If there is an area of the game where the Minnesota Timberwolves have exceeded expectations during this horribly injury-riddled season, it has been the overall team defense.
Back on opening day in early November, the consensus was that the Wolves had plenty of offensive firepower but precious few defensive stoppers. Only swingman Andrei Kirilenko was an established force at that end of the court.
Yet through the first two months of the season, the Wolves ranked near the top of the NBA in defensive efficiency — points allowed per possession — a main reason why they were above .500 and still in the playoff chase despite long-term absences from Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.
Even after Love went down with his second broken hand of the season and the Wolves’ play deteriorated on both offense and defense, Minnesota has remained competitive and pulled out its few wins on the strength of its defense. Currently, the team is among the bottom five teams in offensive efficiency and yet tenacious 15th — in the middle of the pack — on defense.
Assistant coach Bill Bayno has been perhaps the primary architect of the Wolves’ defense this year. With head coach Rick Adelman adhering to his longtime policy of avoiding extensive interviews during the season, Bayno seemed like the next-best candidate among the Wolves coaching staff.
What follows is an edited transcript of a typically frank and somewhat technical discussion with Bayno, lasting about a half-hour on the phone Monday afternoon, when the team was in Memphis getting ready to play the Grizzlies. I have added a fair bit of explanatory commentary in brackets for the benefit of more casual fans.
MinnPost: You hear all the time about how injuries force teams to limit the amount of offensive sets they run and the flexibility they have to do different things. Is the same true on defense, or is it just a matter of commitment to fundamentals?
Bill Bayno: It just depends on the personnel, who you are missing. For example, without A.K. [Kirilenko], we had to double in the post a lot more. We had to play small, with Lexie [Alexey Shved] at the 3 [small forward] and that made for different schemes and it was harder to double team and so we end up giving up more open shots.
That was an issue against Dallas, where they put Vince [Carter] in the post with Lexie [creating a mismatch in the painted area]. Did we want to give up 2 [a two-point basket with Vince scoring over Lexie] or a 3 [if the Wolves double-teamed Carter, it would leave a three-point shooter open on the perimeter]?
The bottom line is that the defense will suffer with the amount of injuries we have had. After the first 35 games, we were one of best in league [at defensive efficiency] and since then we’ve gotten worse and worse. You have to give the guys credit, they are playing hard. But the injuries were going to hurt us.
We’ve tried to change our schemes most in the post matchups, trying to put more emphasis on taking charges because we are not a good charge-taking team and we are not great at rim protection. Kevin [Love] is good at [taking charges]. Pek [center Nikola Pekovic] and I have talked, and he said next year he is really going to be commited to taking more charges. Steamer [center Greg Stiemsma] is the best at it on our team. Derrick [forward Derrick Williams] is not a good charge taker. Those are little things we need to do.
MP: You said at the beginning of the year that Pek was probably the best pick-and-roll defender on the team, and certainly among your big men. Do you still feel that way?
BB: He hasn’t played in the last three weeks, so he was a little rusty last night. As I said, the big thing is for him to be more consistent about taking charges because he is not a great shot blocker. Steamer sets a good example because he is a good shot blocker, yet if you take his angle away and try to get right up in him, he will take the charge — all good big guys do.
But those are about the only areas I don’t think Pek is great at. He plays up on the pick-and-roll and is still able to get back. If a guy gets hit [a teammate is picked off on the pick-and-roll] he’ll see it and call it and pick up [switch off on] the shooter. He’s great on schemes — you tell him one time and there is not a lot of slippage. He gets it right the first time.
MP: I want to get your opinion on a couple of players who seem to be having a lot of trouble on defense. Derrick Williams seems really up and down and just seems to lose focus frequently. He seems to suffer even more breakdowns now than at the beginning of the season. Why has he had so much trouble?
BB: That is just his DNA — that is who he is. So that has been a real focus for us with him in film work. Some guys just have a natural sense of focus and others need to improve. I think he has gotten a lot better during the season. If you give him one thing to do, like tell him to show hard [come out toward the perimeter and vigorously impede] on the pick-and-roll, he is fine. But give him multiple things and it is harder for him. For one thing, he is young. And in college he played one way and one way only. But here, there might be five different things he needs to know about both the ball handler and the other guy setting the screen.
MP: The other player who really seems to have struggled on defense is Alexey Shved. He’s got good size, but teams are really physical with him and he seems to sulk and be affected on defense when his offensive game isn’t going. How do you get through to a guy like that?
