Wolves improved from 3 this season — but just barely
MINNEAPOLIS — Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders calls it "popcorn basketball."
It’s the kind of half-court offense Rick Adelman’s perfected in 23 years as a head coach — passes popping from one set of hands to the other, while off-the-ball screens open the next target for his turn to receive the rock.
Eventually, the opposition falls a rotation short of covering a sharpshooter on the wing. There are nuances to running Adelman’s corner sets, but the results of proper execution are often wide-open, uncontested 3-pointers that even the most casual fan can easily observe.
When it happens, Saunders and general manager Milt Newton often turn to each other and beam. "We go, ‘That’s good basketball right there,’" Newton said.
It’s helped turn Kevin Love into an All-Star starter. It’s allowed Kevin Martin to thrive in three different NBA markets.
But Adelman, Saunders and Newton haven’t seen enough of it this season.
After enduring one of the NBA’s worst-ever 3-point shooting seasons last year, Minnesota made volume distance shooting an offseason priority. Saunders told Love to continue perfecting his deadly 3, re-signed pure-shooting but unproven wing Chase Budinger and went out and got Martin in a sign-and-trade deal to reunite him with Adelman. Each action was aimed at improving upon the league’s dead-last team 3-point clip of 30.5 percent.
The Timberwolves have. But only marginally.
"I don’t think we’ve shot it as well as we need to," Adelman said. "I think it’s just something that we’ve had our moments where we shot it really well, and then other times, we haven’t."
Heading into Wednesday’s home game against Memphis, Minnesota’s shooting 34.4 percent from beyond the arc — only four spots better than last year’s bottom league ranking. Love’s 38.2-percent clip is third among NBA power forwards — on far more attempts (450) than the two players ahead of him — and Martin is shooting a team-best 38.5 percent and scoring 19.1 points per game.
That’s exactly what Saunders wanted when he dealt Luke Ridnour to Milwaukee in a three-team deal that brought Martin in for $28 million over four years.
But aside from the two Kevins, the Timberwolves are a 31.0-percent 3-point shooting team. That’s half a percentage point better than last year and on par with the Philadelphia 76ers (31.1 percent), who just snapped an NBA record-tying 26-game losing streak.
"It’s just something we thought we’d be better at," Adelman said. "A couple of guys are good, the other guys have been up and down.
"I think a lot of it probably has to do with ball movement."
"I think it was tough for our guys to trust that the shot was gonna come back around," said Newton, who was hired by Saunders after Minnesota’s key offseason acquisitions took place. "You have to be unselfish to do that and to feel like ‘maybe we can get a better shot than this shot that I have right now.’"
That requires the classic necessity of making the extra pass. Even with his maligned left knee, Budinger can knock down uncontested shots. Same with point guard Ricky Rubio, who’s shooting a career-best 34.5 percent from long range but often rushes his shot and throws up line drives rather than the soft, arching 3s he puts up most days after practice.
The Timberwolves extended Budinger for three years and $15 million this past summer. Before training camp, he re-injured the meniscus on which he had surgery last season, had another operation and missed the first 35 games of the season.
He has yet to recapture the touch that saw him shoot 40.2 percent from 3 with Houston two seasons ago. This season, he’s made 36 of 110 3s (32.7 percent).
Ankle bursitis hampering Nikola Pekovic hasn’t helped the exterior cause, either. The big man has missed 19 of Minnesota’s past 29 contests and exited early again in Monday’s home loss to the Clippers.
When Pekovic’s absent, defenses can pay more attention to Love and stay in better position to close on outside shots.
The Timberwolves don’t have an athlete that can create his own shot on the perimeter. Their closest thing to a successful drive-and-disher is Rubio, but his 45.25 field-goal percentage in the restricted area limits defense’s desires to collapse his direction.
"If you have someone who can penetrate and get to the basket and draw people, then you can kick it out for wide-open shots," Newton said. "So we have to be more consistently sharing the basketball, because there’s enough shots to go around how we play and the possessions that we have, but you’ve got to take good shots."
But, as Adelman is quick to point out, it’s not like his club has been bereft of opportunity. Minnesota’s auxiliary shooters simply haven’t converted them at an efficient clip.
Backup point guard J.J. Barea has been particularly sporadic, shooting 33 percent from outside and 39.7 percent from the field. Both marks are his worst since his rookie season in 2006-07 with Dallas.
Even notoriously inconsistent 3-point shooter Corey Brewer has gone cold from his favorite spot on the floor. A 41.2-percent marksman from the left corner last season, he’s shooting just 30.5 percent from there this year and 28.5 percent on all of his 3-point attempts.
It’s not the only reason Minnesota expects to miss the playoffs for a 10th straight season.
But it is one the franchise poured a lot of resources and effort into avoiding — unsuccessfully.
"We don’t make them," Adelman said. "We get decent shots, but outside of the two Kevins, none of our guys have really been consistent in shooting a high percentage. They’re getting open looks."
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