Make any argument for why the Minnesota Timberwolves are below .500 through the first 12 games of the season, and you’d likely be right. Final scores haven’t dictated just how disjointed and aimless Minnesota has looked on both ends of the floor. The defense is lacking intensity on and off the ball, effort to rebound has been minimal and maybe most clearly the flow of offense from possession to possession does not have the same zip and vigor of last season.
Finger-pointing percentages have seemed to favor D’Angelo Russell so far, the primary initiator of half-court offense. His slow, methodical stride navigating ball screens and penchant for allowing the defense to catch up to itself has frustrated Wolves watchers and hamstrung usage rates of other potent offensive options on the floor. There might be some leeway given if Russell was knocking down shots — he’s shooting less than 30% from beyond the arc on both catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and triples off the bounce, per NBA Stats.
Then there’s Anthony Edwards, who has shown to be short on the electric personality we adore him for as the games get less and less fun. He was expected to be the thermostat of the team, an encapsulating aura that lifted everyone around him on the court and off. He’s been stopping the ball as well, often deferring to jumpers early in the game and then deciding to turn on the jets in the paint when things are out of reach late. There’s plenty of work to be done on his off-ball ability, whether a play is designed for him or not.
The big men have been less of an issue on the offensive end, as far as adjusting to finding each other in optimal scoring spots. There’s some clear synergy between Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert when the spacing is correct and both are involved in screening actions, or KAT picks up a double-team in the post.
Now the Spartan PnR flips alignment with KAT screening second to come off the Gobert flare screen. Lopez is in deep drop from the start, Giannis switches. That gets Carter stuck on Gobert’s flare, Lopez closes out and it’s an easy slip for a dunk. pic.twitter.com/GtHGTMtgv4— Jared Martinson (@JaredMartyMN) November 6, 2022
Regardless of individual blame, the bottom line is the Timberwolves roster and Head Coach Chris Finch have to figure out what makes the offense — and even more so, the starting unit — click. Let’s dive into some sets, actions and concepts that other teams around the league have been utilizing, specifically in the half-court, that can play to strengths of the Wolves personnel.
Denver Nuggets: Flex Empty Pop
Ah yes, the flex offense!
Known well for being the poster boy of boring continuity offenses, especially at the high school level, you’ll see a lot of NBA teams run quick-hitters out of flex variations, most often to get the point guard on the run back into a ball screen at the top of the key. Denver running this play with bench personnel (Bones Hyland at the point, Jeff Green at power forward and DeAndre Jordan at center) tells you how simple movements executed well can lead to good looks for anyone.
Hyland enters the ball to Green at the elbow and cuts underneath to set a cross screen for Michael Porter Jr. The Spurs are switching 1-4, so that look under the rim isn’t a primary one. Instead, Hyland flies off a down screen from Jordan and curls around to take a handoff from Green. The Spurs defenders both get caught on the ball-handler as Green slips to the 3-point line, and with Jordan clearing out to the weak side, there’s no help to rotate on Green’s drive to the rim.
Why it works for Minnesota: I would love to see Minnesota run more flex action for Russell. We’ve seen some pindown sets for him early in games to come off a similar screen and get a handoff from Gobert for a high pick-and-roll, but the structure and moving parts in a set like this one force the defense to stay engaged the entire possession, rather than just sitting in the gap while a two-man action occurs in the middle of the floor. Towns as the pop man, with the ability to attack long closeouts off the dribble to an empty side, is very enticing as well.
Toronto Raptors: Guards Out Mid Screen
The Raptors’ 1-4 in the starting lineup is as versatile as any. When you can make Scottie Barnes the initiator and bring Gary Trent Jr. or Fred VanVleet out of the corner to attack a rotating defense, that’s a luxury.
What we see here is just that: Barnes and OG Anunoby are at the guard spots, VanVleet and Trent are the forwards. Simple dribble handoff and exchange actions are followed by Barnes and Anunoby crossing each other on the baseline, occupying the frontside and backside help.
Trent flips it to VanVleet, who is met with a mid-ball screen from Christian Koloko at full speed. Alperen Şengün is in a relatively nonchalant drop coverage as Kevin Porter Jr. tries to fight over the top, giving VanVleet ample operating space to get his pull-up jumper going.
The spacing on this action is key. Both corners are taken up by the offense, and the backside slot (Trent) is a tough recover for Jalen Green when he has to tag Koloko’s roll as well. I know everyone nowadays is so into empty pick-and-roll game (where there’s no help defender available to cover the roller on the weak side of the play) but I almost like having two offensive players spotting up on the weak side better — there’s more real estate for the ball-handler to take up, and when you have a vertical threat like Koloko, the two tagging defenders become less of a problem.
Why it works for Minnesota: The easy comparison of personnel in the screening action between the Wolves and Raptors: Rudy Gobert as the epicenter of spread pick-and-roll. His ability to set good screens while opening himself up for lob dunks is still best in the league. You probably wouldn’t see much of this action with two bigs on the floor for Minnesota, but I’d be willing to experiment with KAT being the ballhandler and Gobert setting the screen to see how teams play it. Karl has developed a quick affinity for throwing the ball to Rudy at the rim this season.
