The most obvious small sample size gains so far from the Wolves’ trade of Jimmy Butler to the 76ers, which brought Robert Covington and Dario Saric back primarily in return, has come on defense.
Kent Youngblood will have a larger look at this Wednesday in print and online, complete with insights from Wolves practice Tuesday, but suffice to say that the defense has looked much better since the deal. Minnesota is 2-1 with Covington and Saric playing regular minutes. They’ve allowed 100, 96 and 100 points in those three games after allowing fewer than 110 points just one other time in their first 14 games.
Defense is about effort and communication, both of which have improved dramatically. It also helps that Covington — a first-team All-NBA Defensive player a year ago — is at least Butler’s equal as a wing defender.
What I want to spend a little time on now, though, is the offense. Things looked very clunky in the loss to Memphis on Sunday, but there is some evidence that the Wolves could get better on that side of the ball soon — and that Covington and Saric could lead the way in a key area. Let’s dissect this:
*First, it’s worth noting the Wolves with Butler last season were a very good offensive team. It didn’t always look pleasing to the eye, but Minnesota was fourth in offensive efficiency in the NBA thanks to being good at free throws, taking care of the ball, hitting the offensive glass and making a lot of two-pointers.
The Wolves have been pretty good in those first three areas again, all of which seemed fairly sustainable. The last one, though — being good at two-pointers — contained a lot of hidden potential inefficiency.
Namely: The Wolves ranked in the top-5 in the NBA in percentage of field goal attempts from each of these three distances last year: 3-10 feet, 10-16 feet and 16 feet to the three-point line (per Basketball Reference). A whopping 48 percent of their combined field goal attempts came from those spots, and overall they took the highest percentage of two-pointers in the league.
But the most efficient two-pointers by far are 0-3 feet away from the rim, and the Wolves — though they made 69 percent of those shots, fourth-best in the NBA — ranked just No. 22 in percentage of overall shots taken from that distance.
So they were No. 22 in shots at the rim and last in three-pointers attempted. Those are the two most efficient shots in the NBA. They were reasonably efficient when they took those shots, but they didn’t take enough. Instead, they relied on taking — and making at a relatively high clip — lower percentage shots.
*Fast-forward to this year. The Wolves have obviously placed more of an emphasis on shooting three-pointers, with 32.5 percent of their attempts this year coming from long-distance. Combined with a slight uptick in shots at the rim (27.4 percent), overall they’re now shooting 59.9 percent of their shots from the two most efficient spots (compared to 52 percent a year ago).
What’s dragged the offense down — the Wolves are No. 22 in offensive efficiency through 17 games — is a combination of atrocious mid-range shooting and an adjustment to the increased emphasis on pace and space.
The Wolves are shooting just 46.6 percent on two-pointers — lowest in the NBA — and on shots from 16 feet to the three-point line they are shooing an abysmal 28.1 percent, by far the lowest in the NBA. The league average on shots 16 feet to the line? 40.6 percent. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague are all shooting less than 20 percent on long 2s. That absolutely will get better, even as the Wolves look to shoot fewer of them, and even returning to league average on those less-desirable shots will help.
Arguably, too, the offensive numbers suffered some during Butler’s time this season for the same reason the defense suffered: there was little synergy or communication. Many of those long 2s were likely contested, and/or came late in the shot clock, and/or were a result of isolation plays with little ball movement. It stands to reason that as the Wolves get to know each other better, they’ll get better looks on 2-point jumpers — not necessarily the shots you want, but better than contested 2s.
Butler, by the way, attempted just 46.8 percent of his shots last season with Minnesota either at the rim or from three-point range. He was great on 2-pointers and at getting to the line (and converting), but he tends to have more of a mid-range game.
So here’s how Covington and Saric help: Both are efficient shot takers.
Covington for his career attempts a whopping 83.5 percent of his shots either from three-point range (62.5 percent) or at the rim (21 percent), and with the Wolves in three games he’s been right on course at 82.7 percent.
Saric last year attempted 70 percent of his shots from deep or at the rim, and this year he’s over 70 percent.
They should help the Wolves’ offense continue to evolve given their efficiency and willingness to keep the ball moving.
One other thing that would help: Get Anthony Tolliver back on the court. He’s sat the last three games with Saric and Gorgui Dieng getting minutes. Tolliver has attempted 58 shots this year: 57 from deep or at the rim, and ONE from 16-feet to the line. Dieng, meanwhile, is attempting just 45.3 percent of his shots from those distances. More than a quarter of his field goal tries have been long twos, and he’s connected on just 31.6 percent of them.
Dieng adds value in other ways, so this isn’t necessarily a Tolliver vs. Dieng argument. And there are different ways to be efficient on offense, as the Wolves proved last season.
But as the Wolves seek a path to offensive efficiency through threes and layups — a track they started on before the Butler trade and should accelerate down now with Covington and Saric in the fold — they have some interesting pieces to make it happen.