Flip Saunders’ Feelings Aren’t Numbers: The 3-point Debate Rolls On and On and On and On and On

Early Sunday evening, Flip Saunders broke a more than yearlong silence on Twitter to “set the facts straight” about 3-pointers.



I don’t know what recent post on whose blog — since he’s clearly talking about disreputable “bloggers” and not REAL reporters or REAL fans — set him off and led him to nail this three-tweet treatise to the church door, but hey, let’s run this through the ol’ mill again, shall we?

Although I find the “I love 3-pointers” thing to be protesting a bit too much, it’s true that Saunders has not, to my knowledge, ever said publicly that he dislikes 3-pointers, which is something that coaches as wildly divergent as Doug Collins and Gregg Popovich have alluded to, in some cases very directly. Saunders is, after all, a throwback barnstormer, a CBA guy who was the driving force behind the Wolves’ Dunks After Dunk event last season, an entertainer. He has every reason to like the 3-pointer as a crowd-pleasing shot that can swing the game dramatically.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter whether he likes them or not, his teams have not shot them. And frankly, they have to start. Popovich said as much when he said he hated them. “To me it’s not basketball but you got to use it,” he told Paul Flannery. “If you don’t use it, you’re in big trouble. But you sort of feel like it’s cheating. You know, like two points, that’s what you get when you make a basket. Now you get three, so you got to deal with it. I don’t think I don’t think there’s anybody who is not dealing with it.”

Saunders’ teams — from his early Wolves teams to the Pistons to the Wizards and, yes, last year with the Wolves — have never shot a lot of 3-pointers. It’s really that simple. Here are where his teams have ranked in terms of 3-pointers attempted for his entire coaching career: 28th, 25th, 22nd, 27th, 28th, 25th, 21st, 27th, 27th, 21st (this was the season Saunders was fired by the Wolves after 51 games), 10th (his first season with Detroit), 19th, 22nd, 24th (with the Wizards), 27th, 20th and last season, 30th — or dead last, in other words.

So to be clear I am not accusing Saunders of not liking 3-pointers. What I am saying is that his teams have not shot a lot of them. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. There might be plenty of reasons for his teams not to have shot a lot of 3-pointers ranging from the way the game was played during his first stint in Minnesota to personnel to rule changes. They could be perfectly valid reasons.

But honestly, all we have to go on are what his teams have actually done, not what he says on Twitter. The infuriating part of this is that I (and many others, for sure) don’t honestly care if the Wolves shoot more 3-pointers next season. We want the Wolves to show evidence that they’re building a team that can compete in the current NBA, where the four teams in the Conference Finals last season ranked 1st (HOU), 2nd (CLE), 4th (GSW) and 7th (ATL). The most direct way to do that would seem to be to put a heavy emphasis on long-range shooting. Sure, there are outliers like the Memphis Grizzlies, but increasingly a premium is being put on spacing the floor.

A lack of 3-point shooting is not the cause of the Wolves’ struggles, but it could be a symptom of an offensive philosophy that is making things harder on the team than they need to be. This isn’t a reason to panic, it’s not a reason to think Saunders doesn’t know what he’s doing. I would prefer to focus on a range of things this upcoming season that could help us understood how the Wolves are evolving as a young team. I almost wish he would say he DOESN’T like 3-pointers and stake a claim to something else, rather than dealing with the murmurs about 3-point shooting by being so (ahem) flip. But by throwing the gauntlet down publicly like this, by saying, “We have to shoot and will. … We will improve,” Saunders is saying that the Wolves in 2015-16 will shoot more 3-pointers and shoot them better.

So, Flip, show us.

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20 Responsesso far.

  1. Honestly, I’d guess if he had any one blog in mind, it’d be canishoopus. And I’d agree that they probably deserve some heat. They seem to just about embody the term midwit (an individual who is somewhat more intelligent than others, and seeing that others are dumber than him, concludes that he is vastly more intelligent than others).

    I basically read here because I couldn’t stand the commenters and to a lesser extent the writers over there. I found this blog searching for an alternative, and a fine one it is. The analysis is better and the tone is free of off putting self satisfaction.

