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The Plus-Minus: Good and bad things about the Wolves in the preseason



Welcome to The Plus-Minus. This is going to be the weekly column at SKOR North talking about things that we both like and don’t like about the Minnesota Timberwolves. This edition will cover the preseason, but this will be something that comes routinely on Friday covering various things each week that have to do with the Wolves.

Here we go…

Jarrett Culver looking the part, for the most part

Culver has been written about more thoroughly by us, but he’s been impressive during the preseason. It hasn’t been a performance that’s blown anyone away, but he’s been good enough to show that he belongs on an NBA floor from day one.

Culver’s shooting has struggled, but other than that he’s been good. He’s shown the ability to both play on and off the ball – which is something that could really open up certain lineups for the Wolves.

It’s not fair to Culver – or any rookie, for that matter – to make a judgement based on five preseason games, but the early returns do look good.

Two of the biggest questions that I have about Culver is just how long will it be until he’s simply too good for head coach Ryan Saunders to keep him out of the starting lineup? After that, how long will it be until Culver can be considered the second-best player on the roster? The former will happen far sooner than the latter, but they’re questions worth pondering at the very least.

Bombs away

Offensively the Wolves have been behind the times in terms of shooting from behind the arc for nearly their entire existence. In fact, there have been only three seasons since the Minnesota Timberwolves were born in 1989-90 that the team has found itself in the top half of the league in 3-pointers attempted per game. Yes, you read that correctly. In 2008-09 the team finished 13th in the NBA, in 2010-11 they were 10th and in a shortened 2011-12 season they ranked sixth (shout out to Kevin Love and J.J. Barea for hoisting them).

That shouldn’t be the case anymore. The Wolves finished their preseason slate fourth among NBA teams (SESI from France was ahead of all but two NBA teams) in 3-point attempts. In their game against Golden State they put up 49 threes, which would have been their season-high last year.  Against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Wolves hoisted 48 times from three. That also would have been a season-high last year. According to Basketball-Reference’s Play Index, there are no games in the history of the Timberwolves in which they’ve attempted 50 3-pointers or more. That will probably change at some point in 2019-20.

Through the preseason the Wolves averaged 41.8 threes attempted per game. Their shot charts tell a far different story than any era of Wolves basketball ever has.

It’s a positive that the Wolves have utilized Karl-Anthony Towns’ 3-point shooting prowess to the extent that they have, seeing as he’s hands down the best from deep on the team. This preseason 31 of Towns’ 56 field goal attempts have been taken from beyond the arc. While maybe it won’t hold true that 55% of his attempts come from three, it’s a safe bet that Towns’ previous career-high 3-point rate of 27% will be shattered this season.

The one problem with this is that the team hasn’t exactly connected from deep on as many attempts as one would like. Shooting them is a step in the right direction, but this isn’t exactly a roster littered with long-range snipers on it. In time, that may come, but for the time being it could be a little dicey.

Defense might be an issue

The Wolves are playing at a blistering pace (more on that later!) and that means that they’re going to have quite a few high scoring games. There are going to be nights when the Wolves are matched up with an opponent that will be more than willing to run with them up and down the court the way the Warriors were in the preseason. That could lead to some gaudy score totals at the end of the night. Now, not every team will be willing to do that, and the defensive equation might look a little bit different when the game isn’t quite as high-speed.

One of the questions about this team is going to be how they defend with Towns off the floor.

This sounds odd, because Towns has been far from a great defender throughout his NBA career, but he does have something that few others on the roster have – size. There are times when he’s on the floor and the Wolves are playing small lineups. Almost every time when he’s off the floor the Wolves are playing tiny lineups.

Jordan Bell projects to play more of the four than the five, and Noah Vonleh may not possess the size to guard some of the true bigs in the NBA. Look no further than the game against Phoenix to open up the preseason. The Suns took advantage of Vonleh playing an undersized center with DeAndre Ayton torching him offensively. Now, every team doesn’t have someone as talented as Ayton manning the middle, but plenty of teams have guys that can torment the Wolves on the interior when Towns isn’t on the floor.

There are a couple of different solutions to what could potentially be done. Maybe slipping Gorgui Dieng into the rotation more than he’s been seen in the preseason could be a bit of an answer. He’s no game-changing interior defender, but he’s got more size than either Vonleh or Bell. Whether or not Dieng will fit in offensively might be a different story, but at some point the Wolves might need to make the decision that their interior defense needs to improve.

Another solution could be to play both Bell and Vonleh together. This would still create some of the problems that exist with not having a true center on the floor, but it would also help to solve the problem of being small at the four. That’s been the case when the Wolves have played Graham with Vonleh, pushing him to defend the opponents four despite being listed at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. If the Wolves use these lineups during the regular season – as they have at times in the preseason – it’s going to be really difficult for them to survive on the defensive end against talented opposing front courts.

KAT’s THUNDER DUNK

If nothing else, this was really fun.

NASCAR Pace!

Over recent history the Wolves haven’t exactly left tire marks on the court with their pace. Only twice in the last five seasons have they ranked in the top half of the NBA in pace – which is something that has rapidly evolved in that time. For context, in the first year of this sample size the Golden State Warriors finished first in pace in the NBA with a mark of 99.28, but if that exact number were turned in during the 2018-19 season it would have ranked 21st in the league.

Here’s where the Wolves have ranked in each of the last five seasons

2018-19 – 100.88 – 13th (101.11, 12th under Tom Thibodeau, 100.67, 16th under Saunders)
2017-18 – 96.75 – 23rd
2016-17 – 95.48 -23rd
2015-16 – 96.20 – 19th
2014-15 – 95.45 – 10th

This has been flipped on its head this preseason. The Wolves finished their preseason slate with a pace of 112.80. The preseason isn’t completely over at the time of this publication – there are six games on Friday night – but it’s a safe bet they’ll finish in the top three, if not first in pace for the preseason (after the completion of Thursday’s game against Milwaukee the Wolves remained in first). If they’ve previously been driving a car that’s driving the speed limit alongside some of the slower cars in the NBA, they’re now Mario Andretti trying to lap the field.

“That’s exactly what kind of game I like playing,” Shabazz Napier said of the team’s new-look race car that he’s at the wheel of at times. “The more possessions in a game the better you are. Now it’s all about possessions, now it’s all about making the right reads and getting the most shot attempts. I think we’re doing it well. Being No. 1 in pace in preseason is great for us and once we start knocking down shots it’s going to be real dangerous.”

The question of whether or not this pace will be good for the Wolves still persists, and it’s one that we won’t have an answer to, at least not a concrete one, for some time. But the team is valuing its system over the current parts to it.

“We’re committed to the system,” Saunders said prior to the team’s preseason matchup with Maccabi Haifa. “We know that we feel in the long run that this is going to be very beneficial for our group. The way that we’re building this thing out.”

The Wolves are right now trying to drive this vehicle as fast as it can go despite not having some pieces that might not fit exactly right. As they continue to scour the basketball world for the proper tune ups, it should make for an exciting race in the meantime.





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