Injuries have been a primary story for the Minnesota Timberwolves this season. They have caused significant fluctuations in rotations and debilitated the team’s ability to realize if they have something to build around in the Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell triumvirate. Now that most of the injury hurdles have been cleared, we are finally seeing how imposing this trio can be.
While we still haven’t seen the full capabilities of this trio because of injuries, minute restrictions, and staggering minutes, there has still been a lot to get excited about. Simply put, this trio has the potential to be one of the league’s best offenses. All three players can create their shot, shoot off-ball, navigate the pick-and-roll, and act as excellent facilitators. There will be some frustrating hero ball moments no doubt, but there are no excuses for the Timberwolves to have a lackluster offense from now on.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Timberwolves have an offensive rating of 123.8 when Towns, Russell, and Edwards share the floor. For reference, the Brooklyn Nets have the league’s highest offensive rating of 117.3 per NBA Stats. Their effective field goal percentage of 60.1 ranks in the 99th percentile, and their free throw rate of 23.9 ranks in the 94th percentile. The Timberwolves can essentially get whatever shot they want from any part of the floor when these three play together.
The numbers are obviously welcomed for a team that has been long considered inept offensively. However, the true beauty of this trio is their interconnectivity and ability to play off each other. Yes, there will be isolations and shot hunting that will induce moments of hair pulling when the shots aren’t falling. With three players of this offensive ilk, it’s impossible not to get some of that. Thankfully, this team isn’t falling into that temptation regularly.
The more common offensive actions we see from this trio include the pick-and-roll, off-ball screens, back cuts, and dribble handoffs. The gravity generated by any one of Towns, Russell, or Edwards creates a myriad of offensive possibilities. When two or all three share the floor, the heights of the offense are limitless.
One change we’ve seen is the Timberwolves running more set plays, specifically horns action. This action puts all three of Towns, Russell, and Edwards directly in the play while having the option for all three to score. It also puts the other two offensive players in the corners to help stretch the floor and free up the lane.
Below, we can see how the horns action can confuse the defense. After passing to Edwards, Russell sets a down screen for Towns which Daniel Theis struggles to get through. Edwards hands it off to Towns, and Zach LaVine is forced to bite on the shot fake because Theis has yet to recover. As Theis gets through the screen to recover to Towns and LaVine contests the shot fake, Edwards cuts to the rim while Russell flares out to three. This movement forces Troy Brown to decide to stay with Russell or tag Edwards and not give up the dunk. Brown makes the right decision to tag Edwards but can’t recover to Russell in time to prevent the three.
By involving all three directly in the play, the Timberwolves force the defense to execute flawlessly. If the defense fails to do so, any one of the three can quickly make them pay.
The Timberwolves punish the Bulls the very next possession using the exact same set, with a slight twist. This time, Russell passes to Towns and goes to set the down screen for Edwards. Not trying to get burned twice in a row, Brown stays high on Russell, anticipating the switch. Russell recognizes Brown’s positioning, slips the screen, and cuts to the rim where Towns delivers a perfect pass for an easy layup.
Even when the Timberwolves don’t directly involve all three in an action, the gravity and movement of the offense puts the defense on their heels. The Timberwolves’ intelligent ball-handlers can capitalize on defensive miscommunications for their own easy scores.
The Jazz hid Gobert on Okogie most of last night which allowed him to play a free safety role and his teammates to front Towns. The Timberwolves struggled early with this but had some nice late game counters to take Gobert away from the rim. pic.twitter.com/ugnef3HSYT— Tyler Metcalf (@tmetcalf11) April 27, 2021
The gravity also creates easy opportunities for teammates when they are willing to move off-ball as cutting lanes are more common than ever before.
