Before a recent Timberwolves practice, guard Jeff Teague was comparing the offense the Wolves want to run this year to some of the offenses he has run in the past, specifically when he played in Atlanta.
Teague described the Wolves offense with a term you don’t often hear at this level.
“In Atlanta … you knew exactly where you were going to get the ball, and where you were going to shoot,” Teague said. “Here it’s more free flowing. It’s kind of like random, pickup basketball.”
Pickup basketball. You hear that in an NBA context and it may have a negative connotation. Why invest millions of dollars in a coaching staff and front office if all they’re going to do is tell the players to play pickup?
There’s a reason coach Ryan Saunders doesn’t want to call a play every time down the floor — he wants to keep some element of surprise for the defense, especially with the Wolves trying to set a fast pace.
“It may seem like [pickup] at times … ” Saunders said. “But [with set play calls] players or defenders are able to yell to their coaches, and the coaches are able to say, ‘All right, post up [Karl-Anthony] Towns,’ then everyone is waiting for the post-up for Towns.
“Then you’re playing late in the shot clock and it’s tough to get a shot off.”
The Wolves haven’t played late in the shot clock very often during the preseason. Entering Tuesday’s game against Indiana, the Wolves led the NBA in pace during the preseason with 112.5 possessions per game. Last season they were 13th with 100.9 while Atlanta led the league with 104.6. The Wolves’ number could go down as the regular season begins and defenses make getting good looks a little harder, but they are setting up one of the main poles for the offense they pledged to construct over the offseason.
So if it isn’t pickup basketball, but Saunders isn’t calling a lot of set plays, how does the Wolves offense operate? Reading the defense, running various quick actions and relying on chemistry between teammates.
“If we get in our spots, our spots are our plays,” guard Shabazz Napier said. “We have reads. We have to be in our spots to understand the read. I wouldn’t say we don’t have many plays, because we have a bunch of plays. But once we get to a point where in the game we need to slow it down a little bit, you’ll obviously see more of our plays.”
This, however, depends on teammates trusting each other and knowing where they’re going to go next. With a new group that’s just getting accustomed to playing with each other, this could be one of the early stumbling blocks to an efficient offense.
“I’ve got to understand what [Treveon Graham] likes to do, what Robert Covington likes to do,” Napier said. “If the ball gets thrown to the corner, without looking is Covington moving up or moving down? You’re just trying to find the tendencies.”
The tendency for the whole team right now is to play fast. When in doubt, just play fast. Shoot if you have a good shot, especially from three-point range, and let the shots fall where they may.
“We want a green light, but we also want them to understand that there’s certain times when a quick three is not the right three,” Saunders said. “For the most part, we are a team that is going to tell our guys, ‘We want you to shoot the ball because in terms of our system we feel that’s going to give us the best chance to continue to grow.’ ”