March has been more maddening than madness for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Still shaken by the waves of the fall, and a laundry list of injuries, the team lacks an identity. This month has been more about putting pieces in place for what could distinguish them next season. Along the way, a few interesting — but ultimately underwhelming — tenets are percolating. These are The Ides of March.
Wanna win a bar bet? Next time you’re watching a Wolves a game and the second half is about to begin, place a wager that Andrew Wiggins will take the first shot. Give your buddy the rest of the field.
There may not be a more predictable action in the NBA than the first offensive possession of a Wolves game (or half). For years now, the scripted action to start a half has almost always been some sort of pin-down screen for Wiggins, releasing #22 into his comfort zone — the midrange. As it did here against Utah last week, these pin-down actions empower Wiggins to fire. Karl-Anthony Towns is so sure the shot is going up he doesn’t bother rolling to the rim. (Not a good move on his part.)
However, in a pivot away from the predictable, the next eight Wolves possessions of that game were shot attempts that either came in offensive transition — a good thing! — or, when slowed down, Ryan Saunders’ squad got all Denver Nuggets-y, beginning to use KAT as the fulcrum of the offense at “the nail” (middle of the free throw line).
From the nail, where it is far easier to feed your center than the block, the Wolves spiraled their other four pieces around their offensive linchpin. For four brief (and beautiful) minutes, the Wolves were a step ahead of Rudy Gobert and the Utah defense. This KAT dime to Wiggins was both filthy and easy.
The four-minute run decreased the halftime deficit of nine down to one before Quin Snyder was forced to call a timeout to counteract this new look. Snyder is whip-smart, so he downsized his lineup — subbing in Jae Crowder for the burly Derrick Favors and removing the slow-footed Joe Ingles in favor of Royce O’Neale. And with O’Neale now on Wiggins, the dicing to the bucket was taken away. Just like that, the Wolves offense diverted from their Nuggets-y ways and fell back into the Wiggins midrange trap. Here’s the Wolves first offensive possession after Snyder’s timeout. Same action, different result:
It’s not even that the look Wiggins gets is “bad,” in a vacuum — it’s open and there’s nowhere to really kick it. The issue is that Wiggins is bad at that shot. Using Wiggins on cuts towards the basket is a great utility of his skillset, but once he pivots away from the dive and back into his less efficient comfort zone the Wolves offense has problems. On a per possession basis, Wiggins is more than twice as effective on cuts than he has been on catch-and-shoot 2s this season, per Synergy Sports.
The key reason the Nuggets have ascended to an elite offense, and team, is that they find easy ways to run their offense through their best creator, Nikola Jokic. If Denver more frequently ran scripted plays for Jamal Murray or Gary Harris, the offense’s effectiveness would become depressed — not because Murray or Harris are poor players but because the actions would lack the potential for diversity. Give your opponent multiple things to defend and they will be worse at defending those actions, even if the result is a midrange jumper.
You don’t know what you’re going to get when Jokic finds his way to the nail with the ball. For a defense, that’s scary as hell. This could be the case with Towns, too. However, there needs to be more diversity to the actions that surround him. Using KAT is great there, but to have a greater amount of success he needs to be surrounded by players who can take advantage of the inverted defense. Wiggins’ midrange jumpers aren’t that. Neither are catch-and-shoot 3s for Josh Okogie. And kick outs to Tyus Jones that ask the undersized point guard to drive in for a floater aren’t that, either.
Effective offense is about having the personnel to enact a scheme. There’s a reason not every team runs a high pick-and-roll every possession like the Houston Rockets do with James Harden. And there’s a reason not every team can feed their center at the nail like the Nuggets do with Jokic. Towns is that personnel; the players who surround them are not. And it is because of this that the Wolves offense is often stuffy; shades of something great but ultimately underwhelming. To become Jokic in the Denver offense, KAT needs help.
Statistically speaking, Taj Gibson has been the Wolves second-best “shooter” for the past two seasons. With a true shooting percentage of 61.3 percent — measuring the aggregated effectiveness of a player’s two-point, three-point and free throw attempts — Gibson is the only player on the roster other than Towns to true shoot over 60 percent. Ditto with those two for last season. The last Timberwolves player to shoot better than Gibson’s 61.3 percent was Fred Hoiberg in 2004-05, fueled by Hoiberg’s 48.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
But at some point we have to talk about the shots Taj can’t shoot. If it is optimal to use KAT in Jokic-ian ways, the Wolves need surrounding pieces who can stretch the floor. Gibson’s willingness to fire any shot that doesn’t include a pivot is rare.
