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NBA: Miami Heat at Minnesota Timberwolves

Examining The Saunders System So Far

Pulling back the curtain on the overhauled system.

Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

When Gersson Rosas was appointed as the Timberwolves’ new president of basketball operations, there were plenty of tasks on his to-do list. After all, he was now overseeing a franchise who had been invited to the postseason party just once in the last decade and a half.

He needed to show his star man Karl-Anthony Towns he was serious by swinging for a big free agency fish. When he couldn’t land that prize player, he had to go out and sign conservative but potential-laden deals. He needed to try and move some of the dead-weight contracts off the salary cap books. And last but certainly not least, he needed to decide what head coach and assistants were fit to lead this team into a winning era.

In the end, Rosas swung and missed at signing D’Angelo Russell and moving Gorgui Dieng, Andrew Wiggins or Jeff Teague, before signing Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell, who have all been handy rotational additions, to bargain-basement deals. He also added Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham via trade, who have turned out to be another pair of helpful role players that will make a combined $3.5 million this season.

When it came to the coaching staff, Rosas managed to lure defensive savant David Vanterpool away from the Portland Trail Blazers, former player and offensive genius Pablo Prigioni from the budding Brooklyn Nets and made the big decision to keep then-interim coach Ryan Saunders around as the head honcho who will oversee the regime.

While the POBO’s first three duties were completed and already scrutinized in their entirety, the final assignment won’t be able to be analyzed in full until the season is done — and even that might be premature. However, every night that the Wolves suit up is another 48 minutes of sample size that deepens the resumé of the overhauled coaching staff and system.

As it stands, we are nine games into what has been a surprisingly fun season so far — even with the disappointment of the Memphis loss and the heartbreaker against Denver still fresh in our minds. Minnesota currently holds a 5-4 win-lost record, sitting them at ninth place in the barbaric Western Conference.

Karl-Anthony Towns’ rise to genuine superstar status has been a huge reason for the Wolves’ success, as has the renaissance of Andrew Wiggins. But, with a team devoid of surrounding stars, the schematic renovation Saunders, Vanterpool, and Prigioni have shouldered is just as much to blame.

While Saunders did have half a season as interim coach to try and stamp his footprint on the roster in 2018-19, the remnants of Tom Thibodeau’s offense that relied exclusively on isolations, post-ups, and the pick-and-roll, were hard to shake off. Saunders tweaked a few things on the fly — like finally letting Towns off the chain within the scheme — but he needed an entire offseason to clean up the mess Thibs had left behind.

Already through nine games, you can see that the offense is completely different. There are some key elements that the coaching staff and players have spent months regurgitating to the media: pace, shooting, and ball movement. That should come as no surprise, it’s a copycat league and pretty much all 29 teams outside of Minnesota have been trying to emulate the Golden State Warriors’ success since they unlocked the winning formula back in 2015. The Wolves didn’t start this party, they’re just late.

From the outside looking in, the pace-and-space philosophy seems simple. On the contrary, there are so many different intricacies that go into playing with speed and finding the right shots to launch. Pace isn’t always about how quickly you run the floor in transition or how many dribbles it takes to get past the logo. It’s about playing at the right speed at the right time.

In a recent post-practice media scrum, Karl-Anthony Towns explained it exceptionally.

“Everyone thinks pace is running up and down the court fast. That’s not the case,” He said. “It’s actually getting into our half-court sets and really moving in that set. Hand-off, pass ahead, chase, whatever the case may be. Everyone has to run into their spots ... the times we don’t we really put ourselves into a deficit because we’re playing more into [the opposition’s] hands.”

The play below is a perfect example of what Towns is referring to. Instead of sauntering through the half-court set, Shabazz Napier enters the action with a pep in his step. Noah Vonleh races into to the original screen for Napier, before bouncing out and providing Jake Layman with a down screen. Like his teammates, Layman is already moving with intention. Napier caps off the play by finding him the moment he springs open.

Another example is straight out of sideline out of bounds action. Andrew Wiggins has been extremely effective attacking the rim this season and he wastes no time rejecting the pick and getting going in a downhill direction. By doing this he catches Brandon Clarke on his heels and has him beaten before he even takes a dribble.

This read, react and go mentality works especially well with Wiggins. It allows him to play off instinct and pure talent — where he thrives — and lowers the chance for his poor basketball IQ to overrule a play.

They have even started to sprinkle in a nice helping of this little beauty. A decoy hand-off with Towns that gets Wiggins moving without the ball and catching already in full cry as hurtles toward the coalface.

Sure, using the athletic prowess of Wiggins, Towns, and Okogie to burst out into transition is helpful, but playing with pace is far more than just that. According to NBA.com’s pace metric, the Timberwolves are the fastest team in the league this season. With intensity within sets like the ones you see above, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

When it comes to shooting the ball, the Wolves haven’t had as much success. They are shooting the ball with a much greater volume, but with the roster construction the way it currently is, they just don’t possess the snipers needed to truly hurt teams from deep.

Don’t get me wrong, Gersson Rosas and Ryan Saunders ingraining a modernized offense into the habits of players and making it a staple of the organization is undoubtedly the right way to do things. But with multiple stopgap contracts and fragments leftover from the Thibodeau era, the personnel doesn’t quite match the shooting frequency. Yet.

That’s the reason they are shooting 41 3-pointers per game, the third-most in the NBA — absolutely obliterating the previous franchise high of 28.7 per night. That’s also the reason they are making just 29.5 percent of them, ranking 28th overall. And in large part, that brick-built mansion is the reason their offensive rating is a rotten 103.9, good for 22nd in the league standings.

