LOS ANGELES – There are time when the Timberwolves are scrimmaging and a player will look confused at the scoreboard.
“Sometimes you have five [points] and you look back and you’re at three,” rookie guard Josh Okogie said. “Then you see, ‘Oh, we’re playing those rules.’ ”
“Those rules” would be the unique scoring system interim coach Ryan Saunders will instill in the occasional scrimmage, all in an attempt for the Wolves to play as efficiently as they can. Corner three-pointers are worth an extra point. Saunders will take away points for long two-pointers. There are also points deducted for committing turnovers and allowing offensive rebounds, but the focus on shooting in the most advantageous spots on the floor is one of the main goals Saunders has in using his scoring tweaks.
“It’s not to tell any player to not shoot a shot,” Saunders said. “It’s more a condition on what is analytically a better shot in a way, so if it means you’re taking a step-back rather than being inside the three-point line by a foot, that’s something that points per possession-wise is important in the NBA now.”
One of the most opportunistic shots in basketball is the corner three-pointer because it is 22 feet — compared to an “above the break” three-pointer at 23.75 feet — and the Wolves are 16th in the NBA in attempting those at 6.8 per game.
For the players, the scrimmages are a reminder of where the game is headed. Guard Jerryd Bayless, who scrimmaged in similar ways when he was with the 76ers, said the punishments were severe if you took a shot deemed inefficient, like a long two-pointer, and he has some concerns of the effect analytics can have on the natural instincts of players.
“You weren’t going to play if you shot that, realistically,” Bayless said. “I think different teams value different shots. The whole analytics wave is interesting because it puts such a premium on the percentage … but at the same time a lot of guys, maybe their strength is the midrange game and taking that away, I think, plays a mental mind game with certain players because they’re not really used to that.”
There are a few Wolves who take a significant amount of midrange shots — forward Andrew Wiggins, who takes 4.4 midrange shots per game, and center Gorgui Dieng, who only takes 4.2 shots per game, but 1.7 of those are midrange. Both said they will still take those shots if they’re open.
“I don’t think about it too much, to be honest. I just play my game,” Wiggins said. “Really, if the three is open, I’m going to shoot it. The long twos, I’ll shoot it. The layups, I’ll shoot it.”
It’s one thing if the long twos are contested, it’s another if they’re open. Those aren’t as bad, analytically speaking, since a higher percentage go in the hoop. But Saunders is trying to instill some sense of thought behind shot selection without trying to make the players think too much.
“It’s all about building habits,” forward Anthony Tolliver said. “If you’re building habits to shoot more threes, cut from the slot and things that you get points [for] in practice, I think that it just naturally will happen more in a game.
Then Tolliver added: “But in a game, you’re still going to take the shots you feel like you need to take.”
• The Rockets already were relying a lot on James Harden with Chris Paul on the mend from a hamstring strain. But when Clint Capela had to have thumb surgery recently, the Rockets became a one-man show. In the four games Capela has missed, Harden is averaging a staggering 50 points per game, led by a 58-point night against Brooklyn on Jan. 16. Harden’s usage rate in that time is 45.1 percent, meaning 45.1 percent of all Rockets possessions end in a Harden shot, trip to the free-throw line or turnover when Harden is one the floor. No. 2 in usage rate during that same time is Utah’s Donovan Mitchell at 36.2 percent.
• Times are changing in Memphis as ESPN reported the franchise will listen to trade offers for franchise mainstays Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. According to the report, the Grizzlies have decided they have reached an “organizational crossroads” and will see what kind of assets they can get for one or both. Conley and Gasol have played their entire careers in Memphis, arriving one year apart, with Conley coming first in 2007. They led Memphis to its lone conference finals appearance in 2013. Memphis began the season 16-11 but is just 3-17 since Dec. 13.
• Guard Dennis Smith Jr. rejoined the Mavericks after a six-game absence in which rumors swirled about Smith’s status. ESPN reported the second-year guard had issues with coach Rick Carlisle’s style and would welcome a trade from Dallas. Smith has been playing off the ball since the emergence of rookie Luka Doncic.
Chris Hine is the Timberwolves reporter at the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org