The Jimmy Butler era is over, which will affect the Timberwolves in multiple ways. Obviously the locker room will change greatly, and so will the makeup of the roster as a one on one player was replaced with a primarily off ball threat in Robert Covington, and a stretch four with nice playmaking ability in the form of Dario Saric.
This Timberwolves team has been very solid offensively in the Tom Thibodeau era if you look at the numbers. The team were 4th in offensive efficiency last year with the scheme built around Jimmy Butler but even before him, they ranked 10th in offensive efficiency without any real outside shooting. This year, the team sits in the middle of the pack at 15th, which is puzzling as the team added more shooting in the off-season.
My take on the Timberwolves sets has been the same for a long time, I think they are good, but horribly flawed, and will struggle against the very best teams. The Timberwolves most valuable offensive weapon is Karl-Anthony Towns, but the sets have never really been built around him. Last year I gave Thibodeau a slight pass because Jimmy Butler was a supreme talent who needs the ball in his hands to function. But without Jimmy Butler this year, the sets were still really built around the ball handlers controlling the ball. This has continued the trend of Towns really only gets his shots in the flow of the offense.
The sets are nearly all built around Jimmy Butler. He needs the ball in his hands and he likes to use his physicality to bully his way to the basket. His ability as a one on one player is the core principle in the offensive game plans of Tom Thibodeau. The Wolves run very few screens, and there is often a lack of player movement as they use one on one play to create favorable switches. This is where Taj Gibson is so important to the Wolves, as he can take advantage of smaller players inside which explains his astronomical 58% field goal percentage last year.
The issue for the Wolves now, is that the sets are not going to work. In my opinion they were greatly flawed anyway, notably with how they maximized Towns. The great offensive minds such as Alvin Gentry, Mike Budenholzer and Gregg Popovich have multiple ways to get their bigs involved in the game. Sadly for Timberwolves fans, Thibodeau only really has two: post-ups and pick and rolls. The Rockets’ series in the playoffs last year was a painful and stark reminder that the Wolves usage of Towns is not up to scratch. Clint Capela did an outstanding job of continuously denying the post entry pass. KAT maybe deserves some criticism for not being assertive enough in the series, but this is a weak and lazy argument. If a simple denial of the post entry pass can take your generationally talented offensive big man completely out of the game, you have utterly failed as an offensive coordinator and game-planner. The likes of Anthony Davis and LaMarcus Aldridge are also denied post entry passes routinely, but their coaches actually have other ways to get them involved in the game. It’s much easier to build your offensive sets around guards as they start the possession with the ball in their hands. It’s much harder to build sets around big men, and this is where Thibs has really failed offensively in Minnesota.
Poor shots and a lack of action: Diagnosing the Timberwolves Offense:
My main issue with the Wolves offense is that it does not really use enough player movement. The Wolves have been dead last in off-screen usage in every year Tom Thibodeau has coached the team, and this had made them relatively easy to play against. There is also poor shot selection with this team. Some of that is no doubt on the players, but a lot of the sets and plays aren’t diverse enough with enough wrinkles in them. The play below is an example of this.
This is a terrible possession for the Wolves. Three players are stood still and it is a 3-4 PnR with a below average jump shooter as the ball handler, and a big without any real downhill ability in Taj Gibson. At the beginning of the play, the Nets were denying Towns the ball and essentially telling the Wolves to give it to someone else. The major issue I have with the Wolves as a team, is that they just accept this. The best teams have a variety of ways to get their best players involved, but Minnesota just seem to allow him to float out of the game and allow Wiggins, Rose and Teague to do what they want on the perimeter. It leads to a lot of poor possessions that don’t test the defense.
Towns’ usage percentage is actually second highest on the team this year which is an improvement, but it is not really good usage. Often, the Wolves just give him a poor entry post pass far away from the paint and ask him to go to work. You have to have core plays to generate easy buckets for your best players. Minnesota has very few of these.
While we are all in agreement that Towns usage is simplistic and not up to scratch, it makes sense to look at a couple of simple and core philosophies the Wolves could incorporate into their offensive sets in order to get more from their best player.
Emulate Steve Clifford’s usage of Nikola Vucevic:
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the Orlando Magic have actually been relatively exciting to watch this year. Steve Clifford has done an outstanding job maximizing a very limited group of players, but his use of Nikola Vucevic is very intriguing. You may have looked at the offensive efficiency rankings and seen the Magic lingering in 29th place, but this does not necessarily mean their sets are bad, it’s more of a reflection of their lack of talent. The Montenegrin is nowhere near as talented as Karl-Anthony Towns, but he has a coach who actually knows how to get the best out of big men. The 113.0 offensive rating that the Magic have with Vucevic out there emphasizes that Clifford knows what he’s doing.
The Magic have chiefly used Vucevic at the top of the key. The Magic have very few offensive play makers, so Clifford has tried to create as much gravity as humanly possible at the top of the key. The lack of a true ball handler has meant that Vucevic has really been used as their primary ball handler, which has been fun to watch. He is second on the team in usage, and his presence at the top of the key allows the likes of Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier to play off-ball, where they are at their best.
The play below is something the Magic have done repeatedly this year.
Vucevic receives the ball at the top of the key and there is the potential to initiate a dribble hand-off action. On the weak side, there is also a flare screen which causes defensive movement. The gravity created by the dribble hand-off option causes the Wizards defender to drop, and Vucevic nails the easy jump shot. My favorite thing about this play is that there is movement from players who are not necessarily involved. The best offensive sets involve everyone in some way, and this is somewhere the Timberwolves fail in terms of using their off-ball players.
Karl-Anthony Towns should create more gravity than any big in the NBA has since prime Dirk Nowitzki, but the lack of variety in the usage is something that hurts his ceiling.
