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Inside the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Bland Offensive Strategy

The Wolves offense has been hugely problematic, so lets diagnose just what is going wrong.

Atlanta Hawks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

When Gersson Rosas arrived in town to run the Minnesota Timberwolves, he opted to install an NFL-style coaching staff with two coordinators. For the defensive side of the ball, David Vanterpool was lured to Minnesota from Portland. Many across the NBA were surprised Minnesota was able to hire him, and he came over to install a drop defensive scheme based on fighting through screens and maintaining interior structure.

On the offensive side of the ball, Minnesota hired former New York Knicks point guard Pablo Prigioni, with Ryan Saunders expected to assist him more than Vanterpool, given the fact Vanterpool had way more experience. For the majority of people realistic about the Minnesota roster, the defensive side of the ball was likely always going to be the more problematic of the two. Minnesota has very few difference makers on that side of the ball and the majority of their top end rotation players have clearly struggled to develop on the defensive end of the court.

Heading into the 20-21 season, Minnesota was banking on being a top end offensive team. In his pre-draft interviews, Gersson Rosas said the team was aiming to be a top ten offense. Just 13 games into the season, Minnesota has been a mediocre offensive team who has struggled to consistently string runs together and come away with a period of quality sustainable offensive possessions. Karl-Anthony Towns has obviously missed significant time, but even while he is playing the Timberwolves offense fires up poor shots from admittedly analytically-friendly areas. The team ranks 28th in offensive efficiency. Per Cleaning the Glass’ ‘play context’ feature, the Timberwolves rank 27th in half-court efficiency. This is made even more problematic by the fact Minnesota ranks 19th in the frequency of transition offense. To put it bluntly, the Timberwolves are setting up like a half-court-based team but not coming away with points on that side of the ball.

Atlanta Hawks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Before delving into the offensive sets and the problematic tendencies the team has, it makes sense to explore what exactly Minnesota is trying to implement under Gersson Rosas. Dane Moore called the Rosas project ‘Houston North’, and he wasn’t particularly wrong in what he was saying.

On defense, Minnesota wants to play drop coverage to protect the paint and rotate out to shooters quickly, with the ideal result being funneling the opposition into mid-range shots. On offense, the philosophy is similar. Minnesota spent last year taking a high amount of shots from beyond the arc and at the rim, while limiting mid-range opportunities. This ‘system’ was put in place even while Minnesota had poor shooters such as Treveon Graham playing legitimate rotation minutes. This philosophy is best summarized by looking at Cleaning the Glass’ ‘Location EFG’ Metric. This metric gives a weighting to shot locations at the rim and from three. Minnesota ranked top five in the NBA in this metric, but was comfortably a bottom five offense.

The justification for last year was that Minnesota was installing a philosophy and a shot profile, which would ideally remain in place and be elevated in efficiency when better players and three-point shooters arrived at the franchise. This hasn’t been the case, even when Karl-Anthony Towns has been healthy. Minnesota once again ranks top five in the location EFG metric, but once again ranks poorly in efficiency from the areas in which they are shooting high volume from.

Minnesota being near the bottom of the league in the two most analytically-friendly areas is a recipe for disaster. This is even more of a disaster when the direction of the front office has been angling towards shooting more of these shots. Jim Petersen has repeatedly questioned how Minnesota misses so many layups on the broadcasts, and has noted how these lead to transition buckets. This is largely the reason I give Vanterpool some form of a pass.

Transition offense is about getting teams into an early disadvantage. For a team that runs a pure drop scheme (which is built on maintaining structure), this is more disastrous than perhaps it would be for a team switching and playing aggressively. Essentially, the Wolves offense is setting the defense up for complete failure. This theory is further supported by the data made available by Cleaning the Glass. Minnesota ranks 22nd in half-court defensive efficiency, which whilst not good isn’t an absolute abomination, and there is at least room for improvement. The issue is, they ‘force’ teams into half-court offense at a rate that is only higher than the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Minnesota was never expected to be a competent defensive team — they were always going to be offensively-lopsided at it’s absolute best. The issue is, the team is being tanked by a bland system that is a Petri dish for poor shot selection. This is not a good situation to allow young players to develop in, and is the sort of thing that keeps bad organizations being bad organizations.

