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Following the System: Pushing the Boundaries of Bad Shooting

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How the Wolves are playing against type with a lack of shooters

NBA: Utah Jazz at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into this season, we knew that the Wolves were going to radically change their style of play. After years of old-school ball, the team was preaching the modern tenants of the pace-and-space style, even with replete stickers on the floor to show the players the expected point values of each shot. Essentially, long-twos bad, three-pointers good.

In practice, the Wolves rapidly changed their system so quickly that it is clear that their personnel have not been able to keep up. That is, the players that are currently on this roster are not suited for this system. The Wolves do not have enough three-point shooters to effectively take advantage of a five-out system.

Of course, this has been advantageous for Karl-Anthony Towns and, for the most part, Andrew Wiggins, who are both having career-best years. This is all that really matters, as this year was supposed to be a soft-reset. The Wolves had an opportunity to slowly rebuild the roster to better fit their talent after missing out on the big swings over the summer. The hot start may have simply created outsized expectations that were impossible to realize once teams figured out how to gameplan for the new Wolves.

That new gameplan is needed because the Wolves are playing so extraordinarily differently. No other team in the league has their center taking over nine three-point attempts and hitting them at a rate only seen among the likes of Steph Curry and Damian Lillard.

Last year, the Wolves ranked 14th in pace and 26th in three-point attempts per game, taking 28.7 a game. This year the Wolves are 4th in pace and 3rd in three-point attempts per game, taking 39.8 threes a game, an increase of over 11 extra threes a game. However, the Wolves are not making many of these threes and are tied for last in three-point percentage at 31.1 percent.

This is causing problems on offense, as teams are packing the paint while doubling Towns at every opportunity. This forces Towns to make the “right play,” kicking it out to wide-open teammates who are missing shot after shot. When this leads to a loss, the Wolves point to the system they are trying to implement. After all, these are wide open shots and they will eventually start falling. Right?

We need to look no further than the Nets to answer this question. With the new hires of Kenny Atkinson and Sean Marks, the team slowly rebuilt the roster based upon the pace-and-space system, even if the personnel did not always fit. The 2015-2016 Nets were 19th in pace and 27th in three-point attempts. In 2016-2017, with the new regime in charge, the Nets were 1st in pace and 4th in three-point attempts and in 2017-2018 the Nets were 6th in pace and 2nd in three-point attempts per game.

The Nets, similarly to the Wolves, struggled to hit these threes, even if they were taking a ton of them. The 2016-2017 team was 26th in three-point percentage and the 2017-2018 team was 20th. However, these teams had a plethora of average-to-good three-point shooters.

The 2016-2017 Nets leading shooters from deep were six players playing over twenty minutes a game who shot between 3.2 and 5.2 threes a game. The worst shooter of the bunch was Caris Levert, at 32 percent, and this group included a bunch of players who have made their mark due to volume three-point shooting, such a Brook Lopez, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Joe Harris.

In 2017-2018, the Nets were similarly structured. Seven players playing approximately twenty minutes or more were taking between 3.5 and 7.1 threes a game. Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell had the worst percentages of the group, at 32.6 percent and 32.4 percent respectively, but Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, and Joe Harris were all taking a ton of threes at higher than average percentage rates.

The Wolves have a very different problem. The highest volume three-point shooters on the Wolves are Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington, Jarrett Culver, Jake Layman, and Treveon Graham, followed by Josh Okogie and Shabazz Napier (Jeff Teague’s three-point attempt rate remains unchanged and when he does shoot them he is making 26.7 percent of them).

While Wiggins’ volume has increased, he is making 33 percent and Covington is at 35.7 percent. Layman is hitting at 35.2 percent. So far, fairly similar to the Nets.

The rest of the Wolves are just clanking away. Culver is at 28.1 percent, Graham at 18 percent, Okogie at 21.1 percent, and Napier at 22.6 percent. Even the three-point shooting “specialists” of Kelan Martin and Jaylen Nowell have been awful, as Martin is at 18 percent and Nowell is 0 for 3 in two games.

The most telling stat is to simply remove Towns from the Wolves shooting percentages. As a team, the Wolves have taken 637 threes and made 198 (a 31 percent rate). Towns has taken 127 of these threes and made 57. Without Towns, the Wolves are shooting 141 for 510, or 27.6 percent from three-point range. The Wolves are currently tied with Orlando as the worst three-point shooting team. Without Towns, they are the worst by nearly four percentage points, which is worth about 10 spots in the three-point shooting ranks.

Of course, some of these stats are aberrations. Teague is an average three-point shooter and Napier’s sample size was incredibly small. Graham is shooting a career-worst percentage after two seasons near 30 percent three-point shooting.

But this highlights why the Wolves are struggling to opposing team’s adjustments, particularly if some combination Layman, Wiggins, or Covington are unavailable. The Wolves simply do not have enough shooters to take advantage of the defensive attention paid to Towns. At this point, the Wolves are almost always playing two non-shooters between Graham, Culver, Okogie, and Teague, who are 4th, 5th, 7th, and 8th, in minutes played. While the Nets found system success (even if this did not necessarily translate to wins), their personnel was wildly more suited than the Wolves to take advantage of a new playing style. The Wolves simply have the advantage of Towns.

Going forward, the Wolves either need extremely good health for Covington and Layman, Teague to discover he can shoot threes for the first time in his career, or Keita Bates-Diop to suddenly be a stretch-four after shooting 25 percent from deep last year.

Barring that, Towns is going to have a lot of nights where the defense doubles him at every opportunity and the other Wolves shoot between 15-30 percent at high volume. In the 14 games Towns has played in, when Towns three-point attempts and makes are excluded, the rest of the team has only shot above a league-average percentage twice. On average, in these games, the rest of the team is making approximately 26 percent of their threes. A personnel change is needed or the rims at the Target Center will soon be bent out of shape.