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Dallas Mavericks v Minnesota Timberwolves

Film Room: Analyzing how the Minnesota Timberwolves use dribble hand-offs

Let’s break down the film to see exactly how the Wolves utilize a popular basketball concept.

Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Under Gersson Rosas, the Minnesota Timberwolves have attempted to completely modernize the organization in every way possible. The front office has been filled with young, exciting, up-and-coming people such as Sachin Gupta, and Ryan Saunders coaching staff contains two young assistant coaches effectively acting as NFL style coordinators. David Vanterpool has a decent amount of experience, but Pablo Prigioni is a relative newcomer to the coaching ranks and this is just his third job and his fourth overall year as an assistant.

Due to the Timberwolves poor record, their coaches haven’t received much attention and certainly haven’t received much credit. For the majority of the year, the Timberwolves were clearly trying to install a three-point bombing offense. The only issue was, the personnel simply wasn’t there. Before the mass trades in early February, the Wolves were third in the frequency of their shots coming from downtown. Unfortunately, they were 30th in percentage, which made for grim watching.

For the most part, it came across as if the Wolves were trying to install the system for the core players such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Jaarrett Culver and Josh Okogie, then worry about finding the other players later. This strategy was illuminated by the fact the Wolves’ three point percentage jumped to 10th after the infamous February trades. The likes of Malik Beasley, Junacho Hernangomez and James Johnson offered far superior shooting than the Wolves had previously been used to.

As many of you know by now, the Wolves have been committed to running a five-out offense. They see being able to shoot from everywhere on the court as a way to create the optimum amount of driving angles. From a schematic perspective, it also makes sense as the team’s lead guard D’Angelo Russell’s primary weakness is his lack of elite speed or burst. Having the paint unoccupied is a good way to give him opportunity to vastly improve his finishing numbers, both in terms of frequency and efficiency.

The Wolves first option is to push in transition, and Ryan Saunders can often be seen shouting for more pace throughout games. However their core half-court set is something that is underutilized across the NBA — the dribble hand-off. It’s incredibly effective because all of the Wolves bigs can shoot the ball, and defenses are often freaked out by the fact they don’t have to defend the paint. Against a five-out offense, there is absolutely nowhere for bad defenders to hide.

The Wolves use dribble hand-offs for the entirety of the shot clock, and it’s a testament to Prigioni that they can generate a variety of different shots out of said hand-offs. Most teams will either use hand-offs for set plays or for a wrinkle when a defense plays under; the Wolves use it as the cornerstone of their offense. Minnesota was 5th in hand-off frequency according to NBA.com; however, this is a bit misleading as it only accounts for shots taken directly from a hand-off. The Wolves will often utilize hand-offs to set up other aspects of their offense, and a majority of the team’s positive ball movement is directly correlated with the initiation of this action.

Dribble Hand-Offs to Attack Downhill

For any team that wants to maximize a guard-center duo, a pick-and-roll should probably formulate a big part of the offensive plan. With Jeff Teague and his painful cautiousness now a problem for another team, the Wolves pick-and-roll game has the potential to explode. Prigioni and Saunders will not really just run a simple early-offense high screen and roll like you see the Thunder run for Chris Paul and Steven Adams. Instead, they’ll have other actions that act as a prelude for this.

Russell is a complex point guard to analyze because of how little he attacks the rim. Per Cleaning the Glass, Russell is in the 6th percentile for the percentage of his shots coming at the rim. He has generally ranked very near the bottom of high usage guards in terms of free throw rate. He lives off the mid-range and pull-up jumper but he is excellent at creating gravity for his teammates. This is shown by his high ranking in Ben Taylor’s “box creation” metric which essentially tries to boil gravity down to a number.

Russell’s schematic play-type is relevant because he will rarely attack off a dribble hand-off and go downhill. This move is generally reserved for Jordan McLaughlin, Juancho Hernangomez and Jarrett Culver, with Malik Beasley sometimes attacking if teams blitz him for a possible three-point attempt. Below is the typical example of how the Wolves can use a dribble-handoff to attack downhill.

