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Wednesday Musings: Three-Point Shooting and Offense

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Is the Wolves lack of three-point shooting going to be a problem?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves are not going to be shooting a ton of threes next year. This was always going to be the case after the Zach LaVine trade for Jimmy Butler, but the free agency signings of Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson have made this even more likely. Teague is an average three-point shooter, but at low-volume, and Gibson dare not venture beyond the paint. As of now, the starting five of Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Gorgui Dieng/Taj Gibson, and Karl-Anthony Towns would combine (using their per game three attempts from last year) for 13.8 threes per game. Zach LaVine himself took 6.6 threes per game.

Is this really going to be a problem for the Wolves?

We kind of assume that more threes equals better offense in the modern NBA. The math makes it simple, as threes are simply a more efficient shot than many other shots on the floor. This is why we care about effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage rather than just raw shooting percentage numbers. Players and teams get a bump in efficiency by making more threes.

So let’s take a look at the teams who shot the most threes last year.

Highest amount of three-point attempts:

  1. Rockets - 40.3
  2. Cavs - 33.9
  3. Celtics 33.4
  4. Nets - 31.6
  5. Warriors - 31.2
  6. Mavericks - 30.2
  7. 76ers - 29.8
  8. Nuggets - 28.8
  9. Hornets - 28.6
  10. Blazers - 27.7

30. Wolves - 21.0

Now let’s take a look at the top ten teams as ranked by offensive rating.

  1. Warriors - 113.2
  2. Rockets - 111.8
  3. Cavaliers - 1010.9
  4. Clippers - 100.3
  5. Nuggets - 110.0
  6. Raptors - 109.8
  7. Spurs - 108.8
  8. Celtics - 108.6
  9. Wizards - 108.5
  10. Timberwolves - 108.1

While a both of these lists have quite a few teams in common, the Warriors, Rockets, Cavaliers, Nuggets, and Celtics, there are still a few teams that drop off from the top-ten entirely.

11. Blazers - 107.8

14. Hornets - 106.4

23. Mavericks - 103.7

28. Nets - 101.9

30. 76ers - 100.7

This, of course, is an extremely simplistic way to look at offenses and three-point shooting. League-wide trends show how the benefits of three-point shooting are more than just good offenses, as the spacing that three-point shooting creates makes things easier for guards to drive into the lane. It essentially spreads the floor and makes defenses work harder, while at the same time making offenses get better shots.

No team makes this more clear than the ultimate three-point shooting team, the Golden State Warriors, as defenders are terrified of leaving Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant for a second. This creates huge lanes in a defense as help defenders cannot make effective rotations.

However, no team has those players. No team has these types of three-point shooters that are also good playmakers and defenders. That is why the Warriors are historic.

Instead, what this comparison between three-point shooting and offensive rating can show us is maybe that it just more important to be a good team rather than playing the most “effective” way. This boils back into the idea of the importance of processes, which Canis Hoopus has always been a big fan of (although trusting the process is debatable). In essence, good process leads to good results more times than not. This is why teams like the 76ers and Nets have been heralded as building teams for the new NBA. They may not have good offenses, or the right players at the moment, but they certainly are shooting a lot of threes and working in a pace and space style system.

This is probably the Spurs fault. Everyone wants to be the Spurs. Like how the Hawks were supposed to be the “Spurs of the East.” Unfortunately, the NBA may not be all about processes.

The Spurs have had the benefit of always having a top-ten NBA player in Tim Duncan and now Kawhi Leonard. That is basically the only way to be good in the NBA. With those teams that ranked top-10 in offensive rating last year, eight of them are the eight best teams in the NBA.

The only odd ones out are the Nuggets and Wolves. The Nuggets essentially unleashed their offense by building around Nikola Jokic and going small, shooting a lot of threes and having a good mix of young talent and veterans who fit the team. They have the right “process” on offense.

The Wolves, well, just have talent. Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl Anthony-Towns are just going to make a team have a good offense regardless of what style of play. Next year, with Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague on board, the Wolves would be hard pressed not to have just as good of an offense. Butler, Wiggins, and Towns are going to score buckets and Wiggins is going to have an immensely easier time without the spotlight on him all the time.

This then becomes a defense of the Wolves strategy this free agency, as the Taj Gibson signing is certainly controversial. What many of us thought this year has become extraordinarily clear, which is that Tom Thibodeau is not interested in pursuing what the latest strategy is in the league. The Wolves are not going to shoot a lot of threes, nor focus on spacing the floor. What he is right about is that the Wolves probably don’t need to do those things in order to have a top-ten offense. They already have the talent for that.