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How and why the Wolves are winning with defense

After seven games this season (an admittedly small sample size), Minnesota’s defensive efficiency is second-best in franchise history.

Forward Andrei Kirilenko blocks a shot by Brooklyn Nets forward Kris Humphries in the first quarter of their NBA game on Nov. 5.
REUTERS/Adam Hunger

The Minnesota Timberwolves are on an underdog’s spree, winning games they were supposed to lose, storming up the standings while their two best players recuperate on the sidelines and creating a rare and marvelous sensation that this team has a chimerical blend of grit and grace. Monday night’s successful grapple with the Dallas Mavericks provided the latest, and arguably most satisfying, example thus far.

Playing on the road against an opponent widely regarded as a formidable rival in what will be a multi-team scrum for the final playoff spots in the West come April, the Wolves’ roster had been strafed by injuries, to the point where five of its top seven players were in street clothes. They lost a sixth, leading scorer Nikola Pekovic, to a sprained ankle in the third quarter.

No matter. This remnant collection of gritty scrubs reduced the NBA’s third-most-efficient offense to 40.3 percent shooting accuracy from the field. The Mavs had averaged more than 116 points in their three previous home games. The Wolves permitted them 82, grabbing the lead less than three minutes into the first quarter and refusing to let go en route to posting their fifth win in the season’s first seven games.

In the afterglow of such a blue-collar triumph, one can savor the comprehensive makeover in team chemistry and character that was enacted by the Wolves’ brain trust during the off-season. Last year’s roster was pockmarked by high-profile underachievers such as Darko Milicic, Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson, who were all chosen among the top four players in the year each was eligible for the NBA draft. They have been replaced by low-profile overachievers like Greg Stiemsma, Dante Cunningham and Chase Budinger, who were all bypassed in the entire first rounds of their respective NBA drafts.

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Nowhere is this personality transplant more evident than in the team’s dedication to defense thus far this season. Last year, the Wolves ranked 25th out of 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency (which is measured by the number of points allowed per possession to opponents). Even that dismal placement obscures how much the team laid down like dogs after then-rookie wunderkind Ricky Rubio was sidelined with a knee injury more than halfway through the season, a time when the Wolves’ defensive efficiency was only slightly below average.

By contrast, after seven games this season (an admittedly small sample size), Minnesota’s defensive efficiency is second-best in franchise history, behind only the 2003-04 team that won more games and advanced further in the playoffs than any other edition of the Wolves.

Even at the NBA level, the key ingredient required for quality defensive play is no great secret: You need a persistent and coordinated effort from your personnel — sweat equity. The trick is finding the right combination of motivations and machinations that inspires your players to defend “harder and smarter.” In that vein, here’s my take on how the Wolves fostered their dramatic upgrade.

Signing Kirilenko as ‘go to’ defender

Obtaining a versatile wing defender was appropriately the top priority of coach Rick Adelman over the summer. The Wolves initially targeted restricted free agent Nicolas Batum, but received a blessing in disguise when Portland matched their offer for Batum, compelling them to negotiate with Andrei Kirilenko as Plan B. Although “AK47” lacks Batum’s offensive prowess and long-term upside (at 31, he’s nearly eight years older than Batum), he possesses the ideal skill set and emotional makeup to spearhead the Wolves’ defense over the next two seasons.

At a wiry 6-9, he is capable of defending every position on the court, although he’s most effective covering the opponent’s most prolific scorer at small forward or shooting guard. He made a splash early in his career with Utah, leading the NBA in blocked shots in 2004-05, ranking among the top five in steals in 2003-04, and earning NBA All-Defensive team honors three years running from 2003 through 2006. But he also bore the brunt of numerous tongue-lashings from crusty coach Jerry Sloan and was notoriously reduced to tears after Sloan benched him for lack of offensive production during the 2007 playoffs.

After a decade in Utah, Kirilenko used Sloan’s resignation, his own expired contract and the lockout of the players by management as a cue to recharge his batteries by playing in his native Russia last season. He returns to the NBA as the most veteran member of a Wolves roster that is desperate for defensive leadership and thus far has been both inspirationally steady and strategically spectacular in that role, a stabilizer and a catalyst, leading by silent example and vocal instruction.

