Pistons 115, Timberwolves 90: Flows and Flavors


Perhaps it’s just the stubborn contrarian in me talking, but part of me hopes the Timberwolves don’t change a damn thing about their offense and turn into a juggernaut anyway. It’s compelling to follow and write about a team that is trying to win in a unique or unconventional manner; if Minnesota were to keep their current offensive principles and develop into a perennial playoff contender, or even a Conference Finalist, especially going up against so many analytics-informed offenses, it would be one hell of a story.

The personalities involved and philosophies at play, from the iconoclasts to the copycats, are part of what makes the NBA so much damn fun to follow. It’s an evolving, diverse league in many respects, but almost every serious playoff team aspires to copy the Spurs or Warriors’ offensive models, otherwise referred to as “pace and space.” It’d be radical if an outmoded plan of attack such as the Wolves’ would work, sort of like if an army was satisfied marching off to war with bows and arrows, eschewing drones and tanks, but was equally successful in achieving their aims. ‘They’ve hamstrung themselves so severely,’ we’d think, ‘But my goodness, it worked anyway! Isn’t that the damndest thing…’

Then there’s the rational, realist part of my brain, the part that knows an army toting rudimentary weapons would not last in contemporary warfare, no matter how inspiring or bold such a move might be, the part that understands all of the smart, successful teams probably play a similar syle for a reason, and the part that’s at wit’s end regarding the Wolves’ reluctance to embrace modern offensive values.

The Pistons, led by Stan Van Gundy, are one of those “modern” teams. Once their woeful first quarter was done last night shooting, 1-of-8 from three), the aerial onslaught they showed over the remainder of the game (54% shooting, including 13-of-27 from three) caused the realistic, pessimistic part of my brain to take over. Detroit’s offense is relatively simple – space the floor with four shooters, run two man pick and rolls most of the time while hunting for the opportunity to swing the ball to the open man along the perimeter, push the ball in transition while filling in along the arc for a catch-and-shoot opportunity, and occasionally hit Andre Drummond for a lob or a quick post up when he gets deep post position.

It’s simple, but it’s beautiful. It leads to lots of threes and lots of offensive rebounds for their bigs, and a group of guys empowered to play with confidence. SVG wants you to shoot. When the Pistons started slow, it didn’t matter. Reggie Jackson missed his first 2 three point attempts, as did Brandon Jennings. Marcus Morris missed all three of his tries on the night. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope whiffed on his first 6 shots from downtown. All of them kept firing away.

Two guys who didn’t miss much were Anthony Tolliver and Ersan Ilyasova. They finished a combined 8-for-10 from beyond the arc, absolutely wrecking whoever was supposed to be defending them. The Pistons routinely got great looks, and the Wolves seemed powerless to stop them.

The funny thing is, the Pistons have a bottom-six offense in the league, and only four teams have a worse effective field goal percentage. They have not been particularly good this season. The Timberwolves hold slight edges in both offensive rating (100.9 to 100.8) and eFG% (47.9 to 47.6). However, over the past month, the Pistons have drastically improved (12th-best offensive rating in December, 17th eFG%) while the Wolves have remained stagnant. The jig is up on Minnesota’s offense. As Detroit settles in, and keeps striving for the right kinds of shots, their numbers only get better and better.

In other words, there is potential for growth in Detroit this season, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Their arrow is pointing up. The Wolves, on the other hand, are rolling ever so slightly downhill, meandering along without much hope for improvement, seemingly content to let Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad attack a swarm of bodies in the lane and force-feed Wiggins and Towns on belabored post-ups. And don’t get me wrong, some nights that works fine. KAT played like the All-Star he ought to be (22-9-3-2 blocks last night), Wiggins had his moments, and Bazzy filled up the scoring column despite the team’s general awfulness when he was in the game (15 points on 7 shots). Their numbers were fine; the system is not.

I wonder, then, if the Wolves’ lack of emphasis on their own three-point shooting hinders their own three-point defense in some way? It would certainly be a logical assumption, right? Because the Pistons could’ve easily hit 18 or 19 of their 34 attempts last night; they missed some WIDE OPEN looks.

I found myself growing more and more jealous watching Detroit play that style against the Wolves. I thought about KAT in Van Gundy’s offense, a center who could be both the inside man surrounded by four shooters or one of the shooters himself. I wondered what kind of magic Ricky conjure up with more space to operate. I imagined how efficient Wiggins and Shabazz would be if they had room to drive. I thought about LaVine playing off the ball and attacking on second pick and rolls late in the shot clock, creating off the bounce with room to operate.

Something keeps sticking out in my head, playing on a loop whenever I watch teams like Detroit play against the Wolves, a quote from Sam Mitchell on media day. “No one runs plays for threes,” he said. “The all come in the flow of the offense… if you know any plays for open threes, maybe you guys should be sitting up here.”

It’s true in some ways. Detroit doesn’t run a ton of set plays for threes; their outside shots come in the flow of their offense. Sam was using that reasoning to preemptively explain or excuse the Wolves’ low three-point shooting totals (they’re now dead last in the league at 15.7 per game, more than a full attempt lower than the next closest team). If threes come within the flow of an offense, why not attempt to have that flow? Not having excellent three-point shooters on the roster isn’t an excuse; plenty of teams shoot threes without having deadeye shooters, and it’s not like you can develop them without giving them the freedom to fire away in games.

