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.*
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.