Now that the calendar has clicked over to another year, the Western Conference NBA playoff race will be conducted in earnest. With the regular season nearly half-completed, Dallas and Sacramento appear to be shoo-ins for postseason slots; San Antonio is a safe bet; and two months of injuries, boredom, and bickering haven't been enough to permanently derail the L.A. Lakers. Rookie studs in Houston (Yao Ming) and Phoenix (Amare Stoudemire) make those teams legitimate contenders; Portland's dysfunction has been banished by the installation of Scottie Pippen at point guard; and Utah's ageless triumvirate of John Stockton, Karl Malone, and coach Jerry Sloan remains the game's premier alliance of fundamentalist teachers.
For our hometown Timberwolves to dodge the disaster of missing the playoffs, they must finish ahead of one of the eight aforementioned conference foes in the standings. As of last Friday, only the three-time defending champion Lakers were behind the Wolves, and those days are almost certainly numbered. Even with the return of all-star Wally Szczerbiak to pair with this year's de facto league MVP, Kevin Garnett, a credible case could be made that Minnesota has less overall talent on its roster than any of the other top nine conference contenders. And even if the Wolves do manage to scrap their way into the fringe of the playoff picture this April, they will have to beat an elite conference opponent on the road in a short series or keep the monkey of playoff failure on their backs another year while their fans' frustration molders into apathy.
Put simply, it's hard to see how the status quo produces anything but a rutted path to a dead end. At this perilous juncture it is time for something bold, a drastic measure that could plant the seed for an improbable playoff triumph--or fail miserably. It is time, in other words, for the Wolves to revamp their offense by putting greater emphasis on long-range, three-point shooting.
Throughout the seven-and-half-year tenure of coach Flip Saunders, the Wolves have made the three-point shot a low priority, preferring to generate offense through crisp ball movement that results in open, high-percentage mid-range jumpers. This year Saunders announced that his team would change over to a motion-oriented offense that featured more screens and cuts to the basket. But injuries, particularly to Wally Szczerbiak, and the limited vision and court leadership of point guard Troy Hudson, have scrambled those plans. As a result, the team is passing well enough to rank third in the NBA in assists, but scoring less efficiently. Traditionally one of the two or three most accurate-shooting, high-scoring teams in the league, they currently rank ninth in both points per game and overall field-goal percentage.
Simple math tells us that a team able to convert one-third of its three-point attempts is as efficient as a team that sinks half of its two-pointers. Because NBA players are collectively converting more than a third of their threes and less than half of their twos this season, teams theoretically would be better off jacking up nothing but long-range bombs. It doesn't work that way, of course, because the ability to score down near the basket is what diverts opposing defenses enough to free up space for long-range shots from the perimeter. Ideally, you want to strike a complementary balance between the two--somewhat akin to the mix of running and passing in football--while tailoring your offense to foreground the specific talents of your players.
Saunders and the Wolves are doing a lousy job of deploying the team's long-range shooting prowess. Last year Minnesota ranked third in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage--but attempted fewer threes than two-thirds of the teams in the league. This season, with Szczerbiak injured most of the time, the Wolves' three-point percentage has dropped to 16th among the NBA's 29 teams. But that doesn't justify Minnesota's ranking next-to-last in number of three-pointers attempted.
A greater reliance on the three makes even more sense when you consider the strengths and weaknesses of the Wolves' players. Szczerbiak in particular seems like he should be the NBA's poster child for long-range shooting. Last year Wally converted a remarkable 45.5 percent of his three-pointers, the league's fourth-highest percentage. He would have had to sink 68 percent of his two-pointers to achieve the same offensive efficiency. (This season, which has been abbreviated by injury, he's hit 40 percent of his threes, just a hair below his career average.)
Shooting more three-pointers would complement Szczerbiak's game in other ways. An effective penetrator when he is able to use his quick first step off the dribble and move north-south, directly toward the hoop, Szczerbiak is prone to turning the ball over when he tries to dribble out of double-coverage, moving east-west, with his back toward the basket. Situated out on the perimeter, beyond the three-point arc, his naturally quick release could bury long-range jumpers before defenders could converge. And when defenders do rush out to challenge him, he's better able to make that first-step move and head straight for the hoop. Finally, playing out on the perimeter would enable Wally to get back more rapidly on defense and save some wear and tear on his chronically troublesome toe.
Another obvious beneficiary if the Wolves emphasize the three-pointer is Anthony Peeler. Incredibly enough, A.P. has been more accurate from long-range than he has been on attempts from inside the three-point arc this season. And while the discrepancies are not as remarkable for Hudson (who is making 35 percent of his threes versus 43 percent for all his shots), the numbers suggest he would be a more efficient scorer (and a less problematical choreographer of the half-court offense) if the Wolves pursued a strategy geared more to long-range jumpers.
But what about Kevin Garnett, who is enjoying his finest season as a pro while operating within the Wolves' current offensive scheme? Ideally, the team's three-point emphasis would spread out opposing defenses and give KG more room to maneuver. Imagine him setting up in his customary spot by the elbow of the foul line, with the options of feeding the ball down low for Rasho Nesterovic (one of Minnesota's signature plays this year), out to the wings for Szczerbiak or Hudson to launch a three, or, if the defense is playing the pass, turning for a shot or drive to the hoop against single coverage. Because Garnett corrals most of his rebounds by reaching out with his Inspector Gadget arms (rather than jousting for position with his skinny butt), the long caroms from errant three-pointers will make him more of a force on the offensive boards. And last but not least, don't forget that KG himself has sunk 35 percent of his three-point attempts thus far this season.
Over the past few years, it has frequently been noted that the Wolves' proclivity for mid-range jump shots instead of low post layups creates a feast-or-famine situation. That dynamic will become more pronounced if Minnesota starts bombing away from the three-point line. When their jumpers aren't falling, games can get ugly in a hurry. But by the same token, a ball club willing and able to rain down a bevy of three-pointers stands the best chance of springing an upset on a more talented opponent. The Wolves have the personnel to credibly execute this admittedly risky gambit come playoff time, provided they start honing those skills during the regular season. Past playoff performances have been all famine and no feast, and, if anything, the odds of advancing in the postseason appear even more daunting this year. Time for the long shots to take some long shots.
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