In the 55 days that have separated his introductory news conference as Timberwolves basketball boss and Thursday’s NBA draft, Flip Saunders has trumpeted a singular theme that underscores the obvious.
The Wolves need shooters.
In other news, water is wet.
Saunders’ search for outside shooting has served as such a guiding force that it’s a wonder he didn’t stamp it on the foreheads of every scout and personnel executive in the organization, lest they suffer amnesia and forget the offseason mission. The Wolves own two first-round picks, and unless he successfully orchestrated a smoke screen, Saunders likely will use one pick on a shooting guard or wing player who is capable of consistently making a perimeter shot.
Saunders noted matter-of-factly this week that he inherited an “unbalanced roster where we don’t really have any twos or threes on the board.” In other words: Help Wanted!
Not only did the Wolves finish last in the NBA in three-point shooting this past season, but their percentage (30.5) represented the second-worst mark for any team in a decade. Some nights it looked as if they couldn’t throw it in the ocean from a cruise ship, even on uncontested shots. Those poor rims took a beating. That’s particularly disconcerting because the three-point shot has never been more popular or important.
Now, the good news. If healthy — which i s a requisite caveat with this team — the Wolves should make a significant leap in three-point shooting next season, regardless of what happens on draft night. The return of Kevin Love and the expected re-signing of Chase Budinger will give the Wolves proven perimeter shooting. And if Saunders adds another shooter or two this offseason, it’s not inconceivable to think the Wolves could witness dramatic improvement in this area.
“I don’t think you can win in college or the NBA if you can’t shoot the three,” Saunders said.
It sure seems that way. Seven teams that qualified for the playoffs this season finished the regular season in the top 10 in three-point shooting, including finalists Miami and San Antonio. Eight playoff teams ranked in the top 10 the previous season.
During the 2000-01 season, the league average for three-point attempts per team was 1,124, according to basketball-reference.com. Teams averaged 1,636 three-point attempts this season. That’s a 45 percent increase in three-point attempts on average, which illustrates how much the game has changed.
That philosophical shift puts a premium on finding perimeter shooting from multiple positions. The three-pointer has created hybrid roles and new job descriptions, such as the “stretch 4” — a power forward who has the skills to play on the perimeter and shoot threes. Love falls into that category, except he’s also one of the NBA’s best rebounders, which is why Saunders calls him one of the game’s unique players.
Injuries to Love and Budinger caused the Wolves’ three-point shooting to plummet, but the team has lagged in that department for some time. Only twice in the past decade have the Wolves finished in the top half of the league in three-point shooting. They finished fifth during the 2010-11 season at 37.6 percent. They set team records for three-pointers made (589) and attempted (1,565) that season.
Of course, they also won only 17 games. It helps to have some talent, too.
Shooters often need facilitators, and Ricky Rubio is the kind of point guard that makes everyone better. His unselfishness and ability to collapse defenses with his penetration creates opportunities for teammates on the perimeter. Rubio might never develop into a deadeye jump shooter himself, but he makes life easier on those around him.
Saunders prefers to look at the reciprocal benefit of that relationship. He believes improved outside shooting will open things up for Rubio because teams will be forced to respect the three-point line more.
“It’s going to open up a lot more lanes for him, a lot more passing lanes, penetrating lanes and he’ll be an even more effective player,” Saunders said. “So it’s not just Ricky making those guys better, but what players we can bring in that can make him better.”
The more versatile, the better. But a deft touch from the outside should be an overarching criteria. The Wolves shot three-pointers abysmally last season, and it’s simply hard to win in the NBA that way these days.