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Clutch Offense Will Make or Break Timberwolves Season

Clutch offense has been a struggle for Minnesota, and that threatens to be their downfall

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Given the up-and-down nature of the 2022-23 Minnesota Timberwolves season, it’s not surprising that they’ve played the sixth-most games (37) that fall under what the NBA defines as “clutch” games (score within five points during the final five minutes). Every game seems to be a microcosm of their entire season, meaning that everything is a roller coaster. No lead of their own is safe and no deficit is out of reach, which lends itself to a lot of games coming down to the wire, one way or the other.

If you’ve followed this team, you’re familiar with how putrid their offense gets in those situations. During clutch time, the Wolves offensive rating is just 102.3, fifth-worst in the entire league. More disturbing than the actual number is the route they’ve taken to get there, which has looked markedly different than the way they’ve played throughout the early portions of games. The Wolves are 22-15 in clutch games this season, but their -4.5 net-rating in those games suggests there’s a bit of luck at play there.

An offense that is supposed to be predicated on ball-movement often turns into a slow, disgusting isolation show. Far too often this season, late offense has devolved into Anthony Edwards or the recently traded D’Angelo Russell taking contested jump shots. The late offense has functionally looked a bit different since the big trade, but the results have primarily been the same. Since the Russell for Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker trade, Minnesota offensive rating in clutch games is 102.0.

To further illustrate the point, Minnesota assists on 59.6% of their baskets for the season, ranking 16th in the league. In the clutch, that plummets down to an assist rate of 47.4%, which ranks 24th in the league. Assist rates naturally go down in the clutch as a result of more self-created buckets from stars, but that still illustrates the Wolves need to incorporate more ball movement and people movement into their offense at the end of games. It’s about finding better balance.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

The most frustrating part of the poor offense late in games is that it feels like a flip just switches as time winds down, where they decide to stop running their normal offense. Many times, that’s because Ant is prone to hold the ball, size up his defender, and try to make a play going one-one-one. Sometimes, the game will call for that from Ant, but it can’t be the main offensive diet throughout the end of games.

While Ant is the main culprit, the Wolves as a team can help mitigate those tendencies in a few different ways.

For one, possessions that begin with Mike Conley or Kyle Anderson as the initiator just generally lead to good things. They’re the type of decision-makers that you trust to get the team organized in a big spot. Possessions that go through both players are even better. For the season, Conley has 20 assists to 3 turnovers in the clutch and Anderson is at 13 assists to 1 turnover. Edwards, on the other hand, has delivered 9 assists in the clutch to 12 turnovers, which is tied for the fifth-most in the league.

That’s not to say that Edwards is a failure or “not clutch” or anything like that. It just means that at this point in his young career, his decision making isn’t quite where it needs to be for this team to score efficiently at the end of games when he isolates frequently. It’s also not just on Ant to generate good offense, even when he is the primary ball-handler. It’s on everyone else to make themselves available and a part of the action, even if the majority of the onus is on Edwards. A prime example is the cut SloMo made from the weak side against the Los Angeles Clippers. That kind of activity, compared to standing and watching Ant dance, is what can make it easier on the young All-Star late in games. That’s the kind of cut that makes it easier for Edwards to make the right play.

In ordinary circumstances a 21 year old kid isn’t tasked with this type of offensive responsibility. What it does suggest, though, is that the team will ultimately be in better shape if the Wolves can give Anderson and Conley more of the playmaking responsibility late, with Edwards in more of a play finisher role. At the very least, it would be beneficial for the likes of Conley and SloMo to get the action started, and then Ant can go get the ball after the defense has been in rotation.

While that’s what is best for this team today, it’s understandable why it wouldn’t be quite that simple for this organization. In the short-term, yes, I think it’s fair to suggest that the Wolves would score more efficiently with Anderson and Conley as the initiators. That is in complete contradiction with the bigger picture, though, which would support Ant getting as many on-ball reps late in games as possible. The same way that I believe that playing competitive basketball so early in his career has sped up the former Georgia Bulldog’s development, I believe that he’ll be better off in the long-term as a result of his struggles now.

This is part of the balance when you have a good team with a 21 year old as the best player. There are speed bumps along the way that as an organization, you just have to decide what your priorities ultimately are. In a perfect world, you’d give Ant more of these reps in the regular season to get him the practice and prioritize more Conley/Anderson actions in the playoffs, but we’re at the point where every game is of the utmost importance. As is always the case, the truth likely rests somewhere in the middle.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, the elephant in the room is how this all changes when Karl-Anthony Towns presumably (hopefully?) returns. At a minimum, Towns’ shooting and offensive talent will be helpful to the clutch offense. As well as the team has managed to come together recently, Ant and Rudy Gobert has just never found their chemistry as pick-and-roll partners. For all of the improvements the third year guard has made as a passer, he still remains an inside-out passer, struggling with his interior passing.

For that reason, Towns’ ability to be a more natural partner with Edwards in the two-man game should have a dramatic ripple effect on the quality of the offense. The simplest action this team can run, that should consistently produce a good shot, is the Edwards-Towns pick-and-pop. Few teams have the personnel to switch that action, they can’t as easily put two on the ball, and it’s much harder to sit in a drop with Towns popping to the three-point line.

Now, the return of Towns will undoubtedly be a great thing for the offense, it’s still going to force some difficult decisions for Chris Finch. With Edwards, Towns, and Jaden McDaniels virtual locks to be in the closing lineups, that leaves two spots for Anderson, Conley, and Gobert. It’s of course likely that one of those spots belongs to Gobert as well, but it’s just so hard to imagine not having the stability of Conley and Anderson out there.

Given Finch’s affinity for SlowMo, my best guess is Conley becomes the odd man out more often that not, but it’s a truly difficult decision. I suppose, that’s why Finchy makes the big bucks, but this is the stuff that will be the difference between a play-in game and making the playoffs straight away. And it’ll be the difference between building a lead in a playoff game and maintaining a lead to close out an opponent down the stretch. For a team without a great margin for error, this is what will ultimately define their season.