As of the morning of November 19th, 2017, the Minnesota Timberwolves have found themselves at 10-5, atop the Northwest Division and third on the Western Conference behind the Golden State Warriors (12-4) and the Houston Rockets (13-4). In a recent match-up, the Timberwolves dispatched the San Antonio Spurs 98 – 86 in Minnesota. With the strong start, including big wins over tough quality opponents, the Timberwolves finally find their young corps looking like the playoff caliber team that many had envisioned before the season start.
One of the question marks coming into this season were about the isolation tendencies of players such as Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins; particularly when it comes to spacing and the ability to create. In this article, we break down the offensive schemes of the Timberwolves, their rotations, and associated statistics indicating the quality of player interaction.
Rotations: Most Stable Team in the League
First, we take a look at the rotations of the Timberwolves. A rotation is defined a period of time played by five players. The collection of the first five players on the court is called the starting rotation. Stability is then defined as having rotations that typically last the longest on the court. Stability can either be a blessing or a curse for coaching staffs. If a team is stable, then the rotations that play lengthy periods of time are playing either because they are successful with limited fatigue (solid rotations); or the team is in dire straights and maintain a short bench (stretching rotations). Similarly, unstable teams may either have several quality, yet interchangeable, players (distributed rotations); or the team is platooning players in hopes to either gain experience or find players capable of earning minutes (platooning).
League-Wide Distributions of Rotations
To determine a team’s rotation, we take a look at their common rotation. A common rotation is defined as the rotation that typically players over the course of a second. For Minnesota, with 15 games played, at each second of game played, we query the rotations that are on the court. At most, there are 15 rotations. The maximum number of games played for that particular second of the game is defined as the common rotation.
The distribution of common rotations ranges between 12 at its minimum and 51 at its maximum. To give insight, this means that rotations, on average, ranges between 56 seconds and 4 minutes. The average rotation lasts 91.78 seconds.
From the distribution of number of rotations, we see that rotations for teams are split into the two camps: stable and unstable. If we look at the win percentages for each team, we start to see the separation into platooning and solid rotations.
We see that teams that tend to have a high number of rotations are teams that are struggling to find optimal line-ups that can sustain high-level of performance. Similarly, teams that have a low number of common rotations are teams with stable, high-performance offenses such as Houston, Golden State, and Minnesota.
The upper right quadrant of teams are winning teams that have a high number of common rotations over their first 14-17 games. These teams? Boston (Hayward injury), Milwaukee (Bledsoe – Monroe trade), Philadelphia (Limiting Embiid’s minutes), Cleveland (Age, multiple solid players), San Antonio (Age, multiple solid players).
In the lower-left corner of the plot, we obtain teams with stable rotations, but find themselves in losing situations. We actually see a trend that heads downward, indicating the more losing a team, the more likely they are to start platooning. This is the case with the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls.
Despite only having 12 standard rotations, the Timberwolves have played a total of 52 different rotations across 15 games. In comparison, the Boston Celtics have played 157 different rotations across 16 games! What this shows is that the Timberwolves have stability through player capability, injury, and roster changes; as well as that Tom Thibodeau maintains a fairly predictable rotation schedule.
The primary rotation for Minnesota is Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jeff Teague, and Taj Gibson. Together, this unit has participated in 19,837 seconds of action. That is, this unit has played together for 330 minutes and 37 seconds. This equates to 6 games, 42 minutes and 37 seconds of action. The most in the entire league.
Comparing how the starting rotation stacks up, the rotation has played in far less offensive possessions than defensive possessions. These situations commonly occur when free-throw shooting becomes a requirement late in games and we find the offensive-defensive substitution pattern take effect. Despite playing in 28 fewer offensive possessions than defensive possessions, the starting unit maintains a plus 37 in scoring. In effect, the starting rotation scores 1.19 points per possession while holding opponents to 1.09 points per possession. While this is not the best in the league, the differential over the high volume of minutes played is promising.
Thanks to the physical abailities of Towns and Gibson, this rotation also dominates the boards; out-rebounding opponents by 49 rebounds in 28 fewer possessions. This would not be eyebrow raising if the Timberwolves were a terrible shooting team; but they aren’t. This rotation only four more misses than their opponents on field goal attempts. This indicates that the Timberwolves rebounding percentage is 54.19%. For a large number of field goal attempts; this indicates a wildly high rebounding differential over their opponents.