Something intriguing about the Location EFG metric is that none of the offenses that rank high in this metric are actually elite offenses in terms of efficiency. The only team in both the top ten of the location EFG metric, and overall offensive efficiency, is the Utah Jazz. The majority of the powerhouse teams rank somewhere in the middle of this metric.

This suggests that while shooting threes and layups is favorable, just crowbarring them into games for the purpose of creating a shot profile might be counterproductive. Admittedly, this is not the chief issue with the Timberwolves on offense, but something that needs to be explored in order to paint a complete picture of the problems at Target Center.

Last season, the Minnesota Timberwolves offense was quite simple. The team ran five-out spacing and kept teams off balance by running an extraordinary number of dribble hand-offs. They would often do this out of the ‘delay’ formation, which is simply a fancy word for an offense where the big man will handle the ball at the top of the key with two players often on each side of him. From there, teams can Chicago and Miami hand-off actions and even side pick-and-rolls.

This season, the Timberwolves have utilized slightly less hand-offs but the basic principles of the offense are the same. They run a basic read-and-react scheme with cutters and pull-up three pointers being the things that keep the opponent’s defensive structure off balance.

Every team in the NBA has some kind of a selling point on offense. For the Utah Jazz, it’s that they run creative set plays and can execute every single counter out of them. For the Brooklyn Nets, it’s that they have three elite one-on-one scorers and you have to pick your poison. For the LA Lakers, they have multiple players who can go ‘switch hunting’ with LeBron James and from there this opens the floor up for spot-up shooters.

The Minnesota Timberwolves ‘selling point’ is that they have five-out spacing at all times as their two best centers are both highly capable three-point shooters. The commitment to Naz Reid on a five-year contract also suggests the front-office believes in five-out spacing being the core of the Timberwolves.

As of now, the Timberwolves are not turning this spacing into efficient and creative offense. It’s fine to set the end goal of shooting shots from these areas, but the process for reaching this is leading to the Wolves being one of the worst offenses in the entire NBA.

Pick-and-Roll

As for any team attempting to optimize a lead guard, the Minnesota Timberwolves run a lot of pick-and-rolls. They rank 5th in the NBA in Pick-and-Roll possessions per game, per the NBA.com tracking page. The issue is, only Detroit is less efficient on these possessions than the Timberwolves. Sure, some of this can be put down to the fact Karl-Anthony Towns has missed time this season. But his absences should be even more of a reason to be more creative with the play-type.

Generally, the Timberwolves pick-and-rolls are basic with four-out-one-in spacing. They rarely run Spain pick-and-rolls, which is a pick-and-roll where the screener receives a back screen. This occupies help defenders and can just subtly create more open lanes on the interior. Below is what a general Timberwolves pick-and-roll looks like.

D’Angelo Russell lacks burst, which makes the Timberwolves usage of basic pick-and-rolls a real problem. If your lead guard can score at all three levels consistently, you can get away with running these types of pick-and-rolls because help defense will come and the player can read and react to every type of coverage. Trae Young in particular is adept at doing this. D’Angelo Russell is a two-level scorer simply because he doesn’t have the burst to consistently compromise defenders who aren’t in a deep drop.

Something else highly confusing about this play is that they run this while using a center who has absolutely no gravity on offense. Ed Davis is a good team defender and rebounder but he doesn’t have the speed to pressure drop coverage and he obviously is incapable of popping for three like Naz Reid can. This is an example of where the Wolves need to be more creative. Basic plays work for very good players.

There are ways around this. While in Brooklyn, Kenny Atkinson was highly creative with how he utilized DLo. Coach Daniel had an excellent video on the Nets’ offense with DLo under Kenny Atkinson, and they had way less perimeter talent than Ryan Saunders is working with.

Note on the play above — Minnesota doesn’t run any action beforehand to create an advantage. This means that the Wizards defense is set in almost perfect position. While in Brooklyn, Kenny Atkinson recognized Russell’s lack of burst and compensated for by occupying help defenders with either a primary action that eventually flowed into a pick-and-roll, or with creative off ball screens. This meant that DLo was able to use his craft and patience. In the setup above, DLo is required to be a three-level scorer, which is why the Wolves pick-and-roll game is so poor.

