One Team, One Stat: Minnesota Timberwolves efficient without many efficient shots
* Tonight on TNT: Wolves vs. Rockets (9:30 ET)
The Minnesota Timberwolves are halfway toward ending a 13-year playoff drought (the second longest in NBA history). The usual suspects hold the top three spots in the Western Conference, and the Wolves are just a game behind the San Antonio Spurs for third.
The Jimmy Butler trade, made on Draft day last June, has paid off. Butler has been a Kia MVP candidate, lifting his team on both ends of the floor. The Wolves have been the league’s most improved team in regard to winning percentage and its second most improved team in regard to pace-adjusted point differential (5.1 points per 100 possessions better than they were last season). They rank in the top seven in regard to improvement in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
They’ve been picking up quality wins, too. Though the Wolves are 6-11 against the Eastern Conference after losing in Orlando on Tuesday, they’re 23-6 against the West, including 13-3 against the other eight West teams with winning records.
The Wolves rank 19th defensively overall, but rank seventh over their last 20 games and 12th against the league’s top-10 offenses. They’ll face another one on Thursday, when they visit Houston at 9:30 p.m. ET, the first of four meetings between the two teams and the second game of TNT’s double-header.
Pace: 97.8 (23rd)
OffRtg: 110.5 (3rd)
DefRtg: 106.4 (19th)
NetRtg: +4.1 (5th)
The Timberwolves have taken just 56 percent of their shots from the restricted area or 3-point range.
That’s the second lowest rate in the league, higher than only that of the Sacramento Kings.
The percentage of the league’s shots that come from 3-point range continues to rise. It has gone from 22 percent in 2010-11 to almost 34 percent this season.
The Wolves have ridden the wave somewhat. In coach Tom Thibodeau’s first season, the percentage of their shots that came from 3-point range increased to 25 percent from 20 percent in 2015-16. But it hasn’t budged much this season, the fourth straight season in which the Wolves have ranked 29th or 30th in 3-point attempt percentage.
Shots in the restricted area (1.26 points per attempt) are worth more than threes (1.09). League-wide, the percentage of shots that have come from the restricted area has stayed pretty steady (at around 32 percent) over the last 10 years. But the Wolves’ percentage has dropped from 33 percent last season (the 10th highest rate in the league) to 29 percent this season (25th highest).
Restricted area shots and 3-pointers are what most offenses are looking for and what most defenses are trying to prevent. And the Wolves are one of four teams that ranks in the bottom 10 both in the percentage of their shots that come from the restricted area and the percentage of their shots that come from beyond the arc.
The other three teams — Sacramento, San Antonio and Washington — rank no better than 11th in offensive efficiency. But the Wolves rank third, having scored more than four points per 100 possessions more than the Wizards.
So how do they have such an efficient offense without taking a lot of efficient shots?
First of all, they make the shots that they take. The Wolves rank fifth in field goal percentage, including third in field goal percentage in the restricted area and fourth in field goal percentage on other paint shots. Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson are two of the 10 players who have shot 70 percent or better on at least 200 shots in the restricted area, while Jimmy Butler leads the league in field goal percentage (53 percent) on other paint shots (minimum 100 attempts.).
The Wolves’ lack of threes drops them from fifth in field goal percentage to 10th in effective field goal percentage, but that’s still top 10. They’re sort of the anti-Rockets (though not to the degree that the Knicks are). Because of all the 3-pointers they shoot, the Rockets rank 13th in field goal percentage and second in effective field goal percentage.
Shooting is most important, but the Wolves’ offense also ranks in the top 10 in free throw rate (sixth), turnover percentage (third), and offensive rebounding percentage (fifth). In fact, they’re the only team that ranks in the top 10 in each of the other three “four factors” of efficiency.
Interestingly, the Wolves don’t have any individual who ranks in the top 48 in offensive rebounding percentage. But their three rotation bigs – Gorgui Dieng, Gibson and Towns — all rank between 49th and 58th, while Butler ranks in the top 10 among guards.
Butler is also one of six players who has shot at least 85 percent on six or more free throw attempts per game. Tyus Jones, meanwhile, ranks sixth in assist-turnover ratio.
The Wolves have committed 155 fewer turnovers (3.4 per game) than their opponents. They’ve outscored their opponents by 4.5 points per game at the free throw line, and an additional 2.2 points per game on second chances.
Though they haven’t taken the best shots, they’ve made up for it in the margins.
