Timberwolves President Gersson Rosas was with Houston before he was hired two years ago, and one of the elements he brought with him from the Rockets organization was an emphasis on playing "fast."
That can mean a lot of things, which we will get to in a moment, but one statistic that helps quantify it is "pace" — the number of possessions a team has every game. The Rockets over the past decade often have been in the top five in the league in that category, a result of seeking out opportunities early in the shot clock.
Such a style can work for a team if — a big if — it is suited to play that way. Milwaukee and Houston were the pace leaders last season, and both enjoyed strong regular seasons. Both also had dominant offensive players (Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden) capable of creating their own offense and plenty of good three-point shooters to make defenses pay if they collapsed too hard.
In addition, the Bucks led the league in defensive efficiency last season while the Rockets were at least OK (tied for 12th). That's important, of course, because if you are creating a lot of possessions for yourself, you are also creating an equal number for your opponent.
That brings me to the Timberwolves, who are neither a good three-point shooting team (35.5% this season, below the league average and No. 21 in the team rankings) nor are they a good defensive team (No. 23 in defensive rating, which measures points allowed per 100 possessions). Chris Hine and I talked about this quite a bit on today's Daily Delivery podcast.
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Rosas and his hand-picked new coach Chris Finch — who knows Rosas from time they spent together with the Rockets — want the Wolves to play fast. And granted, Finch made a distinction this week about what that means to him.
"We don't want to confuse playing with pace with shooting quickly," Finch said. "It's not the same thing. We want to play with pace and make quicker decisions. We don't care if the shot comes with four seconds on the shot clock. But if it's a good one and it's open right away, we'll take that too."
Taken that way, the notion of pace makes sense. And it is also true that a good shot early in the shot clock is a good opportunity — and that passing it up could lead to a less efficient shot as the clock dwindles.
But the Wolves so far have a pace of 103.8 in Finch's first two games, which would be a top-five mark in the league over the course of a season.
The Wolves have scored 112 and 126 points in those games (including 119 in regulation of that second game. But they have given up 139 and 132 (including 119 in regulation) in those games as well. If we are being generous, they at least — for now — seem to be confusing playing with pace to shooting quickly in some cases.
Rosas and Finch want to play this way because they believe it will ultimately lead to success when the roster is more complete. The distilled version of their belief system, at least as I see it: create the muscle memory now with the existing roster to play the way you want to play, and then as better players are added around the core, players like Karl-Anthony Towns will already be playing the way you want him to play and will thrive.
But there's another kind of muscle memory that's important: winning. If you are a subpar team with a negative net rating like the Wolves (they allow 7.2 points more per 100 possessions than they score, second-worst in the league behind Cleveland), creating MORE possessions will decrease your chance of winning. You want to shorten games, not stretch them out, at least if you want to win.
In 2019-20, the Wolves were already playing plenty fast, ranking No. 4 in pace under recently fired coach Ryan Saunders. They went 19-45 that season. They led the league in pace in 2010-11 — the second year of the failed Kurt Rambis coaching era during which they won just 17 games. When they made the playoffs under Tom Thibodeau in 2017-18, they were No. 22 in pace but No. 4 in offensive efficiency.
Now: Those aren't numbers that prove you can't win playing fast. The roster in 2017-18 was better than it has been at any point since Kevin Garnett was regularly taking the Wolves to the playoffs, and that was a veteran-laden team suited to play a more grinding (but efficient) style.
The Wolves have the young players who might be suited eventually to run up and down the court trading possessions.
But they lack the three-point shooting, overall offensive efficiency and defensive acumen on this roster to play that way and expect to win right now.
Rosas and Finch are banking that this will all work out in the long run once the puzzle is complete.
Right now, it sure feels like the Wolves' main style is to hurry up and lose.
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