The Wolves don’t optimize their spacing in pick-and-rolls often enough, such as on the play below.

The Wolves attempt to run a side pick-and-roll. The first thing I note is how congested it is on the side. Trae Young is defending high. The Wolves attempt to attack the Young positioning with a Jarred Vanderbilt roll. But it all seems out of sync, and John Collins is aggressively able to defend the weak side because Josh Okogie is one of the worst shooters in the NBA. It makes little sense to have a non-shooter standing in the spot which yields the second best shot in basketball. Having an actual shooter in the corner would make more sense and Okogie could be higher for a potential driving situation. Some would suggest Russell should make the pass but the spacing is really congested, it was from the get-go.

On the play below, the Timberwolves attempt to run a double drag set.

KAT popping is always a good move but Juancho Hernangomez rolling doesn’t give DLo any kind of help to alleviate some of his burst issues. The Spaniard puts zero pressure on the rim so Brandon Clarke is able to get the steal. This is an example of the Wolves putting personnel in positions they won’t succeed in.

While Saunders and the staff need to be more creative with the pick-and-roll game and carefully think about the positioning of players, the guards have to do better. When Naz Reid is in the game, the Wolves have an elite pick-and-pop threat who can attack pretty much any drop center as these types of centers won’t leave the paint and will always double back to the guard.

The Wolves do sometimes run some pre-action for a pick-and-roll and the results are a lot better than they are out of a basic spread formation.

Minnesota looks as if they’re going to set up some kind of a wing screen action. Derrick Jones and Robert Covington are both looking towards the perimeter to almost pre-rotate a screen action. Instead, Russell darts up top in what is called a zipper cut. He enters the pick-and-roll and ends up hitting a pull-up jumper. On this play, Covington was pushed ‘behind’ the play by some simple freelance action, and Russell was able to commit other defenders because of this. He also had Malik Beasley wide open for a three.

No team in the NBA runs 100% bad stuff — what defines a successful offense is how consistent the good stuff is run, and how random it is (or isn’t). The Wolves unfortunately seem to fall into the category of having some good ideas but not necessarily enforcing them. This screams of a team that needs more structure and discipline on the offensive side of the ball.

Ricky Rubio’s performance

One of the major talking points this season has been the fact Ricky Rubio has struggled. His signing was almost universally loved on NBA Twitter, even by non-Timberwolves fans. In theory, a point guard who has made life easier for young guards Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker was a great fit for a Timberwolves team looking to give their guards off-ball reps. Through eleven games (prior to Saturday night’s victory against the Pelicans), Rubio is averaging just 6 points per game while shooting 38 percent from the field and 21 percent from downtown. No one expected his shooting numbers to be super high, but the film has been ugly, too. He’s taking poor shots and not running the offense as he did in the Rick Adelman and Sam Mitchell days.

Part of Rubio’s struggles links back to the previous point. The Wolves are not putting him in positions to succeed because the offensive is bland and it is basic. In Utah, Rubio was blessed to play for Quin Snyder who arguably runs the best X’s and O’s in the NBA. The pick-and-roll game was diverse and so were the off-screen plays. Rubio is one of the best passers in the NBA and his job in Utah was to execute plays and know every counter from them, something made easier by his elite processing speed and Basketball IQ.

His role in Phoenix was similar. Monty Williams utilized creative plays to get Devin Booker into positions to succeed and their pick-and-roll game was designed to force defensive help, which was an excellent use of Ricky Rubio’s passing ability.

As a passer, Rubio is proactive rather than reactive. This essentially means he processes things quickly and sets guys up before the defender has rotated. A diverse offense is the best usage of his skills and talents.

Before even diving into film, it’s clear from a quick statistical look that there are issues with Rubio. He currently has a 13.8 usage rate — this is by far the lowest of his entire career. With Utah he had a 22.8 usage rate, with the mark being slightly lower at 20.4. If Rubio isn’t handling the ball, he provides minimal value to a team. His three-point percentage was relatively high last year but the volume wasn’t overly high.