    • gjk says:

      You’ve captured my sentiments about that site perfectly, especially with “midwit.” Their draft projections provide an interesting perspective, but that’s about it.

    • DreSanson says:

      Nailed it. I agree 100%. Midwit is a good word, i will add it to my vocabulary, thank you.

  2. seanie blue says:

    “Many times they make a lot of sense.” This is what this moron says about fans. Most of the time, fans of the Timberwolves make more sense than Flip does. Most of the time. We are doomed to mismanagement and losing as long as a doofus like this is in charge. Let’s face it. This is the time of the year when we all feel good about the potential, and Ricky starts talking about being a playoff contender. Just look at all the readers weighing in a year ago on AWAW with their predictions of how we would improve, and we got worse. August 2015 is a carbon copy of August 2014. Bad contracts for injured players, the ongoing 3-pointer fiasco, and a hands-off teaching style that is great for adults (perhaps) but terrible for kids. And most of the people here can write English better than the CEO; for this, you know the company is in trouble.

    • farnorth says:

      Yup last year we were worse than the previous year, and I blame Flip, He obviously tripped Rubio and broke his ankle, He smashed Martin on the wrist and broke that too. He challenged Pek to a game of kickball and switched out the kickball with a bowling ball and F’d up his ankle too. (don’t ask me why it was not his foot and instead an ankle but that damn Flip Saunders is a conniving SOB). But I totally blame Flip Saunders for us being down three vets/starters…

      Then what did Flip do? He went and turned the whole damn season into a learning experience for a bunch a damn rookies. took a 2 guard and made him play the 1 to improve his decision making, made Wiggins work on being more aggressive. That damn Flip Saunders went and lost a ton of game and won the #1 pick in the lottery. Now we’re totally screwed.

      What kind of lineup is this?


      That is way too much flexibility and youth. I mean those guys are going to get confused… Damn Flip Saunders!!!

      • seanie blue says:

        A very succinct summary of Flip’s guilt in blinkered management. But you forgot to put in the part about him tripping Rubio next November, or the part where AB becomes a 15-an-8 guy for a team like the Hawks, and you forgot the part where KAT and Wiggins leave for other winners in a few more seasons. But your posts a year ago were pretty much on the mark: that flexible bunch of learners almost made the playoffs!

        • I was going to write something very mean, but before I do, do you have autism? Because if so I’d be wrong to do so, as I’d be expecting things you may not be capable of.

          And assuming that the answer is yes, I’ll just let you know, you’re acting in a way that is inappropriate. We know you don’t like Flip. We don’t need to keep hearing it. And you seem to be having trouble thinking about it correctly. When you hear that Flip has done something, first pretend that a coach or GM that you like did it, then see if it still looks like a bad move. Doing that will help you to see much more clearly.

          Then when rejoining the conversation try and do so without insulting people, and I’m sure you’ll be able to contribute in a way that is actually appreciated.

  3. gjk says:

    Now we know that Flip’s on vacation.

    Anyway, I pulled some stats about 3 point attempts per 100 possessions with guys who played for Flip to see how many more/fewer they took when he was their coach. Most of the Wizards’ stats are small sample sizes due to injuries/gun suspensions/being traded halfway through a season, so I included the 3 bigger ones.

    Chauncey Billups: 6.5 (Flip in MN), 7.5 (Flip in Detroit), 7.6 (career average).
    Rasheed Wallace: 7.5 (w/Flip), 4.8 (career average)
    Tayshuan Prince: 3.4, 2.8
    Rip Hamilton: 2.7, 2.8
    Lindsey Hunter: 7.3, 6.9
    Mike Miller: 5.0, 7.4 (also was at 5.0 in his lone season with the Wolves when he refused to shoot them)
    Randy Foye: 5.7, 8.1
    Nick Young: 7.1, 7.4
    Wally Szczerbiak: 1.8, 2.2
    Sam Cassell: 3.6, 3.6
    Fred Hoiberg: 5.6, 5.1
    Latrell Sprewell: 3.3, 3.3
    Troy Hudson: 7.2, 6.2
    Terry Porter: 6.3, 4.7
    Anthony Peeler: 6.2, 6.2
    Kevin Martin: 7.5, 7.1 (NBA career), 8.7 (Rockets and Thunder)
    Gary Neal: 6.0, 8.5
    Mo Williams: 7.5, 6.3
    Corey Brewer: 3.5, 4.6

