Let’s begin with this cheery declaration: The Minnesota Timberwolves are playing the worst defense in the already sordid 26-year history of the franchise.
Watching the Wolves try to stop their opposition from putting the basketball through the hoop is literally a dreadful proposition; seriously contemplating Minnesota’s ineptitude triggers the apprehension that the team has no meaningful chance of winning the game against a quality foe, making one’s patronage of the process a waste of time. These are not the sort of feelings you want to instill in your fan base.
The numbers are damning. According to Basketball-Reference, the Wolves are currently giving up 114.4 points per 100 possessions to the other team, which, if it holds up through the entire season, is considerably more generous than previous editions of the ballclub. The previous benchmark for porous defense was 112.4 points per 100 possessions (which we’ll shorten to pp100), reached by the 1991-92 and 1994-95 Timberwolves. In more modern times, the 2009-10 Timberwolves yielded 111.6 pp100.
It doesn’t work to try and explain this away as part of an NBA-wide trend toward more offensive-oriented performance. The worst Wolves defense relative to the rest of the league for an entire season was that 1991-92 ballclub, which ceded 4.2 pp100 more than the NBA norm for that year. Thus far this season, the Wolves are a whopping 8.3 pp100 ahead of the NBA average for points allowed.
Common sense and the record book concur that if you can’t stop the other team from scoring, your chances of winning plummet. The worst won-lost records ever posted by the franchise are during those 1991-92 and 2009-10 seasons cited earlier, when the Wolves finished 15-67. By comparison, the current Wolves are 4-12, which works out to somewhere between 20 and 21 wins over the 82-game season. Then again, they were 2-2 and ahead in their fifth game of the year when Ricky Rubio rolled his ankle in the first half against Orlando.
The defensive chasm at point guard
When people think about Ricky Rubio, splendid passing and panoramic court vision highlight the conjured memories that come to the fore. The young point guard has also received ample attention for his wayward shooting during his initial seasons in the NBA. Even after he led the league in steals last season by a significant margin, Rubio’s exploits and value to the Wolves on the defensive end of the court are typically discounted. But more than any other factor, his absence due to injury explains why this ball club has been historically awful on defense.
It is a fairly small sample size—just 144 of the 773 total minutes played by the Wolves this season—but with Rubio on the court Minnesota has yielded just 101.7 pp100, well below the NBA average of 106.1 pp100 for the 2014-15 campaign thus far. By contrast, heading into Monday night’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Wolves were giving up 117.2 pp100 when Rubio is off the court. Given that the Clips torched Minnesota for 127 points and 127.4 pp100 on Monday, that gaping disparity has become even more blatant.
Rubio is tall and rangy for a point guard, and blends keen instincts with intelligence and anticipation to perform as a quality defender. The Wolves have yielded fewer pp100 when he plays, compares to when he sits, in each of the first three years he has been with the team.
But the scope of the team’s defensive dissolution has never been as pervasive as in this current season, which points to the shoddy performance of those who have replaced him. Mo Williams has never been regarded as a particularly rugged defender, and now that the 11-year veteran is in the twilight of his career, shouldering more playing time than expected and is undersized to boot (at 6-1, he’s three inches shorter than Rubio), he tends to conserve his energy at that end of the court. Heading into the Clippers game, Wolves opponents were scoring 110.8 pp100 when Williams was on the court.
This brings us in turn to Zach LaVine, the teenaged rookie who has been hopelessly overmatched on both offense and defense the vast majority of the time he has set foot on the court. Not even counting the debacle against the Clippers on Monday, opponents of the Wolves have scored an eye-popping 123.8 pp100 during the 246 minutes LaVine has impersonated an NBA defender.
Of course offense and defense aren’t played in separate vacuums during the games. It makes sense that LaVine is perpetually out of position on the defensive end — after a mere 904 minutes of playing time in college, he is suddenly lost in space out on the perimeter coping with the largest, fastest and most talented and experienced opponents he has ever encountered. But it also doesn’t help that LaVine is almost equally at sea trying to run the offense. As a result, the Wolves’ extensive playbook is abridged, causing the offense to become both more predictable and more reliant on individual matchups instead of team synergy. That leads to more turnovers, which generate more easy points in transition for the opposition. And that produces ridiculously inept defensive numbers when LaVine is on display.