The second most common rotation has played 3908 seconds together. This rotation consists of Gorgui Dieng, Jamal Crawford, Nemanja Bjelica, Shabazz Muhammad, and Tyus Jones. This rotation is considered the second string rotation as all players are bench players; but score the highest amount of time on the court after the starting unit.
Note: The third rotation is a mixture of the starters and second string: Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, Jamal Crawford, Nemenja Bjelica, and Tyus Jones. This rotation plays a total of 1966 seconds.
We see that the second unit outscores opponents in high fashion much like the starting rotation; outscoring opponents by 26 points over 6 extra possessions: 1.16 points per possession vs. 1.02 points per possession.
While stability is maintained by both the starting and second-string rotations, it’s the transition that creates problems for the Timberwolves. For instance, the mixture rotation of Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Shabazz Muhammad have been outscored 1.45 points per possession to their 0.96 points per possession. While this unit has only played together over 24 offensive and 22 defensive possessions. This equates to losing 1-3 points per game. Making a change of Andrew Wiggins in for Shabazz Muhammad is no better; losing at extra 0.25 points per possession, costing the Timberwolves an average of a point a game.
As we look at the common rotation strategy employed by Thibodeau, we see the progression of scoring over the course of a game.
We see that the starting rotation typically starts the game, finishes the first half, starts the second half, and finishes the game. Their usual stretches are 9:05 minutes in the first quarter, the final 5:47 of the first half, the starting 8:30 of the second half, and the final 7:42 of the game. Needless to say, this is Thibodeau’s main unit in every quarter.
From the above plot, we also see that the Timberwolves are more of a second half team. Their standard rotations are consistently outscored in the first half; even mid-way into the third quarter. Despite this, Minnesota turns on the jets and outscores opponents in the second half; when their standard rotations are on the court.
With the primary players of Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins, the Timberwolves has a pair of notorious isolation players. Similarly, with Karl-Anthony Towns, Taj Gibson, and Shabazz Muhammad, the Timberwolves also have a strong interior presence. In an effort to make these two components work, Minnesota requires deep threats to deter defenses from blitzing the (obviously) pick-and-roll offense. These shooters are Nemanja Bjelica, Jeff Teague, and Jamal Crawford.
Despite this, the Timberwolves are not a “bombs away” type of team. Minnesota has only launched 342 three-point field goal attempts, connecting on 129 for a 37.7% rate. This is only 22.8 three point field goals attempted per game. This is the second lowest total in the league, ahead of the Sacramento Kings (21.4 attempts per game).
What this indicates is that the Timberwolves play almost an entirely inside game.
If we take a look at the shot distribution of the Timberwolves, we find that the team clusters about the arc, as well as inside the paint. However, the Timberwolves has one of the highest rates of mid-range jump shots in the league.
Jimmy Butler: 5.2 – 13.1 (.400), 0.8 – 2.5 (.344)
Jimmy Butler takes approximately 13 field goal attempts per game and scores roughly 11.2 points per game from the field.
As a wing player on offense, we find that a hefty amount of field goal attempts come from the 15-18 foot range, primarily from the wing positions. Being a 40.0% field goal shooter, this is not a desirable case. If we color code makes and misses, we find that majority of those misses are coming from 12-18 feet out.
Andrew Wiggins: 7.0 – 15.4 (.455), 1.4 – 4.1 (.339)
The other premier wing scorer is Andrew Wiggins, who shoots roughly 45.5% from the field, accounting for 15.4 points of production from the field. Wiggins game is eerily similar to that of Butler’s: isolation plays, attack the rim (if possible) but pull up from mid-range if contested.
Again, we see a slew of mid-range jump shots, with the majority being missed. While this bodes poorly for players like Wiggins and Butler, they have the added advantage of knowing either Taj Gibson or Karl-Anthony Towns are underneath the rim; able to stalk out offensive rebounds. Recall above that this is to a tune of +20 offensive boards over their opponents. That is, 28.9% of rebounds during the Timberwolves offense is back in Minnesota’s hands.
