Timberwolves 3-point shooting: Infinite Sorrow
The NBA 3-point line has been around since the 1979-80 NBA season. Even the rule change was supposed to help usher in a new era of basketball from the 1970s to the 1980s, it wasn’t exactly an accepted practice to start chucking 3-pointers like we see teams doing today. Instead, it was a seldom-used arrow in the quiver for most NBA teams.
Because it wasn’t a widely practiced action in the NBA and used more for shooting games after practice than anything else, we saw some hilariously low 3-point production from NBA teams during the first 13 seasons of the 3-point arc. The 1982-83 Los Angeles Lakers have the lowest 3-point percentage in NBA history. They shot just 10.4% from the 3-point line that season. Sounds absurdly low, right? Well, they only took 96 attempts that season and made 10 of them. They also went on to win the Western Conference Finals because they had Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
From the 79-80 season through the 2011-12 season, there have been 171 teams in NBA history who have shot less than 29% from 3-point range in a season. But the problem with this statistic is the 3-pointer wasn’t really a thing until the 1992-93 season. In the first 13 years of the NBA 3-point line, only three teams (88-89 New York Knicks, 90-91 Denver Nuggets, 91-92 Milwaukee Bucks) took more than 1,000 3-point attempts in an NBA season. That total doubled after the Suns, Hawks, and Rockets all attempted over 1,000 3-pointers in the 92-93 season.
In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, only seven teams DIDN’T attempt at least 1,000 3-pointers.
Why this little bit of 3-point history?
I’m just trying to establish how historic the Wolves’ current 3-point shooting exploits are becoming.
Since the 92-93 season (when the 3-pointer was finally a weapon in the typical NBA game), only nine teams have shot less than 29% from 3-point range. The last team to do it was the 2002-03 Denver Nuggets. That team had Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Rodney White with the two most attempts on their roster, as they chugged along to a 17-65 record before drafting Carmelo Anthony the next season. Skeeta and White shot 24.3% and 23.9%, respectively… or irrespectively.
Of those nine teams to shoot so poorly from 3, four of them made the playoffs. The 2012-13 Minnesota Timberwolves may be looking to become the fifth team to make the playoffs with such abhorrent long distance shooting.
Last season’s Wolves shot the sixth most 3-pointers in the NBA but had the 23rd best 3-point percentage. That wasn’t exactly a recipe for success, especially once the team was riddled with injuries. This season, the percentage has been historically low in the first 15 games of the season, causing some people (i.e. – me) to cringe every time a 3-pointer gets hoisted toward the heavens. The Wolves are currently shooting 28.6% from 3-point range and that’s a big reason the offense is currently ranked 24th in the NBA.
They’re the worst 3-point shooting team in basketball right now, 1.6% behind the 29th ranked Washington Wizards. The Wolves are winning with defense and rebounding this season, and not the offense and rebounding we all assumed they’d need. It’s just part of the confusion that is the Wolves right now.
I tried to make sense of the 3-point nonsense so I went back and watched every attempt from the season so far. And you know what I saw? I saw two things.
First, I saw this “3-point attempt” by Derrick Williams from the Wolves’ 22-point comeback against the Brooklyn Nets that ended up being an 11-point victory. What part of this shooting attempt (and his feet are on the ground at this point so it’s not a weird angle) by Williams makes anybody think it’s a 3-point attempt?
So really, the Wolves’ 3-point shooting for the season should be at 28.7%. IT’S IMPROVING BEFORE OUR VERY EYES!
The second thing I noticed was an infinite amount of sorrow that I felt as I watched the Wolves’ take 3-point shots. There were only a couple of guys I felt good about as they took their attempts. The two obvious ones were Luke Ridnour and Chase Budinger. The majority of Chase’s looks were fantastic shots and he just couldn’t get them to fall. His 30.4% on the season looks bad, but really the shots were good and he’s a good enough shooter to give you confidence he’d make a much better percentage.
Luke’s attempts were really good too. And I think we know that he’s probably the second best shooter on the team. He also hasn’t made a good percentage of his 3-pointers. Some of that could be randomness and some of it could be his back issues that he’s fought through. Or maybe it’s just him getting older and regressing. I’m not quite sure how to pinpoint it but I rarely feel bad seeing him hoist up a long shot.
The rest of the team was just bad. Alexey Shved doesn’t give you terrible feelings when you’re watching his attempts from 3, but you don’t have a ton of confidence in him either. He’s kind of a wildcard at all times, so I’ve often felt like his makes were more pleasant, momentum-shifting surprises.
I decided to break down the Wolves’ attempts into three different types of 3-point shots: open, contested, and defended. Now this isn’t an exact science of measuring by any means and is certainly a judgment call on my part. However, I felt like I was pretty consistent in how I judged each shot. The difference between contested and defended is I defined contested as a defender closing out on a shooter by either running toward the shooter or running toward the shooter and putting a hand up. There was never any real chance of it being blocked. Defended shots were when the defender was already there and in position to contest the shot.
And obviously open shots are just shots that are open, without a defender there to even put a hand up.
There’s a bit of a problem with this method; I don’t have league averages on this. I’d have to go back and watch EVERY attempt by each team and I just flat-out don’t want to do that. It would help to have league averages to know where the Wolves rank in each breakdown, but considering they’re last in the NBA in 3-point percentage, I’m going to assume they’re quite low in most 3-point shooting breakdowns.
Open 3-point Shooting
Graph is pretty simple: number of attempts on the bottom and percentage to the left.
I think the thing I was most surprised about this list (aside from Josh Howard making two-thirds of his open 3-point attempts) was how few open 3-pointers the Wolves’ have taken. With the ball movement and player movement that are supposed to come from Rick Adelman’s offensive system, I just assumed we’d have more than an attempt per game for quite a few guys. Shved seems to be moving without the ball the best. He’s also used screens well on pick-and-roll plays to get free of his defender and use the threat of driving to the basket as a way to get open looks from PnR plays.
