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How the Timberwolves have Defied the ‘Modern NBA’ to Achieve Offensive Success

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NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

During the 1999-2000 NBA season, the Golden State Warriors ranked 15th in the league attempting 13 three pointers per game. This year, the Oklahoma City Thunder are league average while heaving 29.2 a night, and the Houston Rockets lead the NBA with an astounding 43.3 attempts on average.

In the same 99-00 season the Cleveland Cavaliers generated 34.5% of their offense off of mid-range jumpers, landing them 15th in the league. This year, the Boston Celtics’ 13.1% ranks 15th.

An obvious evolution into what is widely dubbed the modern NBA has been guided by open embracement of a simple statistical fact: that connecting on three point shots at a slightly lower rate is preferable to making mid-range two pointers at a marginally higher rate.

Front Offices and Coaches are being forced to reevaluate the way they build and structure their team. And it’s working; the gradual, and then sudden shift in philosophy has made NBA offenses better as a whole. The average offensive rating has risen by 3.4, from 101.8 to 105.2, between 2000 and 2018.

Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey has utilized an appropriate collection of talent to epitomize this modern mind-set. The 2017-18 Rockets are scoring more than 50% of their points off of three pointers and just 5.6% from the mid-range. It has provided them the league’s second best offensive rating (112.5), trailing only the Golden State Warriors.

But the team that follows those two in the hierarchy of efficient offenses - the Minnesota Timberwolves - has been an obvious laggard in implementing such an approach.

The Wolves are generating 21.3% of their points from beyond the arc, a number that ranks dead last and has been declining all season. On an average night they give up a net nine points at the three-point line.

They’ve seemingly traded these shots for an increasing amount of mid-range jumpers, where their 16.4% of production ranks fifth of 30 teams.

Regardless, the Wolves’ offense has improved month over month all the while diverging from the game plan that is guiding the rest of the league. Their 110.8 offensive rating is third best in the NBA, ahead of high-octane groups like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors.

They’ve achieved this unlikely feat by combining historic turnover success, an elite free-throw margin, and a roster of confident and capable one-on-one players.

Turnover Battle

The Wolves have proven to be adept at avoiding turnovers and pesky in forcing opponents into them. They rank top two in the NBA in turnovers per 100 possessions, both committed (13) and forced (16.5). The only units to have ended a season among the best two teams in both categories are the 1986 and 1988 Denver Nuggets, both of which won a playoff series.

Their lack of turnovers despite playing longer possessions than most teams is in part a function of not passing the ball very much. They are 20th in the league in passes per game, which is particularly low given they are 23rd in pace. Passing is generally a good thing, but it also tends to lead to more turnovers. The Wolves stinginess in this area has helped fuel their efficient offense.

By utilizing a roster full of length and awareness, the Wolves clog passing lanes and force opponents into making difficult decisions. Among their stars in this regard are Jimmy Butler, who ranks 6th in the NBA with 2.0 steals per game and Tyus Jones, who sits 7th among qualified players with a steal rate of 3.3%.

Gaining more than three possessions per game over their opponent by creating surplus turnovers has been a key factor in helping the Wolves make up for their minimal three-point shooting.

Free-Throw Margin

Among the Wolves’ starters, the four most prolific scorers (Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins & Jeff Teague) all thrive on drawing contact and finishing at the rim. With such a combination of physicality they often find themselves living at the free throw line.

As a result, they rank fifth as a team in free throws made per game with 19.3. Further, the Wolves are one of three teams in the league that sit in the top 10 in both free throws made and fewest free throws allowed. Their +4.3 mark is behind only the Cavaliers (4.7) and Rockets (4.6).

A lack of fouls on the defensive end isn’t always a positive indicator. It can be a sign that a defense lacks aggression, but in the case of the Wolves it allows them to regain an additional four points per matchup over their opponent – further fueling their success running a somewhat antiquated offensive system.

Individual Talent

Entering the season, it was predicted that the Wolves would be able to rely on individual ability to produce a potent offense. But nobody expected that it would flourish to this extent. By deploying a starting lineup that features Butler, Wiggins and Towns, they’re able to create a mismatch on almost any possession.

They’ve taken advantage of that fact by routinely forcing defenses into switches that give the Wolves a desirable matchup near the post. To date, the Wolves rank sixth in the league in post-up frequency and are tied for first in post-up points per possession (.98).

Four of the Wolves’ rotation players (Towns, Wiggins, Nemanja Bjelica and Taj Gibson) score more than one point per possession on post ups (an elite mark), and Butler finds himself close behind (.9 PPP).

In this play-type, a player receives the ball in a position to either back down their defender or face them up and try to beat them off of the dribble. The Wolves ability to find a mid-range jump shot, beat their man to a spot and finish at the rim or get through contact and to the free throw line has made them a uniquely proficient bunch.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Nevertheless, there is a muted ceiling to this third ranked Wolves offense.

When compared to other elite units, the Wolves don’t display the same ability to explode on any given night. The Warriors have scored more than 130 points six different times this season, including three 140 point bombardments. The Rockets have bested the 130 mark four times, two of which also eclipsed 140. The Wolves, though, have yet top 130 points in a single game. In fact, among the league’s top eight offenses, they’ve managed 120 points on the fewest occasions (seven) and they’re the only group that has yet to reach 130.

Some of that can be credibly explained by the fact that the Wolves play at the league’s 23rd fastest pace and as a result attempt fewer shots per game than most teams. But come playoff time, the lack of variance that such little three point shooting provides will make it exceedingly difficult for this team to topple a superior opponent in a shootout.

It will be incumbent on Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden to address their offense’s most glaring weakness during this coming off-season. Coach Thibs has made his desire to shoot more from the outside clear throughout the season, but the burden will lie on President of Basketball Operations Thibs to supply a lineup that makes that more feasible.

For now, the Wolves enjoy their most productive offense in franchise history. On three different occasions they’ve scored 100 points in eight or more consecutive games. They sport the league’s third best assist-to-turnover ratio, the eighth best true shooting percentage – even with the noted lack of threes – and their 66.6% shooting in the restricted area ranks third in the NBA.

Despite their inability to conform to the pillars of the modern NBA, the Wolves continue to feast.