I also like this for Anthony Edwards. How can the Wolves get him on the move more? Structured sets that still look familiar enough to what the Wolves employ in their “flow” could be a way to unlock him, instead of standing in the slot waiting for the ball to come his way. He’s also at his best taking up vertical slack against a dropped defender and breaking them down to reach the rim.
New Orleans Pelicans: Split Nail
The Pelicans have great options with the versatility of Brandon Ingram. The strength he has developed to overpower smaller defenders in tight spaces off the dribble makes him lethal.
Using a split action concept once the ball is entered to Jonas Valančiūnas at the elbow, Ingram screens for Jose Alvarado to get a handoff. Derrick Jones Jr. helps off Ingram’s deep slot spacing by hanging out at the nail (the center of the free throw line). Alvarado’s short drive leads to a kick-out for Ingram, and he attacks Jones head-on, changing direction in the midrange area — a spot where the perimeter help can’t reach him without giving up an open shot.
Ingram’s strength is on display to get across the rim and make a nice running floater.
Why it works for Minnesota: Three-man actions are always better than two-man actions in the NBA. Involve another moving piece in the screening game and someone usually comes open. Using Anthony Edwards in that Brandon Ingram spot would be another simple way to get him the ball off the catch with the momentum to make many choices: launch a rhythm catch-and-shoot 3, swing it an extra time to the corner or assert himself as the battering ram of a paint finisher that we all know he can be. There’s some prime Russell Westbrook to his athleticism and burst when he faces up a defender around the 17-foot range; the more ground you give up to him, the easier it is to get downhill to the cup.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Pin Exit Curl
The Cavaliers are one of the most entertaining teams to watch so far this year. Their role guys are smart cutters and unselfish passers, and the team is grounded by elite playmaking and shooting at the guard spots.
Here’s a simple two-screen action where Evan Mobley sets a pin-down for Kevin Love to get an elbow catch, then follows it up with a baseline exit screen for Cedi Osman. Luke Kennard doesn’t want to afford trailing Osman on the move, so he jumps in front and beats Osman to the corner — but Nic Batum has to worry about Mobley’s threat to catch as well, which takes away any notion of him helping near the rim.
Osman smartly curls around Mobley, leaving Kennard in the dust and Batum realizing his positional miscue too late. The gravity of Mobley affects the most important defender in the play.
Why it works for Minnesota: We’ve seen the Wolves sprinkle in baseline exit screens for Karl-Anthony Towns with good success as a secondary action. Putting KAT in the screener role on the block (most likely without Gobert on the floor) draws multiple sets of eyes and feet with or without the ball, and with high-IQ forwards in Taurean Prince and Kyle Anderson, they would be able to read their defender’s position and make the appropriate cut to get to the rim, an open look from deep or a post entry to Towns.
Grizzlies Weak Chin Cross
The whole town knows Desmond Bane is one of the best shooters in the NBA, and he still finds a way to get loose in the simplest of ways.
Memphis utilizes an elite screener in Steven Adams around the top of the key. He pops to the nail, setting a back screen for Ja Morant to the weak side. Jeremy Sochan can’t help but see this and his one step in Morant’s direction gives Bane enough wiggle room to come off an Adams cross screen for a catch-and-shoot bomb. Poeltl is a drop coverage big man, so he’s not in an ideal spot to help off of Adams at the arc.
Shot not there? The next step in the set would be to turn back and use another Adams screen in high pick-and-roll, where Poeltl would likely play drop coverage again and Bane could find his spot off the dribble for an open look.
Why it works for Minnesota: Chin concepts (the back screen for Morant, or even a flare screen instead on his pass to the wing) are a bit too 2000s for today’s league. That also means most teams don’t know how to play against it, especially with a drop coverage center. Pulling that defending five-man out to the perimeter as help for off-ball screens gives offenses — especially shooters — a distinct space to operate.
I envision shooters such as Jaylen Nowell, Bryn Forbes and Austin Rivers being solid beneficiaries of this concept, as well as Edwards and Russell. Putting Rudy Gobert in the Adams spot nearly guarantees good screens to get those guys open, and eventually attack trailing closeouts. His roll gravity still comes into play as well when the rest of the defense has to recover. Naz Reid would be great at this too — he’s scoring 1.47 points per possession as a roller, per NBA Stats.
Seen a trend from these offensive clips yet? There is a distinct through-line here, and it highlights how dreadful the Timberwolves have been offensively: you don’t magically gain advantages with the ball in your hands in the half-court. Decisive movements through passing, cutting and screening give you those advantages.
It’s become glaringly obvious that when Minnesota makes an effort to swing the ball, cut and set screens before reaching the desired action, better things happen. It’s even more obvious that when the offense is made up of one or two passes and a bunch of guys standing in spots waiting for the ball-handler to make an isolation move, worse things happen. Many in Wolves media have observed that Finch calling plays from the sideline usually leads to a quality shot, especially early in the game.
These are five simple, replicable quick-hitting plays that may or may not be interesting to you. But the Wolves just might need to steal the boring and disciplined stuff to discover their joy and freedom offensively.