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Flip Saunders, Andrew Wiggins, and the three point line

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For all of the ruckus over the exact wording of Flip's quote, the truth remains that his basic premise is wrong

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

If you were one of the brave (or foolish...) souls who stayed up past 9pm last night to watch the Wolves' West Coast Tanking Tour, I imagine you inevitably came across this at some point during your bedtime reading.

First of all, those of you who are on Twitter have surely noticed that Wolves PR is salty about this. Don't hold it against him. King works inside the factory. He has a job to do; it's not his fault his boss drops nightmare briefs on his desk at 9pm.

Second, the mayhem around this quote started when Ben Golliver tweeted out the one line and slightly changed the wording.

The basic summary of my thoughts here boil down to this:

  1. The difference between 'major' and 'main' is academic at best
  2. Regardless of what Flip meant, the truth of his actions lies in the box scores

This morning, A Wolf Among Wolves' Steve McPherson had one of his best ideas yet: he called longtime NBA trainer and TrueHoop guru David Thorpe, and asked him what he thought about Flip's quote. Read it. It's beyond amazing.

Thorpe's take on the situation mirrors my own (which, in my oh so humble opinion, also mirror y'know...reality...) The precise wording and context of Flip's statement isn't what's important; what's important is his premise is wrong.

Okay, sure. If by 'main', Flip means three pointers shouldn't be Wiggins' calling card a la Ray Allen or Reggie Miller, then you can technically say he's correct. But I don't think anyone who can read between the lines really believes Flip was making that precise of a distinction, and further - especially for those that read between the line - the difference overall is rather pointless.

Here's what's important: by saying what he did...regardless of the exact words he used...Flip essentially said that not only should Wiggins not be shooting threes, but he's actively keeping Wiggins from shooting threes.

This is wrong. Anything that implies Wiggins should not be shooting threes, or that the three point line in general is not important, is wrong.

Three point shooting is definitely not the highest priority on Wiggins' to-do list. That would be working on his handles, without question. As we talked about over the summer and have reiterated all season, the weakest part of Andrew's game....by far....is his high dribble and lack of control, which bleeds into practical numbers in the form of turnovers and a low assist rate. Thus far this season, Wiggins has 51 'handling' turnovers alone (getting stripped, dribbling off a foot or out of bounds, etc). For reference, Corey freakin' Brewer has just 34 of them. Combine that with Andrew's 35 passing turnovers, and ooff - you can see why he needs work in this area.

Wiggins is almost certainly never going to be a wing facilitating phenom. I feel pretty safe in saying his handles won't ever reach the level of a LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, or James Harden. Certainly he won't get to the stratosphere of Scottie Pippen, Grant Hill or Tracy McGrady. Those guys were 6'7"-6'8" point guards. Wiggins isn't going to be a point guard - he isn't going to be a guy you give the ball to every possession and let him create a play for the whole team.

Which is fine. That's what Ricky Rubio is for. In fact, not having Rubio be the initiator on offense is a waste of his talent, especially since his shooting isn't reliable enough for him to be useful away from the ball.

But here's the thing: the cascade effect of shooting to handles it pretty direct in high usage players. Players who are shooting threats can use that as an advantage to propel the other parts of their game, because it splits the attention of the defense into that many more possibilities.

So the first reason Wiggins should be shooting threes is to help mitigate his shaky ballhandling. Wiggins is pretty solid attacking the basket in straight line drives, but he struggles to get past set defenses and is almost hopeless (at this point) at lateral probing to set up his teammates. Being a shooting threat that you can't back off of is a great first step towards giving Wiggins a head start on putting the ball on the deck more.

Thorpe:

So if he doesn't ever develop his ballhandling, adding a 3-point shot definitely adds a lot to his overall ability. And for Wiggins the guy I think he should study is James Harden, for the reasons I just explained to you — he's got to be better off the dribble.

...he looks like he could be a guy who could be a 40 percent 3-point shooter in a few seasons — he's not going to do it for a year or two. But it's such a viable weapon and it just adds another component to his game and for teams to prepare for him. If you gotta run him off the line, that gives him a lot of opportunities to blow by you with that kind of speed. He doesn't need great ballhandling skills to blow by you if you have to close out the 3-point shot.

I mean, that seem....pretty obvious, doesn't it? Like, obvious in a way that a coach who's goal is to help players get better should be able to connect the dots and go 'this will help my player get better'. Right?