Rubio’s job in Phoenix was to execute sets and put young players in positions to succeed. He isn’t going to be able to recreate this role in Minnesota with a usage percentage that is lower than that of Jake Layman’s. Any floor general is required to hit spot-up jumpers when possible. In Utah, Rubio was required to take pull-up jumpers because of the way Snyder coaches offense. The trade-off for a guy like Rubio is that he is going to set people up and keep defenses off balance with his passing and processing speed. For the Wolves at the moment, there is no trade-off because Rubio isn’t getting the usage. If Rubio is going to be put on spot-up jumper duty, it erodes into his value. Every offensive possession where Ricky Rubio doesn’t run some kind of a play or a counter out of a set, is a possession completely destroying his value.

The play below illustrates some issues.

Malik Beasley is becoming an excellent shooter and a guy who fits seamlessly on any team because of his ability to shoot off pin downs and on the move. On this possession, the roles he and Rubio play are cack-handed. Rubio stands in the corner for the whole play, while Malik Beasley runs a broken PNR out of a spread set. Rubio can hit threes, but he needs them in the flow of the offense — not on these awful spot-up looks where he’s assigned to stand in the corner while less capable players run the offense.

It’s understandable that Saunders wants to give on-ball reps to the likes of Anthony Edwards, but there’s a balance to find. The team should be running sets to put Edwards in positions to succeed and spots where he can attack, as opposed to sticking Ricky Rubio in the corner and letting Edwards go to work.

Rubio was brought in to run an offense. The issue is, there isn’t really an offense to run at the moment (this is as Dane Moore put ‘Houston North’). The Wolves push the pace in transition but in half-court offense, the stuff they run would suit McLaughlin better. In the way the Wolves currently set up, the player in Rubio’s role is required to stand still and hit the much coveted three-pointer, and potentially attack out of a spread look. Rubio is completely wasted in such a bland system, and his usage is arguably the biggest crime on the 20-21 Timberwolves.

Not only is he wasted, but his weaknesses aren’t masked. Rubio isn’t a great scoring guard, but a system with so little action requires him to be because defenses aren’t stretched and forced into rotation. Monty Williams and Quin Snyder masked his scoring deficiencies by forcing rotations with screening and cutting. Minnesota does very little screening or cutting, and this is largely why he has looked so unplayable this season.

Shot Selection

Something that has concerned me greatly this year is the shot selection of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

As noted earlier, the Wolves want to shoot a lot of threes and they want to shoot them in early offense to keep the defense off balance. In theory, this is an excellent idea; however, the reality is much different. As Rubio’s usage proves, the Wolves are a team who don’t run much of anything, and just play freelance style basketball reliant on spontaneous plays or tough-shot making to really work on a night-to-night basis. This shot from D’Angelo Russell is the type that’s concerning moving forward.

This is undoubtedly a terrible shot. There’s no ball movement, no player movement, and he’s tightly guarded. Jim Petersen commented on how these shots are bad shots and were why Minnesota struggled at the beginning of the game against Washington. Offenses should use the early part of a game to get in a flow, not to chuck up poor shots.

DLo is having a good shooting season, but shots like this ruin the flow of the offense. He has shot his best pull-up threes in transition taking advantage of a mismatch, this was just a poor read. He’s not a huge offender for this, it’s largely because these shots are allowed and even encouraged by the coaching staff and front office. But they are the symptom of a team who don’t run set plays and rely on these tough individual shots, but don’t have the players like the Rockets did.

Russell isn’t the biggest offender or even the lone offender. As of now, the usage of Anthony Edwards remains a huge question. Before diving into the film, it must be noted that there aren’t any valid reasons to worry about Edwards as a player. He has shown veteran level driving moves but isn’t getting the calls inside the paint yet. His playmaking reads have been good, and he’s been hugely efficient as an isolation scorer. He looks to be a legitimate one-on-one perimeter threat, which should be helping the staff to take this offense to the next level as they can force teams into rotation.

The main knocks on Edwards coming out of college were that he didn’t attack enough on a consistent basis. This hasn’t really been the case in the NBA as when he has attacked he has shown a variety of moves. His power at the rim has looked all-star level, and he should be giving the Wolves another layer to the offense. Unfortunately, the usage has led to him being forced to take poor shots. The play below is one of dozens of examples I’ve found.

