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What will the Wolves Pick and Roll Look Like?

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Some thoughts on Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins operating out of the pick and roll.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

So I ran across this tweet yesterday:

And, as I am wont to do, started to panic. But instead of wallowing in it, which I am also wont to do, when I got home I actually looked into it a bit, to see how problematic this actually is.

The short answer is: It isn’t ideal, but it’s not as bad as it sounds, and also it perhaps gives some insight into why Tom Thibodeau wanted to swap out Ricky Rubio for Jeff Teague, on which more later.

I don’t have access to Synergy unfortunately, so I made a group on NBA.com of all players who played 60+ games and finished 4.5+ plays (with a shot, free throws, or turnover) per game as the pick and roll ball handler last season. This gave me a group of 39 players consisting of primarily high volume wing scorers and point guards.

Even among this larger group, Butler and Wiggins were at the bottom of the list in eFG percentage. The reason for this is pretty obvious: They both took a lot of long two-point jumpers. 23 and 25 percent of their total shots respectively were in the 16’-arc range. These are not efficient shots, especially on the move and off the dribble, as in a pick and roll situation.

Compare that to the guy at the top of my group in eFG%, Kyle Lowry. Lowry has never taken as many long twos as our guys, but this past season he reduced it to an amazingly low 7.1 percent of his total shots. As a result he shot to the top of this list. Another example is the Wolves new point guard, Jeff Teague. Teague is in the middle of this list for eFG%, but significantly higher than Ricky Rubio (to say nothing of Wiggins and Butler,) and again, he took only 9 percent of his shots in the “long-two” area. (A bit worryingly, his percentage of attempts within three feet plummeted last season, and he took a lot more in the paint but not at the rim. A subject for another day.)

Those low eFGs are concerning, and absolutely do limit both Wiggins and Butler’s effectiveness in the pick and roll. However, both mitigate that by getting fouled a lot on these plays, and limiting their turnovers.

Let’s start with Butler. He appears on the list in both of the last two seasons, with similar results. Last season, among the defined group of players, he was the best at getting to the foul line, creating a shooting foul on over 20 percent of the pick and rolls he “finished” as the ball handler. This is ahead of renowned foul drawer James Harden. (Teague, by the way, was third at over 16 percent.)

Butler also had the seventh lowest turnover frequency among this group on PnR plays, at just over 11 percent.

The result of all of this is .91 points per play for Butler in these situations, which is right in the middle of the pack among this group of players. That put him in the 77th percentile of all players (not just this group) in PnR finishes as the ball handler. He was in a similar spot in 2015-16, with .89 PPP good for the 81st percentile (though 10th overall among this higher usage group.)

That’s good, but not great for your top weapon. It’s significantly behind other wing stars like Harden (93rd percentile,) Kawhi Leonard (93rd,) Gordon Hayward (87th,) and DeMar DeRozan (84th) this past season.

Of course, Jimmy Butler is also a very good passer of the ball, which further enhances his value as a pick and roll ball handler.

Turning to Wiggins, it’s a different situation. He’s a younger player who was thrust into the role of pick and roll ball handler for significant possessions for the first time last season, and it did not go all that well. Eventually, Thibs backed off that strategy, and how much it appears during the upcoming season will be interesting to watch, with both Butler and Teague on hand.

At any rate, much like Butler, though to a lesser extent, Wiggins mitigated his poor eFG% by getting to the line and limiting turnovers out of the PnR, though of course showed nothing like the passing chops Butler did. He was 16th and 12th respectively among the group in shooting foul frequency and turnovers. Not close to Butler’s level in either category, but much better than his bottom of the list shooting.

Still, as might be expected, the results were not great. He remained in the bottom third of the group in PPP, just behind guys like Dennis Schroder and Ish Smith, and just ahead of Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton. He was in the 60th percentile of all players on such plays, which, I suspect, is why Thibs reduced the focus on these plays in the second half of the season.

As mentioned, how Wiggins is used in the offense this season will be on the list of things to watch. Thibs has spoken of not “skipping steps” in development, and since the acquisition of Butler has compared their development more than once. That said, it’s clearly time to win, and whether Wiggins gets significant reps at something he really isn’t good at remains to be seen, especially with two other frequent PnR initiators in the lineup.

Which brings us to another issue: Context. Jimmy Butler’s most common five-man lineup consisted of Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, Taj Gibson, and Robin Lopez. As a team, the Bulls were 29th in three-point attempts per game, and 24th in percentage. Butler has not been playing with floor spacers of any kind, and other than Wade, nobody was setting picks for him that was a threat to score, which meant a clogged lane and lots of attention.

We are legitimately worried about the Wolves’ spacing for the coming season, but Butler now has something he’s never had: A KAT. Karl-Anthony Towns setting the screen on the pick and roll is a whole different animal than anything Butler has experienced before. A big man who cannot be left alone whether he rolls to the basket, pops or spaces on the perimeter.

Hopefully, that will reduce the traffic for him coming off the screen, and give him more opportunities to create better shots for himself. He also will not have the burden of carrying an entire offense, given Towns’ and Wiggins’ ability to score. The long-two is going to continue to be a part of his (and Wiggins’) game, it’s pretty baked in at this point. But I’m hoping for both a down-tick in frequency, especially off the dribble, and more open attempts with Towns drawing defensive attention.

While it won’t totally disappear, I’m expecting to see fewer opportunities for Wiggins as the ball handler in the pick and roll. Rather, I expect to see him take more spot-up threes (hopefully,) and make hay attacking a scrambling defense when the ball is swung to him out of initial PnR action. This takes better advantage of his current skills than being the primary ball handler and decision maker.

In any event, despite their poor shooting in such situations, I am confident the Wolves can have an effective pick and roll offense with Wiggins and especially Butler on the floor. Their ability to get to the line, limit turnovers, and in Butler’s case pass the ball helps, and the presence of KAT as a primary screen-setter should give Butler significantly better options as the ball handler.

How good the offense ultimately is depends on a lot of factors. Doing this bit of research has helped me think about the Wolves pick and roll game with their wings, which is what I’ve written about here, but has also raised other questions that I will explore in future articles, including how important Jeff Teague will be to this offense, and how reliant they are going to be on getting to the free throw line.

There are a lot of things to watch for with this new-look Wolves team, and it should be fun doing it.