Watch here as Taj is presented with the option of clean 14-footer or heavily-contested rim rampage. Taj chose the latter and, as he does, made it work.
Gibson really has been a godsend for this team both in his effectiveness and pristine leadership. But it’s these plays that scream 2009 that call into question, for me, Gibson’s long-term fit alongside Towns. If the path to the promised land for this team comes with unleashing KAT offensively, the chess pieces that surround him need to not block his path.
While Towns and Gibson are both key tenets of the league’s 12th most effective offense — 9th since Saunders took over — Gibson does, quite literally, get in Towns’ way from time to time.
What it probably comes down to is whether or not Gibson is willing to sign on for another season of the current role he is playing: Subbing in for Dario Saric, playing a few minutes of power forward, before sliding over to center when Anthony Tolliver checks in for Towns. Signing on to, almost exclusively, backup one of the league’s best, and most injury-proof, centers seems a little low for Gibson. But that’s what Taj is these days: a backup center.
All the respect to Taj if these are his final games as a Timberwolf.
Cam Reynolds Shimmy
With the playoff dream all but dead, let’s rip through a few seemingly small notes that come with the Ides of March. A player who a month ago was off of the radar of everyone not following the AAC or G-League is now on a “multi-year” deal with the Timberwolves, per Shams Charania of The Athletic.
Former Tulane University and Stockton Kings standout, Cam Reynolds, had his second 10-day contract recently expire and, with the new deal, was given the assurance he will be with the team through the rest of the season. I would caution anyone from assuming the “multi-year” demarcation actually means Reynolds will be on the team beyond this season. Remember James Nunnally, who played 64 minutes for the Wolves earlier this season, was signed to a multi-year deal this past offseason but released before the guarantee date of the first season of the contract.
Similar to Nunnally, Reynolds is more likely to have a partial guarantee for next season that the Wolves could fairly easily waive if they feel they need another roster spot. That said, it’s a good, low-risk move for a player who has impressed in the 104 minutes he has played thus far.
In Thursday’s game against the Jazz, it was enticing to see Reynolds do something other than simply catch-and-shoot on the offensive end. To prove worthy of sticking around, Reynolds will need to show there are at least a few things in his bag. This was a good first step — literally.
Let’s Not Crown KBD, Yet
Along a similar vein, there is Keita Bates-Diop who has started three of the past five games in place of Wiggins (who was out with a thigh contusion). Like Reynolds, KBD could prove to be a massive bargain — earning $3.1 million, total, over the next two seasons, with the second year non-guaranteed. Capped out teams need these type of low-risk players.
After a nice little flash-in-the-pan to begin his insertion into the rotation, Bates-Diop has played a lot like a second round pick these past five games: 10 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists a night with a slash line of 42.6/31.3/87.5. There are definite signals of an NBA player in Bates-Diop’s funky 6’9″ frame — 7’3.25″ wingspan, let’s go! — but there is much polish needed for KBD to become a real rotation piece.
Perhaps most disappointing has been Bates-Diop’s spot-up shooting. The looks he’s getting from the corner are clean, but the effectiveness has not been there in his small-ish sample. Washington, who went zone against the Wolves, was very willing to let Bates-Diop be the player to beat them with his jumper. Jabari Parker has no interest in closing out here — to be fair, that may just be a Jabari Parker thing, though.
All that said/shown, I’ve liked what I’ve seen. And, added bonus: We now know what position Bates-Diop plays now — Saunders has been calling him a “small forward” after simply referring to him as a “basketball player” for the majority of the season. Cheap, competent wings are gold.
Josh Okogie Thinking About Discipline
Speaking of rookies stalling out, Ryan Saunders had deemed Josh Okogie borderline unplayable before a sparked-up performance against the Rockets Sunday night. Before Houston, despite starting every game, Okogie had only played over 30 minutes in one of the team’s previous eight games — despite the squad being riddled by injuries. Early and often against Houston, it was very apparent Okogie was working on slowing himself down on offense — a major need.
When Okogie is largely playing under control, his bursts carry more weight, even catching opponents off guard. If you’re not gonna be a knockdown shooter from the corner — and Okogie is definitively not that right now — then you need to be able to decisively create off of the catch.
The end of the season, particularly if your team could benefit from a few extra losses is the perfect opportunity to challenge your younger players to do more. For players like Reynolds and Bates-Diop, that “more” is simply playing; for Okogie, it is a greater diversity in the ways he is used. That more is happening for all three rookies, and the added bonus of the losing is the sun peeking through what has quickly become a dismal March.