Typically, when the Minnesota Timberwolves look like they’re going to get blown out in a game and I’m on recap duty, I start thinking of tangents and topics outside of basketball I can explore in my writing. There’s no real sense in figuring out why a bad team got destroyed by a good team. This is the nature of the business and while you hope to be competitive in match-ups like that, the talent often overrides the Disney story and nature versus nurture takes over. Heading into last night’s game against the San Antonio Spurs, the Wolves were missing Ricky Rubio (ankle), Gary Neal (ankle), Nikola Pekovic (ankle), Kevin Garnett (knee), Anthony Bennett (ankle), Robbie Hummel (hand), and Shabazz Muhammad (hand).
The Spurs were at full strength and they’ve been clicking as of late. They had won six of their last seven games by a margin of nearly 16 points with their only loss happening in overtime thanks to Kyrie Irving’s 57 points. The Wolves hung tough with them in the first quarter and even kept it relatively close in the second quarter until a late push by San Antonio pushed the halftime deficit to double digits for Minnesota. When the third quarter opened, “hell broke Luce” (as Tom Waits would say) and the game was officially going the way of nature for the Spurs. Normally, I would have been gathering my thoughts about recent movies I had seen, like Foxcatcher or St. Vincent. Instead, I had basketball on my mind, which was surprising to me.
I had three thoughts kicking around in my head:
QUAD CITY DJ: Let’s see if Anthony Davis can get that quadruple-double. With less than a full quarter to play in the New Orleans Pelicans’ game against the Denver Nuggets, Anthony Davis was approaching a quadruple-double. He was three assists and a couple of blocks away from being the first player since David Robinson in 1994 to rack up a Quad City DJ (let’s pretend that’s what people call it). I flipped over to the Pelicans’ double overtime loss, hoping to see a bit of history in the process. Instead, Davis only finished with 36 points, 14 rebounds, nine blocks, and seven assists. History was not to be had.
KAWHI VS WIGGINS: I switched back over to Wolves–Spurs and caught up to real time of the game. The Spurs’ offense was humming, no matter if the stars or the role players were running the system. It was a beautiful sight and one we’d all love for the Wolves to even think about approaching. But that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves. Throughout the game, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between what Kawhi Leonard has become and what we hope Andrew Wiggins can be.
Granted, I think everybody believes that Wiggins has a potentially higher ceiling than Leonard because you don’t really think of Kawhi as a superstar in this league. That’s what Wiggins is supposed to ascend to — superstardom. And even with the 2014 Finals MVP on his mantle Leonard still isn’t thought of as a star by the casual fan because he’s a quiet person with a mild-mannered game, which has a gigantic impact. But from a stylistic standpoint, Kawhi has every single skill and ability we want Wiggins to acquire.
Leonard wasn’t a good dribbler when he was a freshman at San Diego State and over the next couple years, he improved it enough to be able to marry his playmaking skill set with a confident dribbling ability. That plus an improved jump shot turned him into an incredible two-way player. Wiggins is already becoming a reliable defensive stopper/worker (as I tried to break down in a recent CBSSports.com article — SHAMELESS SELF-WHORING ALERT), a role Leonard was given immediately with the Spurs.
If we ended up seeing Wiggins get to a point in which he played like Leonard from a stylistic standpoint while letting his superior athleticism and body control take that style to the next level, I believe we’d see the franchise cornerstone that we hope Wiggins can become. They also appear to have similar personalities that would rather work on their game than be media darlings in the spotlight. The Leonard comparison on the surface may seem underwhelming, but I think there is a theoretical symbiotic relationship with Wiggins’ physical gifts and the style of play that could put him in that elite stratosphere in the NBA.
