As the Wolves attempt to transition into a winner, their transition game has fallen behind

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While there have been plenty of predictable shortcomings for the Minnesota Timberwolves early in the Tom Thibodeau era, maybe the most confusing one to me is how this squad went from being one of the most efficient transition offenses in the NBA last season to an average at best team in transition this season. Those Wolves were becoming monsters in transition last season. It was such a foregone conclusion that this team could be a wrecking crew on the break that both Nate Duncan and I counted it as a staple of making their offense efficient under Thibodeau, when I joined Nate on his preseason preview for the Wolves.

However, the Wolves haven’t been this Miley Cyrus-esque wrecking ball in transition. 39 games into their 2016-17 season, they rank 17th in transition efficiency and are a couple ticks below league average efficiency. The fall off from the Wolves in transition has been across the board in every category measurable. They’re down 3.5 points per 100 possessions in transition offensive rating. They’re slightly lower in how often they run. Their field goal and effective field goal percentages are both lower. They don’t go to the free throw line as much in transition, and they’ve become the worst team in the NBA at taking care of the ball in transition.

(It’s worth noting that Thibodeau’s 2010-11 Bulls team was 7th in transition efficiency, and then every subsequent year they dropped into the bottom 10 of the league. Some may view that as the 2010-11 team was an outlier, but I’d contend that the Bulls’ injuries and personnel led to that drop-off and not his coaching.)

Here’s the full picture of drop-off from the Wolves in transition from last season to this season, via Synergy Sports:

Timberwolves transition drop-off from last season to this season
Season Off. Rating Frequency FG% eFG% FTA% TO%
2015-16 113.6 (10th) 13.5% (12th) 59.5% (1st) 62.5% (8th) 17.5% (t2nd) 14.9% (18th)
2016-17 110.1 (17th) 13.4% (t18th) 58.3% (2nd) 61.2% (13th) 16.6% (t4th) 16.6% (30th)
Differential -3.5 -0.1% -1.2% -1.3% -0.9% +1.7%

There has been improvement as of late with the Wolves in transition. When I initially started thinking about this piece, the Wolves were scoring 108.6 points per 100 transition possessions. Over the last four games, they’ve managed to improve to 110.1 with slight improvements in the shooting percentages. The biggest thing you can look at right now is how much turnovers are hurting them when they get out to push the ball.

Maybe some of that had to do with the Wolves missing Ricky Rubio for five games early in the season, but he’s still been there for the majority of the games and they’re still by far the worst team in the NBA when it comes to turnovers in transition. Second worst is the Philadelphia 76ers at 15.8%. The Wolves are giving away a couple extra possessions per 100 transition possessions than they did last season and that could absolutely end up being the sole reason in why they’re 3.5 points per 100 worse in the scoring department. Not to mention, they have the 24th ranked transition defense right now and could stand to do a better job getting back and stopping their opponents’ breaks.

While I can stand the turnovers (as frustrating as they may be at times) from a young team trying to push the ball, my biggest complaint about the Wolves in transition this season is how few 3-pointers they’ve made in these situations. The Wolves have the fewest number of 3-pointers made despite ranking 19th in total transition possessions. They’ve made just 23 3-pointers in transition, according to Synergy Sports, which puts them slightly ahead of their production last season under Sam Mitchell when they hit 46 total 3-pointers in transition.

For random comparison’s sake, Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors has doubled the Wolves’ production of 3-pointers made in transition this season at 46. He’s 46-of-80 (which is absurd) from 3-point range in transition. The Wolves are 23-of-68.

Only the Chicago Bulls join Minnesota with fewer than 30 3-point makes in transition this season. Here are the transition numbers for all 30 teams with league average at the bottom of the sheet (stats prior to Thursday’s games):

The Bulls have the second lowest 3-point rate (percentage of shot attempts that come from the 3-point line) in transition at 26.7%. The Wolves are last in that department at 17.2%, which is an insanely low rate of taking 3-pointers in transition. The easiest explanation for this is that their three best players are all monsters/athletic freaks going to the basket. You want Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns baptizing the rim and daring defenders to challenge them.

And to a certain level, I completely agree. The Wolves, and most any other team in the NBA, should hope to establish the rim as the ultimate destination when they’re pushing the ball down the throats of the opponent. Those dunks and layups are almost always going to be your best bet for scoring and getting to the free throw line. But at some point, that has to suck the defense into running toward the rim, which in turn gives the Wolves the chance to hit those shooters on the wing to blow up the defensive coverage scrambling back.

That’s where teams end up absolutely wrecking you. The Wolves don’t have the personnel of Houston and Golden State to put up the crazy transition numbers they do, but they also can’t just abstain from finding these attempts altogether. Here are the numbers for each significant Wolves player in transition:

Timberwolves players scoring and shooting 3’s in transition
Season Poss. PPP FG% eFG% 3FG 3FGA 3FG% FTA% TO%
LaVine 141 1.319 66.4% 69.1% 6 18 33.3% 17.0% 9.9%
Wiggins 89 1.247 59.0% 63.1% 5 11 45.5% 25.8% 10.1%
Bazz 67 1.134 59.1% 61.4% 2 3 66.7% 22.4% 14.9%
Towns 63 1.286 69.2% 69.2% 0 3 0.0% 11.1% 11.1%
Rubio 58 0.603 34.5% 36.2% 1 7 14.3% 12.1% 37.9%
Dunn 41 0.634 32.0% 32.0% 0 6 0.0% 19.5% 24.4%
Dieng 39 1.128 60.0% 60.0% 0 0 n/a 10.3% 12.8%
Bjelica 35 0.886 57.1% 66.7% 4 9 44.4% 11.4% 31.4%

The missing five 3-pointers come from Tyus Jones (16 possessions, 3-of-4 3FG) and Brandon Rush (9 possessions, 2-of-7 3FG). The good news for the Wolves is that their four most used transition players are all very good at scoring in transition. Zach LaVine is in the 87th percentile this season. Andrew Wiggins is in the 76th percentile. Shabazz Muhammad is in the 57th percentile. Karl-Anthony Towns is in the 83rd percentile in transition scoring efficiency.