Even now, slightly past his athletic prime, he possesses a combination of length and wingspan that few NBA players can match. If there is a flaw in his defensive game, it’s that his faith in his own ability leads him to freelance outside Adelman’s system — occasionally confusing teammates by doggedly staying with his man (something Sloan always preached) rather than rotating, or impulsively flashing over for a steal or double-team. That said, his defensive mechanics are so fundamentally sound that he is rarely gulled into fouls, and his presence creates a chain-reaction commitment to defense not seen on this team since the heyday of Kevin Garnett. (The nuance and surprising efficiency of his offensive game cements his status as the team’s MVP thus far, but that’s another subject for a different column.)

The team’s evolution on defense

During the Kurt Rambis era, there was a classic chicken-or-egg conundrum when it came to dysfunctional defense. Beasley and some of the other chuckleheads on the roster probably wondered about the value of stopping their opponent, given that a deluge of turnovers caused by their ill-suited attempt to run Rambis’ triangle offense was likely going to sabotage their efforts anyway. When your record is 32-132 over a two-year span, it is hard to get motivated to perform the scut work of defense. By the same token, that lack of commitment is why you are 32-132.

The arrival of Rubio and Adelman and the blossoming of Kevin Love began to change that dynamic last season. Suddenly, the team had an offense potent enough to compete. Meanwhile, Rubio’s surprising excellence defending on the perimeter last year created a minor version of the infectious enthusiasm for defense being generated by Kirilenko this season — but it promptly disintegrated when Rubio tore up his knee in March.

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This season, the rewards of a rugged team defense are even more obvious and substantial. Most observers would agree that when Love and Rubio are healthy, the Wolves have enough talent to make a serious push for the playoffs. It is up to the rest of the roster to ensure that the team doesn’t stumble out of the gate woefully enough to pre-empt those playoff hopes. The best way to do that, especially for scrappy role players like Cunningham and Stiemsma, is to keep grinding at the defensive end.

And as injuries keep pruning the team’s best scorers from the rotation, the need to win through defense becomes more acute. Adelman reinforced that message by starting Malcolm Lee over Alexey Shved at off guard Monday night because he figured Lee would be more effective defending the Mavericks’ O.J. Mayo. The bottom line is that, compared with two or three years ago, players committed to defense are likely to get more playing time and win more games.

Adelman and Bayno

Adelman is rightly regarded as an offensive mastermind, but his commitment to defense is underrated, in part because the up-tempo pace often deployed by his teams tends to run up the score for both sides. Over the course of his career, teams he coached in Portland, Sacramento and Houston all cracked the NBA’s top seven in defensive efficiency multiple times. Finally given a chance to offer his first appraisal of the Wolves’ personnel after the lockout at the beginning of last season, he castigated the defense and said changing its performance would be a top priority.

Assistant coach Bill Bayno has been the point person for that endeavor. An obsessive student of the game whose intensity has burned him out in previous head coaching stints, Bayno has learned to circumscribe his duties. Yet he worked tirelessly with players over the summer, including Pekovic and Derrick Williams, both of whom have upgraded their defense this season. Without discounting the flaws he sees in his troops — he still worries about the Wolves getting caught flat-footed in transition — Bayno has been cautiously optimistic that the Wolves could be “slightly above average” on defense this season. With a deeper cadre of front court personnel coming out to defend the pick and roll more aggressively, the team’s interior defense has been bolstered and his prediction is on track.

Length and pace

After Rubio was injured last season, it was not uncommon to see a diminutive Wolves backcourt made up of 6-2 Luke Ridnour and 6-0 J.J. Barea (who is actually closer to 5-9). Among the new backcourt mates this season are 6-6 Alexey Shved, 6-6 Brandon Roy and 6-7 Chase Budinger, with 6-5 Malcolm Lee also getting more early playing time than he received last year. In particular, Shved is using his length to compensate for gaps in his fundamental approach to defense — he had three blocks Monday in Dallas. Throw in the 6-9 Kirilenko blanketing the top-scoring swingmen, and the Wolves sport much more length on the perimeter.

That said, controlling free-wheeling opponents in transition, especially out on the perimeter, is an ongoing vulnerability. In response, Adelman has dramatically slowed the team’s pace of play — only the New Orleans Hornets execute fewer possessions per game, a marked departure from the coach’s usual up-tempo style. Consequently, while the Wolves give up the seventh-highest three-point shooting percentage (37.0) to opponents, only eight teams permit fewer three-point attempts.

Without question, the greatest room for improvement in the Wolves’ defense is in stopping backcourt scoring, especially from the point guard position. Opposing point guards have led their team in scoring in five of the seven games Minnesota has played thus far, and in the other two, the points leader was an off-guard.

Fortunately, in another month or two, the Wolves should be able to add a superb and lanky perimeter defender to the mix, a fellow by the name of Rubio.