On the early improvements to the Minnesota Timberwolves offense

BROOKLYN, NY - OCTOBER 23: Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves drives to the basket against the Brooklyn Nets. Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
BROOKLYN, NY - OCTOBER 23: Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves drives to the basket against the Brooklyn Nets. Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Timberwolves experienced plenty of changes this offseason in the roster, coaching staff, and front office, but the most notable change in the season opener was the offense.

The Minnesota Timberwolves snapped their three-year streak of losing on opening night by beating the Brooklyn Nets, 127-126.

We saw plenty of new faces hit the court for the Timberwolves, but none of these players made as big of an impact as head coach Ryan Saunders’s new offense.

During the Tom Thibodeau era, the Timberwolves’ offense was outdated, stagnant, and lacked any creativity. Three-pointers were not encouraged while post-ups and mid-range jumpers were the goals.

When there was off-ball movement, the goal wasn’t to get an easy scoring opportunity, but instead to set up inefficient isolations or post-ups. This mindset and play-style didn’t suit the roster talent and made it nearly impossible to keep up in the modern NBA.

Once Saunders took over as interim head coach last season, there were some improvements made. The floor became a little more spaced and the pace rose slightly, but completely overhauling a system in the middle of the season is near impossible.

Now that he’s had a full offseason of implementing his philosophy and uniting the roster, the changes in the offensive philosophy are clear.

The obvious change is that the Timberwolves shot 43 3-pointers in Brooklyn — a massive increase from their 28.7 attempts per game from last season. They only shot 30.2 percent against the Nets, however, but it is good to see the change in mindset and ability to adapt to the modern game.

But even more important was their tendency to avoid inefficient mid-range jumpers. Last season, 22 percent of their shot attempts were from 10 feet to the 3-point line. In their first game, only 12 percent of their shots came in this area, per NBA Stats. It is only a one-game sample size, but it is encouraging nonetheless.

These numbers and trends toward a modern play-style are great, but what impressed me was how the Timberwolves ran their offense. Sure, there were still isolations and post-ups (actions that will never leave the game), but there was also a lot of effective off-ball movement.

The goal of this off-ball movement was to create easy scoring opportunities and not just set up isolation or post-up attempts late in the shot clock. From their first game, this was the most encouraging change I saw in the Timberwolves’ offense.

Below we see an example of a simple action that frees Karl-Anthony Towns for a wide-open three. Towns acts as if he is going to screen for Josh Okogie. This movement takes his defender into a Shabazz Napier down screen. Towns takes a few steps back and knocks down an easy three.

Below, we have a little more intricate play design that frees Jake Layman for an open three.

The play starts as if the Timberwolves are going to run a simple pick-and-roll. As the play begins, Layman fakes setting a back screen for Jarrett Culver which causes some miscommunication as the Nets switch. Towns also slips his screen and immediately goes to set a down screen for Layman. Layman has already lost his defender, but Towns’ screen makes it impossible for the defender to recover at all.

Here we see the Timberwolves run a slight variation of this same action out of an inbound and get an easy dunk.

The ball quickly switches sides of the floor after the inbound and Layman runs through a series of screens to the top of the arc. The Nets do a much better job staying with Layman this time, but as Layman receives the ball, his defender has over pursued and is nearly behind him. Since Noah Vonleh rolled after his screen, Layman has a lane to drive.

As Layman attacks the rim, he uses a subtle fake to get DeAndre Jordan in the air and makes a simple dump off to Vonleh for the dunk.

Andrew Wiggins’ jump-shot was woeful against the Nets, but he did have some success when attacking the rim. Instead of putting Wiggins in motion for an open jumper, the Timberwolves try to get him going with action towards the rim.

At the bottom of the clip, we see Treveon Graham slip a back screen and cut across the lane. This may seem inconsequential, but it actually helps clear the lane for Wiggins’s drive. Wiggins runs through two screens that disrupt his defender enough to create some space.

Once he receives the handoff, his initial defender has been taken out of the play and the rotating center is ineffective because of the late rotation and inability to fully contest.

In the Thibodeau era, the Timberwolves’ offense was rudimentary. It consisted of superfluous off-ball movement and inefficient scoring opportunities.

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After just one game of Ryan Saunders’ system, the improvements are evident. Every movement has a purpose and the end goal is the most efficient shot possible. And that should, in turn, lead to more points, and ultimately, more wins.