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The Problem with the Timberwolves Late Game Offense

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been struggling to get their offense going this season, especially late in games... why?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Minnesota Timberwolves David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: Brendan wrote this piece prior to the Timberwolves’ 107-97 victory last night against the Sacramento Kings, a game that saw Anthony Edwards become the hottest guy on Earth down the stretch. With that said, all of the stats you see below are for games played through 11/16/2021, but everything Brendan hits on here still holds VERY true in regards to the Wolves and their late game execution.

Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards are all players known to complete take over games at times on the offensive side of the ball. Each has their own elite skill that bends defenses and looks seemingly impossible to guard at times. However, this season, they’ve struggled to get those skillsets to mesh on the same nights - specifically when it matters the most.

Currently, the Minnesota Timberwolves have the 29th ranked offense in 4th quarters so far this season, only scoring at a worse rate than the... Brooklyn Nets?

Anyway, in final frames this season, the Wolves have an abysmal offensive rating of 93.9, a full 8 points lower than their overall offensive rating.

For a team with three offensively gifted players like Minnesota has, they surely haven’t been able to figure it out on that side of the ball. The latest example was on Monday night as the Wolves’ stars failed to make shots when the game was on the line.

The biggest frustration, however, was with the lack of touches for Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns, who seemed to be the sole offensive contributor throughout the night, did not make a shot after his triple that put the Wolves up 5 with 3:40 remaining in the game. In fact, Towns only attempted one shot after that moment, a driving layup that he missed with 2:18 left.

The lack of touches for Karl-Anthony Towns, the most efficient scorer on the Wolves roster, has always been a problem and it is time that the coaching staff addresses it.

Sacramento Kings v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

How Bad is It?

There are 241 players in the NBA who have played at least 50 4th quarter minutes this season. Karl-Anthony Towns ranks 73rd for most field goals attempted (FGA) per 36 minutes in 4th quarters. He shoots 14.8 times per 36 minutes in final frames. That is lower than 3 of his teammates - D’Angelo Russell (22.2), Anthony Edwards (17.2), and Malik Beasley (15.8). It is also barely higher than Naz Reid’s mark of 12.8.

Let’s take a look at the top 10 scorers in the NBA and how they match up with Towns’ 4th quarter field goal frequency.

It is clear that around the NBA, coaches and players are deferring to their best scorer when the fourth quarter comes around.

Towns is currently 19th in scoring in the league, but finds himself getting less 4th quarter shots per minute than 72 other players. It gets even worse when you see that Towns has a true shooting percentage higher than all but 9 high usage players in the league (a usage of at least 20%).

It is also telling that Minnesota, as a team, shoots the 5th most field goals in 4th quarters. So it’s not that the offense is slowing down a ton when the final frame hits, it is that Towns, by far the most effective scorer on the team, is not getting the ball enough.

Towns, who has a usage rate of 25% this season, sees his usage drop to 14.6% in clutch time (5 point differential or less in the final 5 minutes of the game). That’s far below league average, which is 20%. The diminishing role for Towns as the game gets tight leads to diminishing value of the on-court product.

In fact, Towns’ usage falls as clutch time rolls on as well.

These are abysmal numbers for a player of Towns’ stature. Not only is he getting less shots, he is touching the ball less all around in clutch time. Now, I’d be remiss not to mention that opposing teams likely put more emphasis on defending Towns to close games. Still, that doesn’t seem to affect the clutch time usage rates of other stars like Durant (41.2%), Curry (38.6), George (27.1%), Antetokounmpo (25.0%), and Jokic (45.2%). Those numbers make Towns’ 14.6% look laughable. I’d be willing to bet opposing teams are keying in on their players as much, and likely more, than they are on Towns late in games.

No team in the NBA does a worse job of getting their best player the ball late in games.

Towns, who is the player getting the short end of the stick, was asked postgame Monday night about the distribution of the ball late in games and if the three stars talk about that at all.

“I don’t think its something we really have talked about, to be honest... What you’re exactly saying, I don’t think we’re actually taking about much. It’s not something that’s really a conversation piece, it’s more about trying to find flow. Trying to find out how can all of us have a high usage while also playing off of each other. A flow. I guess that’s the best way to put it.”

It is time for that to start being a conversation piece. It is time for Towns to let his teammates know that he needs the ball more for this team to pull out close games. He said it himself, the team needs to find a way for the three stars to be high usage players while playing off of each other, and currently Towns is nowhere near a high usage player in clutch time.

I’m not saying Towns is the only option in clutch time for this team, because that would be asinine to think, but he needs to be AN option going forward. D’Angelo Russell has made a name for himself in clutch moments in the past, so he should get his share of the rock down the stretch. Anthony Edwards, for as young and inexperienced as he is, should also be getting touches to close games due to his ability to attack the rim and use his athleticism to overwhelm defenders.

Towns should share the pie, but it would be great if the pie was shared with him. He, more times that not, has been the player getting his team to the desert table and it’d be nice if he could sneak in a piece or two of some of the banana cream.

Sacramento Kings v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

So, What’s Next?

I’m not a play design expert, so I’ll just lead with that, but I know that Chris Finch is renowned for his offensive design prowess.

Finch was pretty effective at times last season when drawing up plays in clutch time. The Timberwolves went 12-8 in clutch time games after the All-Star break last season and Towns was a focal point of those late game offenses. Towns’ usage in those situations was 29.1%, which was nearly identical to his overall 29.4% usage rate after last season’s All-Star break.

D’Angelo Russell played in 12 of those 20 clutch time games late last season, boasting a 7-5 record, and was still more featured than Towns. Russell’s usage rate in those games was 35.1%, which is similar to his 37.7% usage this season. So, it seems that Russell’s high usage hasn’t been the problem.

So that moves us to Anthony Edwards. During the same stretch for Towns and Russell last season, Edwards played in 18 clutch time games. Finch benched Edwards in two of the 20 clutch time games that Towns played in due to lack of effort, hence why he played less than Towns. The Wolves were 10-8 in those games with Edwards usage rate at 25.4%. This season, Edwards clutch time usage rate sits at 20.8. Not too big of a shift.

Chris Finch showed last season, with a closer to even use of his three best players, Minnesota is capable or running effective offense in clutch time. They ranked 9th in clutch time offensive rating (114.7) post All-Star break last season. The team was even better offensively in the games with Russell (115.7) than without him (113.0).

This season, Minnesota finds themselves near the bottom of the league, besting only five teams in clutch time offense with a rating of 91.1. That cannot be a trend that continues, or the Wolves will find themselves with one of the worst records in the league - like they currently have.

Luckily, for all the reasons I laid out, it seems that Chris Finch at least used to know what he was doing in those situations. Hopefully he can find his old tricks and get the ball to his best player more to close out games. It is time for more sets, more actions, and more execution - specifically of the type that involves the best player.