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.