They say the NBA is a make-or-miss league and that you live by the three and die by the three. Well, the Minnesota Timberwolves are missing more than they’re making and definitely dying by the long ball this season. Like I wrote last week about the defense, Minnesota has rarely fielded a competent three-point shooting team. Long ago are the days of Anthony Peeler, Wally Szczerbiak, and Fred Hoiberg canning threes in front of a frenzied Target Center crowd.
Things have gone cold from downtown in Minneapolis since the three-point revolution of the early 2010s. Minnesota has finished in the top half of the NBA in three-point shooting percentage just once since whiffing twice on drafting the greatest three-point shooter of all-time in the 2009 NBA Draft (they were fifth in 2010-11). This year they rank 23rd, shooting 35.2% from distance while chucking up 36.8 attempts per game, the ninth most in the NBA.
The spray-and-pray approach to shooting threes is Ryan Saunders’ biggest contribution to the franchise. Under Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves were allergic to the three-point line. They finished dead last in attempts and percentage in 2016-17, last in attempts again in 2017-18 (while the percentage ticked up to 19th), and 23rd in attempts in the first half of the 2018-19 campaign despite being 10th in percentage.
Saunders took over in January 2019 and slowly changed the offensive philosophy. In his first and only full season as head coach, Saunders had the Wolves launching the third-most threes per game in 2019-20 with 39.7. Before he got fired this season, the Wolves were 14th in attempts and 19th in percentage.
Since taking over in February, Chris Finch is doing his best to preserve Saunders’ three-point ideology and has Minnesota shooting the sixth-most threes in the last 29 games. But they are only hitting 34.7% of them.
On the flip side, the Wolves have a cadre of terrible three-point shooters led by rookie Anthony Edwards. The 19-year-old hoists seven threes a game and has taken 101 more three-point shots than anyone else on the team. The problem is that he’s only connecting on 32.2% of his long-range shots. His seven attempts per game leads all rookies, but his shooting percentage is good for 36th place on the rookie rankings.
It gets worse when you consider that Ricky Rubio is a career 32.5% three-point shooter (30.5 this year on 2.9 attempts per game), and young wings Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver couldn’t hit a cow’s ass with a banjo.
To exacerbate the problem even further, the sniper squad of Towns, DLo, and Beasley have played a whopping 80 minutes together across just four games. In those precious 80 minutes, the Wolves are 19-for-48 from three (39.6%) and outscoring opponents by 2.7 points per 100 possessions. As the Wolves try to tank without saying they’re tanking to keep their 40.1% chance of keeping their first-round pick, it’s unlikely we’ll see Beasley on the court again this season.
I know we’re beating a dead horse here. Still, looking ahead to next year when this trio of sharpshooters will be playing heavy minutes together, moving off the ball in Finch’s movement offense, they will be dubbed the splash triplets, altering the course of basketball forever!
One can dream. But back to reality. What can this team do in its last dozen games this season to improve its three-point shooting?
Finch must continue to find more ways to utilize rookie Jaden McDaniels as a spot-up shooter for starters. The 20-year-old is shooting 37.2% from deep in 3.1 attempts per game this season. He’s been even better since becoming a regular starter in March. He’s hitting 41.5% of his 3.8 triples a game over the last 17 games. He’s a marvel as a spot-up shooter, draining 41.8% of his catch-and-shoot threes as opposed to 25% on pull-ups. McDaniels is already taking up minutes that used to be earmarked for Okogie and Culver, and with the way he’s shooting, that should continue to be the case.
Something else Finch needs to focus on is Edwards’ shot selection. The Rookie of the Year frontrunner has jacked up the 10th-most threes of anyone in the league. It took Steph Curry until his fourth season to launch as many threes as Edwards has already in just 60 games.
All would be fine if they were going in, but they aren’t. I’m not saying he’s never going to be an above-average three-point shooter. His stroke is smooth and should improve with time and coaching. But for the time being, Edwards should focus on what he does best, attacking the rim like a shark attacks a sunbathing seal. If Edwards continues to pressure the rim, it will open up the three-point line for excellent shooters like McDaniels, Russell, and KAT to settle into a wide-open look more often.
It’s a few small tweaks. But the benefits of fully embracing the all-important three-point shot while getting your best shooters in the right position will make all the difference for a team that hasn’t had reliable outside shooting since Facebook was invented.