One Team, One Stat: Minnesota Timberwolves' defense struggles in transition

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

NBA.com’s John Schuhmann gets you ready for the 2018-19 season with a key stat for each team in the league and shows you why it matters. Today, we look at the Minnesota Timberwolves, who couldn’t slow down the opposition.


According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Wolves allowed their opponents to take 20 percent of their shots in the first six seconds of the shot clock.


That was the league’s highest rate.

For every team in the league, effective field goal percentage is highest in the first six seconds of the shot clock. Last season, league-wide effective field goal percentage was 59 percent in the first six seconds of the shot clock, 52 percent with 6-18 seconds on the clock, and just 43 percent in the last six seconds of the clock, according to Second Spectrum.

Highest percentage of opponent shots in first 6 seconds of shot clock

So good defense starts with good transition defense. And as was the case with the Wolves, bad defense starts with bad transition defense. The 20.1 points per game the Wolves allowed in transition were second most in the league, according to Synergy tracking, and the 110.1 points per 100 possessions they allowed overall had them in the bottom six defensively for the fourth straight season.

The Wolves were better than average in regard to forcing turnovers (they ranked fourth at 15.5 opponent turnovers per 100 possessions) and keeping their opponents off the line (they ranked 11th in opponent free throw rate). But they ranked 25th in defensive rebounding percentage and, most importantly, ranked 27th in opponent effective field goal percentage.

Their defense wasn’t good inside or out, but was worst at protecting the rim. The Wolves were one of just three teams – Cleveland and Orlando were the others – that ranked in the bottom 10 in both opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (66.8 percent – 29th) and the percentage of their opponents shots that came from the restricted area (33 percent – 23rd).

Better transition defense, of course, would lead to fewer layups and dunks for the Wolves’ opponents. But you have to wonder if the Wolves can get better defensively if they’re forced to trade Jimmy Butler.

The Wolves allowed 12.9 fast break points per 48 minutes. That number was lowest (11.0 per 48) with Tyus Jones on the floor. But Butler’s presence seemed to have a positive impact as well, with Minnesota opponents averaging 12.0 fast break points per 48 minutes with Butler on the floor and 13.9 per 48 with him off the floor.

Overall, the Wolves allowed 6.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with Butler on the floor (105.6) than they did with him off the floor (112.4). They saw a similar boost on offense (where they scored 6.4 more points per 100 possessions) with him on the floor.

Those numbers require some context. The Wolves’ bench was bad, with huge drop-offs when Butler was replaced by Jamal Crawford and when Karl-Anthony Towns was replaced by Gorgui Dieng. Still, if the Wolves lose Butler, they’re losing their best two-way player.

Either way, if they’re going to get better defensively, improvement has to start in transition.

Timberwolves last five seasons

Note: Stats marked with an * below are based on possession estimates. All other stats are based on true possession counts.


History: Season by season results | Advanced stats | Franchise leaders

2017-18: Team stats | Advanced splits | Player stats | Player shooting | Lineups


  1. Ended a 13-year playoff drought, but remain tied with Milwaukee for the fewest playoff series wins (two) over the 29 years since the Wolves entered the league in 1989 (not counting Charlotte, which was added in 2004).
  2. Were the league’s second most improved team in regard to wins (+16) and its sixth most improved team in regard to point differential per 100 possessions (+3.1).
  3. Among Western Conference teams, had the biggest differential between their winning percentage within the West (34-18, 0.654) and their winning percentage against the East (13-17, 0.433).
  4. Were 22-20 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, seeing the second biggest improvement in “clutch” winning percentage from 2016-17 (when they were 15-30).

Timberwolves shooting stats


  1. Have improved offensively in each of the last three seasons, going from 26th in the league in 2014-15 to fourth last season.
  2. Ranked 27th in ball movement (319 passes per 24 minutes of possession) and 30th in player movement (9.8 miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession), per Second Spectrum tracking.
  3. Took just 26 percent of their shots from 3-point range, the lowest rate in the league (for the third time in the last four seasons). Had the league’s smallest differential between effective field goal percentage (52.3 percent – 13th in the league) and field goal percentage (47.6 percent – 4th).
  4. Saw the league’s biggest drop in turnover percentage, committing just 12.8 turnovers per 100 possessions (second fewest in the league), down from 14.6 (18th) in 2016-17.
  5. Saw the league’s second biggest drop-off in the percentage of their 3-point attempts that were off the catch, from 79 percent (fourth in the league) in 2016-17 to 70 percent (22nd) last season.
  6. Have ranked in the top 10 in free throw rate (FTA/FGA) in each of the last seven seasons.
  7. The 41.3 percent they shot from 3-point range in the first round was the best any team shot in any series in the postseason. They still saw the league’s second biggest drop in offensive efficiency from the regular season (110.8 points scored per 100 possessions – fourth in the league) to the playoffs (105.1 – 11th in the first round), and were still outscored by Houston by 18.0 points per game from 3-point range.

