A quarter of the NBA has come and gone now as the Wolves sit at 10-9 through their first 19 games of the season. They’ve struggled to win at home, but been one of the NBA’s best on the road. Things haven’t always made sense during the early portion of the season, but that’s part of the allure of this team.
A team that maybe didn’t look the part on paper prior to the season has inserted itself into the playoff picture, but there’s plenty of things worth evaluating at this point. This can all change quickly, although we’re now rapidly approaching both the trade season and the time when we can drop the ‘shot sample size’ qualifier on almost every statistic.
The Wolves have gotten a strong start from Karl-Anthony Towns as well as the best version of Andrew Wiggins imaginable to open up the season, but outside of that, it’s been a bit of a rough start.
The supporting cast for the Wolves has yet to really find its way. Whether it’s been because Jeff Teague, Shabazz Napier, and Jake Layman have all missed time, Robert Covington having to shake off early season rust after a knee surgery ended his 2018-19 season prematurely, or something else, it just hasn’t been good enough.
The Wolves were always going to go as far as Towns would be able to take them this year. That much was expected. Wiggins’ jump was a bit unexpected, but it’s both raised the floor and the ceiling for the Wolves presently and in the future.
The area that will eventually be upgraded in the future is the supporting cast around those two. For this season the Wolves were always going to value their system over the personnel playing in it. Head coach Ryan Saunders has said as much on the record, and it’s something that makes more sense to do than not to do.
Right now, there are a few members of the supporting cast that would be worth keeping, but the Wolves do need better performance from that group as a whole in order to maximize this season. Jarrett Culver will be part of the long-term plan, and it makes sense to have Covington, Layman, Josh Okogie, and maybe even Keita Bates-Diop as part of that group, too.
As things stand now, the Wolves don’t have a group that’s good enough offensively outside of Towns and Wiggins. The system in use now means that the Wolves are going to hoist threes at a rate near the top of the league. They’ve stuck true to that with 39.3 3-point attempts per game, good enough for fourth-most in the NBA.
The issue the Wolves have run into is that they’re not making those shots at a high enough clip to justify the attempts right now. Eventually the hope is that they will, but their 19th rank in offensive rating certainly stems in part from the fact that they rank 28th in 3-point percentage.
Diving deeper into how this is the case requires a look at who is taking the shots for the Wolves. Of course, Wiggins and Towns do most of the lifting offensively and it should come as no surprise that they shoot the most 3-pointers on the roster as well. Entering play on Friday, Wiggins and Towns have taken 34.3% of the total attempted threes for the Wolves. That’s a healthy frequency and maybe even a number the Wolves would prefer to be higher than it is.
Those two have combined to connect on 106 of their 270 attempts, good for a 39.2% mark. Sure, that’s a bit ballooned by Towns’ superb 42.7% from deep so far this year, but it’s still fair to group the two highest volume guys together. On the 516 3-point attempts that other players have attempted, the Wolves are shooting just 30%, and we’ve spotted the problem.
The best volume shooter aside from Towns and Wiggins is Covington. He comes in slightly behind Wiggins in terms of volume at 5.7 3-point attempts per game, and has shot the ball along the lines of his career average this season. He’s been better than everyone that’s gotten extensive playing time in terms of percentage, other than Towns, with a 37.9% clip before play on Friday. Obviously, he’s far from the problem.
So for clarity of just how much more the Wolves need their role players to do if they’re going to be able to be competitive as the season chugs along, it’s worth taking a peek at what things look like for the roster if Towns, Wiggins, and Covington are all removed from the equation.
That trio represents 379 of the 786 attempts the Wolves have had from deep so far this year, or 48.6% in mathematical terms. Just like with the isolated numbers for Towns and Wiggins, this is in a good spot, but one that the Wolves probably wouldn’t mind representing a bit more of the pie, mostly because the numbers for the remaining 51.4% of the 3-pointers are really poor.
That leaves 407 3-point attempts amongst the rest of the roster. On those shots the Wolves are shooting 27.5%. They’ve made just 112 3-pointers, 35 less than the trio of Wiggins, Towns, and Covington combined.
The system is working for the Wolves, and this data backs it up. The franchise wanted to be able to generate quality open 3-pointers, and that goal has been accomplished without question. Both Towns and Wiggins are on pace to shatter the single-season record for 3-pointers attempted in a single season, which is something that was expected for at least Towns internally prior to the season.
The data also backs up that the Wolves are emphasizing the system over the personnel, which is exactly what they said they were going to do. In the long run that’s the right move, but if this version of the Timberwolves is going to continue to experience success and potentially reach the postseason, the supporting cast will need to be better.