The Timberwolves’ offensive approach won’t change next season — the execution will have to

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Multiple times throughout the Western Conference Finals, Timberwolves coach Chris Finch recognized the abilities of Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic to withstand defensive pressure and knock down tough shots.

At some point, incredible offensive players will find ways to score. Particularly in crunch time, Finch said you simply have to “score alongside of them.”

And that’s just not something Minnesota proved capable of doing for sustained stretches this season.

The Wolves sported just an average offense all season and were more than capable of stalling out for lengthy stretches. It was the team’s ultimate downfall. Which is surprising for an offense that features the likes of Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and Mike Conley.

“We need to get better offensively,” Finch said after the season’s conclusion.

But don’t expect that to come via any sweeping personnel or schematic changes. All conversations regarding the offense since Dallas downed the Wolves have centered on offensive execution.

Finch said the Wolves did a good job this season adding more structure to what they aimed to do offensively. He lamented their lack of shotmaking at times and said Minnesota had to find ways to play faster.

“We don’t have the physically fastest guys, but we’ve got to make an effort and commitment to get easier stuff in transition, running, stretching the floor,” Finch said. “The league plays so fast now, so when you aren’t fast and you’re struggling to get easy looks, that’s a good place to start and try to find them. We’ve got to be better there.”

That’s particularly where a team lacking in high-end offensive talent may look. And, to be fair, Minnesota’s roster does lean more toward the defensive side of the equation. Rudy Gobert does a lot for the offense with his screening, rolling and rebounding, but he’s not great with the ball in his hands. Jaden McDaniels’ shooting was sporadic this season. They represent 40% of the starting lineup.

Off the bench, Nickeil Alexander-Walker has shown flashes as a shooter and playmaker but proved in the playoffs that he’s still not a finished product on the offensive end.

Anthony Edwards is one of the most explosive scorers in the NBA. And while the 22-year-old grew as a decision-maker this season, Dallas challenged him in that area in the West Finals — and won.

Meanwhile, the Mavericks were able to spam pick-and-rolls for Doncic and Irving to best the NBA’s top defense. That system works well for Dallas, but Finch doesn’t believe a helio-centric offense is a good fit for the Wolves. Edwards doesn’t see the game at Doncic’s level.

“You have to have a player who is pretty special to be able to create that much offense for himself and everybody else. He has to have a complete skill set,” Finch said. “Some teams now, Boston’s a good example, they kind of just spread you out and try to beat you one-on-one, and that creates a lot of advantages. I’m not sure we have those type of players, either.”

The Wolves, frankly, don’t have enough perimeter playmakers for that to work. So Finch plans on the Wolves remaining “movement based.”

“We’re still going to be sharing the ball. We still have the bigs to incorporate,” Finch said. “There’s a lot of different things.”

One obvious area of growth Finch identified is in the two-man game between Edwards and Towns. Conley and Gobert have shown what a great two-man game can do for a team. Those two ran pick-and-rolls all season that often led to easy Wolves’ buckets.

But Towns and Edwards have yet to establish that type of synergy. Finch envisions the two potentially helping one another on offense in the same way Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray do in Denver.

“They can do it. There’s certain things that they do in combination with each other that works seemingly every time they try it. They just need to do it more,” Finch said. “I think that’s just a willingness to give themselves to the greater good a little bit. It may not be natural in how they play, but as these things happen — if I write it up or play-call it — it usually works. But they’ve got to be able to find it in the flow, which is probably the next step.”

That’s part of the problem for Minnesota’s offense. When things are going poorly, nothing seems to come naturally for the team’s top offensive players. There are no go-tos they can rely on to get a good shot.

Even in Game 4 in Dallas, it was Kyle Anderson directing Edwards and Towns to generate Minnesota’s best fourth-quarter looks. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing to have Anderson and Conley control traffic, but an offense is most decisive and efficient when the players with the ball in their hands are the ones seeing the game at a high level.

Doncic was a prime example of that.

Maybe Edwards can reach that level. He’s certainly flashed a willingness to be coached throughout his career. Minnesota spent a week of practice prepping Edwards for certain defensive looks in the playoffs, and he responded by roasting Phoenix in the first round. But Edwards also had distinct physical advantages against the Suns and Nuggets that weren’t as prevalent against a Dallas defense that had perimeter defenders and rim protectors.

Pair the Mavericks roster with their scheme aimed specifically at stopping him, and Edwards struggled to take control of the game. He nor Towns have been considered to date as players who see the game a step ahead of the action. Anderson said that’s something you’re either born with or develop early in your playing days.

“Mike’s a really high IQ player, he’s a point guard. My dad raised me to be a point guard, I’ve always watched high-IQ players. I grew up watching Jason Kidd, playing for the New Jersey Nets. Rajon Rondo, just high-IQ guys that can affect the game in many different ways, not just scoring,” Anderson said. “I think it’s just a point guard thing.”

If that’s true, then a team-based offensive approach makes sense for Minnesota, as Finch has identified.

Minnesota’s growth on that end may simply be players better understanding and committing to the philosophy. Conley said that process will start in training camp.

“Like watching film and what style of pace we want to play, the energy that we put in defensively we have to put that same energy in offensively, pass and cut, making extra plays, just being on time with stuff, and it has to become habits for us,” Conley said. “Those small things on offense can be a big thing when it comes down to it. Execution in big moments. I think that’ll be something we’ll continue to look at, and look at going through the offseason.”

Conley did say there is room for Minnesota to experiment, as well, to diversify its attack. He noted Minnesota could maybe even roll out a small-ball lineup, or different approaches to operate against different teams. That type of versatility is advantageous specifically in the postseason, even for elite offenses. Folks in Denver have lamented the Nuggets’ over-reliance on the Jokic-Murray two-man game since Minnesota bounced Denver.

But Conley said a lot of the team’s offensive improvement will come from areas as simple as passing the ball and playing as a group.

“Not just one or two guys or three guys out there,” Conley said. “Where all five, being able to have multiple facets to their game as far as driving, kicking, pushing the ball, making good decisions when you have the ball.”

When executed properly, that leads to fewer turnovers and better shot attempts which obviously generate more points over the course of 100 possessions. Minnesota established some of that when Towns was out of the lineup late in the season. From March 11 to April 11, Minnesota sported the NBA’s eighth-best offense. But the Wolves never established that as their true identity. That requires more sustained success. That will be the goal for next season.

Wolves basketball boss Tim Connelly called Finch the best offensive coach in the NBA. Anderson backed that up with the following sentiment:

“Finch is a genius offensively, so, I think you don’t expect to see him, his offenses in the middle or lower part of the ranks anymore,” Anderson said. “Like, he’ll get it together. Trust me.”

But that will require buy-in and execution from the team’s most-skilled offensive players.

“I think it’s less about, ‘Score, score, score,’ ” Finch said of Edwards and Towns’ mindsets, “and more about, ‘I want to play in this style. This is the manner that I’m comfortable playing.’ ”

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