The Wolves simply stack three players on the strong side and go to a dribble-hand-off between the two remaining players on the other side of the floor. The dribble hand-off serves as a way for the Wolves being able to make the defense fight through multiple screens. The hand-off action gets a very good defender in Jrue Holiday on the back foot, and note how the Wolves have three players wide open because the help defenders see that Holiday is teetering.

Given that Russell is a high usage player, the Wolves want to avoid Houston Rockets like stagnation and isolation heavy play. This simple clear out concept that turns into a two-man game is an excellent way of utilizing the shooting of both Naz Reid and Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s also a fantastic way of keeping other players involved, and is one of the tools Minnesota uses to push the pace and make sure Russell can get opportunities to rest off-ball. Sometimes, as you can see below, the Wolves will run this action from the top of the key:

This is a simple action but the addition of the hand-off forces Barea to fight through a screen before McLaughlin has even started driving down hill. It’s a highly effective way of getting the initial separation, which is a major reason the Wolves are good at creating open looks (even if they were guilty of missing them before the February trades). At times, the Wolves are capable of creating threes via this two-man game by rejecting the screen and attacking under. Jordan McLaughlin, who plays with immense pace, is very capable of doing just this. On this occasion he creates an open three for Malik Beasley:

The Wolves have also shown flashes of turning these hand-off actions into something called “Miami Action.” This action is simply where a player takes a hand-off and immediately takes a ball screen from a third player. The Dallas Mavericks often run this action for Tim Hardaway as his ability to hit pull-up jumpers can create laughably open driving lanes for Dwight Powell to attack downhill. The flashes from Minnesota are rare, but on this occasion D’Angelo Russell gets an easy floater against Orlando after taking a screen from Naz Reid once he has received the hand-off.

Another thing the Wolves do to optimize their hand-offs is add certain ball screens to free up the perimeter player. The two-man game is highly important but on other occasions the Wolves will bring a ball screen in to disrupt the defense as much as possible. The play below is an example of this:

Karl-Anthony Towns has two players on either side of him, but he opts to go left. Robert Covington sets a screen and Andrew Wiggins takes the ball from KAT and finishes the layup downhill. Again, the initial screen gives him some extra separation and in order to meet him, the Thunder would have to close out quickly through multiple screens. Notice again how this simple hand-off action leaves two shooters open because the initial separation creates a more open driving lane than a simple high pick-and-roll would give. The Wolves can also use this same action to create an easy three-pointer as they do for Jake Layman on the play below:

For the most part, teams will deny the initial three. Houston’s defensive strategy here made little sense. They’re right to fear the drive and kick three, but giving the Wolves their first option is equally as silly.

On the play below, the Wolves use a double ball screen to punish the Spurs’ conservative defense that prioritizes the paint and Treveon Graham (remember him?) nails an easy three.

Often, the Wolves are very comfortable taking a three straight off the hand-off. This is another way they try and keep teams unsettled and force them to defend the entire half-court. The constant commitment to the three-point line caused by these hand-offs creates multiple driving lanes. To fully compromise this, the Wolves do sometimes have to take them, such as on the occasion below:

On this occasion, the Wolves use this to generate early offense. Note how Wendell Carter drops into the paint expecting a potential hand-off into a pick-and-roll. The Wolves exploit this very simply, as James Johnson hands the ball off to Juancho Hernangomez and follows through with a screen to give him some space to hit the three. I have noted previously that teams have to defend the Wolves for the entire shot clock and this is perhaps the premier example of this. Minnesota can use this in later shot clock situations though, as they do with Malik Beasley below. Notice again how Minnesota clears out one side of the floor and simply attacks with a two-man game.

