In a classic episode of “Seinfeld” (which may or may not already be a dated cultural reference point), Jerry is exasperated at a car rental place because it doesn’t have the size car he reserved. After a back-and-forth with the agent, he declares:
See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation and that’s really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.
In seven games this season, the Timberwolves have done plenty of good things in compiling a 4-3 record. They’ve squeezed more efficiency out of Andrew Wiggins. They’re generally getting a better defensive effort, ranking No. 17 in defensive rating even after Wednesday’s gazillion steps back in Memphis. Karl-Anthony Towns has been everything advertised (even though he, too, had probably his worst and least mature game of the year in his return to the lineup from suspension). They seem to like each other, they seem to be likable, and those things can’t be overlooked.
But neither can this: Through seven games at least, the Wolves have a fundamental Seinfeld problem.
They can take the good shots. But they can’t make the good shots.
A new offensive system predicated on efficiency — namely a lot of threes and shots at the rim — has delivered on its promise, at least on the attempts side. Just 11.9% of the Wolves’ field goal attempts this season have been from between 10 feet and the three-point line (17.3% is the league average, and 22% was the Wolves’ mark last year)
And 43.4% of their attempts have come from three-point range, the third-most by percentage of shots in the NBA. Last year the Wolves tried just 31.5% of their overall attempts from three-point range, No. 26 in the league. It’s been an impressive commitment to a new system under coach Ryan Saunders and his staff.
But on Tuesday, before the Wolves departed for Memphis, head Saunders was asked if the Wolves can continue to shoot that many threes — if not more.
“I think it can (continue),” he said, adding with a smile: “We want to try to be fourth or higher in three-point makes. … With attempts, we want to see the makes jump as well. It’ll be an ongoing process, a developing philosophical emphasis of ours.”
I asked him simply if the team is getting the three-point shots it wants, and he replied simply: “Yeah.”
The numbers bear that out. NBA.com tracks how open shooters are when they let their shots fly, dividing shots into four categories: Very tightly guarded (closest defender 0-2 feet away), tightly guarded (2-4 feet), open (4-6 feet) and wide open (6 feet or more).
The Wolves are attempting 41.1 threes per game, and of those almost half — 19.4 — fall into the “wide open” category according to NBA.com’s tracking, the fourth-highest in the league. Another 17.3 are deemed “open,” so the vast majority are either wide open or open.
I’m going to isolate on “wide open” because those are the very best shots to get. Last season, NBA teams made on average 38.1% of their wide-open threes, compared to just 32.7% on all other three-point attempts (including 33.8% on those considered “open”). Even the worst team, the Lakers, made 34.8% of its wide open threes last year.
But the Wolves so far this year are making just 29.4% of their wide open threes, tied for the second-worst mark in the league. How does that impact games?
Well, they’ve taken about as many “wide open” threes per game as Toronto and Sacramento this season. Toronto has made a league-best 45.9% of those shots — 8.9 per game compared to 5.7 for the Wolves, which works out to almost 10 points per game more than the Wolves just on wide open threes. Sacramento has been average (37.7%) but is still scoring about 5 points more per game than the Wolves on open threes with a nearly identical amount of attempts.
That’s a big deal. It’s been slightly mitigated by the Wolves being exceptional (50%!) on tightly guarded threes, but those account for only about 10% of their overall deep attempts. Their overall three-point make rate (32.6%) is 25th in the NBA, and the wide-open percentage is dragging it down.
So are the Wolves just missing shots they’ll eventually make … or do they have the wrong people shooting these open shots? Well, seven games is a pretty small sample size, but the answer is likely a little bit of both.
We knew going into the season that the Wolves didn’t have a lot of great shooters. Towns is a willing shot-taker and maker — really their best and only reliable deep threat. Robert Covington is a 36% shooter from long-distance in his career. Jeff Teague is a reluctant but capable shooter. Wiggins is on a hot streak.
But take Towns (11 for 21 on wide open threes) out of the mix, and the rest of the Wolves are shooting just 25.2% on wide open threes. Part of that is small sample size and collective cold shooting. But some of it is probably teams leaving subpar shooters open and living with the consequences.
Josh Okogie (2 for 10), Treveon Graham (3 for 16) and Noah Vonleh (1 for 7) are wide open deep? Let them shoot. Even if they are bound to make more than they have so far, they still might not make enough so that teams think twice.
That said, the Wolves could add 3 or 4 points per game on offense merely by upping their wide open percentage to “worst in the league last season” levels, which bodes well for a team that has already outperformed some expectations in a 4-3 start.
Wednesday night’s performance on wide open threes (8 for 19, 42.1%) was a step in the right direction, at least on that front.
Overall, though, the 2019-20 season so far is telling us a lot of what we probably expected: The Wolves are committed to playing the right way in the modern NBA, and it’s still the correct decision for this season even if they don’t have the right players for the system yet.
With more roster reconstruction to come, perhaps the Wolves will even reach the point where they can both take the reservation and hold it.