly entertaining showcase that seemingly has every right to rank among the ten best offenses in the NBA.
Not 24th — which is where the Wolves offense currently ranks more than a quarter of the way through the 2021-22 season.
Lesser than the sum of its parts
The offensive woes of the Wolves have been at least partially camouflaged by the style and tenacity of their defense. Coming into the season, the thinking was that if the team could elevate their defense to the brink of sub-mediocrity, a titch below average, Ant, KAT and the crew would provide the firepower to merit newfound respectability for the franchise.
In fact, the opposite has occurred. Most of the signature highlights this season have been generated by a marauding band of hustling ball-hawks; rude, chaos-inducing pieces that pickpocket dribbles, swat shots with abandon and dive down to the floor (or into the front rows) tussling for the balls they have just dislodged.
This defense is responsible for the Wolves current 11-13 record, which could be much better if all that sweet offensive talent could muster sub-mediocre efficiency, just a titch below average. As it is, the hustle-boys — Jarred Vanderbilt, Patrick Beverley, Josh Okogie — are already providing a big boost via the transition points being scored off turnovers and the second-chance points being secured via offensive rebounds. It’s not a coincidence that the Wolves score their most points on a per-possession basis when Vanderbilt and Beverley are on the court.
Which belatedly begs the question: Why can’t the Wolves offense at the least be the sum of their marvelous parts?
Of clankers and corners
Most obviously, it starts with the fact that at least two of the Wolves top four scorers are clanking shots that they are accustomed to making.
I spent my previous column extolling the surprising defensive virtues and the prolific clutch scoring of DLo. But overall, his shooting has been miserable. He is converting just 38.2% of his field goals and 32.3% of the three-pointers, both career lows here in his seventh NBA season. The long-range misses are especially costly because they comprise more than 51% of his shot mix this season, a career-high.
But DLo is also struggling with another of his signature moves on offense — the cat-and-mouse game from the short midrange described above, abetted by the floater off dribble-penetration from a similar distance. Last season DLo sank 48.1% of his shots taken 3-to-10 feet away from the hoop. This season that accuracy has plummeted to a career-low 34%, well off his career mark of 42.6%.
Consequently, there is no reason for DLo to be shooting almost exactly as often as KAT each game. The sample size is too large to argue for him “shooting his way out of it”; better to be setting up his powerhouse teammates. He was originally acquired by former president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas to run the pick-and-roll with KAT. But Finch is not a big proponent of the play. The Wolves utilize the “pick and roll ballhandler” playtype just 14% of their possessions, which is 26th in the NBA for frequency. In terms of points scored per possession, they rank 24th. When it comes to play types involving the “pick and roll roll man,” the 5.3% frequency of its usage ranks 23rd in the NBA, while the scoring efficiency jumps to 12th in terms of points scored per possession.
In other words, be it the pick and roll, the dribble handoff, the post up or whatever, more dimes and fewer shot attempts should be in DLo’s future, at least until he gets his shooting rhythm back or experiences the productive adrenaline rush that seems to elevate his offense in crunchtime.
The other clanker is Beasley. Even buttressed by a breakout 6-for-13 performance Monday night in the Wolves loss to Atlanta, his three-point accuracy is a paltry 33.5%, the lowest since his rookie season in 2016-17, and dreadful for a specialist who has launched three-quarters of his field-goal attempts (74.3%) from behind the arc. Beasley arrived in camp uncharacteristically out of shape. But as someone who has always maintained that he improves with longer rotations, the fact that he comes off the bench may be a greater hurdle this season, psychologically more than physically.
Unlike DLo, Beasley can’t afford to cut back too much on his scoring for the sake of ball movement — his role is almost exclusively as a deadeye floor-spacer. Fortunately, there is a handy adjustment to be made: Get that dude into the corners.
It turns out that Beasley remains money doing the tightrope dance, nailing 44.1% of his corner treys, a little bit above his 43.8% career average. Which means his accuracy on three-pointers above-the-break conjure flashbacks to the days when Treveon Graham, Allen Crabbe and Shabazz Napier were denting rims from distance for the 2019-20 Timberwolves.
Given that almost the entire Wolves roster is tragicomically reminiscent of that sordid phase, the hope has to be that now that he is in shape and getting steady reps off the bench, Beasley can regain some accuracy from above-the-break while getting more looks in the corner.
Ant’s growing pains
The negative factors involving KAT and Ant in the Wolves offense are more nuanced and less severe. At the same time, the ability of the team’s two most potent scorers to scrub some of those blemishes and tap into their phenomenal virtues remains the most realistic way for the Wolves to ascend in offensive efficiency, and, in turn, rise in the standings.
In retrospect, Ant is the victim of unreasonable expectations, brought on by the steady strides he made during his rookie season. His true shooting percentage rose every month from January to May, to the point where in 8 May games he shot 52.8% from the field, 40.6% from distance, and 79.2% on an average six free throws per game. In the first 24 games of this season, he has settled into a level of offensive productivity more akin to the entire post-All Star break period of last season rather than that glorious final month. For those who figured he’d flirt with All Star recognition in season two, it’s inevitably disappointing.
My bias, shared by Finch, is that a player as explosive as Ant shouldn’t bail out opposing defenses by jacking up three-pointers with below-average accuracy. But Finch has a better perspective and thus more patience, calling Edwards a “home-run hitter,” whose ability to catch fire and suddenly harness everything in his tool bag can transform the course of an entire game. Finding that flammability more consistently is a crucial phase in his development, one that will blossom more organically if Ant figures most of it out by himself via trial-and-error.
Do you want the unofficial slam-dunk champion of live NBA games to be using 45% of his shot mix on three-pointers, when he is splashing a mere 34.1% of them?
