Callorhinchus milii, a.k.a. the elephant shark, a.k.a the Australian ghostshark, is the slowest-evolving animal known to science. In 2013, its DNA was examined by a team of researchers in Singapore, who found that the elephant shark’s genome had changed the least amount from its prehistoric ancestor than any other vertebrae on record. From the New Scientist:
Such limited change means the elephant shark’s genome is the closest yet to that of the first jawed vertebrate, which lived more than 450 million years ago and gave rise to many modern animals including humans. It makes the elephant shark an important reference point for unlocking how this long-lost ancestor evolved. As well as jaws, the earliest fish pioneered bony skeletons and a sophisticated immune system.
Oddly enough, elephant sharks aren’t really sharks at all; they belong to a subclass commonly referred to as “ratfish.” Males are typically 1.5 feet long, females 2.5 feet, and they spend most of their time in estuaries and bays, close to shore, foraging for smaller fish to eat along the ocean bottom. As a result of living primarily in the shallows, they’re a popular catch for both recreational and commercial fisherman throughout New Zealand and Tasmania. If one manages to avoid the hooks and nets, the average lifespan of an elephant shark is approximately 15 years.
Here is what an elephant shark looks like. No, I am not kidding.
Speaking of slow-evolving, ugly things, let’s talk about the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offense, shall we?
Okay, okay, that may be a bit harsh. The Wolves’ offense isn’t exactly a pleasure to watch this season, as they work to develop chemistry and rely on ball-fakes, drives to nowhere, late shot-clock attempts and free throws, but come on. They aren’t nearly as unsightly as whatever Darwinian punchline is hovering just above the previous paragraph.
Despite consecutive disappointing losses, Minnesota is 10-7, a 48-win pace, which would make them a near-lock for the postseason and would be the franchise’s best victory total since 2003-04. The Wolves have the 7th-best Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions) in the league. They’re attempting nearly 33% more three-pointers per game now than they did under Flip Saunders in 2014-15. They’ve got Jimmy Buckets, KAT, Wiggs, and the league leader in effective field goal percentage and three-point percentage, Nemanja Bjelica!
So everything must be fine, right? I mean, just take a look at this chart:
|Coach||3PA’s/gm||% of points from midrange shots|
See? Reliance on midrange looks is down, threes are up, and the “modern” offense so many clamored for under Flip Saunders and Sam Mitchell is here. Open and shut case, right? Well… not exactly. Take a look what happens when I add two additional columns of important context to that same table:
|Coach||3PA’s/gm||Rank||% of points from midrange shots||Rank|
If current trends hold, 2017-18 will be the first season in league history in which more than a third of all field goal attempts come from outside the arc. Everyone knows about the offensive revolution in the NBA, sometimes referred to as Moreyball (the desire to hunt for threes and free throws, eschewing long- or short-midrange attempts) but the rapid changes in shot selection are still startling when viewed in a historical context. Take, for instance, this simple chart, which illustrates the percentage of all shots that were three-point shots since the 2011 lockout:
What you see, there, is a steady, certain climb toward more and more three-point shots. This single metric, more than any other, is used as shorthand to describe what constitutes a “modern” offense. The more threes, the better, led by the Houstons and Golden States and Clevelands of the world.
But despite adding more three-pointers to their arsenal than two and three seasons ago, the Wolves are still trailing along at the back of the pack. In other words, their offense is becoming more “modern,” but it’s evolving very slowly. Take a look at how their three-point shot attempts compare to the league average over the past four seasons:
But that’s not all: courtesy of Nate in St. Paul on Twitter, the in-depth numbers from Cleaning the Glass are even more illuminating:
Here is how they stack up in terms of frequency and league rank (from Cleaning the Glass). Adelman was middle of the pack in terms of league frequency. Thibs is at the bottom pic.twitter.com/gLQWL3w9Ux
— Nate in St. Paul 🍿 (@acceptedmystery) November 21, 2017
Attempts at the rim are way down, midrange attempts are way up, and three-point frequency is near the bottom of the league. The Wolves also rely heavily on free throws, just as they did under the previous brain trust (as a matter of fact, they’ve ranked in the top-6 in free throws per 100 possessions every year since Adelman’s first with the team, 2010-11).
Also slow-evolving are a high percentage of their possessions; only three teams get “very late” into the shot clock more frequently than the Wolves. They happen to have the 6th-best effective field goal percentage converting in those situations, but it’ still less than ideal. Also less than ideal is the fact that the team’s isolation (ISO) possessions are up from 6.6% of their plays a year ago (22nd-most) to 9.4% of their plays this season (5th-most). Again, they rank among the better teams at converting on ISO’s because they do have some fine one-on-one scorers (Butler, Wiggins, KAT, Teague), but again, these are not the shots Minnesota ought to seek. All those added ISO possessions have to be cut from somewhere; post-ups, which have a much higher points-per-possession baseline than ISO plays do, are down from 10.1% of plays (last season, which ranked 2nd overall) to 7.4% (this season, which is league-average). The Wolves got out in transition at a league-average rate last season (13.6% of their possessions), and this season they’re near the bottom (11.5%, 25th in the NBA).
That was a lot of information in word form, so here are some pretty shot charts to glance at, and I’ll talk to you on the other side of the graphics:
There are a few ways to interpret what’s been presented here. Granted, much of it has been negative. The Wolves still don’t shoot enough threes, are isolating too often, chuck it up from midrange more than they should, and need to do a better job of getting to the rim. Minnesota is the worst 4th quarter team in the NBA by a wide, wide margin; that’s owed partially to their defense, but their offense also slips badly when it’s needed most. You can’t always rely on an ISO play or a whistle bailing you out.
But as I said earlier, the Wolves are still 7th in the league in Offensive Rating. Does the coach even see the offense as a problem? One would hope so, because there are primordial traits the Wolves must morph out of, but Thibs’ evolutionary attempts have not kept up with his environment at large. Things look awfully similar to how they looked under the previous dinosaurs, only now, the team is getting by on sheer talent. While the defense is a major problem, and probably more worrisome to the “defensive guru,” it’s imperative to see offensive improvement the rest of this season as well.
Otherwise, I’m worried we’ll be looking at this same ugly fish for another half-billion years.