Week In Review, Vol. 10: 'Tis The Season
For new defensive schemes, barking teammates and three-man combinations.
We’re at the finish line now, folks. The Minnesota Timberwolves fill us all with dread, horror and sadness, but it’s still damn good to have them back. Since last Sunday’s Week In Review issue, Media Day has been and gone and the Wolves training camp is in full swing leading into the coming week’s preseason games. That means there are lots of Howls and not so many Growls to dissect. It’s beautiful, this basketball stuff, isn’t it?
Howl: Three-Man Combos
Nothing excites me more than some intra-lineup minutia. According to Chris Finch via Chris Hine of the Star Tribune, they bubble up that same feeling in the Timberwolves coaching staff, too. Finch noted that he and his coaching cohorts turn to three-man analytics to help dictate some of their lineup decisions. So, for the first Howl, let’s take a look at what three-man combinations stood out the most last season.
All of the numbers here were sourced from NBA Stats and, for the sake of sample size, all of these lineups played at least 200 minutes together last season.
The Shooters: Karl-Anthony Towns, Malik Beasley, Anthony Edwards
Unsurprisingly, the good players do good things … good. By percentage (42.7%), there was no triumvirate that knocked down shots more accurately while they shared the floor. To be fair, the Edwards, Jaden McDaniels and D’Angelo Russell threesome contributed the exact same 42.7 percent clip, but they attempted 68 fewer 3-pointers (288 to 220). In terms of high-volume trios that could feature next season, Edwards, Towns and McDaniels take the cake after they hit 37.9 percent of their 628 attempts.
The Stock Market: Jaden McDaniels, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jordan McLaughlin
Steals and blocks (or stocks) aren’t everything defensively. Really, there is a whole lot underneath the tip of that iceberg, but it’s interesting to see what three-man lineup contributed the most surface-level disrupting defense nonetheless. With that in mind, it makes sense that McDaniels, Vanderbilt and McLaughlin are at the top of that pile. When alongside each other on the hardwood, they chipped in 11 steals and 8.5 blocks per 100 possessions.
Both of the gangly forwards are Minnesota’s best in terms of defensive versatility and ability to impact shots at the rim while McLaughlin is a pesky point-of-attack defender and a thief in the passing lanes. In terms of stocks numbers, there is no point comparing other three-man lineups to this one — nobody comes close.
Pace Freaks: Naz Reid, Anthony Edwards, Malik Beasley
This one is a little brow-raising. You would think that any three-man unit featuring a lumbering big man who likes to post-up like Naz Reid would play at a slower pace. But, among three-man lineups still on the team, this one topped NBA Stats’ pace rating.
Maybe Reid was just the passenger. A bystander watching in awe as pacey wing stylings of Anthony Edwards and Malik Beasley were at their most chaotic. Or maybe Reid’s body transformation really is lending itself to a quicker playstyle. Finch loves pace and space offense, so maybe we see these three get substantial burn together in the upcoming season.
Net Kings: Jordan McLaughlin, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels
On the surface, this trio leading Minnesota’s high-minute net rating standings (+6.8 in 254 minutes) would be strange, but all three have featured heavily in these little three-man peeks. Maybe it’s the advanced numbers telling fibs, maybe they’re doing more than meets the untrained eye. Either way, in terms of three-man numbers, nobody helped the team win more than these three.
Howl: Anthony Edwards, Defender?
The expectations have been simmering into a boil for sophomore Edwards for the entire offseason. Those expectations, however, have been related to his offensive prowess. We expected him to come back more polished as a ball-handler and creator. We expected his 3-point shot pack an extra punch of efficiency. We expected him to make more plays for others.
But, after watching him struggle so mightily in his rookie season, there was no reason to think he would be making the leap to a versatile and impactful defender. That, according to head coach Chris Finch via Jace Frederick of the Pioneer Press, is exactly what has been happening throughout the early portions of training camp.
"Ant’s defense has been outstanding, really.” Finch said. “His defense on and off the ball. Particularly off the ball, he’s been really good in the gaps, help situations. He’s been great, real aggressive. He’s been more aggressive defensively than offensively"
There is nothing that would change the future fortunes of the Timberwolves quite like a legitimate two-way Ant-Man would. We know he has the strength and lateral speed to be a staunch stopper on the ball, but the off-ball stuff seemed years away. Finch hasn’t shown to be one to make wild sweeping declarations without cause, but it seems too good to be true. Maybe that’s the years of jaded optimism talking.
