The NBA season started with me actively wondering if the Timberwolves would even win 30 games, and now less than a week later this is the reality that has played out: After three victories, all over teams in the Eastern Conference and two on the road, the Wolves are the only 3-0 team in the NBA (and one of just five undefeated teams overall).
How did the Wolves get off to such a good start? Let’s take a look inside the numbers in an attempt for an explanation and to see if the trend might continue.
The Wolves vowed going into the year to improve the efficiency of their shot attempts — namely to take more three-pointers and shots close to the rim, considered the highest-value areas for field goal attempts, while eliminating long two-pointers.
Last season, the Wolves took just 60.3% of their shots from those distances (three-pointers or from 0-3 feet, per Basketball Reference), ranking among the lowest in the NBA.
This year through three games, they are attempting 72.7% of their shots from those two distances — including 43.4% of their attempts from three-point range, sixth-highest in the NBA.
Only 10% of shots so far have been from between 10 feet and the three point line, the dreaded mid-range. Last year’s mark was 22%.
Sustainability level: High. There will be some learning moments, and even a temptation to step inside the line sometimes since the Wolves are only making 30.2% of their three-point attempts. But this is the modern NBA, and this is what efficient offenses do. The Wolves are committed to it, and there’s no reason to think they will go away from it.
The four factors
Perhaps the biggest piece of good news for the Wolves is that they’ve won without shooting the lights out (Andrew Wiggins’ barrage late Sunday notwithstanding). Their aforementioned 30.2% mark from three-point range is just 26th in the NBA, and overall they are 18th in effective field goal percentage.
eFG, which takes into account the value of threes over twos, is one of the essential “four factors” that are considered hugely correlative for success.
But while the Wolves are slightly below average in eFG, they are dominating the other three areas: free throws, rebounding and turnovers.
Per NBA.com, they’re No. 5 in overall rebounding percentage, No. 4 in offensive rebounding percentage (30.8) and No. 7 in lowest turnover ratio (14%). Their greatest hidden efficiency, though, is the free throw battle.
The Wolves are taking eight more free throws per 100 possessions and making 10 more per 100 possessions than opponents through three games.
Sustainability level: Moderate. Turnovers were a major issue during the preseason as the Wolves adjusted to playing at a faster pace with a lot of new players. So far they haven’t been an issue in the regular season. Rebounding could be an issue against bigger teams. Minnesota’s eFG should improve as its overall three-point percentage ticks up a few notches. They can’t expect opponents to continue to shoot 56.7% from the line (lowest in the league), but their style on both ends of the court should produce a continued positive disparity in attempts.
Wolves opponents are attempting 32.6% of their shots at the rim (fifth-highest in the NBA), but they are making just 58% of those close-range attempts (sixth-lowest). That suggests the Wolves are allowing penetration but doing a good job contesting shots.
Sustainability level: Unknown. The sample size on this one is too small, though the energy and effort on defense — led by active wings and Karl-Anthony Towns — is encouraging.
The Wolves’ second unit has a nice flow to it, particularly when Towns shares the court with key reserves. Several bench players already have eye-popping plus-minus ratings (difference in points scored vs. points allowed when they are on the court): backup point guard Shabazz Napier is plus-38, Jake Layman is plus-40 and Josh Okogie is plus-45. The Wolves overall are plus-30 this season, so you can see a lot of that edge goes to the bench.
Sustainability level: Moderate. The second unit can play defense and it plays hard. As long as there’s a scorer on the court, too, the bench can be a strength.
Great starts and finishes
The Wolves have a net rating of plus-26.8 in the first quarter (best in the NBA), and their plus-21.9 net rating in the fourth quarter is ninth-best. In between, they’re No. 23 in the second quarter (minus-12.2) and 18th (minus-1.1) in the third quarter.
Sustainability level: Low. That suggests the Wolves have had focused starts and strong finishes, but particularly their closing mark should be challenged as they face better teams with higher-quality lineups.
Let’s go off the grid and briefly mention something harder to quantify. Players seem to like each other and play cohesively, which can be a larger part of the battle in the NBA than we might realize.
Sustainability level: TBA. We’ll find out more once the team faces adversity — a bad loss, a losing streak, a minor injury, the grind of an 82-game season.