Deep Dive: Is A Pick-And-Roll Offensive Diet The Way Forward?
If the Timberwolves are going to run it back, they can't just run it back. That internal process starts with a new offensive identity.
Nobody can deny that the Minnesota Timberwolves’ flight path this season has been one of extreme turbulence. For every minute of smooth flying, they hit two more minutes of vicious air pockets that shook the whole franchise. At times, it just felt like a hundred birds had flown into their engine and the whole fucking aircraft was going to come crashing down. The end mercifully arrived off the back of a second straight playoff appearance, but it was a scar-inducing journey that left fans with more questions than answers about this team’s current trajectory.
That’s a common theme for the Timberwolves. Questions without answers and a constant churn of management, players and coaches. But, when a team trades the bulk of its future draft assets to acquire a single player and goes on to fall flat on its face, the natural inclination is to shake things up or completely break things up. After all, this is the NBA. A place where windows get slammed shut without notice and the tectonic plates of the league shift drastically each and every year.
Perhaps that is the route the Timberwolves go down this summer. Perhaps they cut their losses, nuke their roster, and build around the shining youthful beacons that are Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels. There are a thousand reasons to do that. However, because of the season’s weird injury luck and funky first-year jitters with Rudy Gobert in the lineup, the front office can — and likely will — run it back and give this roster construction another chance to work.
They’ll be betting on Karl-Anthony Towns to play more than 29 regular season games. They’ll be betting on Rudy Gobert to arrive at training camp in better shape and benefit from having a year with the team under his belt. They’ll be betting on internal growth and comfortability from Edwards, McDaniels and a impending free agents Naz Reid and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
And, perhaps most of all, they’ll be betting on Chris Finch as their head coach. Just as players grow, so do coaches, and Finch needs a summer full of growth to solidify his position on the sidelines.
President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly made it abundantly clear that he believes in the roster and Finch especially during the organization’s exit interviews, the clearest sign that they are going to climb back on the carousel of craziness next season and try to make it spin their way. If that is the case, then Finch needs to improve just as much as the chess pieces he is tasked with moving.
And, if they’re going to run it back with Finch, then Finch can’t run it back with the same ideas. Perhaps, rather than diversifying the offense by adding outlandish ideas into an already fragile mix, Finch can strip it back to its basketball roots and use a pick-and-roll-heavy diet to squeeze a few extra drops out of his ill-fitting roster.
Why Lean Into Pick-And-Roll?
From what we can see on the court and what we know from hearing Finch talk, he values randomness and free-flowing offense above all other offensive virtues. That’s commendable and it’s logical. By playing with an impermanent style, it makes planning for and defending an offense really difficult.
But a true coaching savant can tailor their style to the roster, rather than trying to jam a square peg into a round hole.
That style worked crisply with energizer bunnies like Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley alongside a plodding point guard like D’Angelo Russell. It didn’t work with a structure-fiend like Rudy Gobert. It didn’t work well with Mike Conley’s deep-cunning point guard play. It didn’t work well with Karl-Anthony Towns trying to adapt to a new position. More than anything, it didn’t work at the end of games when opposing defenses locked in and Minnesota’s collective sphincters tightened.
Even in the 2021-22 season when the Timberwolves finished seventh in offensive rating, they still routinely choked away leads and ended up eliminated in the playoffs after numerous collapses. This season, they finished a ghastly 23rd in offensive rating and continued to lose games late because that free-flowing liquid offense dried up into basketball’s version of the Sahara desert.
The evidence was there all season long. Clear as day even to us layman. The Timberwolves need more structure and Finch needs to implement that structure. Finch is a great play-caller and calling more plays is essential for this team, but it doesn’t always have to be the intricate multilayered sets to work. For this team, structure doesn’t have to be militant, but it can’t have the same inmates running the asylum vibe that this past season seemed to have.
The Timberwolves need to play more spread pick-and-roll.
They need to lean into it as heavily as any team in the league leans into it. That’s how Warden Finch sedates some of the wild tendencies of his inmates without sending the entire asylum into a forced lockdown.
That doesn’t mean they can’t run their set plays (they hardly do anyway) and it doesn’t mean they can’t sparsely run their horns configurations and wide pindown actions (that almost always lead to an isolation shot), but they need to find solid ground to base their offense on and a pick-and-roll-centric foundation feels like the ideal soil.
That will allow Gobert or Naz Reid to play to their strengths as screeners and rim-divers. They can share the ball-handling duties between Conley, Edwards, McDaniels and Kyle Anderson, providing them with clearer space off screens and more space in the lane with shooters littering the arc.
A spread pick-and-roll mantra gives the ball-handler the room to get downhill and make plays at the rim or kick to shooters. It gives Gobert a runway to the rim and forces defenses to dig down and provide cover on him. It gives the awaiting shooters room to shoot or attack closeouts. It provides the flow that the free-flowing offense has often lacked. It’s how Utah succeeded around Gobert. It’s how the Philadelphia 76ers thrived with James Harden and Joel Embiid this season. It’s how the Miami Heat became the biggest surprise packet of the playoffs.
It’s how this roster was built, whether Finch likes it or not. Gobert’s presence demands they play spread pick-and-roll. Edwards’ ball-dominant brilliance demands it. Conley and Anderson’s wily ball-handling ways demand it. McDaniels’ growth as a scorer — which is as important as anything — demands it.
For a variety of reasons, they just can’t be given complete agency to play champagne basketball without an infrastructure encasing it. Finch’s storm in a teacup ethos works with a very unique blend of chaos and smarts, but this team seems to end up with scalding tea all over themselves far too often.
They didn’t when they ran pick-and-roll, though.
They weren’t the best team in that category for the season, but they were living above the middle of the pack. In possessions when the player with the ball attempted a field goal or turned the ball over out of pick-and-roll play, the Timberwolves scored 0.94 points per possession, good for the 11th-best clip in the league. When it was the roll-man finishing the possession they scored 1.18 points per possession, the 12th-highest mark of any regular season team.
The problem — or potential hope for a solution — however, is that this wasn’t a point of emphasis for the Wolves. They ranked 24th in ball-handler frequency (15.3% of their total possessions) and 18th in roll-man frequency (5% of their total possessions), per NBA Stats. Those numbers only encompass the possessions that finished with the ball-handler or roll-man, there are still three other players on the court who can bolster the Timberwolves’ pick-and-roll offense with their ability to knock down triples or burn defenders who close out too hard.
So, despite Finch’s reluctance to rely on pure screen-and-roll play to buoy his offense, the Timberwolves weren’t a bad pick-and-roll team last season. They were just an infrequent one. None of this is groundbreaking — having a snaking ball-handler and a burly screener dovetailing with three shooters spread around them is still the most common play in basketball — but few teams are set up to hammer it in the way that Minnesota is.
Logic can be a devious vixen in the league’s ever-changing topography, but those numbers suggest that with more insistence on that area of the game, the Wolves could become even better in both numbers and eye test. They can’t waltz into training camp with all of the same ideas they had last year, and there is a bevy of reasons to consider a pick-and-roll increase as their first course of resuscitation.
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