A Look at the Timberwolves’ Scoring Efficiency So Far in 2016-17

The Timberwolves are now 50 games into the 2016-17 season. How are the team’s key players performing in Tom Thibodeau’s system? I discuss this below.*

KAT Analysis

Karl-Anthony Towns is shooting 51% from the field this season, which is a whopping 5.4 percentage points better than league average. KAT is also scoring efficiently, averaging 1.09 points per shot—0.07 more points per shot than the league average. According to basketball-reference.com, KAT shoots 17.7 times a night, on average, which means he’s usually good for more than one extra point for the Timberwolves each night due to his marksmanship and efficiency. (Editor’s Note: That’s 1.24 additional points, to be exact.)

KAT scores especially efficiently in the restricted area and in the rest of the lane outside of the restricted area. He is averaging 0.11 more points per shot (pts/shot) from the restricted than the rest of the league, on average, as well as 0.10 more pts/shot in the paint/outside the restricted area. This is consistent with the eye test, which strongly indicates that KAT is not only an outstanding scorer at the cup, but also has excellent touch from out to 15 feet. This is good news: KAT is playing a significantly larger part of the offense from the high post, usually around the elbows and extended elbow areas, as the season progresses and Thibs implements new wrinkles in his offensive system. As KAT’s shot chart shows, he hits at a relatively higher clip from the right elbow. That spot, in particular, has become a real comfort-zone for him as the season has progressed.

The only spot of the floor from which KAT has shot poorly is the above the break three, where he’s shooting 32.1%, or 3.2% below the league average of 35.3%. He scores 0.10 fewer pts/shot on above-the-break threes than the league average.

Unfortunately, this is the area from which KAT has taken the vast majority of his treys. He was especially inefficient from this spot earlier in the season, when he was shooting a high volume of difficult threes. Seeing KAT improve his accuracy on above-the-break threes would be a significant development. His threes will likely be above-the-break variety due to his position as a high screener and a transition trailer. He gets a few in the corners, but that will probably never be a regular shot for him.

Over the last month, KAT has reoriented his shot selection accordingly to suit his current strengths. He’s taking fewer threes, making a higher percentage of threes he does shoot, and is working very hard to get high-efficiency shots while also setting up teammates and collecting far more assists than he has at any other point in his one-and-a-half-season-old NBA career.

Wiggins Analysis

Andrew Wiggins’ field goal percentage and pts/shot statistics are both lower than league average. One problem is that Wiggins basically doesn’t shoot corner threes—like, almost never. Wiggins is averaging about one corner-three attempt every three games thus far in 2016-17. That is an efficiency-killer by itself, and, along with Wiggins’ limited peripheral numb#rs in the rebound and assist categories especially, it isn’t difficult to see why his overall efficiency stats such as PER suffer despite his improvement offensively this season. (Editor’s Note: Wiggins’ current PER is 15.2—just above the league average of 15—per basketball-reference.)

Back to shot selection: Wiggins shoots kind of a lot of above-the-break threes—over three per game—and, unlike KAT, Wig has converted them at a (slightly) better than league average rate. Coming into this season, there were serious question marks about Wiggins’ three-point shooting ability. This has been an area of clear improvement for him, I think, that too many Wolves fans take for granted. (Editor’s Note: Some players never learn to shoot. It shouldn’t be taken as a given that they will do so. We won’t name names.) The next step offensively for Andrew Wiggins is to find ways to get open in the corners. When would it be most feasible to get Wig a higher volume of corner threes? Probably NOT when he’s playing Point Wiggins at the end of quarters. Instead, it would probably be when Rubio is the primary ball-handler, earlier in quarters, particularly when Zach LaVine is off the floor. (Eds. Note: Which is currently almost never, as LaVine remains in the NBA’s top-three in minutes per game.)

LaVine Analysis

Unlike Wiggins, LaVine has helped himself this season by taking and making the highest-efficiency shot in basketball—the corner three. LaVine has taken 73 corner threes, which translates to almost 1.5 per game. The numbers indicate something that my eye test didn’t really appreciate until I dove deep into the data: it takes Wiggins five games to shoot as many corner threes as LaVine gets in an average game this season.

Whether or not this is a positional issue in Thibs’ system—somewhat controversially among hardcore Wolves fans, LaVine has staked his claim to the starting SG position, while Wiggins, who’s arguably better as a SG than as a SF, has been the starting SF all season.

Nonetheless, LaVine has feasted from the corners, shooting 42.3% from the right corner and 44.7% from the left corner. Zach has scored 0.17 more points per shot than the league average on left corner threes, and 0.11 more pts/shot on threes from the right corner. LaVine has been no slouch on above-the-break threes, either: he is hitting at a clip of almost 37.1%, which is about 1.8% better than the league average.

Unsurprisingly for anyone who watches the Wolves, LaVine is least efficient in the mid-range, from which he is shooting a percentage (40.6%) that is above league-average but worse than he shoots from distance in the corners.