The play below is another example of how the Magic use big-man action at the top of the key in order to create a better shot inside.
They open up the second half with a high PnR that develops into a dribble hand-off action. Once again, the Magic create gravity at the top of the key and the variety of player movement generates an easy bucket. Pick and Rolls should be able to be initiated in a variety of ways, and this is a great way to maximize a talented center.
Not only do the Magic use their talented big man at the top of the key, but they are creative with how they get him post-ups. The play below is an example of this.
The Magic open up with a double wing screen, in which it looks as if the read is to free up Evan Fournier for a three. However, Jayson Tatum switches the screen, and ends up on Nic Vucevic. This is a mismatch even with Tatum’s defensive skills, and Vucevic gets the easy bucket. This is another great example of a team finding an outside the box way to generate a post-up, rather than making it completely obvious you want to generate a post-up. This is the type of creativity that was missing in the Rockets series, and throughout the Thibodeau era.
Using a big man at the top of the key with player movement around him does great things. It frees up the paint for pick and rolls and drives, and the constant movement gives Vucevic the opportunity to attack the basket or initiate action. Karl Anthony-Towns would thrive in these kinds of sets, and the increased variety in usage would make him harder to defend. Right now, he lives and dies by PnRs with little action and simple post-ups, he needs to be optimized more and the Wolves offensive sets have to change.
Some might turn their nose up at copying stuff from a team ranked low in offensive efficiency, but Steve Clifford’s usage of Vucevic puts Thibodeau’s usage of Towns to shame. The actions above are the type that could turn KAT into an MVP Candidate.
Elbow Touches and downhill attacks: Emulate The Sacramento Kings’ Usage of Willie Cauley-Stein:
Once again, I cannot believe I am calling for the Wolves to emulate another notoriously bad team, but that’s the position we are in. The Kings have been a huge surprise package this year, and one of the things that has impressed me is the evolution of their offensive sets. They were notorious last year for running a slow offense through the decaying body of Zach Randolph in the post, but this year they have played at a nice pace and created great looks from beyond the arc.
You could feasibly argue that Willie Cauley-Stein has been the major reason for their offensive revival. Most of the attention has gone to the guards, but Cauley-Stein has simply been shredding people on the interior, notably from the elbow. The former Kentucky standout leads the NBA in touches at the elbow with 7.9 per game, and he also leads the NBA in field goals attempted from the elbow at 3.6 per game.
After doing some digging on the usage of centers at the elbow, I came away perplexed and slightly annoyed. The only leading centers who average less touches at the elbow than Karl-Anthony Towns are Brook Lopez, Draymond Green and Dwight Howard. In the grand scheme of things, this is absolutely mind boggling, as Towns is one of the most powerful centers in the NBA, and using him at the elbow would create driving angles everywhere and potentially give him an easy one on one path to the basket.
But overall, the lack of elbow touches is baffling, and a complete mis-use of his skillset. He is not an elite passing big in the mold of the likes of Al Horford and Nikola Jokic, but he has the skillset to simply scare teams out on the perimeter. The Kings do this with a much less talented offensive center in Willie Cauley-Stein, to great effect.
In the play below, the Kings signal their intent early.
Their opening play is designed to get Willie Cauley-Stein a one on one on the perimeter against a slower defender so he can attack. They run a ball screen to his right hand side in order to give the defense something else to think about. He then blitzes by Serge Ibaka for the easy score. The Kings will run a set like this around three or four times a game, and there is often a real chance that Cauley-Stein will attack the basket.
Karl-Anthony Towns would be deadly on a play such as this because the ability of him to knock down the jump shot would draw a defender in, and create an easier driving opportunity or room for cutters to attack the paint.
The Kings often use Cauley-Stein at the elbow to start other play-types too, quite often pick and rolls or give and go’s. You can see this below.
Sacramento use Cauley-Stein as the anchor at the elbow, and run everything around him. He sets a screen for Fox to attack the perimeter, which frees him up initially to receive the ball. He then initiates a fake DHO action with Fox, and then enters a DHO pick and roll with Buddy Hield before finishing at the rim. Once again, this is another great example of how to initially free up space for your big man, and then initiate a pick and roll without having to just run a simple high screen at the top.
Dave Joerger has not really been praised as an X’s and O’s guy throughout his time in the NBA, but his usage of Cauley-Stein this year has been so impressive. They use him to initiate a lot of their actions, and his reliability allows the fastest back-court in the NBA to get as much time off the ball as they do on the ball. Again, a lot of the things that other teams are doing could easily become staples of the Timberwolves offense, but the Wolves scheme lacks creativity, aggressiveness and modernity.
A Coaching Change is a necessity:
Tom Thibodeau is in his 60s, and he has coached in some way every year since 1981. The reality is, he is not going to change and adapt his schemes to meet the modern NBA. The offensive sets got the best out of Butler because his sets have always been isolation-heavy and about creating driving angles anyway, but he is not the type of mind who is going to maximize a talent like KAT.
Even without Jimmy Butler, these sets are going to be guard centric. Karl-Anthony Towns gets frozen out of games because the Wolves have perimeter players who primarily look to score, and because the sets are designed for these types of players. There is a lack of screening and forcing of switches in the Wolves scheme, and when lower tier teams are running better sets than you, it might be time to make a serious change.
This team’s problem according to the numbers is defense. But with the arrival of two skilled shooters in the form of Robert Covington and Dario Saric, there is a need for a change in offensive philosophy.. The need to go small with Covington at the four and the need to maximize Karl-Anthony Towns in the half-court means that the next Glen Taylor hire has to bring some creativity to that side of the ball.