BB: It is normal. Again, you are talking about a young guy, first year in the league, and he’s coming over from another country [Russia]. I think early on in the year he made a lot of improvement. Then he got hurt and Ricky [Rubio] came back, and he is not handling ball as much, and that affected him mentally. Andrei [Kirilenko] and [assistant coach] David Adelman and all the coaches preach that he needs to play through mistakes and not worry if he doesn’t get a call [from the officials] and not let one bad possession affect the next possession.
Early on, he had a pretty good first 35 games, and he knows he has to get stronger and he is getting experience. I think he is on his way. He had a great game against San Antonio [earlier this month] and then against Indiana he couldn’t make a shot but he grabbed — I think it was seven — rebounds and got some assists and played good defense.
The biggest thing is that he and Ricky need to learn how to play together. Both want the ball in their hands, but both need to be better at outside shooting so they can feed the other and help each other. Ricky is starting to do that with his shot now, but it is hard to improve your shot in the middle of the season. I think they are going to be really good together but it is going to take some time.
MP: I’ve kind of pushed you to criticize a couple of players. On the other side, as you consider this season, is there anyone you’d like to single out for special praise on the defensive end?
BB: Ricky and [forward] Dante [Cunningham]. They both play so hard. Ricky is our leader. He just turns the intensity up for the whole team. We feed off his energy and anticipation, his ability to dig in the post [moving down to double-team big men] and then recover for close outs [moving back out to challenge perimeter shooters].
Against New Orleans, one of the key plays of the game, he wouldn’t let [Hornets poing guard] Greivis [Vasquez] get the ball and their offense broke down. And just his ability to play multiple schemes pick-and-roll-wise.
AK is another one, who early in the year when we were in the top five in the NBA [on defense], our guys fed off him. I thought before he got hurt, Kevin’s defense was the best it has been. Luke [Ridnour] is a very under-rated defensive player because he is guarding [larger and stronger] two-guards and he gets into the post [to help double-team big men]. And he is another guy you just tell him one time and he makes the adjustment.
MP: What is your take on all the gambling Ricky does going for the steals, especially as he gets frustrated with the losing?
BB: You’ve got to live with it. He is learning to pick and choose his spots. He makes high-risk gambles and gets burned sometimes, but the scale is tipped way more in his favor. It’s tough because you don’t want to take that aggressiveness away.
MP: Floor balance [getting back in time to defend opposing fast-breaks] has been a problem for you guys most of the season, but it gradually seems to have gotten a little better recently.
BB: Yeah, we’re getting better at it. The key is that any time there is penetration [a member of the Wolves driving to the basket] the weakside corner [furthest from the action] can’t think about crashing [going to the basket to try and get an offensive rebound] and the strongside corner has to stay there initially because oftentimes he is open [for the corner three-pointer when his man leaves him to stop the penetration], but if the shot is made both [players in the corners] have to sprint back. Young guys don’t go back [automatically]. It is a weakness of Alexey. But AK [is weak] too, because he crashes; he’s a good offensive rebounder, and he thinks he can make the play but he needs to get back.
MP: I was speaking to AK in the locker room after the New Orleans game about all the switching on the pick and rolls. Under Jerry Sloan in Utah, he almost never switched, and I know at the beginning of the year, he wasn’t as comfortable with it, but he says he actually likes switching now.
BB: It can be effective, but you have to do it smart, especially if [the defenders] are the same size. I’d be careful switching AK with [the men being guarded by] Luke and J.J. [Barea]. Now switches among Dante and AK and Derrick are automatic because of their [similar] size, they can easily guard each other’s man.
MP: For that reason, I’ve wondered why you don’t run that small frontcourt more often, especially when Pek was out in addition to Kevin.
BB: Well, we have run some of that, but it is difficult because DC and D-Will are just not 3-men [small forwards].
MP: I’ve been surprised by how good Barea’s advanced stats seem to be on defense.
BB: I’m shocked at that. [I think he meant he, too, was surprised the numbers favored Barea’s defense.] The key to J.J. is ball pressure. When he is committed to pressuring the ball, he is much better, and he is also good at getting offensive fouls called, drawing the contact.
Some call it flopping, but I don’t because he is so good at ball pressure. If he backs off, he can go under too far and his man can accept or reject the screen and he is not in a position to guard either. He has to make that adjustment, and he’s gotten better at it.
MP: So overall, how do you think you have fared on defense this year? With everything that has happened, the Wolves are still 15th in defensive efficiency, which is right in the middle of the league.
BB: Overall I think we have a bright future if we can stay healthy. All the stats are meaningless because we don’t have a full team. Hopefully, we get everybody back these last weeks, but it has just been a wasted year with injuries. We can’t do anything about it, but I don’t think any of this year’s statistics are that valuable, because we’ve got guys and lineups that won’t be the same when we are healthy next year.