Long story short – this game was an ideological matchup, and the Pistons won. Their drones wore down the Wolves, who spend much of their time running into the opposition and clanging around in close quarters. A sustained aerial assault would do wonders to help them. I wonder if the people in charge know that’s an option.

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4 Responsesso far.

  1. Tom says:

    Your passion for the three is amazing. You want a team that really doesn’t have a three point shooting roster to shoot threes anyway, because? Losing by fifty is better than losing by a dozen, if it means we play your modern way? I do think they need to do a better job of defending the arc, especially against teams that are more adept at the three then the mid-range two. When Pek comes back, we should have as good a low post scoring group as there is in the league, yet you want guys like Zack, Andrew, Shabazz and Ricky to hoist up three balls and over look the advantage you would have most nights down low. Pek isn’t a great shot blocker, but he would have kept the Pistons away from low block and Drummond would have to settle for mid range shots. That would allow the defense to extend out to the arc and force their poor handling wings and guards to drive to the hoop. If you have some trade ideas to get players that can hit threes in the high 40 percent for guys like KMart, Bazz, Paine,Dieng, and Rudez, I’d love to read them. Otherwise, Sam is trying to win games with KAT down low, Wiggins driving to the basket and Rubio finding open shots for everyone. If it is a three, then so be it, but if it is a wide open two, then that works for me.

  2. Don Kuster says:

    As a long time watcher of wolves, a season ticket holder, and a follower of many writers on wolves, this article gets to the heart of the problem with Glen as owner, Sam as coach, and Milt, if he keeps this course, as POBO.
    We are rebuilding again, but now with 2 talked about potential superstars, and a number of potential NBA starter caliber players. Yet in 2 years we have not taught a scrap of the modern NBA offensive schemes to anyone. Development is important, but proper development is more important. People hear Sam talk about “young guys”‘ “learning”, “growing into their adult bodies” “not having shooters”. Though the first three statements are true and call for patience, I do not believe we know whether we have shooters. When does he develop his 21st century offensive philosophy? Without one, we are mostly shooting shots that only Kobe and Jordan have proven adept enough at to make a team successful. Your basic analogy, bringing bows and arrows to a gun fight is exactly right, and that is unacceptable.
    Time is a precious commodity, and though I believe Sam is bringing a level of competence and standards to the Wolves on one end of the court, it is not enough. Sam has one of the most coveted jobs in the world (NBA head coach), he has already proved in my eyes he is not up to task. Time is not something you waste, and Glen has proven he does not value it with this organization (Kahn/ Rambis debacle was proof in my eyes). If Milt does not make changes at end of year, and he is our only hope, I am afraid that we, as wolves fans, are looking at another few years of a disappointing and very sub- optimal product.
    Thanks for all your insights and work on the wolves. Always a pleasure to read your thoughts.

  3. pyrrol says:

    Anthony friggin’ Tolliver!? Only the Wolves…

    The problem with the stated ‘contrarian side’ theory is that if a team were to buck the trend and win in an ‘old fashioned’ way, they’d have to do much much better at stuff like old fundamentals than the Wolves at their best. Frankly, I think some of these analytics teams are going to come to earth someday. How’s it working out for Phoenix and Portland? Maybe keeping them from bottoming out, but it’s not getting them to .500. Houston’s freak season is done, and a harsh true colors season is under way for them. Golden State relies excessively on the freakish shooting of Curry, who is frankly put together like a perpetual 15 year old–expecting long term health from him with this rate of usage and dependency is a big gamble.

    Teams that incorporate the three without living and dying by it seem like the most viable going forward, as the league continues to evolve–eg San Antonio. The Wolves could easily do this with their roster. That’s not to say it would be easy to become the Spurs, only that it is their principals we should follow, not Golden State’s. To be a real GS you need to have a golden goose, a guy who makes threes he ‘should’ miss, routinely, and no team should plan for that. They should plan to take enough threes to make it mathematically feasible to win games in which they aren’t doing every other aspect perfectly. I don’t think the Wolves do that. They are asking a lot by hoping to win with the strategy they put forth.

    At the same time we can get caught up the three thing. Gjk often points out on here that our offense is extremely simple. It’s easy to defend, and hard for us to adjust into something consistently useful. It just doesn’t have enough action. And good/open shots beget more good and open shots. We often tumble into stagnant offense or a long series of bad shots. To the far off eye, it looks like we are running no plays. Guys playing a pick up game could dump off and iso Wiggins… I’ve said it before, but playing an elementary, low action, congested offense with Rubio as your point guard is a huge, boring waste. Part of improving our offense will involve spreading it, which means more threes, but there is so much beyond three point shooting we could do to make our offense better. None of this three talk means ignoring Towns–using him in the post would probably only expand with a better spaced floor with more threes.

    This is why people are starting to not like Sam Mitchell–“No one runs plays for threes.” Or they run every play to have threes! A quote like that comes off as either stone dumb or stubborn and defensive. Neither set of attributes fit the job description. I’m sure well coached teams do actually have specific plays to get a good look at a three point shot in a situation where they need one. But beyond that, every play in the offense on well coached teams has an option and spread to potentially get a good look at a three, depending on how the play works out in game. On a fashion note, Sam is a snappy dresser on the sidelines.

  4. JerryWest#44 says:

    Amen pyrrol !! Well written.

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