However, the lack of 3-pointers both made and attempted still remains somewhat concerning because of the math involved in being able to make that a threat. Not only does it get you an extra point when you knock it down but eventually, the dam breaks with the scrambling defense and they get caught between defending the rim and defending the 3-point line. When that happens, you usually end up being able to get whatever you want in those situations.

I mentioned earlier that the Wolves maybe were hurt for a few games by Rubio’s absence, but as you can see his turnover rate in transition situations has been pretty rough. Turning the ball over nearly 40% of the time is pretty horrendous. His anemic scoring prowess in transition puts him in the 4th percentile, which is astoundingly bad. However, when you factor in assists to transition possessions, Rubio jumps to the 71st percentile in the NBA, so as expected most of his damage and influence in transition comes from passing the ball and the pass actually getting to its intended target.

Of the 60 players in the NBA this season with at least 100 transition possessions (including assists), Rubio ranks 24th at 1.47 points per possession, which also puts him as the highest on the Wolves.

Kris Dunn has been pretty bad in transition, as well. His scoring is just about as bad as Rubio’s (Dunn is in the 5th percentile for scoring), and it only bumps to the 40th percentile (1.277 PPP) when you factor in assists. The Wolves’ point guards not being scoring threats in transition might be the biggest reason they’re not able to crack the upper half of the NBA nor create 3-point attempts for the entire team.

When you look at the teams above the Wolves in transition efficiency, you’re seeing threats beyond the arc running the team. Even with the Washington Wizards and a point guard like John Wall, who has improved as a shooter but isn’t regarded as a big time deep threat, you’ll find someone who has made double the 3-pointers in transition this season that LaVine has. Wall is 12-of-25 from deep on the break.

Ultimately, I’m not sure how much the Wolves can do about it right now. Rubio and Dunn aren’t going to be those threats this season, and I’m definitely not in the group of Tyus Jones has to play more minutes. I’m not certain that would greatly change the fortunes of the Wolves on the break. You look at what LaVine is able to do and I’m not sure you tell him to go from being one of the best in the league in transition to changing his game to flare out to the wings to spread the break. I’m not sure you trust Wiggins’ shot just yet to be that guy, especially with as devastating as he can be attacking the basket.

Maybe you hope Towns’ 3-point stroke catches on again and he’s able to be that Dirk Nowitzki type of threat (comparison made very loosely here) trailing on the break. I do think Brandon Rush should play more, in general, and I think he’s a guy that naturally runs to the wings and corners on the break to help provide that tough decision.

For now, the Wolves should both look for 3-pointers more in the secondary transition spots and just work on taking care of the ball. If Rubio and Bjelica can stop turning the ball over so much, these runouts by LaVine, Wiggins, and Muhammad can all become deadlier. And the points will pile up more often.

Not to mention: get back in transition defense, guys. Thanks.

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5 Responsesso far.

  1. gjk says:

    I think part of Rubio’s struggles in transition reflect a larger lack of evolution in his game: smart teams/players can bait him into making a pass he thinks is open but they’re able to close on. His transition passes were on point the last 2 games, but he gets into the habit of forcing things a bit more than he should.

    Just aesthetically, it’s too bad they can’t get out into transition more successfully and/or run a potent fast break. Rubio with those athletes should be a lot more fun to watch in transition than just waiting to see the 1-2 times per game he can hit LaVine ahead of the pack for a highlight. They have bigs who would make good trailers as well.

  2. Tom says:

    Rubio turning the ball over? He has the second best A/TO ratio in the NBA behind C Paul and has years of different players getting fantastic passes from him for transitional scores. The reason the transition game is bad is because the spacing on the floor in transition is awful. Unless the wolves get a release and deep pass for a score, they don’t get any fast break points, because the team doesn’t fill lanes properly and our trailers are not doing what good trailers should do. When you beat your man down, the guys ahead of you space out and you cut down the lane. When you don’t beat your man down the floor, you look for that straight on three pointer or a cutting player to the basket. That is learned and beaten into you in practice, or should be. Of course another reason could be that they log so many minutes that they get tired and sloppy.

    • enai says:

      ^ Yep, the spacing in transition has been really really bad, and has to be a MAJOR factor in the drop in transition efficiency. The article’s theory- “The Wolves’ point guards not being scoring threats in transition might be the biggest reason”- obviously doesn’t hold any water since the Wolves were much better last year, with Rubio, who has never been a scoring threat in his career. The spacing is terrible, and the decision-making is often questionable as well (*cough*, Shabazz, *cough*). Should be something Thibs can get squared away with a little film-study and practice.

      • pyrrol says:

        ^ Double yep. I’m not real concerned about this. I also think it will be squared away with a little more work/patience. Mostly just a learning thing, and I actually think it’s coming along and something Thibs is working on. We’ll get there.

  3. Chad Boger says:

    Transition back to D also seems to be an issue. No advanced stats from me just observation from watching.

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