Deep Dive: Why Anthony Edwards And The Wolves Need Roll-Men
Minnesota need to invest in a more dynamic rim-pressure strategy.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have a rim-pressure problem. It’s not their only problem on offense, the season those problems have become a never-ending barrage of gut punches, but it’s their biggest one. It’s simple, the closer a team gets to the rim the better chance they have to throw that spherical orange thing through the cylindrical hole.
Of course, doing that against a defense designed specifically to stop that from happening makes that simple task a lot more difficult. The Timberwolves have proved that throughout each of their 10 games this season. Getting to and scoring at the goalmouth requires players who have the natural inclination and athletic tools to make those plays for themselves and others or specific play-calls that pry open enough space in a defense to allow easy rim-attempts.
The Timberwolves don’t have those things. Not consistently enough, anyway. Maintaining an efficient offense is an everyday thing, Minnesota has it in spasmodic bursts at best. In transition, they can thrive, but they’ve been wading through cement in the halfcourt all season long. When it’s time to go to work against a set defense, Minnesota’s offense has been reduced to a 3-point-heavy slog, served up by a roster that is currently shooting just 33.3 percent from deep despite attempting the most long-range jumpers per game leaguewide. Overall, Minnesota ranks 25th in points per 100 possessions. Even that feels generous.
In terms of halfcourt offense, the Timberwolves rank 24th in shot frequency at the rim (25.3% of their field goal attempts) and 29th in at-rim field goal percentage (55.6%), per Cleaning The Glass. Every team in the top-10 in rim efficiency is currently in the playoff picture. Every single one. With the way they’re operating right now, it should come as no surprise that Minnesota is already falling down the mountainside, with an avalanche of losses helping them plummet further by the day.
Minnesota’s roster construction and the coerced mantra to discard shots at the rim in favor of long bombs puts more onus on Anthony Edwards than any young player should have heaped on them. The 20-year-old athletic phenom is the lone threat to consistently collapse defenses and score at the rim, and even he has had his problems finetuning his shot selection as he figures out what an efficient NBA shot profile looks like. He needs help, and without a complement of self-creating talent around him, he needs a system tweak to lighten the load.
The easiest way for Minnesota to get the blood pumping in their lifeless offense is to prioritize more pick-and-roll. It’s not an idea that is particularly revolutionary, pick-and-roll is the most common action in the league — an important cog in every team’s offensive machine, including Minnesota’s — but what outcomes of the action are emphasized changes from team to team. For Minnesota, they’ve been focusing mainly on pivoting out of those ball screens into space behind the 3-point arc.
That seems like the logical option when they have a sharpshooting big man like Karl-Anthony Towns at their disposal, but, as aforementioned, it’s not yielding positive results. Minnesota needs to get shots at the rim. It really is as basic as that. We know Towns can knock down shots out of pick-and-pop actions, but without the team being able to score consistently around the cup that skillset will never be enough to drag Minnesota to a steady stream of wins.
By putting Edwards at the head of the snake and allowing him to work with a hard-diving big man, the entire floor becomes a piece of clay to mold. This is best exemplified when the 20-year-old is on the floor with Naz Reid, who butters his bread as a roller.
A play like this is one you see a dozen times on any given night for most teams, but it’s more of a rarity for the Timberwolves. According to Basketball Index, Towns, who is playing almost 36 minutes a game, pops after 64 percent of his ball screens. While it’ll never be a bad idea for Towns to space the floor, it doesn’t create the offensive options like the way a strong dive does. Perhaps flipping those roll/pop frequencies would garner better results teamwide.
Towns is more than capable of operating in the same way Reid does, but the offense would understandably have to take a major turn to move away from him as a post-up and 3-point stalwart. He needs to continue feasting on a heavy diet of triples, but blending his outside game with that of a kamikaze roll-man would be wise. The big man has had to play chameleon in so many different systems, and this should be the latest shape to transform into.
As you can see in the example above, Edwards has no problem operating inside the arc without the help of a spaced big man, but he often doesn’t have a helper alongside him to bail him out. That’s so important and, right now, so destructive to the offense as a whole. Edwards takes 26.4 percent of Minnesota’s total field goal attempts within the restricted area, there is just no way that level of responsibility is sustainable for a second-year player without lending him a helping hand.
When Towns is the one doing the rolling alongside Edwards, the pair are formidable. Reid’s statistically a better roll-man — he scores 1.14 points per 75 roll-man possessions above league average which ranks in the 99th percentile — but he doesn’t have the same sort of scoring aura surrounding him that Towns does. That pull, intertwining with Edwards’ gravity around the rim, puts the defense in an often unescapable bind.
This empty side pick-and-roll is a premium example of how Minnesota’s offense improves when Towns is functioning as a roll-man. Edwards’ hesitation moves after he springs free from the ball screen shifts the defense towards Towns just enough to open up a driving lane for Edwards to jet into. With the ability to decelerate and rocket back into gear, it only takes the defense thinking about the roll-man for a split-second and the ball is nestling into the twine.
