MINNEAPOLIS – This is bad. Epically bad, in fact. Ugly bad. Head-shakingly bad. Tied for 21th-worst all-time bad.
If you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m referring to the Timberwolves’ 3-point shooting this season. As a team, they’re shooting a collective 30.1 percent from long range, which is a resounding worst in the NBA and, among teams all-time that have attempted more than 500 3-pointers in a season, only 20 have logged a worse percentage.
In fact, the Timberwolves just bumped their 3-point shooting accuracy over 30 percent; before Tuesday’s 8-of-15 night from long range, their 29.5 percent mark made them the only team shooting below 30 percent from beyond the arc. Even now, there’s a spacious gap between Minnesota and the league’s next-worst team, the Wizards, who are shooting 32.3 percent from long range.
This is an issue that’s plagued the Timberwolves from Day 1, despite their offseason goal of bringing in more wing players and shooters. The best 3-point night the team has logged this season was 53.3 percent on Tuesday against Atlanta, and every NBA team but two has had a night in which it has shot better from 3-point range than that. Its worst game, 11.8 percent, has come twice, against Sacramento on opening night Nov. 2 and against Utah exactly two months later, but that’s just the 14th-worst single-game performance by any team this year. That could be encouraging – it’s not as if the Timberwolves have delivered a top-10 worst 3-point shooting night yet this season – but it’s really anything but; rather, it just shows how consistently poor the team is from long range.
Minnesota’s 3-point shooting percentage so far this season is the second-worst in franchise history. Only the 1992-93 team, which shot 29.2 percent from long range and finished with a 19-63 record, was worse. But that’s what’s so baffling: this year’s team is nearly as bad as that one in terms of 3-point shooting, and yet it’s just three wins away from as many as the 1992-93 squad had all season.
There’s definitely a correlation between 3-point shooting and success, though not necessarily a direct one. If anything, 3-point shooting helps, and the best teams have it, but teams certainly can win with just a mediocre long-range game. Of the NBA’s five best teams – the Heat, Clippers, Thunder, Spurs and Grizzlies – only one is in the bottom half of the league in terms of 3-point percentage (through Monday). The Thunder are first, shooting 39.5 percent from long range, followed by the Heat, shooting 39.3 percent. The Spurs are fifth, shooting 38.6 percent, and the Grizzlies 11th, at 35.9 percent. Only the Clippers, 17th at 35.1 percent, fall below the midpoint of the league.
Additionally, of the 10 best 3-point shooting teams in the league through Monday, only two have losing records. Conversely, of the 10 worst, six have winning records.
However, only one of the league’s worst five teams – the Wizards, Cavaliers, Hornets, Charlotte and Phoenix – is among the league’s top 10 most accurate teams from long range. That’s the Hornets, who with their 37.9 percent shooting from 3-point range are sixth-best in the NBA. Other than that, the Wizards (32.3 percent) are 29th, the Suns (33.3 percent) 27th, the Bobcats (34.5 percent) tied for 19th and the Cavaliers (35.6 percent) 14th.
What’s interesting, too, is that among those five best teams, the amount of 3-pointers attempted per game varies widely. The Spurs chuck the most – 22.6 per game, good for seventh-most in the NBA – and the rest of the teams fall between 21.5 per game (the Heat, 10th-most in the league) and 14.5 (the Grizzlies, 29th-most). It’s not a matter of simply heaving them, which the Timberwolves have been doing – they’re right around the league average, attempting 19.2 per game – but of knowing your strengths and catering to them. The Grizzlies may not be a team built to shoot threes, per se, but when they do launch a long-range shot, its chances of going in are solid.
So the Timberwolves, who sit at 16-15, are obviously finding a way to compensate. It’s not like there aren’t decent teams that shoot poorly from long range – Indiana, Milwaukee, Denver, Portland and Brooklyn are all among the league’s 10 worst teams in terms of percentage, too – but when you’re as bad as the Timberwolves are in that respect, winning must be done through other avenues, like defense and rebounding, at which the team excels.
What’s most disappointing, though, is that this should be better. First of all, Chase Budinger was supposed to be healthy and a 3-point threat; his 40.2 percent mark last year was good for 21st in the league. But it’s more than just that one injury. Of the players currently on the team’s roster, only Derrick Williams is shooting the same or better from long range this season than last. His 38.0 percent mark is the best on the team and a marked improvement from his 26.8 percent long-range shooting last season.
If every Timberwolves player were making threes at the same percentage as he did last season, the team would be averaging 32.9 percent from long range. That would still be good for second-worst in the league, but a good chunk better than the current state of affairs, and with Budinger out for the foreseeable future, the team’s 3-point shooting was never going to be what coach Rick Adelman imagined it would going into the fall. (For added torture, I’ll include this: If every player were making 3-pointers at the best single-season percentage of his career, the Timberwolves would be shooting 39.9 percent from long range, which would be good for best in the league. But realistically, that was never going to happen.)
The Timberwolves have plenty of time – 51 games, to be precise – to rise out of the ranks of the historically terrible 3-point shooting teams. It’ll take Budinger’s comeback and Love’s too, with both returning to something close to their prior form. Plus it’ll take marks closer to their career averages for players like J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour, who, though not terrible, have also underperformed this season.
Another positive will be Ricky Rubio, who on Tuesday was responsible for the assist on four of the team’s eight 3-pointers. With Rubio in the game, the Timberwolves were 6-of-9 from 3-point range, another sign the point guard’s floor spacing, play calling and even instincts should boost the team’s shooting, especially from long range.
Granted, the Timberwolves can win with poor 3-point shooting, but perhaps not this poor and for a period sustained much longer than this. Adelman has been adamant that his players continue to shoot, and logic says eventually the shots will fall. Now, it’s just a matter of that happening, and at this point, happening soon, and Tuesday’s game went a long way in creating some confidence off of which the team can build.