    So there’s some glaring problems, some surprises that contradict the narrative, and a lot of similar numbers with and without Flip. So much emphasis is placed on his strategy as opposed to his rotations or the personnel decisions that left him with mid-range shooters or non-shooters at perimeter positions (Brandon, Cassell, Sealy, Bobby Jackson, Rod Strickland, Sam Mitchell, Sprewell, Kendall Gill, Hamilton, Prince, Rubio) along with guys who should’ve been high-volume 3-point shooters but never were no matter who they played for (Szczerbiak). In all the names listed above, their attempts went up with more experience, which could mean something for a very young core group. And this conversation gets so exaggerated about him hating 3s and being an idiot that it becomes a counterproductive exercise. Either way, he has to do more to prove that he’s more like Popovich than Collins, but it mainly matters regarding this team’s ceiling. The emphasis on mid-range shots isn’t exactly keeping Randy Wittman out of the playoffs.

    • farnorth says:

      are all the first number with Flip and the seconds career?

        • farnorth says:

          wow, first I have to say amazing job man. Secondly that is really an eye opener. lol also I so freaking agree with you on Mike Miller, he would not shoot. Never seen anything like it. It was like the guy was on some kind of strike.

          Also with Chauncey he bounced around a ton before he got here it wasn’t until he got to Detroit that he actually became the player we all know him as today. But I am shocked at those stats.


          • gjk says:

            No problem. I always thought that part has been overlooked in this discussion.

            Flip creates more dissent than needed by denying that they don’t shoot enough 3s when the team numbers are hard to argue against. The real argument is whether he’s focusing on shooting enough when making personnel decisions; sometimes, he didn’t have the final say, but I’m sure he’s always had input. Now, he’s added some bigs who might develop that range, but one of them was airballing 3s in summer league. He also added another non-shooter at PG who’ll take minutes from a rookie who shows some potential in that area of his game, along with wings who have potential to make them but are clearly best around the hoop. It looks like he’ll have chances to make notable change and some built-in reasons (or excuses) during the season if he doesn’t change.

    • Steve McPherson says:

      Interesting to note, though, that Washington’s 3PA/G went from 16.8 to 23.3 in the playoffs, where they had some success.

      • gjk says:

        Of course, and they did a good job in that area; they could afford to remove nonshooters like Humphries and Seraphin from the rotation and go small, and they had 2 guys get hot (Pierce 52.4% in the playoffs, Gooden 46.2%). That’s part of the point, though: it gave them a better shot to win in the playoffs, but their previous habits didn’t hold them back in the 82 games they played to earn that playoff berth. If the Wolves want to be a title contender, they need to be more effective from beyond the arc, but this debate is often framed as though they won’t crack 30 wins until they improve from there. Compared to other areas in need of improvement (defense from every area, ballhandling, passing), it’s disproportionately emphasized.

        • Steve McPherson says:

          The case of the Wizards last year was certainly heartening because it showed that a team could shift gears from midrange oriented to 3-point oriented in a fairly straightforward way. I’ve long hoped, for example, that you could more or less run what Flip runs a couple feet farther out and get 3-pointers instead of midrange shots from just above the elbow.

          The problem for many people complaining about 3-pointers — and for Flip’s defense of the team’s approach, frankly — is, again, mistaking symptom for cause. I don’t dispute that the Wolves’ players need to become better 3-point shooters (or they need to get better 3-point shooters) before it can truly be a weapon, but look at Draymond Green last year: he had the green light from downtown (4.2 3PA/G) and only shot .337 for the season. In the playoffs, he was even worse, hoisting 4.3 per game and making only .264. And sure, you’d rather Green shoot those shots than Curry or Thompson, but he was still considered a threat because he had the confidence to shoot those shots when he was open.

