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Is the Wolves’ Ridiculous Outside Shooting Sustainable?

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The short answer is almost certainly no, but let’s look at some numbers for fun anyway.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

While the Minnesota Timberwolves have started the young season just 2-5, they have shown a few signs of life that may not have been what most expected entering the season. Chief among those is that the Wolves are currently a top-5 offense in the league. They’ve been powered by their blazing hot three-point shooting, which at 41.4% comfortably leads the league.

Obviously, all of the numbers on this season’s Wolves are based on a tiny seven-game sample size, and it is very difficult to extrapolate meaningful conclusions from such little data. However, for something as strange as the Wolves being a killer three-point shooting team, it’s worth seeing how they are this good, and how fast they might fall off should the hot shooting subside.

First, that 41.4%, should the Wolves sustain it for the rest of the season, would be the third best three point shooting season in NBA history and only the eleventh team season ever to break 40% (the others are here). It would also be the first time that the Wolves led the NBA in three point percentage, after their previous best of third at 37.8% in 2001-02, which is also their current franchise record percentage.

It is also an enormous change from the past few years, which is what’s causing some of the immediate skepticism of these numbers.

Season 3P%
2016-17 (7 games) 41.4%
2015-16 33.8%
2014-15 33.2%
2013-14 34.1%
2012-13 30.5%
2011-12 33.2%
2010-11 37.6%

Given that this year’s Wolves’ roster hasn’t changed too much since last season, the enormous eight percent jump is a definite place to look for expected regression to the mean. The individual players making a jump also are prime targets to look for regression to career averages.

In our opening night predictions, I was the one who said that three different Wolves would shoot over 40% from beyond the arc this season. However, I picked Zach LaVine, Nemanja Bjelica and Brandon Rush, and only one of those three is currently doing what I expected.

Player 3P 3PA 3P% career 3P% difference
Zach LaVine 22 45 48.9% 38.3% +10.6%
Andrew Wiggins 14 22 63.6% 32.5% +31.1%
Karl-Anthony Towns 10 23 43.5% 36.0% +7.5%
Brandon Rush 3 11 27.3% 40.2% -12.9%
Nemanja Bjelica 4 17 23.5% 36.6% -13.1%
Tyus Jones 4 13 30.8% 30.3% +0.5%

Obviously, if Andrew Wiggins shoots over 60% from three in a season, there will be much rejoicing, but it doesn’t exactly seem likely. He and LaVine have both been on shooting tears since the All-Star Break last season and have started the season amazingly well, but it seems likely that a slump or some normalization will hit both of them at some point.

Towns is a more interesting case, since he is shooting more than triple the threes per game that he did last season, and has actually shot more total threes this season than Wiggins has. One would not expect Towns to be a 40% shooter from three, but we’ve also never seen anything like him before. If he’s actually this good, it’s just another element of devastation added to his already incredible game.

On the flipside, you would expect both Bjelica and Rush to find their way back towards their normal percentages as the year goes on. Rush has started the year remarkably cold, and hopefully a couple of games off this week can get him in the right place. Bjelica’s shown more willingness to shoot than he did early last season, and the shots have looked mostly good but not fallen yet, and that should trend positively as well.

With the their three highest volume three point shooters shooting comfortably above career percentages, we can probably expect the Wolves’ percentage as a team to drop down towards normalcy moving forward. However, if Wiggins is even a competent, 35%-ish outside shooter, that is a tremendous improvement and a huge addition to his game from last season. It would give the Wolves’ preferred starting lineup at least three competent shooters from three in Wiggins, LaVine and Towns, opening up all kinds of spacing possibilities.

The good news is, all of these shooters should have plenty of opportunities to make, miss, and improve their shots. The Wolves are currently averaging 21.7 attempted threes per game, which would be the most in franchise history over 2011-12’s 21.6 should they continue to take shots at this rate.

While defense was the main expectation of Tom Thibodeau’s entrance as head coach, and defense remains the team’s biggest problem moving forward, the modernization of the team’s offense currently has them off to the hottest outside shooting start in franchise history, and one hopes that they can continue it as a key part of their offense as every other part of the team grows up and improves.

Thanks to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com’s stats pages for all the data in the above story.