Karl-Anthony Towns: 8.0 – 14.7 (.543), 1.3 – 3.6 (.370)
To identify that Karl-Anthony Towns is a better three-point shooter than Wiggins and Butler is a testament to the under-development of both Wiggins and Butler as an outside scoring threat, than it is for the development of Towns as a perimeter scorer. Despite his size, Towns has a high probability or taking a mid range jump shot as he attempted 35 over the course of the first 15 games of the season. Compare this to his 54 attempts beyond the arc, and we find that over 40% of Towns’ field goal attempts come from outside the key. Both his field goal percentage from this range (33-for-89; .371) and his low propensity of obtaining rebounds from these positions on the court are desirable for defenses.
Given this, Towns scores approximately 17.3 points per game from the court over 14.7 field goal attempts, displaying decent efficiency from the field.
Jeff Teague: 4.9 – 11.4 (.427), 1.7 – 3.9 (.431)
Jeff Teague is the other primary scorer on the Timberwolves. Averaging roughly 11.5 points per game from the field, Teague plays in a very centralized location on the court. As the primary ball handler on the offense, Teague obtains most of his attempts from the top of the key and as penetration into the key.
As we see his distribution of field goal attempts, there are only a handful of attempts outside of the 60-degree wedge from the basket. While Teague has better success from mid-range than Butler, Wiggins, and Towns, he finds himself with difficult shots in the paint; missing a majority of these attempts. Of his 113 field goal attempts from within the arc, a total of 45 attempts are taken inside the paint, outside of the charge circle. Of these 45 attempts, Teague managed to convert only 14 of these attempts: a conversion rate of 31.11%. Why are these shots important? These attempts from from the standard offensive pattern for Minnesota; which result in floaters.
The reason these jumpers are commonly taken in the mid-range is purely due to the offensive game plan. The standard offensive game plan is a low-motion screen-and-roll offense. This action will force a 2-on-2 game between the ball handler and the post inside the lane. As a direct result, Minnesota will either score in the post or obtain a mid-range jump shot. If both looks are well-guarded, then a pass to the perimeter opens up extra looks. However, the offense can be stagnant at times, as we shall soon see.
Standard Offense: Pick-and-Roll
Minnesota attempts to play to their strengths of strong isolation wing shooters and a dominant low post scorer. In an effort to create spacing, Thibodeau leverages the pick-and-roll offense to pain. To give an example, in their recent game against San Antonio, Minnesota ran 91 offensive possessions and ran the pick-and-roll offense 74 times out of these 91 times. The remaining 17 possessions included fast-break attempts and possessions that resulted in immediate fouls.
Minnesota creates spacing by remaining relatively stagnant on the perimeter while allowing their premier big man pull the defense into the paint. Their initial offense will look like a four-out, one-in motion offense, but it is designed to place two bigs in the same short corner of the court.
This initial offense allows for the post to set a screen at the top of the key. Since the other three players are out at the perimeter, this creates a 2-on-2 within the key. At this point, a mid-range jumper is taken, a slip pass to the rolling big is given, or a kick out to the perimeter is initiated.
Let’s see it in real time.
In this clip, we see Towns screen Butler. LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green cover the screen well, forcing a kick out to Towns as he is unable to roll. Picking up a one-on-one against Aldridge as Butler rolls out to clutter the left hand wing, Towns drives to the hoop, forcing the entire Spurs defense to collapse into the lane. This leaves Taj Gibson open on the corner for an open three. Not a primary three point option, Timberwolves bigs are trained to shoot the three. In this case, Gibson connects for the first basket of the game.
Here we find one of our first wedge screens, which are common in Thibodeau’s offense. Here, Towns sets the screen for Tyus Jones from the left elbow. Setting a second screen, Towns frees Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica hesitates on the perimeter attempt and kicks out to Jamal Crawford. This results in a sideline screen and roll which leads to a Towns 2-point basket.
