Tom Thibodeau’s team is relying heavily on post-up plays. (Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press)

The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets get the lion’s share of the attention in the West, but the Minnesota Timberwolves have quietly emerged as the third-best team in the conference. Tom Thibodeau has guided Minnesota to a 38-26 record, with the Timberwolves outscoring opponents by 3.2 net points per 100 possessions, the sixth-best performance in the NBA this season and the best by the franchise since 2003-04.

Offensively, the Timberwolves score 111.4 points per 100 possessions, third best behind the Rockets and Warriors, yet how they generate those points is completely different from what you would expect for a successful team playing in the modern NBA.

The offenses in Houston and Golden State are focused around the three-point shot. The Rockets average a league-high 42.5 three-point attempts, accounting for more than half (50.4 percent) of their shots overall, while the Warriors take 29.9 per game from behind the arc, more than a third (35 percent) of their field goals per game. The Timberwolves attempt just 26 percent of their shots from long range, averaging just 22.4. Both marks are the second-lowest in the NBA this season after the New York Knicks.

Minnesota doesn’t attempt many shots in the restricted area, either, producing the fifth-lowest rate of shots from there (24.8 per game). Shots in the restricted area (1.26 points per shot) and three-point attempts (1.09 points per attempt) represent two of the most efficient shots a team can take, behind only the two free throw attempts awarded after drawing a foul (1.54 points per attempt).

So how does this offensive dinosaur maintain its standing in the perilous Western Conference? The Timberwolves are near the top of the league in three of the four factors Dean Oliver identified as the most important in basketball: turnover percentage (13 percent, second), free throw rate (28.5 percent of field goal attempts, fifth) and offensive rebound percentage (25 percent, fourth). The Timberwolves also are good at making the shots they do take to rank 11th in the fourth factor, shooting, with an effective field goal rate of 53 percent.

Not only do the Timberwolves succeed while eschewing two of the most-efficient shot attempts on the court, they also rely heavily on post-up plays, a throwback to an era when big men like Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone and Shaquille O’Neal ruled the paint. Minnesota uses one of every 11 possessions (9 percent) in the post; only the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets post up more often.

Post-ups are often an inefficient option — NBA players have scored an average of 0.9 points per possession on these plays in 2017-18 —  but the Timberwolves have three players who average at least one point per possession in the post (minimum 100 post-up possessions): Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Taj Gibson. A fourth, Shabazz Muhammad, is 8 for 16 in the post, scoring exactly one point per attempt.

2017-18 post-up plays Possessions Usage Points Points per possession
Minnesota Timberwolves 626 9% 632 1.01
Toronto Raptors 286 4% 278 0.97
San Antonio Spurs 751 12% 708 0.94
New Orleans Pelicans 542 8% 506 0.93
Milwaukee Bucks 377 6% 348 0.92

With Jimmy Butler sidelined for the next six weeks with a small tear in his meniscus, the Timberwolves might have to double down on this style of play. Butler worked primarily as the team’s ballhandler on the pick-and-roll and as a spot-up shooter, occasionally beating his defender in isolation when he sensed a mismatch.

Thibodeau’s remaining options are not as enticing. Jeff Teague doesn’t score as much on the pick-and-roll and is also prone to turnovers. Jamal Crawford isn’t as aggressive getting to the rim as Butler was, nor is he as good in isolation.

Wiggins might even be asked to play down low in the post even more with Butler on the sideline. Not only is he efficient on these plays, his court vision and basketball IQ make him more dangerous when he opts to pass out of the post, his team scoring upwards of 1.4 points per possession on passes to a spot-up shooter or a teammate driving to the basket.

Andrew Wiggins, 2017-18 Points per possession Percentile Percentage of plays that
score at least one point
Individual offense out of the post 1.02 83% 53%
All passes out of the post 1.50 90% 69%
Passes out of the post to spot-up shooter 1.43 85% 57%
Passes out of the post to player cutting to rim 1.58 80% 83%

These passes, however, are more the exception than the rule for Minnesota, which is not known for meticulous ball movement: It produces 41.5 potential assists per game, the third-lowest output this season, and just 9.8 fast-break points per 100 possessions, sixth-lowest in 2017-18.

How well they continue to do that without Butler will be critical to positioning themselves for the playoffs. With Butler on the court, the Timberwolves perform better in all facets of the game, as you would expect. They outscore opponents by 7.8 net points per 100 possessions with him, while being outscored by 6.0 net points per 100 possessions when he is on the bench — roughly the difference between a team on pace to win 58 games and one in line to win 26.

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