A Look at the Wolves Pace of Play



That’s the amount of consecutive games that the Wolves lost to the Los Angeles Lakers before November 10th, 2013. With Kobe Bryant out and Minnesota riding excitement into what was supposed to be a playoff season, the Wolves ran L.A. out of their own building.

After trailing 8-7 with 8:35 to play in the first quarter the team caught fire, mostly thanks to Kevin Love and Kevin Martin (18 and 16 points, respectively) and finished the quarter leading 47-23, a record by the team for most points in a frame.

What’s crazy is the Wolves did this seemingly routinely during the 2013-2014 season. They put up voluminous amounts of points in a hurry. Rick Adelman‘s offense was in place, Ricky Rubio ran the point, Martin played well as a second scoring option, Love was playing at an MVP level, and Corey Brewer caught long outlet passes (and then took seven steps) from Love all game long.

The Wolves played fast during the 2013-2014 season. They won when they were able to go up and down the floor, and lost when they had to play slow, close games.

They played fast, and it led to the most wins for the franchise in almost ten years.  In possessions per game, the team averaged 99.82 per contest, good enough for fourth in the league.

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Minnesota tried to win by shooting a lot. Some nights it worked… and some nights it didn’t. Ultimately, their record hovered around the .500 mark most of the season with that philosophy.

Fast forward to last season, and it was a different story.  The Wolves finished tenth in pace at 96.96 under “new” head coach Flip Saunders. The problem with using this season as a bar for how the Wolves will play under Saunders is that injuries were incredibly high and much of the starting lineup missed significant time. When you have rookies and other young players running around trying to figure out basketball at the NBA level, you’re going to get some frantic play, leading to skewed long-term pace of play statistics.

But is this the best interpretation of what having Flip Saunders as your head coach means for your teams pace of play? In the Wolves and Kevin Garnett‘s hey-day… some 10 years ago… the team was 20th in possessions per game with 91.53 during the 2003-04 season.

Looking forward to the upcoming season, what can we expect the Wolves to look like in terms of how fast or slow they play?

To answer this question, we have to take a look at their team personal.  The Wolves, once unlikely guests on the SportsCenter Top 10, now boast one of the most athletic young cores in the league.

Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, Shabazz Muhammed, and Adreian Payne can soar and run. This type of athleticism is usually a benefit to teams who like to move up and down the floor quickly. There’s no better time for an alley-oop when the defense is reeling on its heels.

Nov 19, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward

Shabazz Muhammad

(15) shoots the ball as New York Knicks forward

Arnett Moultrie

(5) defends in the second half at Target Center. The Timberwolves won 115-99. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Having athleticism can also improve offensive rebounding, which defenses become more susceptible to when shots are being fired at the basket more rapidly. Shabazz Muhammed was a benefactor of this his rookie season, using his knack for finding offensive boards to grab misses as the Wolves sped up and down the court.

Another factor the Wolves once lacked, but now have, is length. In the front court, Minnesota boasts the depth of Payne, Towns, Garnett, Gorgui Dieng, and newly signed European forward Nemanja Bjelica.

Length lends it self effectively in both styles of play, fast and slow. Length can create problems for opponents that need to grind it out on long offensive possessions. However, length can also be extremely helpful in bailing out teams that play half-hearted defense on some possessions in order to spark another offensive break.

Age is a tough one to figure out with the Wolves as well. They have possibly the youngest core in the NBA with Wiggins, LaVine, Towns, Dieng, Muhammed, etc., but Minnesota also retains aging players like Garnett, Martin, Tayshaun Prince, and Andre Miller. Should the Wolves let the rookies fly in a more free, high-possession offense and tire the veterans or should they play a more conservative approach, constrict the athletic rookies, and keep the veterans fresh?

Finally, what are these players good at? Again, on one hand the Wolves feature offensive weapons Muhammed, Martin, LaVine, and Nikola Pekovic, and on the other defensive players like Dieng, Garnett, and Prince.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a complex math formula that can tell us what system works best for the Wolves in order for us to walk right on up to the front office of the Minnesota Timberwolves and tell Flip what he should run next season.  We may still speculate!

In my opinion, the Wolves seem better suited long term to play an up-tempo style of play. More possessions. More shots. More running up and down the floor. This doesn’t mean they should transition to a Denver Nuggets-style of basketball, but that it should remain important that they push the pace.

Mar 22, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Kevin Martin (23) shoots the ball over Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (14) in the second half at Target Center. The Hornets won 109-98. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Ricky Rubio is a maestro at enthusiastically and energetically bringing the ball up the floor and getting the it to open players. He thrives in a system that lets him use his creativity and could become even better if the defense had to respect his jump shot.

Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Shabazz Muhammed are also all gifted with the ability to finish with authority and consistency in transition, making Rubio’s passes much more of a sure thing. Along with this, the Wolves possess the length, especially in their starting lineup with Towns and Garnett to provide a safety net on the defensive end.

For now, with Garnett, Prince, Miller, and Martin on the roster, encouraging a high pace of play is important, but enforcing it as the law of the land is not. The veterans will want to slow it down, and Flip Saunders should allow them to at times. It will help develop the young players understand of Saunders’ offensive sets. For interesting work on Flip Saunders’ offense, check this out!

One important thing the Wolves lack that will be crucial to playing and up-tempo style of basketball is long-range shooting. Minnesota finished in the bottom-sixth of the league last season, shooting 33.2% from three point land. This improvement to the team will need to be addressed in the coming seasons, if not this season.  Kevin Martin and perhaps newcomer Nemanja Bjelica are great from three, but players like Wiggins, LaVine, Rubio, and Muhammed need to make significant strides in their long-range arsenal.

In conclusion, expect the Wolves pace to be somewhere in between the two teams on opposite ends of the past decade (2003-2004 and 2013-2014) this season; somewhere around 96 possessions per game. In the future, I expect the Wolves to be one of the faster teams in the league as long as they fix their distance shooting woes.

What do you think? Let us know your thoughts on Minnesota’s pace of play next season…

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