Luke and Love shooting the ball poorly on 3-point shots can be explained through injuries (Love’s shooting hand, Luke’s balky back), but you still want them to knock down these attempts, considering how few and far between they seem to be. A solution to getting open 3-point looks for the Wolves would certainly be the return of Ricky Rubio and his passing. Rubio’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen at finding the shooter in the opposite corner. We all remember how many times Wes Johnson received a pass in the opposite corner last season, only to make us go numb when it clanked off back iron.
And while I don’t know if a team shooting 37.7% on open 3-pointers is bad or good, I’d imagine there’s plenty of room for improvement that comes with the repetition of getting more and more open 3-point looks. Rubio has a knack for finding guys when they’re ready to shoot and putting the ball well into their shooting rhythm. There aren’t a lot of wasted movements from his passes to the release of the shot. This could help things go up.
Defended 3-point shooting
The fact that there isn’t a single good shooter on this team when they’re being closely defended doesn’t really surprise me. It’s hard enough for the shooters on this team to make shots when they’re open; making shots when they’re tightly guarded shouldn’t mean their shooting improves by any means. Shved’s wildcard mentality shows through here too. He’s taken the most defended attempts on this team because he isn’t afraid to shoot. This is both a good and a bad thing, but as long as the Wolves need guards who can create off the dribble, you’ll live with him taking these chances.
16.7% shooting on anything is pretty bad but what alarms me the most is the number of attempts they’ve taken so far this game. To break down the open 3-point shot to defended 3-point shot ratio, I immediately began thinking of assist-to-turnover ratio. The Wolves are taking 4.6 open 3-pointers and 3.6 defended 3-pointers per game this season. If a point guard had a 1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio, how would you feel about his ability to play quality basketball?
Well that’s what the Wolves’ open-to-defended 3-point shooting ratio is right now. And considering that they’re making a seemingly poor percentage of open 3-pointers and that’s still over double of what they’re shooting on defended 3-point shots, that just seems like poor decision-making with shot selection. Love has already taken 10 defended 3-pointers in just six games. A lot of that could be him pressing and trying to do too much to get back to the Kevin Love of old. But it’s also a sign of what the team is struggling to do right now, which is get better shots.
Contested 3-point shooting
Surprisingly, this is where a lot of the Wolves’ shooters have shot an acceptable percentage from 3-point range. Williams, Ridnour, Lee (!), Kirilenko, and Barea have all shot 38% or higher on contested shots from distance. That’s an encouraging sign because they’re hitting shots within the flow of the offense. Where the percentage drops for them as a team is Shved, Love, and Chase all shooting poorly on a significant number of contested attempts.
Shved has really struggled on contested 3-point shooting, which doesn’t bode well considering he’s taken the most attempts by far. And like I said earlier, I don’t have any problem with Chase taking the shots he’s taken because he’s by far the best shooter on the team. You assume eventually the progression to the mean would occur, although with his injury who knows how much of an impact he’ll have when he comes back. And Love’s attempts still could have more to do with his shooting hand still healing.
This is where I’m at a crossroads with trying to figure out the Wolves’ outside shooting this year. It’s most likely not going to be historically bad, but it’s also unlikely to improve much past what we saw last season. Even if you take away Love’s 3-point shooting (19.4% this season) because of his injury, the Wolves are still dead last in percentage.
I’ve tried breaking down the shooting with Synergy. I didn’t even post the numbers because across the board they’re just bad in every category. Whether they’re coming out of isolation, hand-offs, coming off screens, in transition, or out of pick-and-rolls, the Wolves can’t hit even close to an acceptable percentage of 3-point shots. Even if you break it down by zones, the Wolves are really bad in every way:
Look how lonely Mr. 40% is!
The Wolves are 23rd in corner 3 shooting and 29th in above the break 3-point shooting. No matter where they are taking the shots from right now, they aren’t falling through the hoop.
When I asked Rick Adelman about it before the game against the Bucks, he was happy with the shot attempts the Wolves have been getting.
“Yeah, we’re getting good looks,” Adelman explained. “We have not shot the ball well. Guys who have a history of shooting the ball well have no knocked shots down. I think sometimes it could be they’re just rushing it. We’ve got some decent looks out there but some of our guys haven’t been proven. I think with (Alexey), a lot of the threes he’s taken are off the dribble. He might be rushing them. We watch him in practice and he knocks them down time after time. I think the shots they want to look for are when the ball is swung to them or when there’s penetration and the ball is kicked to them. You’ve got to make those when you take those.”
Adelman also mentioned that the amount of guys in and out of the lineup could be a factor too. And this could be a very important point that gets corrected with the health. We’ve talked about Rubio getting guys better looks but a more set rotation and a better idea of what everybody’s role is and will be could help with the comfort shooters feel on the court. We forget a lot that players, much like regular people, are creatures of habit. When their role and routine gets upset by unforeseen circumstances (i.e. – injuries), then the comfort they feel within their role can be rocked.
Is that enough of a reason for the Wolves to be a historically bad shooting team right now? I honestly have no idea.
With the team getting healthier and rotations getting to be somewhat normal, Adelman thinks they can work on a lot over the next two weeks to get things corrected. Maybe during that time, the Wolves’ shooting will dramatically improve and we’ll see better results than a solid batting average with outside shooting.
Whatever the reason is, it will be nice to see the Wolves remember that the 3-pointer is a weapon to be used against their opponents like we’ve seen for the last 20 years. It shouldn’t continue to be a weapon against themselves.