By: Louie Vicchiollo - 14 minute read
With free agency beginning to wind down and rosters filling up, NBA fans everywhere can begin to analyze their new teams. Whether a team added just one new player in the draft, or made a complete overhaul like the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves, it is time to start getting used to players in new jerseys. Although it is very exciting to have a new name (or a couple new names) on your roster, then go and watch all of their YouTube highlights and get even more excited, it is important to know what your new players really bring to the table.
The Timberwolves had one of the biggest off seasons in the NBA this year, even though they didn’t sign any “big” name players in free agency (cc: Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap) but regardless, the roster has changed quite a bit. I highlighted what roster continuity means for a team and how it affects winning, but that is just a general look at a changing roster; what will our Wolves really look like this year?
Shot charts are awesome. They help highlight how and where a player excels, and struggles, on the offensive end of the floor. Of course this doesn’t illustrate their passing abilities, off ball movement, or rebounding, but it can give us great insight on arguably the biggest part of offense, shooting. This is what I want to look at in this piece, how will the Wolves look on offense this year? Will they rank last in three point shooting again? Will Jimmy Butler fit in? Let’s dive in.
(*Note: when I reference rights and lefts, it is the player's right or left; opposite of right and left on the shot charts)
As I mentioned before, the Wolves sucked at three point shooting last year. They were last in three point attempts and makes, and shot the 10th worst three point percentage. With fans pleading for “three and D” players in free agency, what have the Wolves done to solve this issue?
Trading Ricky Rubio may have left many Minnesota fans heartbroken (including myself), but one thing that was evident about Ricky was that he had very limited range. Looking at his shot chart below, you can see that when he shot from three, he usually wasn’t shooting it well. He hit from a decent percentage at the left and right wings (38% and 35%, respectively) but he didn’t shoot frequently enough throughout the season for that to take effect (56 attempts and 23 attempts, respectively). He shot an abysmal percentage from the top of the key at 25%, and when shooting from the left corner he was even worse, just 21%. When looking at the chart, his right corner shooting looks great, which it was at a mark of 44%, but he only shot 18 times from that corner; eight shots made for a total of 24 points last season, not nearly enough to make an impact.
Ricky Rubio 2016-17 Shot Chart
So Mr. Teague, what can you do to solve this issue? The first thing you will notice with new-Timberwolf Jeff Teague’s shot chart is that he hardly ever takes midrange jumpers, which is a good thing. His favorite spot in the midrange is the left elbow, and he hit 54% of his shots from there last season, so when he is shooting the inefficient midrange jumper, at least he is making them. Although many Wolves fans will miss boy-wonder Rubio, Teague is a step up when it comes to three point shooting. He took a lot, and hit a decent amount of three point shots from the top of the key (34% shooting on 134 shots), and he shot 38% from both wings, a respectable percentage. He took only a combined 23 shots from the corners last year, which is probably a good thing; having your point guard, the player who is supposed to orchestrate the offense sitting and shooting from the corner isn’t ideal. Similar to Ricky, Teague struggled around the basket (note: this is compared to the league, when comparing him to guards only his percentages compare much more favorably), but as you can see he has a “hot spot” just outside of the restricted area, where guards often get their floater shots off from. Teague also had the 13th most drives per game last year, and was the ball handler in pick and rolls 41% of his plays; this will help him get to that hot spot and knock down floaters, or drive and dish. You can also see on the left side of the floor he had great percentages, especially just outside of the paint. The bottom line is if Teague is shooting the ball, he is taking efficient three point shots or is shooting at the basket.
Jeff Teague 2016-17 Shot Chart
A quick note on how “efficient” shot types are, the expected value for a midrange shot (defined here as non-three pointers 10 feet or further away from the basket) is 0.815; that means for ever midrange shot taken by the league last year, we can expect 0.815 points to come from each shot. To compare, the expected value for a three point shot in the league last year was 1.074, and close range shots (less than 10 feet from the basket) expected value was 1.045, both much more “efficient” than the midrange jumpers.
Ok, boring math and expected values, I know. But it’s a great statistic and it’s very important in explaining the trend toward three point shooting in the league. Back to the charts.
Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler virtually play the same position, but I’m going to start with Jimmy at the shooting guard position (he played 36% of his minutes at SG compared to Andrew’s 3% last season). The first thing anyone will see when they look at Butler’s shot chart is how right heavy it is. In fact, in the 2015-16 season, 61% of his shots came from the right side according to this awesome site. What causes Jimmy to tend towards the right so much? Breaking news: Jimmy Butler is right handed, and he drives to the basket when he is orchestrating the offense. In the NBA last year, there were two non-point guards who drove to the basket more times a game than Jimmy G. Buckets: DeMar DeRozan and LeBron James. Jimmy drives to the basket 9.4 times a game, and he passes out of those drives 38% of the time, which means he is getting fouled, turning it over or taking a shot 62% of the time (he only turns it over 5% of the time). The great thing about Jimmy when he drives is that he is a great finisher, netting 52% of his drive shots last season. Butler also relies a lot on his pull up jumper coming off of those drives, especially from the right side midrange area; he attempted 7.4 pull up jumpers a game last year, one of the highest rates in the NBA, and only hit 36% of those pull up shots - this is something he will need to improve on. Since Butler attacks the basket frequently, he also gets to the line frequently; in fact, he took the 3rd most free throws in the NBA last season, and netted the 4th most. Jimmy isn’t a great three point shooter, making 37% of his three point field goals last year, but he has a respectable enough shot that defenders have to guard him close on the three point line, giving him more opportunities to drive by them with his elite athletic ability. He also shot really well from the corners last year, netting 55% of the corner threes. Jimmy is an elite athlete and utilizes that on the offensive end, especially when driving the ball. He is unselfish, and I can already envision the passes Jimmy is going to make from his drives to the right side over to the left side open shooters when the defense collapses down on him on a drive.
Jimmy Butler 2016-17 Shot Chart
Now onto one of the most widely regarded “high ceiling”, “unlimited potential”, “next superstar” players in the league. Step up to the plate, Mr. Andrew Wiggins. Andrew took 22% of the Timberwolves shots last season, a mark that is more than likely going to decrease this year with many people thinking he will be the third scoring option for the Wolves, but regardless he is a very important player within the offense. Each year Wiggins has been in the league, he has increased his three point percentage, and hopefully he can continue to do that to help solve some of the long range issues the Wolves have had the last couple of years. The first thing that jumps out at you when you see Maple Jordan’s shot chart is his three point shooting from the top of the key and left wing. Hitting 38% of the 203 attempts from those two areas combined last year, this is one of Andrew’s biggest strengths; and with Butler driving to the right side of the floor, this will create many more open looks for Andrew in these high efficiency areas for him when defenses' weak side helps down on Jimmy's drives. Wiggins also is a fan of pulling up and taking midrange jumpers, taking the 11th most pull up shots in the NBA last year. He hits these midrange shots at a decent from the left elbow and right baseline, especially when he elevates on his shot; regardless, the midrange jumper is inefficient, and if Andrew is going to continue pulling up from there he will have to hit those shots at a higher rate than he did last year (37%). Using his elite athletic ability also allows his to score well around the rim, where he hit 56% of his shots last season. Attacking the basket also led Andrew to attempt the 10th most free throws in the NBA last season, and he shot 76% from the line, just about average. We are going to see Wiggins’ attempts decrease this year, but with less defensive focus on him and more on Butler, this should create more opportunities for Andrew to get good looks at his favorite shots.
Andrew Wiggins 2016-17 Shot Chart
Since signing Taj Gibson, many fans assume he will be starting and that Gorgui will be coming off of the bench, which I guess only Tom Thibodeau knows (personally I'm a Gorgui truther). I want to start with Gorgui because of the large role he played within the offense last year, and because his shot chart is short, sweet, and to the point. There are four main areas that are immediately evident in Gorgui’s shot chart: the top of the key, midrange baseline shots, corner threes, and restricted area shots. Any Timberwolves fan who has watched Gorgui play more than 10 games can picture him setting a screen, rolling to the top of the key, bringing the ball way behind his head, and sinking the long midrange jumper. This has been his bread-and butter play since his rookie year, and although the amount of three point shots he takes has increased every year, this will always be his go to play. When he was on the floor last year, 18% of the time he was the roll man in a pick and roll, and he scored on 54% of those plays. It is also evident from his shot chart that he takes a good amount of his shots from the baseline, around the 15 foot mark; he is given a lot of these open shots off drive and kicks to the corner, where he can take one dribble and step into his shot. Since Gorgui is a good offensive rebounder (14th most in the NBA last season), he is often under the rim putting back misses, where he earns most of his points. Although we will almost certainly see his offensive role decrease this year with the new scoring additions to the team, we can still expect to see the catapult-like shooting style from him at the top of the key.