This is probably the most sophisticated version of the Minnesota offense. Again, the shooters are planted in the corners. This time it’s Teague and Wiggins. Here, Towns and Bjelica set a dual staggered screen on Butler. Bjelica breaks off a secondary pin down on Teague in a twist action to free Teague for penetration. Joffrey Lauvergne picks up Teague, leaving Bjelica free to float to the extended elbow. Teague kicks out to Butler, who swings back to the open Bjelica for three.
The above possession starts with an overloaded right side, but quickly morphs back into the standard formation with Towns setting the screen on Butler. Teague and Gibson float to the corners as Wiggins creeps up along the sideline. With Pau Gasol and Danny Green reading the screen and roll, they entice Towns to become the long range shooter. Towns obliges and hits a low percentage basket from 20 feet out.
Here is a classic action from the Minnesota arsenal. In this case, the transition offense looks for a quick post up for Towns but doesn’t find it. Instead, Gibson and Teague look for the pick and roll at the top of the key. Teague penetrates and flips the floater at the free throw line. As usual, the basket does not fall.
Here, Minnesota breaks from standard formation to run a Warriors style offense. Butler slips a faux screen and turns into a wheel cut underneath the basket, coming off a weak-side staggered pin down. Towns, in turn, sets the pick-and-roll. As Teague goes over the top of the screen, Patty Mills goes over the top of the screen to force an Aldridge 1-on-2 against Teague and Towns. The options here are to find Butler coming off the screen for a jumper or take the mid-range attempt. Again, Teague takes the floater in the lane; this time for success.
Back to the patented screen and roll action, Teague is caught losing his dribble as Patty Mills and Danny Green collapse onto Taj Gibson. Teague skips to Green’s man, Jimmy Butler, which results in an open look for three.
Once again with the standard formation, Gasol is forced to cover Tyus Jones. This allows Towns to slip freely down the lane for an uncontested dunk.
We see that the secondary unit is once again running more sophisticated plays as they run a wheel screen with Tyus Jones. Gibson sets the screen on Crawford, however Crawford pulls the pick-and-roll along the three point line, allowing Danny Green to hedge the roll. Having to reset the offense with 4.9 seconds remaining on the shot clock, Minnesota goes into scramble mode, taking a difficult floater in the lane. As is the case with Karl-Anthony Towns on the floor, the rebound is left unboxed and Towns slams home the offensive rebound.
Back to classic pattern with the primary offense on the floor. Towns comes to set the screen as little motion occurs on the perimeter. Butler takes the jumper at the elbow, misses, but manages to collect the long rebound and get fouled in the process.
Again out of standard formation, Gibson sets the screen for Teague. Teague penetrates and finds Gibson, who is fouled on the ensuing attempt.
Here is the second time we see the staggered dual pin down screen play. We start from standard formation, but the San Antonio defense responds by not letting Towns roll. Butler kicks out to Towns, who resets the offense, waiting for the wheel screen from Wiggins on the pin downs from Gibson and Butler. As this weakside motion goes on, Towns and Teague run a pair of screens, allowing Teague to drive baseline. Instead of kicking out to Butler, as Green hedges back for the potential kick-out, Teague takes the reverse lay-up attempt and misses.
Another pick and roll with Towns and Teague. Another series of no movement on the perimeter. Results in a Teague floater, but a foul on San Antonio.
Another screen and roll with a mid-range jumper from Butler. Another miss.
With a slight wrinkle with Gibson and Butler, the offense starts 12 seconds into their possession with a Towns on Teague screen. With a nice slip pass from Teague, Towns gets to the rim uncontested for another dunk.
With these 15 plays of 94 possessions, we have provided some insight into the Minnesota offense. The reason the Minnesota offense works is due to the ability for the wings to penetrate and the posts to dominate the paint. Thibodeau’s offense is stagnant with little weak-side movement and it shows in several points above. Despite this the strong guard play, as Teague was 7-13 from the field; and the slick shooting from Towns as he went 10-18 from the field (including 2-for-2 from beyond the arc) kept the Timberwolves ahead in this game. Contrary to usual format, Minnesota shot 9-18 from three, giving them some leeway later into the game.
However, how could the offense improve to better leverage the stars on the Minnesota roster? So far it’s worked in Minnesota’s favor as they are currently 10-5 through 15 games. The question is, will it continue as the season wears on?