          Now, I don’t necessarily think you want someone shooting 27% from the arc even if it’s mathematically the same as someone shooting 40% from the midrange, especially if you’re talking about a young player. Missing more than a third of your shots just doesn’t feel good, and if you’re not a natural gunner, I think it can wear you down. I’m all for the young Wolves gaining confidence attacking the basket and making shots before the 3-point shot becomes a staple of their game, but 3-pointers can also be set up and shot in an aggressive way. Just ask any team that faced the Warriors.

          • gjk says:

            I need to go back and watch video of their mid-range shots. What sticks out in my mind were Wiggins taking a lot from the high or mid post after failing to shake his defender, Rubio and Mo Williams pulling up off the pick and roll, Bennett taking that shot even though apparently the coaches didn’t want him to, and Gary Neal taking a step in after being chased off of a 3 point attempt. Those aren’t necessarily designed plays to get a long 2, but I’m not assuming my memory is 100% or even 75% accurate. I know they ran Martin and Budinger off of curls for jumpers as well, but those didn’t seem as prevalent.

            Your thoughts made me think of Game 6 of the Clippers-Rockets series when the career 28.5% and 29% shooters went 6-12 and saved their season. And we saw how it affected the Warriors’ offense in the finals when Green started hesitating. This would be the concern with Rubio in a playoff series if he ever got there without improving his shooting; we all know enough about his mentality as a player to know he’d be more likely to hesitate than keep shooting. Still, though, that’s a concern they can deal with when they’re near playoff contention.

            The other element is the 2 cornerstones at the moment were both known for floating through games at lower levels; it’s why Flip focused so much on Wiggins getting to the rim and Towns was primarily a post up player at Kentucky. For them, taking lots of 3s now takes them off the path of being aggressive players, which is much more helpful to their career.

  4. farnorth says:

    gjk, Brown or Miller what’s your opinion? I am OK with adding the vet, but I thought Lorenzo looked pretty good (even though it was Vegas).

    Also if you have not read the Grantland article with Flip, Zach Lowe asks a really great question very similar to your point.

    “Can you generate enough spacing with a point guard who can’t shoot, at least one wing who likes to post up — and both Wiggins and Shabazz do — and two bigs who live mostly from the elbows in?”

    It’s potentially a problem but LaVine is taking steps. I assume Wiggins will get there as well. Not sure Shabazz will, but he is pretty well driven. We’ll have to see what Bjelica is.

    • gjk says:

      I’m not that high on Brown. He scored and defended well in Vegas but had problems setting up his teammates; I’m also not sure he can get to the rim against tougher competition, and his driving and finishing were a big part of why he looked good there.

      I read the article, and I think Lowe was assuming Pek would start with either Towns or KG. The problem is still the same with any combination of bigs that doesn’t involve Bjelica (unless Towns becomes a 3 point threat), but we all know that Pek is a wild card who Flip seems to be thinking of as a 24 mpg bench guy. I can’t make myself concerned with spacing until they’ve actually made the playoffs a few times and it’s clear how much a 7-game series affects the offense (and who’s coaching). For at least next season, they’ll have problems with good teams due to inexperience more than spacing.

  5. Darecare says:

    Bjelica is an MVP of second best league in the world. The equivalent of Champions League actually.

  6. mikeskunes says:

    Amen, Steve. I don’t assume for a second that I know more about basketball than Flip Saunders like some fans. Put me in a film room with professionals or give me a whistle and clipboard, and I assure you that I would seem like a complete moron. But there are sometimes when the crowdsourced opinions are more accurate than the quirky beliefs of an “expert”. Flip’s reservations in practice around the three-point shot are a prime example.

    Pace and Space, 3 & D Wings, the Dunks/FTs/3s offensive philosophy, and the defensive personnel to protect the paint and close out on perimeter shooters to counteract those strategies are the modern NBA. His coaching and personnel decisions have not been bad by any stretch of the imagination, but the evidence remains that he holds archaic basketball values. There is mounting evidence that old-school playing style is not effective in a smarter NBA and fans want to know that Flip is willing to evolve with his young team.

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