It seems odd to complain about the Timberwolves’ offense. For much of the season, it’s ranked in the top-5 in both points per game and offensive rating. Currently, the team ranks sixth and third in each respective category.
The Wolves have used their offense to compensate for their dismal defense to lift themselves into the fourth seed in the Western Conference.
Despite their offensive effectiveness, it can still be improved by taking and making more 3-pointers.
As of this writing, the Timberwolves take an average of 22 treys per game and connect on 35.1 percent of those attempts. Those numbers rank them 29th in attempts and 26th in 3-point field goal percentage. This shakes out to 7.7 made 3-pointers per game, which is last in the NBA.
Ten years ago, attempting 22 3-pointers would have been a lot. In fact, in 2008, they would have ranked fourth in the league. Making that many 3’s per game would have put them sixth in the league back then. They also would have been 20th in the league in 3-point efficiency.
Let’s go back another 10 years, just for fun. With their current beyond the arc numbers, the Wolves would have been the highest volume 3-point shooting team in terms of both attempts and makes. Thirty-five percent would be slightly above average but that wouldn’t have mattered with that kind of volume.
In losses this season, the Timberwolves are 133-for-474 from deep. That’s 21.5 3-point attempts and six makes per loss. There are usually other factors involved here like opponent’s defensive scheme and ball movement but it’s difficult to win when you’re only hitting 28 percent of your deep balls in today’s NBA.
Victories are a different story. The Wolves are 284-of-715 on 3-pointers in wins, shooting 39.7 percent. They’ve averaged 22.3 attempts and 8.8 made 3-pointers per win. When they’ve made more than 10 3’s in a game, they have an 11-2 record. Compare that to their 4-9 record when they make less than six, and a pattern begins to emerge.
This is what separates the best teams in the West from the Timberwolves.
The Warriors are surprisingly only 10th in 3-point attempts per game at around 30. But they shoot the highest percentage from beyond the arc. When the Wolves have faced the Warriors this season, they’ve shot 6-for-20 and 5-for-24. If you don’t have the same proficiency, you have to give yourself a chance with the volume and the Wolves haven’t.
When a team faces the Houston Rockets, they know they’re getting blitzkrieged from deep. They take 42.9 3’s per game, which is eight more than the team that takes the second-most. At 36.3 percent shooting, they’re only 12th but because of their volume, they average 15 makes per game.
Even if we round up the Wolves’ 3-point makes per game to eight, that means they need to make an extra 2-pointers to compensate for the disparity when they face the Rockets just to keep pace. In their January 18 meeting in Houston, the Wolves went 8-for-24 from deep while the Rockets hit 17-of-39. You have to be a great 2-point shooting team to still have a chance in a game like that.
The Wolves could close the gap if they took just nine more 3’s per game and only hit one-third of them. If they’re having a good shooting night and hit four, five, or six of those nine, that gap closes even more. Averaging nine more 3-pointers per game would also put them in the top-10 for attempts per game.
There’s a misconception that you shouldn’t take more 3-pointers if you can’t make them.
The Brooklyn Nets take the second-most 3-pointers in the NBA but are the 28th most efficient team on those shots. Other teams in the top-10 for attempts — Cavaliers, Mavericks, Raptors, Bulls, Celtics, Bulls, Heat, and Nuggets — are rather average 3-point shooting teams. That’s all the Wolves need to be: average.
Boston, in particular, is an interesting study. For years, they were one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the NBA but always took a high amount. Ever since Brad Stevens took over as coach, this has been the case. They’ve gone from a 40-win team to a contender despite never becoming a great shooting team. Stevens runs more action that leads to 3-pointers and his players know to take those shots when they have them.
If the Wolves took eight more 3-pointers at 35 percent, they’d made 10.5 per game on average. That’s an extra nine points going from 7.7 makes to 10.5 and in turn, makes you more competitive on a nightly basis.
The common refrain from Tom Thibodeau or the late Flip Saunders was that you had to be careful with 3-pointers because they create fastbreak chances for the defense.
Seth Partnow, formerly of the Washington Post and Nylon Calculus — and now with the Milwaukee Bucks front office — has done a lot of research on this. Here’s an excerpt from Partnow in the Washington Post from 2015:
So not only do missed 3’s, especially the above-the-break threes which low-attempt teams such as the Wolves and Wizards often eschew, lead to the proportionally fewest transition attempts, those attempts which do occur are not especially damaging.
This makes sense. When an opponent gets the rebound off of a long-2, the defense is farther back and the offense can run easier. Yet, when a rebound is grabbed off of a 3-point attempt, they’re immediately closer to getting back in transition. It’s common sense that it’s going to be easier to get back when you have less ground to cover.
For extra reading, check out this article from Partnow for Nylon Calculus on 3-pointers and transition defense. He’s smart, which is the reason he now works for an NBA team. Thibodeau and Saunders are/were also smart basketball people but the idea that 3-pointers create more problems in transition is false.
Larry Bird retired as arguably the greatest 3-point shooter the league had ever seen. His career 37.6 3-point field goal percentage was great in the 80s and 90s but would be seen as average now. That’s not to detract from a legendary career as much as underscore just how different the game is now.
For example, Steph Curry is in his ninth season and has blown away what past greats have done with the 3-point shot. It took Curry just four seasons and 258 games to reach the same amount of made 3-pointers as Bird who did it in 13 seasons and 897 games. In 2016 and 2017 combined, Curry made over 700 3’s.
Curry has made eight fewer 3’s in just over eight seasons than Vince Carter has made in all 19 of his NBA seasons. Players like James Harden and Klay Thompson are already top-30 and rapidly ascending ahead of the great shooters of yesterday.
Teams have been valuing shooters more than ever in recent years. Even when teams haven’t had them, they’ve still put an emphasis on the deep ball because they know they have to keep up with the teams that do.
A team like the Timberwolves with a top offense on a 50-win pace has managed to get this far without doing the same. However, it will likely keep them from becoming a true contender. This doesn’t mean overhauling the roster again. This change could be as simple as running more action that leads to 3-pointers, encouraging players to shoot them when they have them and develop players to become shooters behind the scenes.
The NBA has changed and it’s time for the Wolves to do the same.