Now that we’re just over 20 percent of the way done with the regular season, let’s take a step back and look at the Minnesota Timberwolves to this point.
Twenty percent of the way through the schedule, the Minnesota Timberwolves sit at 9-8.
After a hot start there are a lot of reasons for the latest struggles for the Wolves including injuries, a suspension, and key players out for personal reasons.
Excuses aside, the system that Ryan Saunders implemented has worked well for Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins is No. 12 in the league in scoring while shooting the ball at a 47 percent clip with improved playmaking ability. For his part, Towns is being compared to Steph Curry, shooting a hair under 45 percent from 3-point range on nine attempts per game.
Towns clearly has a co-star in Wiggins, and with the Wolves’ defensive rating right in the middle of the pack one might expect a better overall record. The problem, however, has been the shooting from beyond the arc.
The Wolves are third in the NBA in 3-point shot attempts, but No. 28 in 3-point field goal percentage. One reason for this explanation is that the Wolves are No. 25 in 3-point shot attempts from the much more efficient corner 3, according to Basketball-Reference, which means that the Wolves are taking the most inefficient 3s and everyone on the team has the green light to take them.
Another reason that somewhat relates to the corner 3 are NBA.com’s hustle stats. Looking at last Saturday’s loss to the Suns, Phoenix finished with10 screen assists to the Wolves’ two. Towns finished with one screen assist, which means that he is setting less screens for his ball-handlers than the competition. Which then means that Andrew Wiggins had to drive to the rim by breaking down Kelly Oubre without help, while Devin Booker got help from his bigs to free himself from Wiggins, who was tasked to defend him.
The end result was Wiggins ended up with 21 points on 43 percent shooting with four turnovers and Booker got his 35 points on 46 percent shooting. Not a huge difference in field goal percentage, but let’s imagine if Towns was setting successful screens for Wiggins and allowed him to drive on the likes of Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric defending the rim.
Towns is actually averaging 4.4 screen assists per game but that number is inflated by the first game against the Nets, when Towns got 13 screen assists. Against the Nets, Wiggins had a poor shooting night where he missed every jump shot but with Towns screening he was 9-for-12 on his drives to the rim, finishing over Jarrett Allen routinely.
And with Towns being busy setting screens for others, you would think he wasn’t very involved on offense but he ended up with 36 points and seven threes, which led to him being the Western Conference Player of the Week. And that also proves that being a great off ball player and setting good screens for your teammates opens up better shots for Towns, because the attention is on the ball handler.
For Towns, playing like a guard and not setting screens doesn’t make much sense. If he is not shooting or passing it to an open cutter, he isn’t driving much either with 3.2 drives per game so he might as well set those screens. So how do screens relate to the corner three?
The two-man game in the pick-and-roll which allows the ball handler to go downhill in the middle of the court forces the wings to leave the corner 3-point shooters to help the rim protector. Against the Nets, Wiggins simply scored and never passed against Allen but against tougher rim protectors he probably would choose to pass to the open corner three.
Besides the corner three, Towns can roll to the rim and be a passing option for Wiggins inside. Most would think of a roll man being an athletic big man like Houston’s Clint Capela, catching alley-oops for thunderous dunks, and that’s not who Towns is. But there is another version, called the short roll, where the big sets a screen then rolls and gets the ball back at the nail, right around the free throw line where he can drive, shoot, or pass to an open shooter in the corner.
This type of off ball action is a lot like getting a post-up from the free throw line except its better because its a much faster play where the defense isn’t anticipating the pass and allows the big a much more open lane to score. For example, watch Domantas Sabonis of the Indiana Pacers execute the short roll. Sabonis is also second behind Utah’s Rudy Gobert in screen assists, which also shows his value.
And with Towns being the best shooter in the league, the pick-and-roll play could result with a roll or a pop for a 3-point attempt. It makes Towns that much more lethal in the pick-and-roll than someone like Sabonis because it’s impossible to anticipate the roll or pop, which allows Towns to take what the defense gives him and keeps him involved on every play.
Instead of posting up Towns against weaker bigs like Kaminsky, Towns should be getting the ball in the short roll keeping the offense fast and less susceptible to turnovers or double teams.
The Wolves already have Robert Covington locked and loaded to shoot from one corner. Now, Saunders only needs to find one other corner 3-point shooter with the starting unit, and if you’ve watched Keita Bates-Diop over the past couple of outings, he may have another option for that roll.
Ryan Saunders is rolling out a fast-paced offense with everyone shooting and driving freely, but why not turn the offense over to the 12th and 6th best scorers in the league in what could be one of the most devastating pick-and-roll tandems around. This ensures that your best players get to control the game while your role players are comfortable being in position to attempt wide-open shots or attack a closeout instead of doing much more that they may not be as comfortable doing.
Let’s keep an eye on the Wolves’ offense as it evolves throughout the season. There seems to be a real chance that we see even more pick-and-rolls worked back into the playbook as both Towns and Wiggins continue to improve.