Minnesota Timberwolves system is unsustainable

The Minnesota Timberwolves have had some mixed success over the last few games, but their analytical approach to the game isn’t sustainable.

Thursday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves are going into their ninth straight game without All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns, and well … yeah, safe to say they miss him.

The Wolves have gone 2-13 over their last 15 games and 2-6 without Towns, but much of that was due to the 11-game losing streak that Minnesota experienced in December. Since the end of that losing streak, the Timberwolves’ record is 2-2.

Minnesota is also going into its fourth straight game without Andrew Wiggins and will be without Jeff Teague, who sprained his knee in the overtime win against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday.

Because of the voiume of injuries that Minnesota is going through right now, not only has the franchise relied more heavily on their deep bench players, but it has also begun to retool their team’s system and have gone with a more analytical approach to the game.

This approach, which involves a heavy reliance on 3-point shots and layups, is going to be a tough one for the Timberwolves to continue though. Minnesota, since the end of the 2017-18 season, went from taking the fewest 3-pointers in the NBA in the league, to being in the top three, falling behind only the Dallas Mavericks and the 3-point shot’s husband, the Houston Rockets.

However, despite the reliance in the 3-point shot, the Timberwolves are 29th in the league in 3-point shooting at 32.1 percent. by comparison, the Rockets are 20th and the Mavericks are 10th.

When Minnesota steps inside 3-point range, their shooting doesn’t get much better. The Wolves are 21st in the league in attempted 2-point shots and are 18th in 2-point accuracy at 51.4 percent. Compare this to the Rockets, who are last in the league in 2-point attempts, but are second in the league in percentage at 55.5 percent.

On the other end of the shooting spectrum, the Timberwolves are second in the league in shots attempted under 10 feet at 42.9 per game. That’s nearly half of their 90.0 field goals attempted per game and most of those other shots are 3-point shots (38.9 attempts per game).

But, and following the trend that we’re establishing, Minnesota is 23rd in the league in percentage under 10 feet.

So why stick with a system that just doesn’t seem to be working for Minnesota? Probably because of how well it’s worked for the Rockets. Houston took the analytics-minded approach to basketball and they became one of the most dominant teams in the league.

However, this approach works for Houston because of the talent that they have. The Rockets have two players who are arguably the best for an analytically minded squad in Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Westbrook attempts the fourth-most shots under five feet in the league and Harden takes the most 3-point shots in the league and makes 38.3 percent of them.

The difference between Houston and Minnesota is that Houston simply has better players. Eric Gordon, Westbrook and Harden all fill the roles of an analytical team better than the best players on the Timberwolves do. Minnesota isn’t able to put up the same numbers as Houston, so they’re not able to get the same results.

Another problem with Minnesota’s system is their insistence of playing small ball. The system, popularized and used to perfection by the Golden State Warriors, relies on shooting and defense, two areas that Minnesota is lacking in.

The reason that small ball worked for the Warriors is because of the solid perimeter defense of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, who made it hard for opposing guards to get anything moving.

While Wiggins has shown some intensity on the defensive end of the court, the Timberwolves just can’t find a starting point guard who could help on that end (hard not to remember the team gave up one in the form of Ricky Rubio.)

Another reason this worked for the Warriors was their catch-and-shoot ability. A typical Warriors play would start with five out, Curry would swing the ball to Draymond Green, who would drive while their big would cut from the weak side.

Then Green would have three options: he could drive in to score, pass it to the big or kick it out to one of the Splash Brothers. Minnesota doesn’t have the shooting for this to work.

So, what’s the plan for Minnesota’s new system when the injured players come back? Well, the best system to use for this squad would be to go to some form of “bully ball” by going big.  Under this system, the new lineup would look something like this:

PG- Jeff Teague
SG- Andrew Wiggins
SF- Robert Covington
PF- Gorgui Dieng
C- Karl-Anthony Towns

This system puts a big in the middle, probable Dieng due to his defensive ability. Unfortunately, the downside to this would be that Josh Okogie would have to move out of the starting lineup. While Okogie’s defense is a nice addition to this team’s starting lineup, Okogie’s shooting is too big of a weak spot for him to stay in the starting five.

With this rotation, the Timberwolves would force opposing team’s defenses to play big, something most NBA defenses are ill-prepared for. And while the Timberwolves could use their size to punish teams down low, both Dieng and KAT could pop out to the 3-point range and spread the floor when needed.

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Putting Teague back into the starting rotation is also a risky move, but if he improves his defense he could become a model of a pure point guard, giving other teams headaches out of the triple-threat position.

This rotation would also take a lot of pressure off of Wiggins, lowering his usage rate slightly, which would increase his efficiency.

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If the Timberwolves want to stand out in this league, it’s important that you tailor a system to the talent that you have, not the system that your coach wants. Adjusting the Timberwolves style of play could help improve the team’s outcomes dramatically, and help prevent another crushing playoff drought.

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