The Timberwolves are off to a surprising 7-4 start and the evolution of Andrew Wiggins and the team’s previously stagnant offense has been striking.
After a relatively quiet offseason, not much was expected of the Timberwolves in a Western Conference crowded with hungry contenders looking to take advantage of the Warriors’ injuries. But a 7-4 start has changed the perception a bit, pushing their playoff probability at 538 to 76 percent, up from about 50 percent to start the season.
Andrew Wiggins has been capturing most of the headlines — averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, 2-point percentage, 3-point percentage and generally adhering to a shot profile that feels like a dramatic change. It feels even more dramatic when you consider that he’s in his sixth season and was widely assumed to have closed the window on becoming a different kind of player. But he’s doing the damn thing — The Athletic’s Seth Partnow pointed out how much of an outlier the increase in Wiggins’ drive rate has been.
But the changes Wiggins has made — fewer mid-range jumpers, working more quickly and decisively with the ball — are representative of a change across the entire team’s offensive style. Below is the team’s offensive style chart for this year, compared to last year’s marks.
These charts are not meant to evaluate whether an offense is good or bad. They are designed to help illustrate how teams go about the goal of trying to put the ball in the basket. Each team’s offense is evaluated on four stylistic spectrums.
Ball movement is measured with the average touch time for each team, from the NBA’s player tracking statistics. A lower average touch time means the ball is moving from player to player more quickly.
Player movement is measured with a combination of different NBA.com tracking statistics and works out to average distance traveled per 24 seconds of offensive possession.
Pace is measured with the average length of an offensive possession from Inpredictable, a more accurate representation for how quickly a team is working than traditional pace.
Shot selection is measured with MoreyBall percentage — in this case the percentage of a team’s true shooting opportunities that came at the rim, from the free-throw line, or on a 3-pointer. It’s a generalized measure but captures something about how much each team hews to the shots that are, on average, the most efficient.
So far this season 77 percent of Minnesota’s true shooting attempts have been at the rim, at the free-throw line or from behind the 3-point line. Last season, that mark was just 67.5 percent. It’s not just that the team is simply choosing to shoot from more generally efficient locations, the processes by which they’re getting those shots has changed.
They are averaging slightly fewer passes per game but that’s because they are attacking with more pace and making quicker decisions with the ball. Their average touch is about 12 percent shorter than it was last season and they’ve shaved nearly a second off the length of their average offensive possession. They’re also getting more off-ball movement with their five players combining, on average, to cover above 50 extra feet per 24 seconds of possession than they did last season. That may not sound like much — an extra cut or two, or a few shooters doing a bit more relocation on the perimeter — but it all puts more pressure on the defense.
Of course, the big question is why isn’t the Timberwolves’ offense more efficient? Wiggins is enjoying a breakout season and Karl-Anthony Towns has been sensational but the team is scoring far fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season and their efficiency has dropped relative to the rest of the league as well. It’s actually improvement at the defensive that has been driving their hot start in the standings.
The answer is that they’ve struggled on offense with some things that they should expect progression on over time. Treveon Graham has been in the starting lineup for his defense and energy but is shooting under 40 percent from the field and under 20 percent on 3-pointers. Other than Towns and Wiggins, the rest of the roster is shooting just 26.7 percent from beyond the arc, including an abysmal 24.3 percent on 3s with no defender within at least six feet of the shooter. The Timberwolves have some good shooters, but no real scheme busters on the wing and, with players like Josh Okogie, Jarrett Culver and Graham, their rotation is definitely tilting towards defense.
It’s exciting to watch Minnesota making some structural changes, especially after what feels like years of somewhat stubbornly putting their players in sub-optimal situations. But this roster still has some real structural limitations and it’s probably worth thinking of this season as a bridge year to something even brighter. The team is finally addressing some of the strategic shortcomings that seemed to be limiting them. As they continue to tinker with the skill sets further down the roster and optimize for the offensive foundation they’re laying, things should only keep getting better — for Towns, for Wiggins and for the entire team.