Fortunately for Zach’s offensive efficiency stats, his best role in the Wolves offense is as a three-point assassin and a dunker in transition: the Wolves already have a slashing scorer in Andrew Wiggins, and a big who can dominate inside in Karl Towns. Perhaps more than either Wiggins or Towns, LaVine is able to play to his strengths in Tom Thibodeau’s offense, and his scoring and efficiency numbers have soared as a result.

Moving forward, one question is whether LaVine get even more corner shots up? Brandon Rush shoots them in higher frequency per minute than does LaVine: Rush has taken over twice as many corner threes per 36 minutes than has LaVine, at 3.24 per 36 for Rush versus 1.50 per 36 for LaVine. This is possibly because LaVine tries to compensate for his lack of a nuanced feel for the game by exploiting his superior athleticism and energy. (Editor’s Note: According to NBA.com player tracking data, LaVine runs more miles per game–2.69–than any other player in the league. The amount of wasted motion can’t easily be quantified, but it exists.)

Muhammad Analysis

Shabazz Muhammad has that junkyard dog game that LaVine lacks, and is thus a nice complement to Zach as a scorer off the bench. Bazz does most of his damage in the restricted area, but unlike LaVine, Bazz’s shots are a more equal distribution of dunks, post-ups (#BazzHook), layups off dribble penetration, and put backs from offensive rebounds. And perhaps apropos of nothing but not surprisingly to those who’ve watched him closely, Bazz is again at the top of the league in points per touch, according to NBA.com.

The nice thing to see from the shot chart and table above involves Bazz’s three point shooting. On a team starved for shooting, Bazz has been sneaky efficient this season from deep—especially from the corners. As AWAW scribes Tim Faklis and Lucas Seehafer have noted, in the Wolves’ 16 games so far in the 2017 calendar year, Muhammad’s left hand has thrown flames like precision-guided munitions en route to a league-best 57.1% (24/42) from deep in that period.

For all the criticism Bazz gets for being a shoot-first player, 60% of his shots have come from the areas where he has been more efficient than the rest of the NBA (i.e., the three three-point zones listed above, plus the restricted area). Bazz is best when unchained to do what he does best: get buckets.

Rubio Analysis

Ricky Rubio has never been known for his shooting or scoring ability. And the numbers through the first 50 games bear this out, for the most part. What’s really odd, and merits more discussion moving forward (Editor’s Note: Assuming Ricky doesn’t get traded—a non-trivial assumption.), is just how strange it is that Ricky R has the yellow and purple combos you can see in his shot chart above.

Relatively speaking, he’s sneaky-good from the mid range, and not so much from anywhere else.
From there, Ricky has been more efficient than the rest of the league, shooting 47.1% versus the league average of 40.1%. Ricky’s inability to finish at the rim and shoot threes shines bright in the shot chart and the league-average comparisons shown in the table above: his field-goal percentage is 15+ percentage points worse than league average in the restricted area; 16+ percentage points worse in the paint (non-restricted area). And it’s worse from three-point land, with the exception of the right corner three, of which he has taken only 13 so far this season.

The key takeaway here is that despite Ricky’s offensive limitations with regard to shooting—and they’re as significant as advertised—Rubio has found comfort zones in certain areas of the floor where he has been able to score efficiently, which has helped the Wolves as they’ve begun to turn things around and win more games as the season has progressed. He has been shooting the three better of late, but at this point we’d be deluding ourselves if we didn’t expect regression to the mean, on that front.

Dieng Analysis

Gorgui Dieng is a secret weapon of sorts for the Wolves, at least when it comes to team performance with him on the floor. Dieng is currently the only Wolves starter whose net rating per 100 possessions is positive. What Gorgui does really well offensively is to find seams in opposing defenses in the mid-range and bury open jumpers. Indeed, there’s a lot of yellow in his shot chart from the right side of court, and a lot of light green from above the free throw line and the left elbow.

The mid-range shot has been lambasted by efficiency snobs so badly that it might as well be on the UN sanctions list. Still, given the Wolves’ lack of a traditional stretch-four, it is nice to have a PF in Dieng who shoots better-than-average from within the range he does have, which falls into areas on the floor which teams perhaps don’t defend as vigorously in today’s pace-and-space game as in previous eras.

Conclusions

The Timberwolves offense is nothing if not a work in progress. Many chapters remain to be written. Personnel and schemes will change, to some degree. But it seems as though the team’s recent success (after a terrible start) is correlated with players finding spots of the floor from which they can shoot and score more efficiently. This shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise—Tom Thibodeau is too good a coach not to foster adjustments following a rough start—but it should be encouraging players are finding areas from which they can score efficiently and exploiting them within the coach’s system. We don’t yet know what the ceiling looks like for this group, but improvement over time is always a plus.

Till next time.

