The Timberwolves introduced a new basketball boss on Monday, and while Gersson Rosas didn’t go so far as to poke fun at the team’s style of play under Tom Thibodeau, he mentioned “modern basketball” at least a half-dozen times when discussing his plan.
So read between the lines.
The term “culture” has become so ingrained in the sports world vernacular that every coach and team executive has made it Chapter 1 in their operational manual.
Rosas likely experienced cultural shock when examining the way the Wolves play compared to the team he just left, the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets represent the definition of modern basketball: Pace and space and three-point shooting until your heart’s content, or your arm becomes sore.
Houston launched 3,721 three-pointers this season, easily the most in the NBA. The Timberwolves took 2,357 threes. That represents a staggering difference in philosophy when one team shoots 1,364 more three-pointers than another in one season.
Rosas, the new president of basketball operations, promised not to turn the Wolves into “Houston North,” but he also vowed that changes are coming.
“We want to be strategic, and we want to play to our strengths,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with roster. But I think you’re going to see a lot of similarities in how the modern game is being played.”
There it is, modern game. Code for lots of three-pointers, fast pace and spread the floor with shooters and positionless players.
The 40-year-old Rosas fits the mold of new-age NBA executive who embraces analytics. He describes his philosophy as a marriage of analytics and traditional basketball methods, but he emphasized the need to be creative.
“We’re going to question the norm in everything we do,” he said.
The Rockets operate outside the norms. In the past five seasons, they have led the NBA in three-point attempts four times and finished second once. They took nearly 600 more three-pointers this season than the team second on the list, the Milwaukee Bucks.
Conversely, the Wolves have finished last in the league in three-point attempts three times and second from the bottom once in the past five seasons.
The Rockets put a premium — or mandate — on shooting either threes or layups. Nearly 80% of their shots this season came from three-point range or at the rim (0 to 3 feet). The Wolves’ rate in that category was 60%.
“We were able to push the limits of how that’s played in terms of pace, in terms of space, in terms of shot selection, how we utilize players,” Rosas said.
Therein lies the rub. The Wolves don’t have Mike D’Antoni as coach or a roster that includes James Harden, Chris Paul and a cast of shooters that fit perfectly in defined roles.
The Wolves’ best three-point shooter is 7-footer Karl-Anthony Towns. Reliable outside shooting is in short supply after him.
Rosas also inherits an uncertain point guard situation, hodgepodge roster makeup, a challenging salary cap picture and a max-contract enigma in Andrew Wiggins.
“We’re going to be very creative,” he said.
The roster needs significant changes to mesh with his vision of modern basketball. That will take time. Rosas was complimentary of the Wolves’ players, saying he sees pieces that he believes can fit his system. But let’s be honest. No new executive comes in and vows to blow the roster to smithereens on the first day.
The Wolves have been one of the NBA’s worst defensive teams and lowest output three-point shooting teams in recent years. Fixing that will involve scheme and personnel.
“Where the modern game is going,” Rosas said, “we want to be at the front of that.”
A new approach is worth a shot. At this point, why not? And if Rosas isn’t inclined or able to trade Wiggins, the team might as well try something radical and hope that unlocks the mystery. (Consider me highly skeptical on that one.)
Rosas promised “tangible change.” We’ll learn shortly whether that includes interim coach Ryan Saunders or general manager Scott Layden. Independent of those decisions, change in style of play is overdue. Being bad at defense and three-point shooting is a surefire ticket to doom.