Playing on Christmas day for the second consecutive year, the Timberwolves defeated the Lakers 121-104 in Staples Center. Having a good showing on national television is always a positive. As a franchise that has been in the league’s blind spot for the better part of a decade, this is especially true.
The Lakers aren’t a good team record-wise but they carried a top-10 defensive rating entering Monday’s contest. It’s important to remember that the Lakers were missing two starters, Lonzo Ball and Brook Lopez. While not massive needle-moving talents, Ball and Lopez would have brought continuity to the team as they had played together all season.
Had those two played, perhaps the Wolves wouldn’t have shot as well as they did. Maybe they wouldn’t have shot 69.6 percent in the fourth quarter. There’s no way to know but it exemplifies the season-long trend of an aesthetically displeasing offense that practically scores at will.
When you think of the most fun offenses in NBA history, you think of a few teams. Maybe it’s the crisp ball movement of the Spurs or the 3-point bombing Warriors. It could be anyone from the Showtime Lakers to the Big 3 Miami Heat.
These Timberwolves are the antithesis of a modern NBA offense. They rank 28th in 3-pointers attempted per game and a whopping 59.6 percent of their points come from 2-pointers– the third-highest mark in the league. When you narrow it down further, 15.5 percent of their shots come from the midrange. For reference, the Rockets have the lowest percentage of points come from the midrange at four percent.
A big reason is personnel. Houston features sharpshooters like James Harden, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, and Ryan Anderson. The Timberwolves’ top 3-point shooters are Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica. From there, things get dicey. Jimmy Butler is an average shooter from beyond the arc in a good year. Karl-Anthony Towns is a good shooter for a big man but you don’t want him falling in love with the 3-ball.
Not only do the Wolves not take many 3-pointers, they don’t make very many. They currently sit at 19th in 3-point field goal percentage. The Timberwolves are also 12th in unassisted 3-pointers made but 19th in assisted 3-pointers made. It seems that when the team does take 3-pointers, they’re hoisted without setup from action or ball movement. This plays into the ugliness factor some because it comes off as hero ball.
A team that takes and makes the most 2-pointers in the Association isn’t what people expect in 2017. It has mattered little that the Wolves are fifth in offensive rating or seventh in points per game. People expected an Isolation-heavy offense from the 90’s Bulls or early-00’s Lakers but not a young and upcoming team in tomorrow’s game.
Facing a team like Golden State or Houston that takes and makes a high volume of 3-pointers can be a challenge for anyone. If you’re facing them in a seven-game series, you need to be able to keep pace with them or take away the 3-point line. Cleveland beat the Warriors in the Finals because they were able to force them to play their way and not turn the game into a track meet. But if you’re a team, like the Timberwolves, that heavily favors 2-pointers and struggles defensively, you’re in for a short series.
Two things could help the Wolves become a more modern team in general.
The first is having a few key players shoot better. We know Jimmy Butler is a better shooter than his 33 percent mark from deep indicates. Jeff Teague was shooting over 40 percent earlier in the season but has regressed to around the league average. The big one, of course, is getting Andrew Wiggins back on track. Wiggins may never be an elite shooter but he was a hair below average last season. Tom Thibodeau would gleefully take Wiggins shooting 35 percent again from beyond the arc. At least that’s better than the 30.1 percent he’s shooting this season.
It would also benefit the team to create more action that leads to 3-pointers and boost that number of assisted 3-pointers. Run more pick ‘n’ roll or pick ‘n’ pop instead of Isolations. Even a few more simple motion sets like Thibodeau ran in Chicago could free up shooters and encourage a higher activity level for players without the ball. This would also prevent the defense from getting set and force them to expend more energy as well as make the offense more dynamic.
One of the biggest issues early in the season was the way the Timberwolves closed games. You may remember when the Timberwolves nearly gave away a 26-point lead to Orlando at home and not scoring a field goal for half of a quarter. For a team with big aspirations, this was concerning.
Through November 30, the Wolves had an offensive rating of 100.3 in the fourth quarter. Considering 100 is regarded as average, this is rather underwhelming. This would not only make maintaining a lead difficult but also playing from behind.
Things have come together for the team in December. This month, the Wolves have the second-best offensive rating in the fourth quarter. Only Houston’s 125 offensive rating has been better than Minnesota’s. Yes, that means the Wolves have been more productive in the final quarter than Cleveland, Golden State, and all of the other upper-echelon teams in the league.
Why the improvement?
For one, the team has had more games together. The more repetitions the team gets to develop chemistry, the better they should be. What we’re seeing, albeit in a small sample, may be a byproduct of this.
You may be wondering what I could possibly talk about with a player who played precisely one game as a Timberwolf nine years ago but it can be done. If you were to argue that Booth is better known for being an assistant with the team than a player, I wouldn’t argue. Despite his short tenure, Booth has a place in team history.
Booth, now an assistant general manager with the Denver Nuggets, arrived in Minnesota via trade in 2008. Along with Rodney Carney and a first-round pick, Philadelphia received a 2010 second-round pick in exchange. Booth was going to be 32 years old and entering his 10th NBA season. This was the type of deal a rebuilding team with cap space makes as a favor for another team.
While Carney would play in 67 games for the Timberwolves, Booth was more or less a veteran presence. The big man played just 40 seconds against Orlando in his only appearance for the team but did grab a rebound.
On February 18, 2009, Booth was traded with Rashad McCants to Sacramento for Bobby Brown and Shelden Williams. McCants was taken 14th overall in the 2005 draft to be Kevin Garnett’s new sidekick. The team had a need for a shooting guard following Latrell Sprewell’s departure but the McCants era never took off. After four years of injuries and insufficient production, the team decided to move on.
You may not remember Booth on the court but you can likely recall the McCants-Booth trade to the Kings as a moment in team history.