Timberwolves four factors


  1. Have ranked in the bottom five in opponent effective field goal percentage in nine of the last 11 seasons and are the only team that has ranked in the bottom five in each of the last five seasons.
  2. One of six teams that ranked in the bottom 10 in both opponent field goal percentage in the paint (57.8 percent – 29th) and opponent effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint (50.5 percent – 24th).
  3. Ranked eighth defensively in the first quarter of games (103.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) and *30th defensively thereafter.
  4. Ranked 28th in clutch defense, allowing opponents to score 115.6 points per 100 possessions with the score within five points in the last five minutes.


  1. Got only 228 of their regular-season minutes, the fewest in the league, from rookies or second-year players. The only rookie minutes came from Justin Patton, who only played the final 3:44 of a blowout loss to Utah on April 1.
  2. Got only 24 percent of their total scoring, the lowest rate in the league, from off the bench. Had the second biggest discrepancy between aggregate starters NetRtg (plus-4.6 points per 100 possessions – seventh in the league) and aggregate bench NetRtg (minus-3.4 – 20th).
  3. Though Butler missed six weeks after the All-Star break, the starting lineup played more minutes (1,131) than any other lineup in the league. Andrew Wiggins, Towns and Taj Gibson each played in all 82 games, each ranked in the top 15 in total minutes played, and were the league’s only three-man combination to play 2,000 minutes together.
  4. Lineup with Jones in place of Jeff Teague outscored opponents by 24.3 points per 100 possessions, the best mark among 48 lineups that played at least 200 minutes together. It was also the only one of those 48 lineups that turned the ball over on less than 10 percent of its possessions.
  5. Were 14.0 points per 100 possessions better with Towns on the floor (plus-6.1) than they were with him off the floor (minus-7.9). That was the fifth biggest on-off NetRtg differential among 266 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team last season. Butler had the sixth biggest differential (13.3), while Gorgui Dieng (-13.9) and Jamal Crawford (-11.9) had the third and fifth worst differentials, respectively.


  1. Jimmy Butler was one of two players who averaged at least 20 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals per game.
  2. Butler shot 54 percent on non-restricted-area paint shots, the best mark among players who attempted at least 100.
  3. Butler ranked fourth in steals (2.0) and fifth in deflections (3.5) per game.
  4. Gorgui Dieng shot 50 percent from mid-range (between the paint and the 3-point line), the fifth best mark among players who attempted at least 100 mid-range shots. He took 2.7 times as many mid-range shots as 3-pointers, the fourth highest rate among 207 players who took at least 200 total shots from outside the paint.
  5. Dieng averaged just 16.9 minutes per game last season, down from 32.4 in 2016-17. That was the biggest drop among 260 players who played in at least 40 games each season.
  6. Taj Gibson shot 60 percent on post-ups, the best mark among 40 players with at least 100 post-up field goal attempts.
  7. Tyus Jones had an assist-turnover ratio of 3.93, the third best mark among 326 players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game in 40 or more games.
  8. Derrick Rose averaged 14.2 points per game in the playoffs, up from 8.4 in the regular season. That was the fourth biggest jump among players who played in at least four playoff games.
  9. Jeff Teague saw a drop in free throw rate (FTA/FGA) from 46 attempts per 100 shots from the field in 2016-17 to 30 per 100 last season. That was the second biggest drop among 126 players with at least 500 field goal attempts both seasons.
  10. Anthony Tolliver had an effective field goal percentage of 64.6 percent on shots from outside the paint, the best mark among 207 players who attempted at least 200. He attempted 30 times more 3-pointers (365) as mid-range shots (12), the second highest rate among that same group of 207 players with at least 200 total field goal attempts from outside the paint.
  11. 93 percent (203/219) of Tolliver’s field goals were assisted. That was the second highest rate (behind that of Kyle Korver) among 214 players with at least 200 field goals.
  12. Karl-Anthony Towns led the league with 68 double-doubles and was one of five players to averaged at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and one block per game, and was the best shooter among the group.
  13. Towns was one of two players (Kevin Durant was the other) to shoot 70 percent or better on at least 150 attempts in the restricted area and 45 percent or better on at least 150 mid-range shots. He also ranked 14th in 3-point percentage, and the Wolves are one of four teams with two of last season’s top 15 (Tolliver ranked seventh) in 3-point percentage on their roster.
  14. Towns had an effective field goal percentage of 61.5 percent in the last four seconds of the shot clock, the best mark among players who have taken at least 50 shots in the last four seconds.
  15. Andrew Wiggins had an effective field goal percentage of 33.6 percent on pull-up jumpers, the worst mark among players who attempted at least five per game. He had an effective field goal percentage of 48.5 percent on wide-open jumpers, the third worst mark among 55 players who attempted at least 200.
  16. Wiggins has seen a drop in turnover ratio every season he’s been in the league, but his assist ratio (9.2 per 100 possessions used) still ranked just 98th among 112 players with a usage rate of 20 percent or higher.

NBA TV’s Timberwolves preview premieres at 7:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Oct. 10.

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John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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