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.