The Timberwolves Offense Is Unconventional

01/18/2018 at 08:01pm

By Ian Levy
Nylon Calculus, brought to you by The Step Back

The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of the hottest teams in the NBA right now. Since the beginning of December they’ve gone 16-8 with a +7.1 point differential per 100 possessions, the second-best mark in the league over that stretch. Their defense has been much improved, top-10 since the beginning of December, and that development has been getting most of the headlines.

The Timberwolves offense has been just as responsible for their success -- both keeping their head above water early in the season and driving this surge as their defense improved. Since Dec. 1, the Timberwolves have averaged 112.5 points per 100 possessions, tied with the Houston Rockets for the second-best mark in the league over that span, and just behind the Golden State Warriors. What’s interesting is that despite the elite efficiency, Minnesota’s offense looks very different from the Rockets or Warriors.

The offenses in Houston and Golden State are, somewhat infamously, driven by the 3-pointer -- extreme volume in the Rockets’ case and extreme accuracy for the Warriors. Houston ranks first in 3-point attempts per game, averaging nearly 10 more than any other team in the league. Golden State leads the league in 3-point percentage. The Timberwolves rank 28th and 24th in the league in those two categories, respectively.

Minnesota’s offense doesn’t derive efficiency from the 3-point shot, but it also doesn’t draw it from snappy ball movement (they rank 22nd in assist percentage) or an uptempo attack (they rank 23rd in pace and 19th in fastbreak points per game). However, they are near the top of the league in three key categories -- turnover percentage, free throw rate and offensive rebound percentage.

Minnesota has the second-lowest turnover percentage and the fifth-best offensive rebound percentage in the league. By protecting the ball and creating extra chances for themselves on the glass, the Timberwolves are maximizing their scoring opportunities. In fact, Minnesota gets about four extra true shot attempts per game (field goal attempts plus trips to the free throw line) by virtue of their rebounding and turnover differentials.

The Timberwolves make themselves an elite offense by maximizing opportunities, rather than with elite shot-making, but they also have some elite scoring options.

Straight post-ups are often an inefficient offensive option but the Timberwolves have three players who average at least 1.00 points per possession in the post this season (around the 80th percentile) -- Taj Gibson, Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad -- and a third, Karl-Anthony Towns, who is just under at 0.98. Having so many polished post-scorers allows the Timberwolves to punish mismatches and defensive switches.

Minnesota also has myriad ball-handlers who can reliably create shots for themselves off the dribble. Jimmy Butler ranks in the 64th percentile in scoring efficiency in isolations, Jeff Teague is in the 79th. Both players are also solid in the pick-and-roll, ranking in the 64th and 68th percentiles, respectively, in scoring efficiency as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls. Then, of course, there is Towns who ranks in at least the 65th percentile in post-ups, spot-ups and as the roll man in the pick-and-roll.

The scary thing is that this offense could be even better. Andrew Wiggins’ production is down in several key areas and as he continues to develop more synergy with Butler -- finding seams to cut off-the-ball or pop to the perimeter for open jumpers -- his efficiency could rise. There is also potential for some minor tweaks to the team’s rotation to improve things as well.

Tom Thibodeau has a tendency towards wholesale substitutions. The pattern is a little skewed because of the time Teague missed, but of the team’s eight most-used lineups, three include four or more starters and two include four or more bench players. One of the results of this pattern is that Wiggins and Butler are often stacked on top of each other. Wiggins has played about 87 percent of his minutes this season with Butler. Minnesota is also playing about six minutes a game with neither Wiggins or Butler on the floor. Spacing things out a bit more so that Wiggins plays a few more minutes per game without Butler could both help his transition and buoy the second-unit offense for Minnesota.

For the Timberwolves, this season was all about transforming into a solid playoff team and perhaps even a fringe contender. Their defense is nudging them into that territory, but their unconventional offense is every bit as important to their ascension.

Nylon Calculus covers basketball analytics for The Step Back, a premium NBA vertical at