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How the Timberwolves Can Find Balance Between Structured and Free Flowing Offense

Despite Minnesota’s opening night loss to the Toronto Raptors, Chris Finch’s offense can look at their preseason film to get back on track.

One of the hot button topics surrounding the Minnesota Timberwolves this offseason was the idea of structure vs flow. Throughout Head Coach Chris Finch’s tenure with the Timberwolves, their offense has been highly reliant on read-and-react. It requires a high basketball IQ from every player and well-established chemistry, something that has eluded Minnesota basketball for years. Too frequently, their free-flowing approach led to a lot of “your turn, my turn” basketball. Nothing felt smooth or natural, and there wasn’t a baseline set they could turn to when needed. Throughout the preseason, it was evident that implementing structure and consistent sets was a focal point for their offensive development. What was so impressive, though, was that the Timberwolves seem to have found, at least for now, that balancing act between consistently running designed plays and playing within the flow of the offense.

In modern basketball, it is ridiculous to expect NBA players to run a set play on every possession. It undermines their basketball acumen, destroys tempo, and eliminates their ability to improvise when needed. However, it is crucial for teams to have a handful of sets that they are comfortable running on a consistent basis and provides them with different options. Their ball movement and willingness to make the extra pass have never looked as good as it did in the preseason. Now, whether or not they can maintain that balancing act between structure and flow is an entirely different conversation, but from what they’ve shown us so far, they’re in a really promising position.

One of the most appealing aspects of the NBA is when the ball just zips around the floor. The Duncan-era San Antonio Spurs and the more recent Golden State Warriors were notorious for this style of constantly moving without the ball, making the extra pass, and countering defensive rotations with ball and player movement. Consistently executing this style of play is incredibly difficult and requires a sublime level of chemistry. It’s the free flowing beautiful game that Coach Finch has been searching for, and we saw plenty of glimpses of it in the preseason.

Here, Mike Conley pushes in transition but doesn’t force anything as the New York Knicks have numbers behind the ball. By getting into the offense quickly, though, Conley has allowed Gobert to establish terrific position in the post. As the ball swings to Shake Milton, Evan Fournier is forced to aggressively help off the weak side corner. Milton makes a well-placed skip pass to Troy Brown Jr. who attacks the closeout before finding Milton who has now relocated to the corner. After the pass, Brown relocates out to the wing while Gobert probes around the rim and Milton attacks the closeout. All of this movement discombobulates the defense, allowing Milton to find Naz Reid on the opposite wing for a wide-open three.

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Again, the Timberwolves don’t run anything more complicated than a high pick-and-roll here, but their willingness to move the ball and relocate creates a great look. The initial pick-and-roll between Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Reid allows Alexander-Walker to get a paint touch (common theme here) and collapse the defense. He promptly finds Kyle Anderson in the corner who immediately counters the defensive rotation by kicking it to Anthony Edwards. Edwards could settle for a three here, but he instead attacks the closeout to create another paint touch. Edwards makes the smart kick-out to Karl-Anthony Towns who finds Alexander-Walker, who didn’t stay stagnant after his initial drive, for the open corner three.

This time, Edwards pushes the early offense which yet again doesn’t allow the defense to get set. He effortlessly finds his way to the lane and attracts all five defenders. Edwards kicks it out to Milton which sparks the ball swinging to the opposite wing to Towns. Towns attacks the lazy closeout and then dispatches the second help defender with another shot fake. Anderson correctly attacks the defense as Julius Randle is behind the play, Fournier bit hard on the shot fake, and Quentin Grimes is closing out to Milton. Gobert has a good seal on Mitchell Robinson in the post, so it wouldn’t have been a wild decision for Anderson to try and finish through the rotation of Immanuel Quickly at the rim. Instead, Anderson counters Quickly’s rotation by kicking out to Edwards, who again relocated after his initial drive, for the open corner three.

The fact that the Wolves are already showing this level of comfort and unselfishness is an exciting indicator of what their offense could grow into. Especially in the playoffs, where things tend to bog down more and scouting reports are more detailed, having this high-level of improvisatory offensive creation will allow them to regularly dissect defenses. However, for a team like Minnesota, having a handful of reliable sets to create different looks and get players involved is critical.

