The Minnesota Timberwolves’ attempt to close the gap: Still a work in progress but progress indeed
“Closing the gap.”
That’s the goal of the Minnesota Timberwolves under Tom Thibodeau in Year 1 of this new era of the latest rebuild. It’s what the maniacal student and teacher of the game has been preaching since he took over the dual-role of coach and president. The Wolves have to close the gap that often had them staring at a deficit before they even knew the game was slipping out of their schematic hands.
Over the last two seasons, the Wolves have been outscored by a lot from beyond the arc. They’ve tried to make up for it elsewhere. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, the Wolves are plus-703 at the free throw line. And despite giving up 96 more 2-point makes than they made in 2014-15, they’re actually plus-20 points on two pointers over the past two seasons. However, the 3-point line hasn’t just been something they’ve struggled to embrace through the Flip Saunders/Sam Mitchell tandem, but it’s been something they simply get blitzed by over and over again.
In Brian Windhorst’s great profile of Thibodeau and the Wolves on ESPN.com, Thibs did the math for us on the hole the Wolves constantly saw themselves trying to climb out of, only to dig it deeper and deeper with their attack.
“We gave up nine [3-pointers] a game, and we made only five and a half,” Thibodeau said. “That’s like starting the game 10 points behind.”
Over the last two seasons, the Wolves were outscored behind the 3-point line by 578. That’s not 578 points. That’s 578 3-pointers. They were outscored by 1,734 points from behind the 3-point line over their last 164 games. That almost seems impossible, right?
The next closest team over that timespan is the Memphis Grizzlies, who are a minus-533 3-pointers made over the last two seasons or minus-1,599 points behind the 3-point line. The Milwaukee Bucks are next at minus-456 3-pointers made (1,368 points). Just for fun/masochism, the Warriors are plus-728 3-pointers made over the last two seasons. The difference between the Wolves’ net scoring at the line and the Warriors over the past two seasons is 3,918 points.
When Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.3 points per game in 1961-62, he scored 4,029 points that season. The difference between the Wolves and the Warriors from deep over two years is essentially the most historic individual scoring season in NBA history.
That’s the hole Thibodeau is talking about from the 3-point line.
It’s not just making 3-pointers though. It’s controlling the 3-point line on both ends of the floor. In Thibodeau’s five seasons with the Chicago Bulls, his team made 268 more 3-pointers (plus-806 points) than they allowed. With some teams, they manage to win the 3-point battle throughout a season by making a ton of 3-pointers, but that wasn’t the case with the Thibodeau Bulls. They were just spectacular at taking away 3-pointers while having a couple of seasons in which they made a solid amount. In Thibodeau’s five seasons, the Bulls had three seasons in which they made more 3-pointers than they allowed. One of those two seasons in which they failed to do that, they were out shot by just seven makes.
During that stretch in Chicago, the Bulls allowed the second lowest 3-point percentage (0.2% behind the Boston Celtics). Thibodeau’s teams were also 10th in the NBA in 3-point percentage but made the 10th fewest 3-pointers. His year away from the NBA allowed him to get closer than ever to the NBA though. He met with teams in different stages of development and competitiveness, learned of the importance of outside shooting, and has sort of tailored his offense to be more 3-point friendly than it was with the Bulls.
The funny thing looking at this from a Wolves perspective is you look at Thibodeau and his newfound affinity for outside shooting thanks to an illuminating sabbatical away from the team as this entirely different direction for the franchise after enduring Mitchell as the interim coach last season. The truth is this isn’t just a change from Mitchell as the coach. It’s an entirely different direction from the franchise’s history altogether.
Over the 27 seasons in which the Wolves’ franchise has existed, they’ve had just two seasons in which they made more 3-pointers than their opponents. That’s it. Two. Dos. Deux. One of those seasons was the lockout-truncated 2011-12 season in which the Wolves made 67 more 3-pointers than their opponents under Rick Adelman. The other season was ironically coached by Randy Wittman (for 19 games) before Kevin McHale took over for the final 63 games. The Wolves hit seven more 3-pointers than their opponents that season.
Prior to 2008-09, the Wolves had never had a season in which they made more 3-pointers than their opponents. Now, their only good years occurred during that initial 19-season span but that still seems like a long time to never hit more 3-pointers than your opponent over the course of a season. 3-point shooting isn’t everything, but it is an important thing. As many people around the Wolves’ organization often told me right after Flip took over as the coach again in 2014, it can be defeating knowing that giving up a 3-pointer to an opponent means you have to score on your next two possessions just to keep pace.
While you can’t glean a ton from preseason anything, the five games for the Wolves have showed us a trend in the right direction for not just the team’s 3-point shooting but also Thibodeau’s acceptance of modernity. Last season, the Wolves’ 3-point rate (percentage of shots that come from beyond the 3-point line) was 20.2%. Only the Milwaukee Bucks had a lower 3-point rate. League average for the 2015-16 season was 28.4%.
Through five preseason games, the Wolves are clocking in at a 3-point rate of 25.8%. That’s 3.8% higher than the Bulls’ five-year 3-point rate under Thibodeau. So things are trending in the right direction. The Wolves have made 41 3-pointers and have allowed 43 3-point makes in five games. That’s a much smaller gap to eliminate than what we’ve seen over the course of 92.5% of this franchise’s existence.
The Wolves are hitting 36.9% of their 3-point attempts (would’ve ranked sixth last season but again we can’t just extrapolate preseason trends and assume they’re the norm now) and allowing 32.8% from beyond the arc. It’s progress but at the same time, it’s simply just a part of the foundation that Thibodeau is trying to lay for the Wolves.
Their defense is improved already but still very far from where he envisions it being. Their offense looks better than the whole of last season (last 2.5 months were dope though) stylistically, but they have a lot of familiarity to iron out as they add to what they think is possible. It’s not a matter of whether or not they have the shooting. They do. They could use more but they have enough for the time being. More importantly, they’re playing in a way that will create 3-point shots.
Minnesota’s persistent gap between them and their opponent’s ability to operate around the arc isn’t closed but it’s definitely closing. Many things have yet to be proven and we still need to see this over the course of real games with meaning, but it’s all a start. It’s not just the Wolves learning new tricks; their coach/president seems to have some new things to show off, as well.