Growl: Rampin’ Up
Feels like we need to have at least one Growl in here. Outside of the messy Gersson Rosas business that was so last week, it’s been nothing but smooth sailing lately. But, per Chris Finch via Dane Moore, Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t participated in any five-on-five scrimmages in training camp so far. That’s not ideal.
He isn’t injured, so no sweat needs to be poured over his availability for the season or even the preseason, but the Wolves brass are simply “ramping him up”. Towns has battled through multiple injury-riddled seasons over the last few years, so it’s likely a good thing that the team is being precautionary with him as he builds into an extremely important campaign.
Still, I selfishly want to see Towns participating in every minute of training camp and building the comradery and on-court chemistry that this Timberwolves squad is going to need if they want to enter the playoff picture.
Howl: Designer Defense
By all accounts, the Wolves are changing things up defensively this season. They’ve been bottom of the barrel since the dawn of time, so it makes sense. Instead of dropping Towns back into the paint, they will be playing him up at the level of the screen and scrambling behind him to cover the roll-man and the corner shooters.
I lied, it’s not designer, it’s pretty bloody common actually. It’s what needs to be done, though. Towns doesn’t fit the drop scheme and the drop scheme doesn’t fit him. He has had his fair share of forgettable individual defensive moments and performances over the journey, but he has never had a coach willing to bend the scheme to try and help him succeed. We don’t know whether it will, but it’s absolutely worth giving a crack.
This was a basic summary of what is hopefully a revelation for this Wolves team, but if you want a comprehensive breakdown of the scheme and the role defensive-minded forwards Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels play in it, subscribe and head over to this week’s Deep Dive.
Howl: That Pat Bev Influence
He was going through health and safety protocols for Media Day, so we didn’t get to catch up with Patrick Beverley then, but his fingerprints have been all over the training camp crumbs we’ve been able to gather up thus far. Beverley is still very much an impactful player with his shooting stroke and his defensive acumen, but it was these off-court gems that made acquiring him such a salivating prospect.
There is a bunch of energy and firepower in everything he says in the clip above, and that seems to be resonating. He and Edwards seem to have become fast friends — that’s important. Naz Reid praised his leadership qualities to the hills and openly admitted his love for him — that’s awesome, they would make a good buddy cop film franchise.
Beverley himself even said that he was angling for a move to the Wolves as soon as his contract extension with the Los Angeles Clippers fell apart. I’m not sure how much I’ll ever believe a player saying that they pined for a Minnesota move, but the fact that he has bought in to that level is worth noting.
If he hasn’t already, Beverley is going to rocket into fan-favorite territory.
The Week At Howls And Growls
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Alongside these weekly probes, there will be a Straight Sets issue, which delves into the details of Minnesota’s offensive playbook with video breakdowns, diagrams and written words. In the latest issue week, it was time to dive into one of Chris Finch’s favorite screens: The Wedge Screen. From off-ball picks to full blown actions like the one you see below, Finch loves to use wedges to get the team good looks.
You’ll also gain access to the weekly Deep Dive, an in-depth look at a specific Timberwolves topic. This week, I dove way deeper into the Timberwolves new ‘hedging’ defensive scheme. Here’s an excerpt:
The added bonus to McDaniels is that he can moonlight as the point-of-attack stopper. When he is in that role, he can use his length and lateral quickness to flatten the offensive possession before it even gets off the ground. Somehow, despite weighing as much as a wet paper bag, the 21-year-old is able to glissade through ball screens and stay attached to his man. Because he has arms stretch into next week, he can provide cover quicker than someone like Russell, Beverley, Beasley or Edwards even if he is a step behind the player with the rock. That allows Towns to recover to the big man quicker and the rest of the defensive shell can cement itself back into place.
It’s not groundbreaking to say that Jaden McDaniels and Jarred Vanderbilt are important pieces to Minnesota’s defense. On a team full of players who are tilted toward scoring and playmaking, they stand as the guardians of the defense. But, with their versatility and God-given physical tools, they’re more now.
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