One set that’s extremely simple for the Timberwolves to run is a double drag in their early offense. They’ve run it plenty before, but with two bigs out there who do very different things, it provides the ball-handler with two screens and a variety of different options to exploit. It can also create mismatches that then encourage the Timberwolves to pivot to more of a read-and-react style.

Here, Conley initiates the double drag while Gobert slips the first screen and Reid’s second screen forces Seth Curry to switch. Once Reid recognizes he has the switch after popping for a three, he immediately sprints to block opposite of where Gobert rolled to. Reid eagerly initiates the post-up against the smaller defender as Conley swings it to Brown to make the entry pass since he has the better angle. Reid’s quick turn over the shoulder attracts the rotation from Dereck Lively II. Instead of forcing a shot, Reid makes the easy play by dumping it off to Gobert for the dunk.

Here, Alexander-Walker dribbles off the double drag while Lively hangs back at the free-throw line. After setting the first screen, Towns simply pivots on the wing. As Alexander-Walker comes off the second screen, Gobert rolls to the lane as both defenders go with the ball. Some of the potential options for Alexander-Walker to explore here are a pocket pass or lob to Gobert if neither weak side defender rotates, a kick-out to Towns if Grant Williams tags Gobert, a skip pass to Conley if Olivier-Maxence Prosper fully rotates to Gobert’s dive, or a pull-up jumper if the defense doesn’t recover to him. As Alexander-Walker attacks, he takes all the space afforded to him to force Lively to fully commit. Additionally, Williams doesn’t tag Gobert which forces Prosper to rotate fully. Alexander-Walker makes the skip pass while Gobert establishes an extremely deep post position since he was unaccounted for on the roll. Conley finds him and Gobert draws the foul.

Nothing about this play is overly complicated, but it gives the ball-handler multiple options to exploit. It is also an easy and effective way to get Gobert quality looks around the rim without giving him a traditional post-up. One of the frustrating aspects of the Timberwolves’ offense last season was their insistence on getting Gobert offensive touches. Unfortunately, they did it through a handful of post-ups each game, but all of these sets and free flowing approaches get him even easier looks around the rim.

This time, the play is sparked by a Jaden McDaniels strong side cut that mirrors the play him and D’Angelo Russell frequently ran. Instead, McDaniels relocates to the opposite corner while Alexander-Walker is running off a pin down screen out of that same corner. As Alexander-Walker curls off the screen, he is met by zero help defenders and is afforded acres of space in the middle of the floor. As he attacks the rim, Dwight Powell is forced to step up to the drive and abandon Gobert. Alexander-Walker makes the simple read and throws the lob to Gobert who draws the foul.

Another set that the Timberwolves ran, which is very effective with a rim running center, was the Spain pick-and-roll. As Conley comes off the initial Gobert screen, Alexander-Walker sets a back screen on Gobert’s defender. This interchange confuses Prosper who is lost in no-man’s land as Conley’s defender struggles to recover after the first screen. Conley rises into his shot, which attracts both defenders, before kicking out to Alexander-Walker for a wide-open three.

Finally, another simple set that the Timberwolves aren’t unfamiliar with that forces defensive rotations and communication is the horns set. This time, Anderson is running the point and dribbles off the Gobert screen that drags all three defenders on the roll. Since all three defenders dropped with Gobert’s roll, Reid is left wide-open at the top of the arc, and Gobert is initially left open after the defenders miscommunicate as they all leave him be. This miscommunication forces Josh Green to rotate all the way down to the rim and leave Milton on the weak side. Anderson immediately processes all of this and finds Milton for the open three.

The beautiful thing about the additional structure that the Timberwolves showed in the preseason is that it isn’t player dependent. Essentially any of their players can be in any of those spots. These sets also aren’t an entirely new language. They’re common looks that they’ve run before, but the added versatility of the roster makes them that much more effective.

The Timberwolves aren’t replacing their read-and-react style with militaristic structure. They seem to be implementing a higher frequency of sets that they’ve used before that provide them with numerous options. These sets aren’t a firm set of rules but more like guidelines that complement and frequently lead into a free-flowing read-and-react style. Throughout the preseason, the wOLVES found that supreme balance between structure and flow. Doing it throughout the regular season, let alone the playoffs, is a much tougher ordeal, but this is the most natural and fluid their offense has looked in a while.