Flip Saunders swears he loves 3-pointers

Flip tries to work up the nerve to say the three words the 3-pointer longs to hear. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty)
Flip tries to work up the nerve to say the three words the 3-pointer longs to hear. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty)

We're not sure precisely what put this particular bee in his bonnet, but Flip Saunders seemed somewhat stung on Sunday night. The Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations took to Twitter after more than a year of social media silence to air some grievances on what he clearly feels is a misconception about his attitude toward the importance of 3-point shooting and its role in a modern NBA offense:

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Saunders' three-tweet salvo came several days after the publication of an interview with Grantland's Zach Lowe in which he said not only that long-in-the-tooth vet Kevin Garnett will be in the Wolves' starting lineup come the beginning of the season, but also that a Minnesota offense that ranked 26th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession last season wouldn't be magically solved by just jacking up more 3s. Yes, Minnesota finished dead last in the league in 3-pointers attempted and made last season, but Saunders says that shouldn't be used as evidence that he doesn't want his offense producing long-distance looks:

How far can this team really go if [point guard] Ricky [Rubio, who has shot 36.7 percent from the field and 31.4 percent from 3-point land for his career] never learns to shoot?

Ricky is gonna be OK. I think he’ll be an adequate shooter. He has such an impact doing other things, he doesn’t need to be a great shooter. He just needs to knock down 18-footers, and maybe some corner 3s. Because if you lay off of him, he’ll take that slack and come at you — and create for someone else.

Can you generate enough spacing with a point guard who can’t shoot, at least one wing who likes to post up — and both [Andrew] Wiggins and Shabazz [Muhammad] do — and two bigs who live mostly from the elbows in?

Do we need to make 3s? No question. I think Andrew will become an adequate 3-point shooter. The bottom line is, you have what you have. If your best players aren’t 3-point shooters, you can’t just make them 3-point shooters. We need to build around them and get some other players who can stretch the floor.

And here’s the big thing: [2015 No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony] Towns, KG, and [Adreian] Payne are not post-up bigs. They knock down 18-footers with regularity. So it’s not like we’ll have no spacing. [...]

It sounds like you think post-ups will retain a prominent place in a league moving toward small-ball, passing, and 3s.

The reason teams don’t post up is that nobody can do it anymore. Teams would like to do it. The post-up is conducive to small ball. If a guy can score down there, the defense has to trap, and you can get open 3s. And that’s what we’re all trying to get — open 3s.

That sentiment largely tracks with Saunders' statements from this past April, when he said the Wolves need to become a better 3-point-shooting team while also saying he didn't want the 3-ball to "become a major part of [the] game" of eventual Rookie of the Year Wiggins. The issue, as Flip frames it, isn't a full-fledged opposition to casting off from beyond the arc, but rather that he doesn't want his young charges bombing away at the expense of developing the other-still-very-raw aspects of their games.

As Saunders said before the start of the 2014-15 season, he wants to foster smart shot selection on his young team; he wants "makers, not shooters." And given the lack of viable long-range shooting options on the Timberwolves' roster last season — especially due to injuries that cost starting two-guard Kevin Martin more than half the season and limited swingman Chase Budinger to just under 1,300 minutes — you can understand Saunders' preference for relying on trying to find other ways to generate offense.

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The problem, as our Kelly Dwyer noted back in April, is that even when Saunders has had smarter, more skilled, more veteran-laden squads over the years, those teams have still tended to rank among the bottom of the league in long balls and near the top of the pops in the share of their offense generated on midrange looks. With rare exceptions, Saunders' squads during his first run in Minnesota, his years with the Detroit Pistons and his time with the Washington Wizards featured boatloads of those 18-footers he mentioned in his interview with Lowe.

This isn't a new criticism some blog commenter came up with over the weekend. It's a persistent, fact-based critique of a system we've watched over a number of years. And as a higher and higher share of the league's most successful teams come from the ranks of those that both can and do feature the deep shot on an increasing number of offensive possessions — "even if you don't shoot them all that well" — adherence to a scheme that holds to a "makers, not shooters" creed seems at least somewhat like shooting yourself in the foot, according to Steve McPherson of A Wolf Among Wolves:

There might be plenty of reasons for his teams not to have shot a lot of 3-pointers ranging from the way the game was played during his first stint in Minnesota to personnel to rule changes. They could be perfectly valid reasons.

But honestly, all we have to go on are what his teams have actually done, not what he says on Twitter. The infuriating part of this is that I (and many others, for sure) don’t honestly care if the Wolves shoot more 3-pointers next season. We want the Wolves to show evidence that they’re building a team that can compete in the current NBA, where the four teams in the Conference Finals last season ranked 1st [the Houston Rockets], 2nd [Cleveland Cavaliers], 4th [Golden State Warriors] and 7th [Atlanta Hawks] [in 3-point attempts per game]. The most direct way to do that would seem to be to put a heavy emphasis on long-range shooting. Sure, there are outliers like the Memphis Grizzlies, but increasingly a premium is being put on spacing the floor.

A lack of 3-point shooting is not the cause of the Wolves’ struggles, but it could be a symptom of an offensive philosophy that is making things harder on the team than they need to be.

It's entirely reasonable for Saunders to prefer that electric athletes like Wiggins and LaVine, off-the-dribble creators like Rubio, and bulky interior players like Pekovic, Towns and Gorgui Dieng stick to what they do best rather than begin firing away just for the sake of trying to keep with the times. But it's also reasonable for fans eager to see the young talent unleashed to wish Saunders placed a greater emphasis on development work that would stretch some of those shooters out past 18 feet to the arc beyond, as befits a team trying to rebuild on both sides of the ball and vault into postseason contention in a brutal conference in a world where 3-point shooting is less luxury item than bare necessity.

Saunders' insistence that he's not opposed to innovation and that this year's model of the Timberpups will let 'em rip earlier and more often sounds like a heartening development for those who've wanted Minnesota's boss to embrace the shift that's taken over the league in recent years. But saying you love something is a very different thing than showing you do; you'd forgive Wolves fans for responding to Saunders' tweets, warming though they are, with an arched eyebrow and a suspension of belief until they actually see the triples fly this fall.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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