2017-18 Season

Elephant Shark: Minnesota’s Slow Offensive Evolution

Disclaimer: all statistics referenced in this piece were current as of 11/21. didn’t know where else to fit this disclaimer, so it’s going here, under this humorous photo of Thibs.

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
2014-15 Saunders 14.9 22.1%
2015-16 Mitchell 16.4 19.8%
2016-17 Thibodeau 21.0 17.6%
2017-18 Thibodeau 23.0 14.6%

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
2014-15 Saunders 14.9 30th 22.1% 4th
2015-16 Mitchell 16.4 29th 19.8% 4th
2016-17 Thibodeau 21.0 30th 17.6% 7th
2017-18 Thibodeau 23.0 29th 14.6% 8th

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:

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.

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2 thoughts on “Elephant Shark: Minnesota’s Slow Offensive Evolution

  1. Maybe I’m so old school that I’m missing something, but the object of the game is shooting percentage more than what shots are taken. Making high percentage shots, dunks, FT, 3 pt shots from the corner and the top of the key seems far more important than taking three pointers at a higher rate. One of the things that worries me, is that our team takes more contested shots than other teams. That is a product of an offense that has sets that dribble too much and pass too little. Before the three point play existed, NBA teams would regularly get 100 points per game. However, those teams had shooters that just didn’t miss, if they were open. Kareem’s sky hook would be just as deadly today as it was in the 70’s, and just as difficult to defend. The end of games is even more difficult for our team to get wide open shots, inside the arc or outside it. It is a problem that will get worse if changes to our offense aren’t made.

    Houston, Golden State and Cleveland have multiple players that can score from anywhere. Because of that, they shoot where they get the best bang for the buck, at the rim (looking for a foul) or from three. When they play the shot blocking teams like the Jazz, Clippers and Heat, they probably shoot even more threes. Because they shoot so many long shots, Golden State sometimes doesn’t shoot as well from two. Pushing Steph or Klay off the three point line is the only way to beat those guys. Let them score two at a time, instead of three at a time.

    When you look at the shooting percentages of our starters, you don’t have anyone that is top five for their position. Having poor shooters shoot longer shots isn’t really a smart move. Crawford and Belly can make a few threes per game, the rest of this team not so much. Most of them are a 1-4 or worse shooter beyond the arc, and that isn’t going to offset the other team. What this offense needs to do, is move without the ball and pass to cutters, where Wiggins and Butler are much better at scoring at a higher rate. Giving Belly and Crawford more minutes where they can stretch the offense and create passing lanes inside, seems like a way to get our shooting percentage in the 50% range or higher and then teams will have to shoot a lot more threes or get to the FT line to offset that. Especially, if we continue to get to the FT line, and God Forbid, actually make 80% or more each night.

  2. Ha! This is one of my favorite articles on AWAW of all time.

    As weird as an Elephant Shark looks, it’s probably laughing at the Thibs picture…

    So if our offense is an elephant shark, our D is a… Coelacanth?

    In a way this is a daring piece, because we are pretty good on offense, while still needing work on D. So why complain? Answer: because our offense, from a strategy viewpoint, kinda sucks. I think I’ve said this exact quote before: It’s a testament to our talent that our offense is producing this well. Because the system itself is outmoded and just plain bad.

    Quick off the top of my head list: Inconsistent ball movement, passing without purpose, too much dribbling, dribbling without purpose, not moving without the ball well, way too much iso, too many long twos, too many contested shots, too slow a pace, too little control of pace, too few easy transition points, inability to push pace at chosen times to put teams on their heals, not enough three pointers, unsophisticated pick n roll, too many contested shots, too many shots late in the clock, working with too short a clock (pace/urgency), taking bad shots at important times, lack of good whiteboard plays in crunch time.

    All this adds up to two things for me. It makes us vulnerable to go cold or icy on offense at bad times. These things are offset by our talent level and distribution in the starting lineup and an improved bench. But talent can’t always cover for these strategic sins, particularly when the going gets tough. In other words, we aren’t going to look so hot in a race to the playoffs and in the playoffs as in lazy early season games. Second, I have been having problems with attention span with this team. When I A Clockwork Orange myself and force myself to pay very close attention, I see a dull product. Thibs seems to suck all the fun out of everything. It can seem like a mysterious toxic force, but in practical terms, these issues on O (despite our good ranking) and our yucky D can make for a pretty not fun to cheer for team. I find myself appreciating teams we are playing for the little things they do I like a lot more than I used to.

    As to the main concern addressed in this article, efficiency and 3 point shots, I totally agree. In many ways I’m old school like Tom. I like post play. I like variety. I don’t like all these jack up teams that shoot a ton of threes. I mean GS kinda started the trend at the level we see, teams wanting to be them. But in this GS clone context (Houston, I’m looking at you!) GS is actually a super fun team to watch for a lot of reasons. Still not really my style, though. But I have to admit, I get it. It’s like a moneyball algorithm thing. Threes are worth a whole extra point and with the emphasis on shooting talent in the players these days it’s simply math that it is more efficient to jack up a lot of threes than to do most things on offense. The 3 was added to unclog the game, and open it up. At the time, this was a very tough shot that had few to no specialists and so there was no danger of it being overused and when you got that extra point, you earned it. Now everyone and their dog shoots them, and that extra point isn’t worth and extra point in degree of difficulty, mathematically so to speak. In other words, when they made the three point shot, the rareness and difficulty (and chance of hitting it) offset the whole extra point, but now it does not, so the risk of taking a lot is almost always worth it from an efficiency standpoint. (Think about it like this: A team takes and makes two threes in a row against a team that only makes 2’s. After making two shots each, one team is a whole possession ahead. There’s like 50 made baskets each in a game…) Teams, over a large sample size, who don’t take a certain amount of threes will struggle to keep up with teams that do because so many of their shots are worth a whole extra point without being all that much more difficult. I don’t like it, but it’s the world we live in. Oddly, Thibs seems to be willing to do anything to hack out wins, including taking all the fun and joy out of the game, except take enough threes to keep pace with his surroundings.

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