The Timberwolves are Challenging Basketball Analytics with Old-School Play
NBA teams are on pace to make more three-pointers this season yet again. Three-point records are shattering left and right as players are continuing to master their craft. Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets and a strong proponent of advanced statistics, set the pace by emphasizing shots that produce the most expected points, most specifically three-pointers and shots in the restricted area. The Splash Bros in Golden State helped revolutionize the game as well, leading to a small-ball mentality and three-point barrage around the association.
While this analytical-driven trend is as prevalent as ever, a small town squad in the frigid city of Minneapolis is taking a different route to success- whether they mean to or not. The Minnesota Timberwolves are 26-16 and are really starting to click as of late, winning seven of their last 10 games. They haven’t made the playoffs in 14 years but find themselves in a great position to do so as the current fourth seed in the West. So how are they here?
Although head coach Tom Thibodeau has voiced his intent to follow the current blueprint that basketball analytics have laid out, he still believes that any open shot is a good shot. TwinCities.com’s Jason Frederick noted how Coach Thibs prefers for his players to take analytic-friendly looks at the hoop:
“He does say those are the shots we want: layups, free-throws and threes,” Andrew Wiggins confirmed, “because those are the most efficient shots.”
Yet, this isn’t happening, and it hasn’t really mattered. Their players are taking any open looks they get rather than putting extra focus on taking only the best analytical shots.
In some cases, including Minnesota’s, this is actually a good thing. Some teams are obsessed with the new era of NBA so much that their players force up shots that have the greatest projected points when in reality, the fact that they’re forcing up these shots basically defeats the purpose anyway. In a league that is getting smarter and smarter, freeform basketball is often most the beneficial for an offense.
If you don’t have a specific plan in place or the proper weapons to maximize the “analytical” shots, then this is the right mentality to have. Minnesota’s veteran bench scorer Jamal Crawford emphasizes this perspective. While he understands the goal of analytics, he still sees substantial value in the old-school playstyle:
“You obviously have a plan and you want to implement those things,” Crawford said, “but sometimes the game, it’s an imperfect science, and you just have to (take what’s given). I think there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Crawford said. “And for me, the best player ever was Michael Jordan, and he was more of a mid-range guy, so I think you can always get back to that.”
“If your spacing is right, it kind of puts you in a position to get to those spots on the floor or be able to get into the paint or get to the free-throw line or be able to shoot an open three,” Butler said. “But spacing isn’t always the best at times, so it always looks all jumbled up. … If we get our spacing right, it’ll come a lot easier.”
“Usually when the ball is moving,” Karl-Anthony Towns said, “it always seems to be a great shot happening.”
Playing a natural game and simply taking what the defense gives them has been working for the TWolves. They are taking the fourth-most mid-rangers in the league (21.4 attempts per game). Compare that to Morey’s Rockets who take just 5.9 mid-range shot attempts per game, and you can really see the difference in approach.
Minnesota’s 24.9% mid-range frequency is the third highest in the league:
The corner three is known as the most effective shot in the game, but as you can see above, the Timberwolves hardly ever utilize it. Overall, their 26.6% three-point frequency is the third lowest among all 30 teams, above just the Kings and Knicks. To make matters worse, their 35.1% three-point percentage is fifth worst in the association.
It’s shocking that a team who takes such few threes at such a poor rate is 26-16 and putting up the seventh most points per game, but it’s due to their ball-movement and a freeform offense that doesn’t stress settling for one type of shot or another.
Aside from the offense, their defense has finally come together. The Timberwolves have been a terrible defensive team in the past, lacking discipline, grit, and overall awareness. Hiring Thibodeau, a great defensive-minded coach, and trading for the three-time Second Team All-Defender (try sayin’ that three times fast) Jimmy Butler were major steps in the right direction for the franchise. In the beginning of the season, though, they were still struggling on that end of the floor.
In their first 20 games of 2017-18, Thib’s squad had just the 23rd best defense in the NBA (107.5 DRTG). In their 20 games since, they’ve been playing the 11th best defense (105.6 DRTG). It starts with the addition of Butler on the wing. The 6’8″ swingman has been locking up perimeter players and making everyone’s jobs much easier on defense. His mindset and demenor are contagious for such a young ball club, as his teammates are learning the way. Here’s how poorly players have been shooting when they’re guarded by Butler:
Jimmy Butler’s Opponent Shooting 2017-18 Season
|IN THE PAINT (NON-RA)||MID-RANGE||THREE-POINTERS|
To be more specific, Butler is sixth in the league when defending players 15-19 feet from the hoop (of the 84 eligible players who have defended at least 200 such shots).
The old-school style of play of the Timberwolves is challenging the heavy push towards data-driven basketball. Teams focus heavily on specific analytical spots on the court, but if you have to force those shots (or are bad at taking them), then what’s the point? I think Minnesota point guard Jeff Teague says it best:
“I think we just play,” Jeff Teague said. “I think our team, we really don’t pay attention to the analytics, really. We just try to get the best shot possible.”
Just play, TWolves. Just play.
Photo via Flickr
Player quotes via the Twin Cities Pioneer Press