Gorgui Dieng 2016-17 Shot Chart
Taj Gibson is a simple man when it comes to offense, and there seems to be a general consensus that he was brought to Minnesota to help anchor the defensive end, not the offense. Regardless, he can be valuable in some of the same ways Gorgui is, especially in the restricted area. He grabs offensive rebounds at an 8% rate, and over 70% of his shots come from within 10 feet. He doesn’t venture out past the midrange, and he can be used to bang down low. Similar to Gorgui, he is the roll man in pick and rolls 16% of the time, but he is used more of a “hard roll” and looks to crash the glass off of a miss or get a fresh shot clock for the offense. Like I said, he is a simple man offensively, but that does not mean he will not make a positive impact on that end of the floor. It also should be noted he shot 100% from beyond half court last season, one for one, the most accurate shooter in the league. Check out his range!
Taj Gibson 2016-17 Shot Chart
Now, for the golden child. The pride of the pack that is the Minnesota Timberwolves; Karl-Anthony Towns. I can bore you with how everyone in the league thinks he is the next best thing, or how he is the last player since Shaq to average 25 points per game and 12 rebounds per game (that still feels so ridiculous to say), but I won’t do that. Karl isn’t a big midrange guy. In fact, he took less than 20% of his shots from midrange last season, and that is one of the reasons why he is so damn efficient. If he is going to shoot from midrange, he is going to take two dribbles out of the low post and shoot that pretty fadeaway from 15 feet that we all know and love. Otherwise, he is going to punish you under the basket, where he shot 62% (!!) from last season on 867 shots, which was good for third best in the NBA last year. He took less than 100 shots from the midrange wings and top of the key last year, and when he did get the ball at the elbow he elected to drive rather than shoot - this led him to be in the top 20 for free throw attempts and makes. Perhaps the most exciting thing about KAT is his ability to stretch the floor and hit threes. Last year his favorite three point shot was at the top of the key, where he shot 134 times and hit 38% of those shots, not bad for a big man. He also shot well from the left wing (35% on 33 shots) and was on fire from the left corner (52% on 27 shots), which was the opposite from his right side of the floor three point shooting. From the right wing, he took 33 shots and only hit 21% of them, and the right corner only shot 27% on 26 shots, not ideal. Like Rubio, there may not be enough attempts to get excited about his left side shooting, or to be worried about his ride side range, but it is something to be noted nonetheless. Another thing that should be noted, is that at the time this article is being written, he is only 21 years 245 days old. Something to look forward to this season is Karl coming up from the left block to the wing on some of Butler’s drive and having open threes to look at when Jimmy is looking to drive-and-dish.
Karl-Anthony Towns 2016-17 Shot Chart
The next player that needs to be addressed is Jamal Crawford, Minnesota’s new sixth man and crowd pleasing shooting guard. Crawford can be one of Minnesota’s biggest cures for the three point shooting woes they have had, and can be a spark plug coming off of the bench. Last year, he shot 42% and 45% from the left and right wings, respectively. From the top of the key and the corners he shoots relatively average, but as I have mentioned before, regressing towards the average should be Minnesota’s three point goals this year. Being a highly respected three point shooter creates a frequent scenario of defenders rushing out to contest Crawford’s shot, in which he loves to take one dribble in and knock down a long two (16 feet or longer, not a three pointer). He was 19th of all players, and first of bench players in long two attempts last year, taking 254 shots and hitting 43% of them. While this shot is extremely inefficient, if he keeps knocking it down or uses rushing defenders to create four point play opportunities (which he is the NBA all time leader in). Crawford isn't the most efficient player. shooting well below the league's average eFG%, but with a new team, the vet has a chance to rework his game a bit. The Wolves needed to add depth on the offensive end this year, and JCrossover will definitely help the bench on the offensive end, along with making the fans “oohh” and “aaahh” a couple times a game.
Jamal Crawford 2016-17 Shot Chart
The final player we will look at is Nemanja Bjelica. BJelly time. If you thought Taj Gibson was a simple man, let me tell you about Mr. Bjelica. If he is shooting, it is going to be a three point shot, or from within 10 feet. I’m not even sure if Bjelica knows that midrange shots exist, he only took 6.2% of his shots from midrange last year (the league's average is 25% of shots); optimal expected value efficiency. There is speculation about how much playing time Bjelica will get with Gorgui and Taj ahead of him, but once again, only Tom Thibodeau knows. If he continues to come off the bench and hit threes, it is hard to imagine him not getting significant minutes next year.
Nemanja Bjelica 2016-17 Shot Chart
We are entering an exciting, unknown, and hopeful era of Timberwolves basketball. The offense is going to look drastically different with someone else at the controls other than Ricky Rubio, which Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler will attempt to fill that hole in the hearts that Ricky left. With Tom Thibodeau pulling the strings as puppeteer of these Timberwolves, Minnesota fans can set their sights on the playoffs.
All of the shot charts in this piece come from the absolutely amazing StatMuse, check them out!
All other statistics come from NBA and Basketball Reference.