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Modern Times: Wolves Updating Offense, But It Won’t Be Painless

The Wolves are running and gunning...and clanking so far in the preseason.

Maccabi Haifa v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

At least since the tenures of Flip Saunders and Sam Mitchell, Wolves fans and analysts alike have been howling for the team to heed the direction the league was headed and add the three pointer to their arsenal of weapons. They have been consistently behind the curve in the use of the long ball, and despite occasionally successful offenses, it has handicapped them for much of the last decade.

Gersson Rosas and Ryan Saunders promised us change: They spoke all summer about playing faster and embracing a more modern style of small ball and three pointers. Saunders went so far as to have shot values inside and outside the arc painted on the practice court at Mayo Clinic Square.

If the preseason is any indication, they weren’t lying to us. The Wolves, after finishing last season 26th in three point attempts, have averaged 41 per in three preseason games, a number that would have placed second in 2019 behind only the vanguard Houston Rockets. They are playing at a furious pace this preseason which allows for more attempts, but even so, they are taking 43.7 percent of their shots from behind the arc this fall, compared to 31.5 percent last season.

It is of course early days, but it’s obvious the Wolves are seeking out the three ball in ways they never have before. Against Maccabi Haifa on Sunday, we saw Andrew Wiggins pass up an open 15 footer to take two dribbles and get behind the line before letting fly. We saw Robert Covington pass up a layup to find Jake Layman at the arc. They are seeking out open threes in transition and semi-transition with a frequency we simply have never seen.

After years of campaigning for this kind of offense, far be it from me to criticize. The problem, however, is they are not making them. 29 percent so far in what is obviously a tiny sample size. They will shoot better than that, but the team is not filled with great, or even good shooters. Beyond Karl-Anthony Towns and Covington, there really isn’t anyone who has been consistently good from three on the roster.

In fact the off-season roster moves do not particularly jibe with the planned three point barrage. They traded one of their best three point shooters (Dario Saric), allowed another to leave in free agency (Anthony Tolliver), and did not add anyone with established shooting ability.

Which leaves the Wolves in a situation where the personnel does not match the preferred style. It’s arguable at least, that once they failed to acquire D’Angelo Russell, this is by design. Clearly Gersson Rosas is trying to engineer some cap flexibility as early as possible, while also getting younger and more athletic. They did that by acquiring several players on one year deals, extending to three years (at low dollars) only for Layman.

Obviously there will be significant roster turnover between now and next October, which raises the question of why install a system, or at least a tactic, not particularly suited to the players you have on hand? At least in part, it’s to establish a culture and style that can be associated with the organizaiton, something they have lacked through most of the years since the departure of Kevin Garnett.

This year’s Wolves remind me a bit of the 2016-17 and 17-18 Brooklyn Nets teams. Those were bad teams, but they played fast and shot a ton of threes behind a new head coach (Kenny Atkinson) and chief executive (Sean Marks.) They ran out a ton of guards and wings, and let fly with abandon, even though they were in the bottom third of the league in three point shooting percentage both seasons. It wasn’t great basketball, but it was fun, and they finally broke through a bit last season, when they shot it better relative to league average and figured out a defense that worked well enough to get them to the playoffs.

Of course, the Wolves have something those Nets teams did not: A superstar. Hopefully that jump starts them a bit quicker, but with what is likely to be another suspect defense, and a focus on threes that they aren’t consistently good at making, there are going to be significant growing pains this season, even as the style of play enters the modern era.

Hang on.