Again, the threat of Towns sneaking in behind forbids Jaxson Hayes from making a true attempt to get up and meet Edwards at the summit.
Of course, Edwards is capable of making plays at the rim with a roll-man alongside him, but simple pick-and-roll actions crack open more scoring avenues for cutters and 3-point specialists alike. It allows the ball and bodies to move organically, that’s something that’s been missing consistently from Minnesota’s offense this season.
In that same play against the New Orleans Pelicans, the defense collapses entirely around Edwards and Towns. Edwards finishes niftily around the rim, but when he at this point of the drive, he has both D’Angelo Russell and Patrick Beverley in pockets of space behind the arc. If Minnesota is going to launch triples, having them come as the result of a drive, collapse, and kick offense is going to create better looks than the ones they’re getting right now. The best way to achieve that is to have multiple bodies flooding toward the rim at once.
Teams know how to defend pick-and-roll. What style they deploy to stifle it is the baseline of every defense. However, stopping a 6-foot-6 steam train and a barreling big man who can finish around the rim deftly isn’t the garden variety pick-and-roll equation. It may seem like a caveman idea on how to foster more body and ball movement, but it just might be the simplicity this team needs to kickstart its engine. There is far too much offensive talent on the roster for it to be a go-kart on the highway. Strip it back. Let Edwards attack. But have another deadly finisher flanking him more often than not.
Perhaps the best way to capture the best of both the shooting and the diving world is to continue playing Reid and Towns alongside each other. Head coach Chris Finch has been increasing the Twin Tower minute-load of late and, at least offensively, it gives his team more spice and natural diversification.
With that pairing on the floor together, Finch can harness Reid’s natural ability to time up screens and rumble down the lane with good hands and great finishing nous while still unlocking Towns’ capacity to knock down catch-and-shoot looks or attack the rim off standstill catches and loping cuts.
Edwards has improved drastically at delivering these pocket passes and as he becomes increasingly familiar with being trapped or hedged in pick-and-roll play. Against aggressive schemes designed to force the ball out of Edwards’ hands, those dishes act as meteors crashing into the heart of a defense, spraying defensive rubble all over the hardwood as Minnesota finally scores with somewhat ease.
By sliding it through the gap in the play above, he is able to eliminate Draymond Green and force Kevon Looney into rotation with one flick of the wrist. Towns could do with some easy buckets like that more often and Reid can feast as a scoring or facilitating roll-man.
Edwards is the skeleton key. He needs to be consistent as a downhill threat himself and refine his shot distribution to force defenses to try and trap the ball out of his hands. Letting them off the hook with unwarranted deep triples is just what they want. He has enough speed and ball-handling to split and dust those hard hedges, but he is developing the ability to make the killer hockey assist, too.
Even alongside a screener like Jarred Vanderbilt, who defenses rarely respect, Edwards’ passing out of doubles leads to a fatally tilted defense. Minnesota has struggled fielding five shooters at a time, but if they can stack the weak side with two shooters and find Vanderbilt rolling lanes against a shifting opposition like this, they can force low-man help off those shooters, create good looks from distance, and rely less on the semi-contested jumpers they’ve clanked all season long.
According to Synergy Sports, Minnesota attempt a field goal on just five percent of their total possessions this season, the 20th highest frequency in the league. However, they score 1.19 points per possession, the 7th highest (79th percentile) efficiency mark. Something’s gotta give there. With an offense that has been sputtering along so far, they need to lean into the aspects of their game that has proven to be effective.
Even for someone like D’Angelo Russell, who isn’t able to get to the rim nearly as well as Edwards, leaning into more aggressive pick-and-roll dives and making teams commit to either him as a pull-up shooting threat or cover the big man seems like a fruitful mentality. Even with his slow start, Russell is shooting 40 percent on off-the-bounce triples and registers 5.3 high value (assists at the rim, 3-point line and passes leading to free throws) per 75 possessions, a number that ranks him in the 89th percentile according to Basketball Index.
It’s easy to hide some of his athletic flaws by forcing defenders to manage screens and then locking them into a game of wits with he and his roller going downhill. And when teams try to jump out and prevent Russell from getting off his own shots on the nights that he has it going, he too is able to slip pocket passes through gaps and free teammates for looks at the rim.
Nobody expected Minnesota to be so stagnant and sorry offensively this season. We all expected a fast-paced, ball-movement-heavy offense that would be able to play teams off the court even on nights where the porous defense was getting its ass kicked. That hasn’t happened. It’s time to go back to basics. Allow all three of Edwards, Towns and Russell to work in simple pick-and-roll actions and illuminate their talents as scorers and passers. Make things easier in a season that’s not been easy for one minute thus far.