- NBA.com/stats Video: Watch the Wolves register 32 second chance points (most in the NBA this season) against Phoenix on Nov. 26
TWO MORE TIMBERWOLVES NOTES
1. The Wolves’ starting lineup has played 289 more minutes than any other lineup in the league.
Health has been a factor. Jeff Teague has missed 11 games and Butler has missed two. But the other three starters have played all 46 games. Compare that to the LA Clippers’ opening-night starting five, who have already missed 112 total games to injury.
But Thibodeau also really likes his starting lineup. Not only have the Wolves’ starters played in more games together (33) than any other lineup in the league, they’ve also averaged 24.4 minutes together per game, 5.2 more than any other lineup.
The lineup has been good. It has outscored its opponents by 8.7 points per 100 possessions in its 807 minutes, the 13th best mark among 27 lineups that have played at least 200 minutes together.
Of course, at the top of that list is the same group, except with Jones at point guard instead of Teague. That lineup has outscored its opponents by 28 points per 100 possessions in its 249 minutes, and it wasn’t exactly picking on bad competition while Teague was out. Of the 11 games he missed, eight were against teams that are currently over .500 and in playoff position.
Interestingly, though the starters are generally playing against the opponents’ starters (and more talented players), it’s been on defense where the Wolves have fallen off more when they’ve gone to their bench. The two starting units (with either Teague or Jones at point guard) have allowed just 100 points per 100 possessions in their 1,055 minutes. That mark would rank second in the league defensively. All other Minnesota lineups have allowed 112 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank last.
Andrew Wiggins and Towns lead the league in total minutes, but Butler leads the team with 36.8 minutes per game, and it’s easy to understand why. He ranks fourth in the league in raw plus-minus and the Wolves have been 16.9 points per 100 possessions better with Butler on the floor (plus-8.8) than they’ve been with him off the floor (minus-8.1). That is the league’s second biggest on-off NetRtg differential among 285 players who have played at least 500 minutes this season.
At the very bottom of that list is Jamal Crawford, with the Wolves having been 16.2 points per 100 possessions better with Crawford off the floor than with him on the floor. The Wolves have been outscored by 8.2 points per 100 possessions in 324 minutes with both Butler and Crawford on the floor (a combo they go to for about 7 1/2 minutes per game), but are a plus-12.9 per 100 with Butler on the floor and Crawford on the bench.
Crawford is still one of the nine guys that Thibodeau trusts with any minutes at all. When Nemanja Bjelica was ejected in the second quarter in Orlando on Tuesday, the Wolves just played one fewer guy in the second half, going back to the eight-man rotation that they had for much of Bjelica’s 15-game absence earlier in the season.
Shabazz Muhammad was in the rotation for the first month of the season, but has managed to register a minus-136 in just 264 minutes. The Wolves have allowed 123 points per 100 possessions with Muhammad on the floor, the worst mark among 331 players who have averaged at least 10 minutes per game in 20 or more games … by a really wide margin.
2. The Wolves have been the league’s worst fourth-quarter team..
The Wolves have outscored their opponents by at least 6.8 points per 100 possessions in each of the other three quarters. But in the fourth, they’re a minus-8.2. Their game in Orlando on Tuesday was the eighth time they’ve lost a game that they led after the third quarter. They’re still 26-8 in those situations, but the only other team with as many such losses is Dallas (12-8).
The Wolves have had problems on both ends of the floor in the fourth quarter. Their effective field goal percentage has been lowest and their turnover percentage has been highest in the fourth. But they rank last in fourth-quarter defense, having allowed 114 points per 100 possessions in the final 12 minutes of regulation.
One issue may be that, with Thibodeau looking for shot creation on offense, Crawford ranks third on the team in fourth-quarter minutes. But the Wolves have still allowed 110 points per 100 possessions in the 207 fourth-quarter minutes that Butler has been on the floor without Crawford.
Their opponent turnover percentage is lowest in the fourth quarter. Their opponent free throw rate is also highest in the fourth, but still ranks fourth in the league.
What has really plagued the Wolves in the fourth quarter is how effectively their opponents have shot, both at the basket and from 3-point range. In the fourth quarter, the Wolves rank last in opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (72 percent) and 26th in opponent 3-point percentage (37 percent). In those two areas, their opponents have registered a little less than 1.3 points per attempt (like shooting 63 percent).
Is fatigue a factor? One way to measure defensive activity is by steals and blocks. And the Wolves’ four non-point-guard starters total just 0.19 steals plus blocks per minute played in the fourth quarter, down from 0.26 in the first, 0.23 in the second, and 0.23 in the third (with Wiggins and Butler seeing the biggest drop-offs). League-wide, those numbers are lowest in the fourth quarter, but don’t see as dramatic a drop-off.
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