The Russell/KAT pick and roll is a great way to create off-ball scoring opportunities, as long as guys are willing to cut or relocate. pic.twitter.com/H3vz81upEk— Tyler Metcalf (@tmetcalf11) April 27, 2021
The Towns/Edwards/Russell trio is crucial for the Timberwolves going forward. We've started seeing how deadly and difficult to cover they can be. All 3 being on and off ball scoring threats could eventually make this an elite offense pic.twitter.com/1xYkKkpQCp— Tyler Metcalf (@tmetcalf11) April 21, 2021
Opposing defenses are so keyed in on the Timberwolves’ “Big Three” that opportunities like the one below are frequently available. The Jazz don’t respect Josh Okogie’s offense as they double Russell after the screen. This decision creates an imbalance on the floor for the Jazz as they now have three players on the left half, two on the weak side, and no one covering the lane. The weakside defenders should be making the rotation to impede Okogie’s cut, but their ball-watching of Russell combined with the reluctance to leave the off-ball shooters results in a blown coverage and easy layup.
Having all three of Towns, Russell, and Edwards on the floor is the best way to optimize the offense, but another tremendous value this trio provides is the ability to stagger minutes. We’re currently seeing this in prime effect with Russell coming off the bench. That approach isn’t tenable long-term, but it is a precursor of what we can expect rotations to look like in the future. At no point should the Timberwolves ever have a lineup on the floor that doesn’t include one of these three elite scorers.
The ideal scenario is that two of these three are always on the floor. The budding Towns-Edwards and Towns-Russell two-man games allow the Timberwolves to have prolonged stretches of offensive dominance during games. These two-man games can emulate what we see in Denver between Jokic and Murray and help the Timberwolves avoid what happened every season in Oklahoma City during the Kevin Durant era. The Thunder could’ve easily staggered the minutes of Durant and Russell Westbrook, so they wouldn’t have had to fight out of a self-inflicted deficit when both Durant and Westbrook sat. The Timberwolves should never have this issue.
When Edwards and Towns share the floor and Russell is off the floor, the Timberwolves have an offensive rating of 113.5 (60th percentile), per Cleaning the Glass. One of the most encouraging developments of this season has been Edwards’s growth running the pick-and-roll. He already has an excellent understanding of keeping his defender on his hip, snake dribbles, and change-of-pace dribbling.
Anthony Edwards has been operating the pick-and-roll with an immense amount of comfort for some time now. Really encouraging growth from a young rookie #Timberwolves https://t.co/JBcvEcto6R pic.twitter.com/HcfZOi5sVx— Tyler Metcalf (@tmetcalf11) April 17, 2021
Again, the Timberwolves show how difficult they are to defend out of the pick-and-roll. Eric Bledsoe adjusts his positioning to go over the screen. Edwards wisely rejects the screen and attacks. This decision allows Edwards to get Bledsoe on his hip, essentially eliminating him from the play. The Timberwolves are now in a two vs. one situation, and Willy Hernangomez is in a lose-lose situation between rotating or staying with Towns. Edwards senses the indecisiveness, explodes to the rim, and finishes through the weak block attempt.
Similarly, when Towns and Russell share the floor with Edwards on the bench, the Timberwolves’ offense still runs at an extremely high level with an offensive rating of 116.2 (77th percentile). While the Edwards-Towns pick-and-roll tends to put more pressure on the rim, the Russell-Towns pick-and-roll is a more significant threat in space and with outside shooting. It gives the Timberwolves two +38 percent three-point shooters the ability to manipulate and capitalize on defensive mistakes. Russell and Towns have the chemistry we’ve hoped for.
The trio of Towns, Russell, and Edwards has the potential to be one of the most explosive offenses in the league. The team’s offensive rating of 123.8 when those three share the floor ranks in the 98th percentile. For comparison, the Nets trio of Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden has an offensive rating of 126.4, Denver’s trio of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr had an offensive rating of 126.8, and Milwaukee’s trio of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday has an offensive rating of 117.6.
With more time together, there is no reason to think that the Timberwolves’ “Big Three” won’t continue to be one of the league’s most elite offenses going forward.