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Timberwolves Slow Offensive Start Extends Beyond “Two-Big” Lineups

The idea that Minnesota’s offensive struggles are due to playing two centers is unfair and lazy

Minnesota Timberwolves v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s no point in sugarcoating it, the Minnesota Timberwolves offense stinks right now. Through eight games, the Wolves rank 24th in Offensive Rating (109.9 points per-100 possessions). Needless to say, that’s not what anyone expected from a group with a mixture of capable shooters, ferocious slashers, and size to punish teams at the rim and on the offensive glass. At the very least, the thought was that the two-man groupings of D’Angelo Russell/Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards/Karl-Anthony Towns would give the Wolves two dynamic pairs to anchor elite offense at all times.

Instead, the Wolves are shooting 32.6% from 3 (26th), 63% in the restricted area (23rd), and are shooting below 39% in the short mid-range area as classified by They are also turning the ball over on 14.6% of their possessions (19th), just to make matters worse. In short, they are shooting poorly from pretty much every spot on the floor, and aren’t taking care of the ball either. It’s not hard to put two and two together here and get a bad offense.

A lot of the blame for this come down on the front court, and while KAT and Gobert haven’t been great yet offensively, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

I’m just not buying that as a real excuse. This team played with Jarred Vanderbilt on the court with Karl-Anthony Towns all of last year. Vando and Gobert functionally serve the same role/purpose on offense, and that wasn’t an issue last year. The Vanderbilt/Edwards two-man pairing had a 117.0 ORTG, which to me would indicate that a defender in the dunker spot isn’t something he can’t handle. Plus, while this is technically a “two-big” lineup, it’s not as if Towns doesn’t provide the spacing of a sharpshooting wing.

To me, this starts with Chris Finch, who I still believe is a damn good coach. Finch prides himself on being a coach who runs a free-flowing offense that just puts “guard rails” up, otherwise letting players pass, cut, and move freely to get the best shot. In a perfect world, that’s probably the best way to play offense in a manner that makes it difficult for a defense to game plan against you. It’s what has made the Golden State Warriors so tough over the years beyond just having Hall of Fame talent.

What has been frustrating is that this is not a “perfect world.” Finch does not have the types of players, at least in the starting lineup, who are good at making quick decisions with the ball. He has a group of players who would rather be methodical in the half-court, and it is beginning to feel like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Finch is a smart coach, regardless of how this stretch has gone. He does deserve blame, though, for his rigidness in his ways offensively. That in and of itself is so strange since he has proven to be scheme-flexible depending on his personnel defensively, but that hasn’t carried over to the other side of the ball.

The Wolves may not need to become a super set-heavy team at large, but it would probably be beneficial to call a play in the flow of the game as opposed to just out of timeouts. If nothing else, it gives the team a more diverse set of actions to start possessions, which they can then play out of.

Aside from the coaching, I’ve felt the starting backcourt was more responsible than anything for the poor offensive play thus far, and they’ve each contributed to it in different ways.

The punching bag online right now is D’Angelo Russell, and it’s hard not to be underwhelmed with his output this season. He’s averaging 14 PPG on 13 shots a night, with shooting splits of 39.5/27.9/78.3. To some degree, the shooting should come back around. This is a career 35.5% 3-point shooter, after all. A hot streak for some positive regression would be a boon for this offense, but the issues are deeper than that.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond just his shooting, it’s the pace and playmaking from Russell that have been most disappointing. He’s averaging 5.8 assists to 3.1 turnovers a game, and the game routinely grinds to a halt when he is in control of the offense. There is a notable difference in how quickly Minnesota gets into their offense with Russell at the helm compared to McLaughlin.

Russell has been frustrating for sure, but Anthony Edwards is not without blame either. The metrics for Ant are better overall, but many of his team-wide metrics are buoyed by the fact that he’s spent the most time of any starter playing with the bench unit. To illustrate that point, the players with the five highest Offensive Ratings on the team are, in order, Jordan McLaughlin, Naz Reid, Kyle Anderson, Taurean Prince, and Jaylen Nowell. To Ant’s earlier point about seeing so many bodies at the rim, am I supposed to believe the spacing around a Anderson/Reid front court is noticeably better than a Towns/Gobert one? I don’t think so.

This is supposed to be a free-flowing, motion offense, but their possessions too often devolve into Edwards isolations. The Wolves currently isolate on 8.0% of their possessions, which is 9th-highest in the league. That’s not how this team should want to play, and his usage is generally not leading to team success that you hope to get from a player with his level of usage.

Individually, both Russell and Edwards have had their faults, but one thing that they’ve both struggled with is their passing, specifically with Gobert.

The Russell/Gobert two-man game was assumed to be something this team could rely on, but that hasn’t been true. Lineups including Russell and Gobert are producing just 102.0 points per-100 possessions, which is a pitiful number. For Edwards and Gobert, it’s not meaningfully better, sitting at 102.6 points/100 possessions.

The biggest issue that I have seen from the guards with Gobert is the unwillingness to look for him on the roll in PnR, specifically with a lob. Both Ant and D’Lo have been trying to squeeze in bounce passes to Gobert, which is just not his strength. He is a mountain of a human. Use his size to your advantage, and look for him on the lob as opposed to making him reach down at his shins for passes. I genuinely think I could count on one-hand how many lobs this team has thrown him so far, which is baffling.

Ultimately, no player or coach is blameless, at least not within the starting lineup. They all are contributing to poor to the poor offense, but when you hear a player as important as Anthony Edwards seemingly point the finger towards the roster construction and Gobert, it’s worth examining further.

It’s on Ant to play more in the flow of the offense and not pre-determine whether he’s going to shoot or pass. It’s on Russell to play with more pace and intention. It’s on Towns to put the ball in the basket, and it’s on Gobert to make a better effort to catch imperfect passes and finish at the basket. It’s also on Finch to try set plays here and there to force the offense into a rhythm, rather than just waiting for the starters to magically figure out how to play like the 2014 Spurs as losses pile up.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that the team should see some positive regression shooting the ball. Russell’s aforementioned shooting splits won’t hold over a larger sample, and Towns is in a similar boat. KAT is shooting 35.4% from 3, and while that might be a normal number for most players, it’s not for Towns. The team-wide mark of 32.6% from three will improve.

Still, it would be foolish to look at what has transpired over the first eight games and pin it all on shooting variance. There is no “flow” right now, and the starters far too often starting playing a big game of your turn, my turn.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the poor offensive start, and it’s going to take everyone involved to turn it around.