You do not. Especially when you consider that his free throw rate has remained the same even as his shot attempts have climbed. (The crackdown on whistles shouldn’t be a factor here. Unlike the James Harden crew, Ant at his best is compelling shooting fouls with sheer force rather than beguiling them through trickery, which is what the NBA is working to erase.)
But here’s the rub: With some notable exceptions, volume shooters like Ant aren’t going to be as efficient as glue guys and secondary scorers on a team. Right now he is 8th in the NBA in three-point attempts per game. But of the other 19 players in the top 20, ten of them are shooting less accurately than Ant — including a gaggle of All Stars like Dame Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Jason Tatum, Lebron James, Paul George and Luka Doncic — and nine are shooting at a higher percentage.
Now contrast that with shots at the rim, Ant’s lauded specialty and the field goal distance of choice for me and many others. Currently, Edwards has the 10th most attempts per game in the “restricted area” among NBA players. But of the other players in the top 20, only Russell Westbrook has a lower shooting percentage than Ant’s 60.5%, and that isn’t because big men comprise most of the list; Ja Morant, Jimmy Butler and Zach LaVine are among those finishing more effectively.
Sure, math tells you that 60.5% on drives to the hoop is still more efficient than 34.1% from three-point territory. But the discrepancy — and Ant’s primacy in that realm — isn’t as definitive as you’d imagine.
Suffice to say that at age 20, Ant has room to grow, and thus a right to “growing pains.”
The impact of KAT’s ‘stray voltage’
Of all the players on the Wolves roster, KAT bears the least blame for the team’s offensive woes. As he toils in his seventh season on the Wolves, playing at a pace that would land him third in franchise history in minutes-played by this spring, fans have come to take his nonpareil shooting for granted. Right now he is nailing a career-high 45.2% of his treys on 5.9 attempts per game. His true shooting percentage is a gaudy 62.3, just a tad higher than the career 62.1 that is the seventh highest in NBA history.
A glance at the numbers says the fastest way to improve the Wolves numbers is to get him more looks and shots from behind the arc. It is mind-numbing to see him ranked fourth on the team in three-point frequency: DLo, Ant and Beasley, in that order, all jack them up more often, none of above 34.1%. The temptation increases when you note that KAT is enduring a career-low accuracy on two-pointers, albeit at a still-nifty 53.3%.
Opponents have learned to guard KAT with a smaller, more mobile defender — from power forwards to Indiana point guard Malcolm Brogdan — and then double-team with size and brawn from different angles. It has flummoxed him and caused to generate more turnovers than assists for the first time since his rookie season.
A significant proportion of those turnovers are offensive fouls, continuing a trend from last season, when KAT was called for 50 offensive fouls in 50 games. This season he has 24 offensive fouls in 24 games. Compare that to the playoff season of 2017-18, when he had 46 offensive fouls in 82 games.
This is all part of “stray voltage,” a fantastic phrase coined by Finch to describe the extraneous hubbub that courses through KAT’s mind and body when he is being besieged by an effective double-team. When you consider that more of KAT’s turnovers have occurred via offensive fouls this season than him losing the ball (15), and almost as many as his bad passes (28), it has an impact on the offense.
Hawks offer a stark contrast
The solution here, and elsewhere, is better ball movement, and movement off the ball. They have long been the hallmarks of a Finch-designed offense, the things he told me this past summer are key components to team chemistry and winning hoops.
Throughout training camp, the Wolves concentrated on defense, assuming that their raw offensive talent would naturally coalesce. It was a miscalculation made forgivable by how thoroughly that defensive emphasis has bolstered the team’s prospects and shaped its identity. But the truth is that the Big 3 of KAT, Ant and DLo do not yet possess the wherewithal and perhaps commitment to make each other better while lifting up a relatively uninspired supporting cast at the offensive end.
As is his wont, Finch didn’t call out his team very directly, preferring to say that the pressure on KAT and DLo and the youth of Ant made each determined to win games by making plays on their own more often than was optimal. He decried the baton-passing but was more vocal about the improved sharing and synergy when it began to emerge.
But with the Wolves suffering injuries and illnesses on the roster while falling back under .500 during a two-game losing streak, the issue of ball movement became more acute when the Hawks arrived at Target Center on Monday. Led but by no means dominated by Trey Young, Atlanta put on a clinic of offensive teamwork, converting an incredible 25 of 49 three-point attempts, the most treys ever allowed by the Wolves and the most ever made by the Hawks. A whopping 31 of the team’s 40 baskets were assisted, compared to 22 dimes on 39 makes for the Wolves.
Yes, KAT had 31 points, Beasley splashed for 24 and Ant chipped in 20 on 19 shots. But the difference between Atlanta’s rapid ball movement, its spacing, its ability to keep making the extra pass until it found a comfortable shooter right in the pocket of his shooting stroke — and its overall unselfish deliberation — was stark.
When I asked about the lack of ball movement after the game, Finch eagerly pounced on the point, uncharacteristically singling out KAT and Ant (DLo was out with an ankle injury). “It’s way too sticky,” he said, his pet phrase for stagnant ball movement. “Our two main guys, the ball is holding too much. We’ve got to trust the ball movement…that’s the stuff we’ve been preaching to them all the time.”
Even after making more than 40% of their threes Monday, the Wolves find themselves 24th in the NBA in offensive efficiency in large part due to ranking 24th in three-point accuracy and fourth-to-last in field goal accuracy. Despite all their firepower, featuring three potent scorers that should be able space the floor and magnetize defenders, they are 26th in assist to turnover ratio.
Showtime has been postponed, perhaps cancelled. There is sufficient talent on the roster and expertise on the coaching staff to resuscitate hope for its eventual appearance.