Structure or not, Timberwolves commit to ball movement for consistent offensive success

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The Timberwolves’ most majestic offensive performance during the 2022-23 season came when they were down multiple star players.

In March at Madison Square Garden, the Wolves — missing Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards — poured in 140 points, assisting on 34 of their 51 buckets in a victory over the Knicks.

The ball and bodies were all moving that night, flowing in a perfect rhythm to create one great look after another. Wolves point guard Mike Conley, who had 11 assists that night, said the team called “maybe three” sets all game.

“You just got it going and the ball found its way around,” Conley said.

That was the ideal form of Timberwolves coach Chris Finch’s offense — players moving in random ways but always cognizant of location for spacing and executing multiple actions within the 24-second shot clock window.

The Wolves struggled to execute such an offense at various times throughout last season, especially at critical junctures. They couldn’t maintain proper spacing required for a multiple-big offense to function, and in general failed to shift the defense to create advantageous situations at critical junctures in games.

That’s why the Wolves implemented more structure during training camp this fall. Rather than having players put themselves into actions at random early in possessions, plays are called to inform them of where to go.

It’s not Finch’s favorite plan of attack, but the coach thought it necessary to maximize the offensive potential of the Wolves’ talented, albeit sometimes funky-fitting starting five.

“It might take away some creativity, but nothing’s going to be overly elaborate. Just set a starting structure,” Finch said in training camp. “We get in trouble when we don’t have good structure to start an offense.”

Because Edwards and Towns are notorious ball stoppers. Players were in favor of the shift, agreeing with the necessity of a firmer starting point on offense.

“Structure can be a crutch sometimes. But it’s necessary in certain scenarios,” Conley said. “If guys have tendencies where they get wild with the ball, get a little loose with the ball, it’s good to have some structure to say, ‘Hey, one or two guys do this, the rest of y’all, we want y’all looking at two dribbles get off it, pass it, shoot it, whatever it is — play your role.’ ”

Edwards himself said the additional structure was good, as it kept him focused. He added it’s “easier to score” when he’s getting others involved.

In the preseason, the benefits of structure — more play calls and direction — showed themselves. Minnesota’s offense had a clear purpose. And with that purpose came ball movement and points.

But Finch noted ahead of the regular-season opener in Toronto that even with structure, bad tendencies can take over when the lights come on. And, sure enough, the Wolves retreated to their sticky offense of old in their loss to the Raptors. Edwards was 8 for 27 shooting, while Towns was 8 for 25. Many of their looks were difficult shots.

Play calls aren’t a surefire antidote for a lack of ball movement. If a player isn’t willing to get off the ball and let movement play out, it won’t happen. Edwards shouldered the blame for falling back into former bad habits after the loss to Toronto — and vowed to play the way he did in the preseason.

If that happens, Minnesota’s chances of fulfilling its potential with this cast of characters skyrockets. If not, the Timberwolves’ offense will again likely be up and down, reliant largely on difficult shot-making.

“We’ll have to settle into the rhythm that we know we played with throughout all preseason,” Finch said.

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