YES, THE SPURS WOULD DO THAT: Remember that comment from Flip Saunders about the Kevin Love return video? Steve McPherson wrote about it at the bottom of his recap of Love’s return game to the Target Center. I agree with Saunders in the sense that the Spurs are currently the standard of the NBA and they should be the franchise the Wolves try to emulate before they find their own winning identity. The Spurs approach the game of basketball the appropriate way and are successful because they never deviate from those core values. While Flip may believe that entails proper video etiquette even though the Spurs had Danny Trejo all over the video board during the NBA Finals, it seems as if video boards are where the comparisons end.
Reminded by Harlabos Voulgaris on Twitter, I was made re-aware of a Q&A on MinnPost with Flip from back in January. Britt Robson talked to Saunders about many topics but one of the most intriguing thought processes when it comes to the way the Wolves attack was in regards to the 3-point line. Flip has consistently said since the season began that he’s not against the idea of the 3-point shot. He’s always stood firm on the idea that he wants the Wolves to pass up good shots for great shots and every “old school” coach believes shots closer to the basket are better than shots away from the basket.
That’s where the distance between Saunders and Gregg Popovich becomes so cavernous. Pop has been ahead of the curve for quite a while in regards to offensive system and how you work for better shots. Spacing creates dribble drives and dribble drives become spacing in a perfect marriage of rhythm and attacking a defense. The offense is designed to create both shots inside and shots for 3-pointers with letting the defense dictate which shots will be allowed.
Here was Saunders’ comment to Robson on the idea of sets being designed to create 3-point shots for his players:
I’ll never pretend to know even half of what Flip knows about the game of basketball. He knows more about coaching, player development, and playing the game than I do and I’m fully comfortable with that fact (even though I did win a league title as an assistant JV basketball coach — HUMBLEBRAG ALERT). However, being removed from the game in the way I am possibly allows me to understand trends of the NBA in a way that Flip doesn’t and I think that’s important. The 3-point shot has been trending upward since the early 90’s.
The Houston Rockets and New York Knicks in 1993-94 helped create the beautiful balance of opening up post spacing for their Hall of Fame centers with 3-point shooting on the perimeter. Over the next 20-plus years, the game evolved both from a stylistic standpoint and from a rules standpoint. Since the big rules changes prior to the 2004-05 season that made the importance of the perimeter attack catapult into a much higher level of saturation, taking fewer 3-pointers makes it hard to be a playoff team. In this era, only 26 of the 64 teams have made the playoffs when attempting 15 3-pointers or less per game.
To put it another way, only 16.25% of teams who have made the playoffs in those 10 years have attempted 15 or fewer 3-pointers per game. The Wolves are currently averaging 14.7 attempts from downtown and are 37 games under .500 this season.
I find it hard to believe all of the teams making the playoffs while taking even a decent amount of 3’s haven’t been consistently designing sets that at least put the secondary action as a 3-point possibility to spread the floor. I’m all for trying to get the best shot possible, but the best shot can often be a corner 3-pointer. Despite playing the ninth fastest pace in the NBA this season, the Wolves have taken the third fewest corner 3-point attempts. That’s just not an efficient usage of the space given to them. It doesn’t mean the Wolves need to recklessly chuck 3’s without regard for good offense, but it should be within the design of most play sets the Wolves run.
Saunders is probably overly scrutinized by the Wolves’ fan base in many areas. I think he’s done a really good job of acquiring a lot of young talent in the first year of his rebuilding project and often gets the past failures of the team lumped in with his tenure. I also believe in his ability to develop the talent of young players and believe he will eventually give Andrew Wiggins the opportunity to take more than 1.7 3-pointers per game. However, it’s safe to say this dismissal of the importance of the 3-point line in today’s NBA game is a huge knock against him as a coach in his return to Minnesota.
Perhaps it will correct itself and the team will build toward that, but I’d like to at least see better comments when discussing 3-point shooting and the importance of it in today’s game. The Spurs have taken the eighth most 3-pointers over the previous 10-plus seasons combined. To answer Flip’s question and direct it toward another aspect of what the Spurs would or wouldn’t do… yes, the Spurs would do that when it comes to designing plays to get great 3-point looks.