In partnership with Synergy Sports, the NBA released their “playtype” tracking data this past week and a few Minnesota Timberwolves-related trends were brought to light. One specific stat can’t be used a truth or a falsehood but can provide meaningful context to what has transpired this season. Let’s explore three Wolves trends here.
The question with Derrick Rose all season has been about whether or not the offensive burst he appears to give supersedes his shortcomings on the defensive end. Synergy’s data doesn’t answer that, per se. To some degree, that will always lie in the eyes of the beholder and how much weight they want to put into defensive metrics. The data does, however, pretty firmly assert where Rose’s offensive value is coming from: isolation situations. He’s been elite here.
For a Wolves team completely starved for creators, Rose’s pedigree as one of the premier isolators gives the Wolves offense a needed nudge. These numbers are aggregated to capture the entirety of the season, which, to be fair, are boosted by Rose’s offensive surge during the first half of the season — when his jumper was still in his bag.
While Tom Thibodeau was the coach (largely Rose’s healthy stretch of the season), the Wolves offense scored an additional 5.9 points per 100 possessions in the 952 minutes Rose was on the floor for. Under Ryan Saunders, that differential has all but faded: the team’s offense has scored at a slightly higher rate (0.8 points per 100 possessions) with Rose off of the floor. Again, this has to do with Rose removing the 3-point shot from his game. In the 19 games Rose has been coached by Saunders the Wolves combo guard has only made five total 3s — three of which came in Saunders’ second game as interim head coach.
Still, with or without the 3-point jumper, Rose’s isolation game is dominant. Saturday’s victory over the Washington Wizards, particularly down the stretch, was fueled by Rose’s ability to create space for himself. He delivered a faux dagger at the end of regulation and then actually ended the Wizards with a filthy step-back in overtime.
A frustrating element of Rose’s prowess in these situations is that he hasn’t found a synergy with Karl-Anthony Towns in high pick-and-roll situations — a close relative of isolations. It’s clear when watching Rose that he has been classically conditioned — particularly in end-of-game or end-of-quarter situations — to look for his own shot in these ball-screen actions. Involving Towns is clearly a work-in-progress that too often leads to bull-in-a-china-shop turnovers.
Rose has said numerous times, and he did again after the Wizards game, that he and Towns have been looking at the film in these situations. He also asserted that Towns is option one there, even if it’s at times difficult to find him.
“First off, I’m looking for KAT,” Rose said. “If he rolls, we’re gonna play through him for one. Just trying to read the situation at that time. The times we did throw it into him, we felt like he had a mismatch. When you play for mismatches in this league, somebody is gonna get an open shot. So that’s what we’re going for.”
Saunders echoed this sentiment, saying the Wolves were looking for Towns when the Wizards would switch the Rose-Towns pick-and-roll. It does feel, however, that Towns’ volume in rolling situations needs to increase — with or without switch/mismatch. Towns is 14th in the NBA in pick-and-roll efficiency as the roll man this season, per Synergy Sports, with the 13th highest volume of roll man possessions. Given Towns’ ability to not only roll but to pop in those situations, it makes sense that his volume here should increase. Myles Turner is a good example of this. The Indiana Pacers pepper Turner on both the roll and the pop — and that is the reason Turner has 139 percent of the roll man volume of Towns this season.
Whether it is Rose or a new player at the combo guard position next season, it is critical to this Wolves team that the position is filled by a player who can both be able to isolate at a high level and know how to involve Towns effectively in the pick-and-roll.
Another important stat that pertains to Towns, illuminated by Synergy’s playtype data, is just how porous the shooters surrounding the Wolves big man are. There are 189 players in the NBA who have over 100 possessions in spot-up situations. Of that group, the Wolves have four players who fall in the bottom-41 in terms of efficiency.
Robert Covington’s proliferation here is another tease that spotlights how much the Wolves could have used him flanking Towns for the past 30 games. That will come. Concerning is how dismal Andrew Wiggins and Josh Okogie stack up here. It’s not breaking news to say that Wiggins and Okogie are poor shooters, but it is cumbersome for the Wolves offense that the two fall so low in what should be the cleanest of shots.
For me, this only emboldens the belief that signing an elite spot-up shooter is an absolute need this summer. Anthony Tolliver has been a solid spot-up guy this season (no surprise there) but the Wolves may do well to replace him with a player who functions as a wing. The offense has seen a boon in flow through the presences of Keita Bates-Diop and Cam Reynolds playing significant minutes around Towns of late. The double-teams Towns is receiving aren’t going to go anywhere in the future.
(Side note: This is a perfect cut from Tolliver. He’ll be missed next season if not retained)
Saunders’ comments after the Knicks game Sunday suggested he is fond of the idea of playing a “low-usage” wing who can effectively function around Towns.
“At that small forward position, you see there’s, obviously, a lot of stars at that small forward position,” said Saunders. “But there’s a lot of good teams who do have low-usage guys in that role where they’re active cutters, they’re good defenders, they can make an open 3, things like that. Seeing [Keita] start to fill that kind of role for us, I think, is something to be excited about for.”
The beautiful cut through the middle of the lane in the above clip by Tolliver is an all too rare occurrence for the Wolves. Taj Gibson is the only player on the Wolves to have been hit on a “cut” more than 65 times this season, per Synergy Sports. Every team in the NBA other than New York and (oddly) Boston has a player who has cut more frequently and with better efficiency than Gibson (1.15 points per possession).
The most concerning in this area pertains to Wiggins, who is on pace to record fewer cuts than he has any of the past three seasons (when Synergy began tracking such actions). Worse, Wiggins still tantalizes as a weapon here; when he is actively searching for cutting lanes he finds buckets at a level well-above league average.
Just as important as having proper spot-up shooters around Towns, as Saunders eluded to, is the need for effective lane slashers. The 3-ball is great, but getting easy points at the rim — that can also draw a foul — are an even more valuable shot to take.
Beyond Wiggins, this would be an area that it would be profitable for Okogie to try his hand at. Yes, the rookie is a bit sloppy moving towards the rim — but so is his jumper. At some point, serious questions need to be asked about Okogie functioning as almost purely a spot-up shooter. As his career goes on, there will likely be a progression from the 27 percent he is shooting from deep this season. But by how much?
The inconsistency of Okogie’s shot mechanics are, of course, matched by the consistency of his effort on the defensive end. But, again: Is that enough? For the rookie, that effort alone may not ever make him a starting-caliber player on a playoff team. If shooting isn’t the answer, other areas should be explored. Okogie is only cutting on 5.1 percent of the possessions he’s out there, per Synergy. That’s less frequent than Wiggins (5.2 percent).