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Butler trade might help Wolves on offense, too

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.

Rams 54, Chiefs 51: Great for (most) fans, bad for Las Vegas

Welcome to the Tuesday edition of The Cooler, where there is always more than one way to win. Let’s get to it:

*In what looked at times Monday like a video game, or at least a Big 12 game, the Rams and Chiefs combined to score 105 points on Monday Night Football. Los Angeles gave up 51 and still won, thanks to a late touchdown that gave the Rams 54, putting an exclamation point on a showdown between explosive 9-1 teams that absolutely lived up to its billing.

If you like offense — and really, most people prefer 54-51 to 13-10 and those who say otherwise might be pining more for nostalgia than gritty field position battles — Monday was your kind of night.

If you run a casino in Las Vegas, however, Monday was not your kind of night. In an effort to scare away gamblers, the over-under point total for the game was set at 64 — the largest since at least 1986.

But gamblers — especially casual ones who like to have a few bucks on a game for fun — love the over. It’s more fun to root for points than to hope for turnovers, incomplete passes and field goals.

ESPN reports that a representative for William Hill, which has 108 sports books in Nevada, said 69 percent of the over-under action in Monday’s game was bet on the over and that the books lost seven-figures Monday as a result.

Nice for gamblers, not nice for the money machines. Let’s just hope those poor, poor casinos can rebound.

*Vikings coach Mike Zimmer offered up some very interesting quotes Monday that further advanced my theory that there is some push-pull happening this season between the way Zimmer wants the Vikings to play and the way new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is calling games.

Our Andrew Krammer summarized the best of them here, with my two favorite cherry-picked phrases from Zimmer on the offense being “let’s just play football” and “maybe we just need to focus a little bit on not trying to trick the other team quite so much.”

It should also be noted that Zimmer acknowledged continuing to run the ball can be tough when you aren’t gaining yards but also reiterated that, “I do think that there’s times that we need to stick with it a little bit more.”

*QB Kirk Cousins has thrown seven interceptions and lost six fumbles this season, meaning he’s had a direct hand in 13 of the Vikings’ 16 turnovers. Zimmer said he has talked to Cousins about the turnovers, but overall he praised the QB.

Case Keenum last season, per Pro Football Reference, threw seven interceptions and lost just one fumble in 14 starts. Cousins has been an overall upgrade in most ways, but ball security has not been one of them.

*The Wizards have taken over for the pre-Jimmy Butler trade Timberwolves as the NBA team in the most disarray. John Wall was fined for swearing at head coach Scott Brooks recently (strangely, I don’t recall Butler being fined for similar antics). Bradley Beal reportedly is fed up with management.

And every player, including Wall and Beal, is available via trade. Deadspin’s Albert Burneko wrote a searing piece about the awfulness, and it sounded so much like the Wolves earlier this season that it was eerie.

*And finally, Blues coach Mike Yeo has been fired. It took three shutouts in four games, but it happened. He coached in St. Louis for parts of three seasons, but only one full one.

TV Listings

Local Schedule

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  • Gophers men's basketball vs. Washington

    5:30 pm on BTN, 103.5/1130

  • Ottawa at Wild

    7 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Denver at Timberwolves

    7 pm on FSN PLUS, 830-AM

  • Timberwolves at Brooklyn

    11 am on FSN, 830-AM

  • Gophers women's hockey vs. St. Lawrence

    3 pm

  • Cornell at Gophers women's basketball

    3 pm on BTN PLUS, 96.7-FM

  • Winnipeg at Wild

    3 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Michigan State at Gophers men's hockey

    7 pm on FSN, 103.5/1130

  • Gophers football at Wisconsin

    2:30 pm on ESPN2, 100.3-FM

  • Michigan State at Gophers men's hockey

    7 pm on FSN PLUS, 103.5/1130

  • Chicago at Timberwolves

    7 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • Green Bay at Vikings

    7:20 pm on Ch. 11, 100.3/1130

  • Timberwolves at Cleveland

    6 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • Gophers men's basketball at Boston College

    8 pm on ESPN2, 100.3-FM

  • Arizona at Wild

    7:10 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

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