New Impressions of an Old Offense
As soon as Flip Saunders’ Cheney-esque search for a head coach resulted in naming himself for the job, observers began to speculate about whether his offensive style fit the modern game. The Wolves had a top-10 offense in 6 out of 8 full seasons during Flip’s first stint in Minnesota, and until his two tumultuous seasons in Washington, the lowest any of his teams finished in turnover-to-assist ratio was 7th in the league. Flip’s gameplan, when executed properly, fosters ball movement and generates open looks, especially from the midrange area.
The problem, of course, is that the midrange game is dying a slow, painful death. Thanks in part to the rise of analytics, the most valuable shots in basketball are now considered to be at the rim, the corner three, three-pointers in general, and getting to the free throw line. That doesn’t exactly jive with how Saunders’ teams have ranked in the past:
A few words in Flip’s defense: his teams ranked in the top-10 in midrange field goal percentage in every season above except for the first and the last. Until he coached in Washington, each of his Timberwolf and Piston squads ranked in the top-10 in assist percentage. And while his teams didn’t take many threes, in 8 of the 13 seasons listed above, they were better than average at making them.
The chart doesn’t guarantee the Wolves are a lock for a similar 2014-15 statistical profile. It wouldn’t be fair to suggest Saunders is completely set in his ways, incapable of adapting. He’s respected around the league for his offensive acumen, and it’d be silly to assume he won’t tweak his concepts to fit the changing landscape and his personnel. His final season in Washington, the “clown car of tragicomedy” that it was, showed a little bit of a break from his track record, as the Wizards started to attack the basket and draw fouls at a higher rate.
That Washington team featured JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, Swaggy and Jordan Crawford playing major minutes; I’m going to go out on a limb and assume this year’s Timberwolves will be eminently more coachable than that bunch was. Saunders will have a chance to institute an offense with a deep though flawed roster. What will it look like? Has the preseason offered any clues?
Yes, the preseason doesn’t necessarily mean much, and yes, four games is a very small sample size, but humor me for a moment:
It’d be irresponsible to extrapolate the Wolves’ 2014-15 preseason data to a full season, but I live on the edge, so here goes: the Wolves’ per game averages from those distances would find them near the bottom of the league in three-point attempts and near the top of the league in long twos, shots in the restricted area and free throw attempts. In other words, appears as if the formula Saunders used his final season in Washington is being employed. He has them attacking the rim and getting to the line (good!) but still dials up midrange attempts as part of his base offense and shies away from three-pointers (not ideal!).
Here’s some video of the Wolves running sets for midrange jumpers during their opening preseason game versus the Pacers:
One of Flip’s most interesting quotes on media day came in response to a question about the team’s perimeter shooting. His answer was that he wanted “shot makers, not shot takers,” and intimated that the team’s reliance on three-point shooting would decline in 2014-15. The Wolves ranked 26th in three-point percentage a year ago despite the presence of Kevin Love and Kevin Martin; this poor percentage undoubtedly has played a role in the new coaching staff’s decision to shy away from perimeter shots. But the team is no better at midrange shooting; in fact, the only player on the roster who is a proven above-average midrange jump shooter is Mo Williams. Shabazz Muhammad sank 51% of his tries last season, but his 47 attempts is a small sample size.
Here’s how everyone (save the rookies) has fared at midrange shooting over the past four seasons, or however long they’ve been in the league. Keep in mind, the league as a whole connected on 39.4% of shots from that distance a year ago:
It’s entirely possible that players will experience a bump in percentages when they’re running sets designed for a quality midrange look, as opposed to taking midrange jumpers primarily as a late-in-the-shot-clock safety valve. But there’s a reason most teams consider midrange jumpers a late-in-the-shot-clock safety valve in the first place. It’s just not an efficient shot to build your offense around. If you watched the above video, notice how many attempts came from just a step or two inside the three-point line. If there’s a sliver of optimism to be found, it’s that Flip’s version of the “Hawk” offense can be tweaked to include three-point tries… if he’s willing, and if enough perimeter shots fall to make him consider it.
While those who are sympathetic to the analytical bend towards perimeter shooting (I count myself in this camp) are probably somewhat discouraged by the above data, it’d be unwise to become overly pessimistic about the Wolves’ chances in light of the above data. This season was going to be a rough one no matter what offense was installed. It is possible to be a good team without taking a great deal of three-pointers, as Memphis, Chicago, Charlotte and Indiana showed a year ago.
The key for them, of course, was playing great defense. It is that end of the floor that will be the deciding factor between whether Minnesota wins closer to 25 or 35 games in 2014-15. Forcing missed shots and smartly jumping passing lanes can lead to transition opportunities, where the young Wolves can use their superior ball handlers and athletic wings to generate high percentage chances at the rim. But when they slow things down and are forced to manufacture offense in halfcourt sets, get used to seeing midrange tries.
Last year, despite the Timberwolves posting their most successful season in a decade, the team lacked an identity. This year, they’ll have one. They’ll try to defend, try to get out in transition and they’ll take a lot of midrange shots. In about a week, we’ll begin to see whether their new identity is a step in the right direction, whether their new impression of an old offense is a worthwhile endeavor.