Something else to note is that both of Minnesota’s bigs can shoot the ball from distance. This means that teams cannot play too far under on a downhill cutter as KAT or Naz Reid could nail a three in their face. KAT does that on the play below against the Phoenix Suns.

One of the things that makes me believe the Wolves’ offense has a chance to explode next season is that they generate good ball movement from their two-man game in the dribble hand-offs. I noted early why the play-type stats were not the best indicator of how much the Wolves use hand-offs; at times, their ball movement has been brilliant after they constrict the defense and force help rotations.

Something that will be key for the Wolves fully optimizing this offense is designing “wrinkles” into the hand-off action. These weren’t present early in the year but this was purely because teams didn’t really respect the shooting enough for there to be space for back cuts. Towards the latter part of the season, the Timberwolves showed some really nice secondary reads and capitalized on defensive mistakes very well. An example is below against the Celtics:

Boston over-rotates because the Wolves core play with Reid out there is reversing the ball with dribble hand-offs and capitalizing on the three-point gravity he creates. There is undoubtedly a defensive mistake, but these over-rotations will happen and Reid exploits it easily by firing a pass back to Malik Beasley who makes no mistake. The Wolves knew exactly what to do in this situation.

A different wrinkle to the offense is evident in this play here against the Dallas Mavericks:

The Wolves attempt to run a dribble-hand-off between Naz Reid and D’Angelo Russell. Delon Wright is an aggressive defender who excels at breaking up passes. On this occasion he attempts to prevent Russell from taking the hand-off. Russell reads this and darts back to where he came from and due to Hernangomez spacing in the corner, he has a very easy driving lane. This is a simple but essential way of punishing any kind of aggressive defense that attempts to slow down or even stop the hand-off action.

One play the Wolves run to ensure they aren’t endlessly spamming dribble hand-offs is for the big to hand it off to the left, and then dart right to bring a shooter off a double screen.

Note that before a pass has even been made, the Mavericks are aggressively pressuring the three-point line. Rick Carlisle does his homework and understands how important it is to play as high as possible to disrupt the dribble hand-offs. When the Wolves attempt to run their first wrinkle play, the Mavericks try and blitz Beasley and Russell. Beasley reads this and simply darts backdoor to generate a layup. Cuts like these are essential if the Wolves are to fully compromise the way defenses might defend the hand-offs. They make a similar read below against the Houston Rockets:

The Wolves run Miami Action here with Beasley handing it to Jordan McLaughlin before taking a screen from Naz Reid. The involvement of three rather than two defenders can make a huge difference to the responsibilities of the help defenders. Culver looks as if he is going to try and screen Hernangomez for a three. Robert Covington is notoriously aggressive on screen plays so he blitzes Hernangomez. But Culver simply darts backdoor. Once again, Minnesota does a fantastic job of compromising the aggressive defense that teams have to play against them due to all five of their starters being able to play from the perimeter. The fact that these reads look so smooth again suggests Prigioni’s offense is starting to work properly, and the players feel more comfortable running it.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the Timberwolves offense is relatively simple. Pace is the first philosophy, but they compromise the defense by forcing them to fight through a plethora of different hand-offs. If the defense opts to blitz, Minnesota punishes them with backdoor cuts and ball movement. For the most part, teams will try and fight through the screens, but this is difficult and can be punishing physically. They have a variety of reads on the hand-offs and a variety of outcomes. The Timberwolves offense has the potential to absolutely explode next season, as read-and-react schemes generally have a higher ceiling than a playbook-based offense. Philosophically, the Wolves simply want defenses to have to commit to every player on the three-point line. The hand-offs help compromise this by generating easy pick and rolls and spot-up three opportunities.

Minnesota aims to unsettle teams as much as humanly possible. If they can find some remnants of a defense, they could be good sooner rather than later. At worst, the offense will be very difficult for teams to defend. Prigioni has kept things relatively simple, but the hand-offs are a fine addition to the offensive scheme and should yield results.