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March Mania

Timberwolves’ roster doesn’t fit their system. And that’s not going to change any time soon

Minnesota Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders argues a call with a referee in a Jan. 17 game against the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis. Brian Spurlock / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Timberwolves’ season has found a certain rhythm: Drive, kick, clank.

Loss.

It all sounded so good this offseason, when Wolves president Gersson Rosas and coach Ryan Saunders discussed the new-age style of play. The Wolves were going to push the ball and take analytically-friendly shots: layups, free throws and 3-pointers. Two-points-per-shot charts were installed at the team’s practice facility — one on the wall, another literally on the court, with green plastered on outside of the arc, and red layered all around the mid-range.

It was quite a sight for the sore eyes possessed by local fans, who were tired of the team’s 20th-century shot selection.

Remove Andrew Wiggins’ long 2-point shot attempts, increase Karl-Anthony Towns’ 3-point volume and create more spacing for which the all-star center could work, and this offense would take off.

That was the thought, anyway.

The result has played out differently. Armed with few outside shooters and a roster that has proven largely unwilling to run, Minnesota has … struggled, to say the least. The Timberwolves are 5-24 since Dec. 1. They have two double-digit losing streaks during that time frame, and are 0-14 in the past 14 games in which Towns has played.

Few, if any, expected this to be a playoff team, but the Wolves also weren’t pegged to be one of the NBA’s worst. The roster isn’t that different than the team that won 36 games last season, despite not having Robert Covington play a single game after the new year. Minnesota currently on pace for 26 wins. Towns’ 15 missed games factor in, but the Wolves did manage to win five of those.

The other main difference appears to be the new systems. And those aren’t great fits with Minnesota’s current roster.

There’s the defense, with a pick-and-roll cover scheme that Towns clearly has not mastered — which was never more apparent than when the scheme was successful during his absence — and a transition-heavy approach that is slowed by a lack of willingness by some players to get out and run and an inability of others to convert at the rim.

But, one of the most discussed bugaboos to this point has, of course, been the outside shooting.

Minnesota is third in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game (39.5) and first in catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts (29.3). But the Timberwolves rank 29th in the 30-team league in 3-point shooting percentage (32.8), ahead of only Atlanta.

So while the system is largely producing the shots Minnesota wants — 3-pointers, shots at the rim and free throws — none of it matters, because Minnesota can’t make those shots.

“The efficiencies aren’t there for us, which is an issue,” Saunders said. “We need to get better with that.”

That was somewhat predictable. Outside of Towns, Covington and maybe Gorgui Dieng — and Towns and Dieng are never on the court together — Minnesota doesn’t have nearly the 3-point shooters on this roster as say a team like Houston, one of the most analytically-driven teams in the NBA, and Rosas’ previous employer. Can the system function without the proper personnel?

“You’ll play better than you would play,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni argued. “Now, if your roster is not very good, guess what? You’re not gonna win. That’s the way it is.”

D’Antoni did admit that if you have a bunch of non-shooters taking a ton of 3-point shots — hello, Minnesota — you can make an argument against the system.

Oklahoma City wasn’t expected to do much this season, but the Thunder have played to their strengths — including taking the third-fewest threes in the NBA — and is firmly entrenched in a Western Conference playoff spot and is one of the best late-game teams in the league.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said he just tries to make sure his team is generating “good shots” for his players. Every guy, he noted, is efficient and effective from different spots on the floor. Donovan doesn’t agree that every 2-point attempt from outside the paint is a bad shot, and said that just firing up a bunch of 3-pointers — depending on who’s doing it — can lead to “diminishing returns.”

“Sometimes the better defensive teams are giving up a lot of threes,” Donovan noted. “But they’re giving up the right threes to the right shooters that they feel are OK giving those shots up to.”

To some degree, even D’Antoni agrees with that premise. It’s why Houston allows Russell Westbrook to roam inside the arc to get the shots he’s most comfortable with, an allowance the Rockets will afford a superstar. Towns is the only Wolves player near that echelon, and he already likes to hoist up triples.

Everyone else will continue to be asked to do the same, even if it’s not in their skill set. It doesn’t seem to be in a player’s best interest to do the things he’s not best at, but Saunders said the Wolves’ locker room is flush with guys who want to do right by the group and have bought into the system.

“There’s a genuine care factor to it,” Saunders said. “Sometimes, that’s not about the marginal victory in the short term; it’s about what you’re trying to push towards.”

And, Saunders noted, it’s not like the Wolves are asking guys to shoot threes and not working with them to improve that part of their game. He said it’s a “heavy focus” every day.

It’s all part of incorporating a system, and seeing who can fit in it moving forward. This is, as Rosas has stated, an evaluation year for the Wolves.

“Establish this guy can do it, this guy can’t,” D’Antoni said. “Then you know who to move, who not to move, whatever.”

That can be said for all parts of Minnesota’s system. Specifically to the offense, the idea is that eventually you’ll find the shooters necessary to make your system hum. But everyone wants shooters, and Minnesota has been in search of them for years. So it’s not easy acquiring them.

“Seems like everybody else has ’em,” D’Antoni said. “I do think that the way they’re going to play is the right way to go. You’ve just gotta be good enough and just believe it and you’ve gotta do it, and it’s not gonna work all the time.”

Minnesota knows that all too well. But Saunders and Co. remain confident that it will work … eventually. This current roster isn’t close to being one that can succeed with this style of play. Moves will be made to attempt to correct that, but it’s bound to take time.

“We’re going to do what we do and be who we are and live it every day,” Saunders said. “I know sometimes that might sound like not a fun idea when everything doesn’t match up in terms of where some nights we’ll have rough shooting nights, sometimes we’ll have great shooting nights, some nights we’ll have tough defensive nights, some nights we’ll have positives ones, but we’re committed to this. We’re finding out what we need moving forward to do as a group and to do as individuals.”

Briefly

Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie was selected to compete in the Rising Stars Challenge on Feb. 15 at all-star weekend in Chicago. It will be Okogie’s second appearance in the game, which features the top first- and second-year players in the league. The 21-year-old guard, born in Nigeria, will compete for Team World.

Wolves rookie Jarrett Culver was not selected for the game.