Throw in the fact that their ability to take care of the ball hasn’t quite caught up to the frenetic tempo they are trying to play with and there is a genuine recipe for wretched nights offensively. There have far too many unforced live-ball turnovers like this one that shove a dagger through any momentum a defensive stop produces.

One way they have stopped their offense from completely torpedoing is the increased frequency in which they move the ball. No longer is the ‘stand around, dribble, dribble, dribble, shoot’ of the Thibodeau reign of terror a nightly occurrence. Instead, there is a persistent eye for moving the ball and moving the player when they don’t have the ball. Much like the shooting and pace, Saunders is overseeing it, but Prigioni, who successfully installed a similar philosophy in Brooklyn, is the puppet master behind the curtain who is pulling the strings.

This mouth-watering sequence is the stuff effective offenses are made of.

It starts with first-gamer Jordan McLaughlin attacks the seams in the defense, causing it to collapse before he flings the rock to Josh Okogie in the corner. Okogie’s shooting stroke is well below par, so instead of bricking another triple, he attacks the closeout, too.

When McLaughlin kicked to Okogie you saw the always-astute Robert Covington clear out to the top of the arc to provide the entire offense with more spacing when the defense re-collapses onto a driving Okogie, Covington is left free at the top of the arc. Okogie makes the read and, instead of taking a half-contested triple, RoCo attacks the closeout again and sifts his way to the rim — earning himself the highest percentage shot available.

That’s how you move the ball. Drive and kick, space the floor, move without the ball. No doubt Saunders and Prigioni were beaming when they saw that masterpiece unfolding in front of them.

Like Okogie and Big Shot Bob were in that play, Karl-Anthony Towns is living outside the arc much more regularly in the five-out system. That permits him to launch triples, take his man off the dribble and find teammates slashing toward the cup. However, he is still a beast on the block and you can still see the improved ball and player motion when teams bring the double at him.

The game has clearly slowed down for KAT in this respect and he is a genuine killer with his post-passing repertoire. With a scheme around him that encourages players to cut to the basket and relocate around the arc to get into Towns’ field of vision, he is racking up dimes like a payphone.

Here is some of his best from the season thus far, for your viewing pleasure.

Outside of the poor shooting numbers, the Timberwolves’ offense is running smoother than we have seen for quite some time. The offensive rating numbers don’t quite back it up yet, but having two stinkers like the Philadelphia and Milwaukee games littered in small sample size will do that. Minnesota finished 13th in offensive rating last season while playing in an outdated and unsustainable scheme for the most part. Don’t be surprised if they creep into the top-10 at some point as this season unfurls.

Defensively, the Wolves have done a complete one-eighty from previous regimes. Thus far, the David Vanterpool that generated so much buzz for metamorphosing the Blazers’ defense has immediately shown signs of doing the same in the Twin Cities. They rank 12th overall in defensive rating. A big step when you consider Minnesota hasn’t finished better than bottom 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions since the 2013-14 season.

Saunders and right-hand-man David Vanterpool have promptly distanced themselves from the days of Thibodeau bellowing ‘ICE’ throughout the Target Center, opting instead for a deep pick-and-roll drop scheme. They preached switching throughout the entire offseason, but they rarely switch in pick-and-roll coverages, they only do so off the ball or in hand-off actions.

Thibs also ran a drop scheme in pick-and-roll, meaning the big would fall back toward the rim and allow the ball-handler to come at him. It’s not uncommon by any means, but, like most of what he did in Minnesota, Thibs refused to adjust to his personnel and was cemented in the way he had seen work in Chicago. He refused to change when he saw Jeff Teague getting demolished by screens and Karl-Anthony Towns being stuck on an island on a play-by-play basis.

Towns would drop, like he does now, but only a few feet away from the screener. When his guards and wings inevitably failed to fight through the screens and stay in front of their man, Towns was put in a position of constant read-and-react defense against smaller and shiftier players who had already built up a head of steam.

You can see the proof in the pudding below as Damian Lillard puts a flat-footed Towns on toast after coming off a Jusef Nurkic screen.

This was the first and easiest way teams would attack Minnesota when they had the ball in their hands. It also gave Karl-Anthony Towns a severely tarnished defensive reputation. Of course, some of that was on Towns. He needed to be better in those situations and he wasn’t. But sometimes you need to put players in advantageous situations that are tailored to their individual strengths.

That’s exactly what Vanterpool has done with his tinkered drop scheme. Instead of having Towns try to corral the ball handler as they start to head downhill, they have him drop substantially deeper. This encourages teams to take the dreaded mid-range jumper and allows Towns to use his size and wingspan to bother or block shots should the dribbler challenge him at the rim/floater range instead.

Here are some examples.

Of course, like all coverages, this has its drawbacks. When point guards who are flamethrowers from that mid-range area like Kyrie Irving or D’Angelo Russell get space to shoot, they are going to make you pay so much you’ll have to contact a loan shark. The scheme allows for open looks like the one in the clip below, the chief reason why both Irving and Russell went for 50-pieces against Minnesota.

The NBA has the greatest collection of bucket-getters on the planet, so it’s literally impossible to game-plan for all of them. However, forcing them to make the most statistically inefficient shot is much smarter than allowing them to run riot at the rim.

It’s going to take a while before the kinks are completely ironed out and the personnel is customized to fit the system, but Rosas, Saunders, Prigioni, and Vanterpool have the right idea. And the surprisingly good Timberwolves are showing why it’s the way to go in the season’s infancy.