*All shot charts are courtesy of Todd Schneider.

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3 Responsesso far.

  1. enai says:

    Wiggins is shooting 34% from 3 this season, so yes, technically he has improved, but the story is a little more complicated than that: Wiggins has been incredibly streaky from 3, with his overall numbers buoyed by a hot-shooting November. Since then, he’s actually been pretty poor- at or below his career average. Wiggins 3-pt shooting by month:

    Nov: 27-64 (42.2%)
    Dec: 15-53 (28.3%)
    Jan: 13-41 (31.7%)
    Feb: 2-9 (22.2%)

    It’d be nice if they could get him more looks from the corner; maybe with Zach out for the year now (which really really sucks, btw) we’ll see some more of that.

  2. pyrrol says:

    Very interesting.

    My quick takes: KAT’s post game is a bread and butter of this team, and we should not stray from it. He’s also good on certain longish mind range shots. His corner threes look decent, but seriously it’s hard for him to get his feet in that area. Tough for a man of his size to get good looks from there consistently. But that big +5-6% circle around the basket glows like it’s neon red to me. To get that for your team from a 21 year old is something.

    Wiggins: This is exactly what his game feels like. He puts up the numbers, he gets the touches, but it has not seemed to all come together yet. This chart shows he basically has no go to spot on the floor where he’s better than the competition. Most of his hot spots are pretty inefficient places to shoot from. Nice to have a long two from the sides now and again, but… For an athlete of his ability with a nearly 9 foot standing reach, he’s not doing that well near the basket.

    LaVine: He’s out now, but looking at the chart, even though he’s not gotten to where he needs to be yet as a player, you can see a lot of useful things there. To me his chart says, ‘I’m going to be a really good NBA player’. Decent top of the key and corner threes, an avenue of good shooting from the key, through the paint and to the basket, good finishing at the basket for someone his size. A lot to help a team and build on.

    Shabazz: This is a funny chart. He knows his places. I can’t believe he’s not better from the side of the basket–he’s doing that little jump hook there all the time and seems to shoot 70% with that shot or something crazy like that. It’s amazing how often we need a bucket and he goes down there and hits a tough little jump hook from his spot. Hard to believe this isn’t better comparatively than is shown on the chart… He’s really come around with his three from different spots, but will it last?

    Rubio: This is a confetti of color! A story of this season for Rubio is his solid mid range shooting that is starting to show. He has certain spots that he does a pull up jumper from that he’s getting quite good at, and being a smart player knows to take those shots from those spots when open. He won’t continue to shoot so poorly from three. Lately, we’ve seen his threes finally start to come on, particularly from the slots. Hopefully this will also bleed into corner threes, too. Rubio is not good at finishing at the basket. He’s oddly crafty at it in weird moments, but overall lacks the athleticism and instincts to be a good finisher. That’s not to defend him in this respect–he’s been awful. But I see seeds of hope. With a little evolution of this craftiness, a little focus on it maybe with a coach, he will be able to improve enough to be a threat at the basket. He’s good at finding driving lanes and he will draw many more fouls when he does that if he improves his serious threat to score on these drives just a little. Now he gets hacked, but his attempt is so ugly or half hearted (half looking for a lay-up half looking to pass) that the refs refuse him calls. This can change.

    Dieng: He’s got his spots. His standout is hitting mid range shots that defenders don’t cover well, preferring to cover other more dangerous threats. Dieng has a surprisingly good color near the basket. I’m not trying to cut him, but I guess for a big (and compared to Towns) he doesn’t seem that impressive down there. But compared to anyone taking any kind of shot near the hoop, sure, he’s alright. His color is markedly cooler and less filled out than Towns in that area across the board, but he gets tough put backs there and can surprise with tough post moves. Still, his main damage comes from the mid range. Wish he’d bring the glass back.

    I guess my conclusion would be that for a young team a lot of these guys know what they do well and take shots from their spots. Several are improving or trying to improve in different ways. Situationally, they take a lot of bad shots and that needs to get cleaned up… but they’re young. I don’t think where they take shots from (other than cleaning up stupid mistakes and panic) is the problem and I see progress on this already OK front. The problem is taking good shots insofar as how they are covered, not settling for comfortable but contested shots. This boils down to system and execution of offensive sets, as well as bball IQ. Running proper offense is how you get decent looks from spots you want to and feel comfortable shooting from. Those same shots are much less good if they are tightly covered even if you can technically take them. It’s all about the action we are running, and finding a way to keep opposing defense on it’s heels. This is something we’ve not been good at this season. Some of this is a system I don’t really like (yet) some of it is being out maneuvered by more creative and flexible coaches, some of it is youth, some is effort.

  3. Nicholas John Giancola says:

    Ricky’s been shooting well lately—–basically being left undefended. Last night after a great first quarter——Douglas really did a job on him. Let’s see if his success continues with people actually guarding him?

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