The Wolves once again come out in a basic spread look — Edwards uses the Ed Davis screen but it has no effect, so he just takes a pull-up three and misses horribly. This play had no action, but in terms of the shot profile Rosas and Saunders want this was a win.

Navigating this relationship between shot quality and shot location appears to be where the Wolves are having their trouble. The pull-up jump shot is an essential tool that every elite scorer needs to succeed in the NBA. Role players’ values are increased if they can attack closeouts and hit pull-ups consistently. But this was undoubtedly an awful shot, and just because it was a three does not make it a good shot.

Edwards usage should be centered around attacking downhill, and using the pull-up jumper as a counter to the conservative coverage he will likely start to see as he continues to shred ball-handlers as he attacks downhill. Some would see this as Edwards being allowed to play through the inevitable growing pains, but it’s hard to foresee a scenario in the near future where these become quality shots. Edwards is shooting 11% on pull-up threes this season. These are wastes of important possessions that are a complete misuse of his skillset. Edwards skillset can generate threes for the Wolves but having him pull-up early in the shot clock is not the solution to answering the pivotal question of the Wolves’ ideal shot profile.

ANT will need to develop a consistent pull-up, but this formula will become easier to crack as he gains the respect of NBA defenders and can influence coverages. For now, the focus should be on getting Edwards to attack downhill so these looks open up. The action also needs to improve so Edwards has options if the ball screen doesn’t do a lot for him. On the above play, he had no options.

The shots Edwards take are not necessarily on him. It’s probable he’s being encouraged to take the jump shots, and often he has very few options to reset or enter into a counter, this team doesn’t have counters on the majority of the plays where he is in.

The majority of the Wolves possessions don’t have second reads or second phases. Which leads to players who are either incomplete or developing, taking a lot of desperation pull-up jump shots. On the play above, the Wolves try to set up a side pick-and-roll, but the spacing is once again congested. The ball screen provides no real advantage so Antman ends up defaulting into a side step jumper. For a prospect who was supposedly coming out of college with selection issues, allowing him to take shots he is clearly not ready to take is really disappointing coaching.

These shots are symptomatic of a badly coached team with a loose offensive structure. This lack of structure worked in Houston because they had veteran players who didn’t need to be developed further. This is arguably the worst type of system to put around young players because it can lead to poor habits. This isn’t a knock on Edwards right now — purely because he has shown good driving moves and we do not know how he would look in a more regimented system.

Stretch Offense

The Wolves also struggle to generate efficient offense in fourth quarters. Their fourth quarter offensive numbers don’t look terrible but this is because they have a lot of garbage time where other teams simply aren’t trying anymore.

Against the Magic, Minnesota led by thirteen points with around six minutes left. The team was playing well in half-court defense and finding advantages in transition. When Orlando was able to string some stops together and some complete possessions, Minnesota completely caved in.

Take the possession below as an example:

The Wolves reverse the ball around the perimeter and get a switch. Jordan McLaughlin has a slow defender in Nikola Vucevic on him. Instead of attacking properly, he just chucks the ball back to Naz Reid who shoots a contested three. This possession didn’t really cause any defensive rotations after the switch, which is criminal. Instead, the Wolves are just in a spacing formation but it is clear from watching the team this season that this isn’t enough to lead to good offense.

Conclusion

On the whole, Minnesota’s offense right now is a mess, and is going to harm the development of players on the team if not corrected. The sets are basic and do not create enough defensive movement — many of the sets don’t have extra actions to flow into which is a killer for young teams.

The direction of the front office is hard to question because they simply want the most efficient shots to be taken. The issue right now is that the path to get there is decayed and creating horrible side effects. Edwards’ shot selection needs to be reined in with a disciplined system, and action needs to be flowing to free-up shooters and create advantages in the half-court.

Ricky Rubio’s usage (again, prior to Saturday night’s victory) is also borderline criminal. There was zero point trading for a guy who can really only run set plays if you are not going to run many set plays. His usage and role would be better served with Jordan McLaughlin. At the moment, there simply isn’t an offense to run, the systems do not exist and are not consistent enough. The 2020-21 season started full of promise, but until Karl-Anthony Towns returns and the offensive philosophy is severely adjusted, it may be impossible to reach any of that expected potential.

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