Tom Thibodeau’s Timberwolves have an incomplete roster right now, and that’s okay. It isn’t okay because they can afford to play without backup wings, but because it’s only July 17 and training camp won’t start for another couple of months. Plenty of time remains.
But at some point here, Thibs will need to acquire a few more players. Once the Jamal Crawford signing takes effect, the Wolves will have 11 players under contract for next season. If the season started tomorrow, the depth chart would probably look something like this:
Point Guard: Jeff Teague
Shooting Guard: Andrew Wiggins
Small Forward: Jimmy Butler
Power Forward: Taj Gibson
Center: Karl-Anthony Towns
Gorgui Dieng (first backup big off bench, probably subbing in for Taj in most games)
Tyus Jones (backup point guard)
Jamal Crawford (backup wing)
Nemanja Bjelica (second backup big off bench)
End of Bench
Cole Aldrich (capable backup center, but struggled last season and probably won’t crack this year’s rotation, when healthy)
Justin Patton (raw rookie with a broken foot)
When looking at this roster, a few things quickly jump out. First, they clearly need to add some wing players. They only have three on the entire roster. Second, they should probably add one more point guard. Even if Tyus remains the backup (an interesting, possibly scary proposition worthy of its own post) they need an emergency guard for potential injury replacement. Third, and what this post is about, the roster as presently constructed is low on three-point shooting ability.
Consider what they bring back from last year’s roster. In terms of three-point accuracy, they lose their top two shooters, Zach LaVine and Brandon Rush. After that, the team leader (in the small sample size of 43 attempts) was Gorgui at 37.2 percent. Dieng has been working on his corner three for a long time, he shot it pretty well last season in the rare situations that he found himself that far from the hoop, but nobody considers him to be a consistent threat from downtown. After Dieng comes Towns — another post player — who made 101 treys at 36.7 percent. While KAT’s perimeter shooting took off bigly (Drumpf voice) after the All-Star break (43.4 percent) he is always going to be a post player around the basket first, and a perimeter shooter second. After KAT were Wiggins and Tyus at 35.6 percent a piece, followed then by Bjelica who connected on just 31.6 percent of treys despite a high volume of attempts.
In other words, the returning players include no 40 percent three shooters, and the best of the bunch are big men that probably won’t spend much time standing behind the three-point line.
Of the new additions, there are no prolific three shooters. Teague, throughout his career as a starter, has shot about 2.5 treys per game, connecting on a league average-ish 35.5 percent of them; roughly the same type of shooting that Wiggins provides. Likewise, Butler is a low-to-moderate volume three shooter, attempting about 3 treys per 36 minutes over the past few seasons. His accuracy in those seasons has ranged from poor (31.2 percent in 2015-16) to decent (36.7 percent last season) to “pretty good” (37.8 percent in 2014-15). Gibson has attempted 35 threes in 8 NBA seasons. He doesn’t even qualify for the discussion. Crawford’s shooting style is long established and unique. He’s not a traditional spot-up shooter, but is very skilled at shaking his defender free with crossover dribbles and burying high-arcing jumpers. It’s not the most efficient style of play, but he does it better than most. Last year, he hit 36.0 percent of threes on 322 attempts. According to the stat splits on nba.com, he hit 29 of 53 (54.7 percent) on “Pullup Jump Shot” threes, 4 of 8 on “Running Jump Shot” threes, and 5 of 13 (38.5 percent) on “Running Pull-Up Jump Shot” threes. On ordinary “Jump Shot” threes, Crawford connected on a lower percentage (31.0) on 242 attempts. He seems to shoot better when the shot is more difficult.
A natural response to this roster review is to say that the Wolves “need to add a shooter.” I’ve seen that said many times on Twitter, and it makes sense on some level. There isn’t a single knock-down spot-up shooter on the entire team.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a true statement, however. Or, put differently, it’s not the best way of assessing the situation. The Wolves don’t need a “shooter” as much as they need “shooting.” And the main reason for this bit of semantics is that the starting five players are already on the roster, they don’t have the cap space to target a significant player who could potentially play high minutes with the starters, and at this point, they just need to do what they can to patch together a half-decent bench. If a certain free agent is decent on defense and can dribble, while the available alternative shoots threes well but can’t guard anybody… well, in the interest of having a bench that can tread water when the starters rest, they might be smart to add the defender if they think he is the better overall player. Even if it means no shooting upgrade.
Four of the five starting positions seem to be etched in stone at this point: Jeff Teague was just signed to a huge three-year deal and he will definitely be the point guard. Andrew Wiggins may not be the face of the franchise, but he’s pretty close to it. He’s about to sign for about $100 Million. He’s a starter now and for as long as he’s here. Jimmy Butler is an All-Star. He starts. And KAT is going to be an MVP candidate. So yeah.
In an ideal world, the fifth guy — the four man — would be a three-point shooter who can play defense. These don’t grow on trees, but they do exist – especially as mid-game, “small ball” options. Kevin Durant is the elite example. Upper middle class versions would include Markieff Morris and Serge Ibaka. With Towns becoming one of (if not the) best interior scorers in basketball, the Wolves offense would benefit from having him near the hoop as a post-up option, roller facilitator/scorer, and offensive rebounder/put-back guy. With Towns occupying the painted real estate, simple geometry says that they’d perform better with the other guys spread out around him. And even more basic math says that the offense would improve with more shots going in that are worth three points instead of two.
So yeah, a stretch four would be helpful, but the Wolves are not going to be able to sign one. They don’t have the cap room and most of free agency is already over. If they want to eventually go that route, and pair KAT with a shooting big, they’ll probably have to do it via trading Gorgui or Gibson, possibly including a sweetener (depending on how good the player coming back is). Longer term — 2 or more years down the road — it’s possible that Patton will become a capable stretch big man next to Towns.
After they sign a couple of wings and a point guard out of the bargain-bin scrap heap, the Wolves will have a roster that figures to be very good at some things like drawing fouls, scoring inside, and maybe getting defensive stops. If all of those things happen, the separating factor between .500ish ball and something exciting like 50 wins will probably be just how well or how poorly their starting backcourt shoots the ball.
If they get the high end of Teague and Butler — 40 percent and upper 30s percent, respectively — and Wiggins continues to improve — it’s reasonable to expect a Top 5 offense. It would mean that they make enough shots to space the floor, and from there, they will be devastating at attacking the rim from almost every position.
If instead Teague is 35 percent and Butler has one of his bad years, and if Wiggins plateaus or even takes a step back, their offense won’t be bad — they will have too many weapons with Jimmy & KAT — but it will land far short of elite. And in these days dominated by Golden State, average offense means no chance at excellence.
The whole thing sets up as a fun sort of fan experience, in terms of how any achievements will be earned. So much of NBA (and pro sports) success is viewed in the modern, fantasy sports and analytics driven lens of armchair GM. Championships are won in the offseason, and whatever follows was inevitable. Nowhere in history was that more true than last summer when Kevin Durant signed with Golden State and effectively sealed a championship long before training camp opened. Removing the results so far from the player execution isn’t very fun. I’m sure under a dose of truth serum, any Warriors fan would admit to enjoying their first title run more than their second.
Next year in Minnesota, the Timberwolves best players need to make jump shots. That means Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, and Jimmy Butler, will be called on to prepare and execute that basic bit of basketball skill. No free agent acquisition is going to change that and fans should look forward to seeing whether or not they come through. The team’s first playoff appearance in 14 years hangs in the balance.