Second, we should resent - on a very fundamental level - Flip's implication that Wiggins is only capable of developing one facet of his game at a time. That's disingenuous to say, and flies in the face of all known basketball training programs and routines.

Thorpe -

Here's the thing: You don't just say — as someone who does this for a living — I don't go into a summer with a player saying, "We're just going to do this." We build out a plan where we incorporate a few things that we want to add or improve on or tweak, as well as some general maintenance. Guys that are really special ballhandlers, we don't just ignore dribbling because they're good at it. We would try to pick the areas where we should have the biggest impact the quickest and then we also plant a seed.

If I had him [Wiggins] for two months, we would do a ton of ballhandling, we would continue the work in the post — I don't think they play him in the post as much as they could. And then we would do a lot of threes. I think that's the best way to make him more efficient. The ballhandling and the post-ups get him to the free throw line more and 3-pointers are worth an extra point every time you make one. That's the best way to improve his production and efficiency quickly.

Flip's implication is something to the effect of Wiggins can't shoot threes...or even work on his three point shot...because it's too much for him to do that and work on attacking the basket at the same time. No one should buy that.

Third, there is the plain reality that Wiggins is already a decent three point shooter. He shot 36% from the great beyond up through the All Star break. So if he can shoot the three, what benefit is there in having him not shoot the three? Why artificially limit what a player does on the floor, particularly when it's something that player is perfectly capable of?

The fact that there isn't a good answer to that question is precisely why Flip shouldn't be coaching this team.

Perhaps the most inexplicable part of all this is Flip's statement directly contradicts his earlier assertion that he does not tell anyone to not shoot threes. There is hard, numerical evidence that he does in fact do exactly that. The truth of the matter is in the simple box scores: the Wolves are dead last in three point attempts this year, and Wiggins has been attempting less than a single three per game since February 1st. (remember again, he was shooting 36% from three up to that point) And that is a trend for Saunders teams that goes back more than a decade.

A very significant part of the objections against Flip assuming head coaching duties this season were due to his historically non-modern offense that emphasized mid-range action (the least efficient shot in basketball) and de-emphasizes the three point line (the second-most efficient shot in basketball). This isn't just conjecture - it's historical fact. In his years as a coach since 2000, Saunders' teams have ranked thus in three point attempts:

  • 2000 Wolves - 28th
  • 2001 Wolves - 25th
  • 2002 Wolves - 21st
  • 2003 Wolves - 27th
  • 2004 Wolves - 27th
  • 2005 Wolves - 21st
  • 2006 Pistons - 10th
  • 2007 Pistons - 15th
  • 2008 Pistons - 22nd
  • 2008 Wizards - 25th
  • 2009 Wizards - 24th
  • 2010 Wizards - 27th
  • 2011 Wizards - 27th
  • 2015 Wolves - 30th

First, note how Flip took the Pistons from tenth to twenty-second in 3pt attempts in a mere three seasons. That's definitive proof his system actively and intentionally eschews the three point line, regardless of what he tells you. And makes a compelling case that, while they were losing to the champs in the Eastern Conference Finals, Saunders still squandered that team.

Second, this flat busts up his quote from earlier this year that he doesn't have the team shoot threes because they don't have the players to shoot them. Which was always half-baked from the start, with Kevin Martin, Wiggins, Mo Williams and (eventually) Shabazz on the roster. But it turns out that has never been the case. Even disregarding that his Pistons teams had Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, the 2004 Wolves season exposes his lie.

Sam Cassell shot 39% from three that year. Fred Hoiberg shot 44%. Latrell Sprewell shot 34%. Wally Sizzlerbean (for the 28 games he played) shot 43% and Troy Hudson shot 40%. The Wolves had nothing but the personnel to shoot threes and they were still 27th in attempts.

This is not how a moden NBA team functions. It's just not. The correlation between shooting from deep and winning games in the modern NBA is very well established, and if you don't believe that then I'm not sure what else to tell you.

So there it is. What's the difference between 'main part' and 'major part'? My answer: who cares? Three point shooting is a crucially important part of both player development and modern basketball playbooks, and Flip is actively limiting Wiggins and his team in that regard. Whether or not you believe the technical wording matters, the bottom line is that what Flip said is rooted in the truth of what Flip does. That is what's important and that's why his statement became this thing it is now.