Truth be told, however, nobody besides Rubio and perhaps Andrew Wiggins and Thad Young look capable of playing quality defense on the Wolves current roster. Opponents are scoring 112.9 pp100 when Wiggins is on the court (not counting the Clippers game), a normally terrible figure that looks better when you consider Minnesota is yielding 115.8 pp100 when he sits. Wiggins has also logged a team-high 158 minutes alongside LaVine, who causes any cohort’s defensive numbers to mushroom.
Young’s on/off the court defensive numbers are even better than Wiggins’, but it is hard to single him out for praise after he frequently stopped putting forth a defensive effort in the second half of the blowout versus the Clippers. He was also helped by being absent for the beat-downs Minnesota received in New Orleans and Dallas while he was away due to the illness and death of his mother. (The flip side of that argument is that the defense would have improved if he had been in the lineup.)
When you crunch the numbers beyond points allowed per 100 possessions, the caliber of the Wolves defense becomes even less defensible. According to NBA.com, Minnesota allows the highest percentage of opponents’ field goal attempts on shots from 0-5 feet from the basket—64.9 percent. Minnesota allows the highest percentage of opponents’ makes on shots from 5-9 feet away from the hoop—49.2 percent. They allow the highest percentage from 20-24 feet away—43.6 percent, and are third from 25-29 feet away, 38.4 percent.
Generating offense in the modern NBA is about scoring from the most efficient areas on the court. Those areas are right at the rim and from beyond the three-point arc. As the above numbers indicate, the Wolves are most porous at precisely the spots on the floor where the defense needs to be most resistant. (They allow an NBA-high 41.9 percent shooting from three-point territory.) It is only in the less efficient offensive areas of the court — on midrange shots from 10-19 feet away from the basket — where opponents shoot less than the NBA average in accuracy.
The perpetually walking wounded
Just as the point guards bear heavier responsibility for a team’s defensive prowess out on the perimeter, the big men patrolling the painted area are most accountable for deterring shots attempted at the rim. Alas, the Wolves’ contingent of centers has been decimated by injuries this season. Unfortunately it has become a familiar pattern.
In August of 2013, Nikola Pekovic signed a five-year, $60-million contract that currently makes him the highest-paid employee in the Timberwolves organization. (Rubio will supplant him in that distinction when his contract kicks in next season.) The problem with Pek has always been keeping him healthy enough to justify that kind of investment. His career-high for games played in a season is 65, accomplished in 2010-11 as a rookie. He has never logged 2,000 minutes—an average of 24.4 per game over a full season—coming closest with 1,959 in the 2012-13 campaign.
At 295 pounds, it is perhaps understandable that the bulk of Pekovic’s physical woes have occurred in the feet and lower legs that support him. In an attempt to safeguard his precious playing time for moments that matter, coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders used him sparingly in the preseason. It cost the Wolves on opening night, when Pek wasn’t physically or mentally ready to joust with the stalwart front court players in Memphis during a narrow Wolves loss to the Grizzlies. And it proved fruitless when Pek went down again during the ninth game of the season and his second painfully slow performance in a row.
The diagnosis is a “sore right foot” and, for variety, a sprained right wrist. There is no timetable for his return—he’s “out indefinitely.”
Second-year center Gorgui Dieng has stepped into the breach, but once again backup center Ronny Turiaf is physically unavailable. Like Pek, Turiaf has never played 2000 minutes in any of his nine NBA seasons, coming closest in 2008-09 with 1696. Last season he played 606 minutes in 31 games and has missed all but 19 minutes in two games this season due to a “sore hip.”
Pekovic and Turiaf are two of the most decent and likable players on the Wolves roster. Both are infectiously fun-loving and impish. But it is no barrel of laughs for Wolves fans to see them in street clothes night after night while Dieng valiantly holds the fort down near the hoop. Then, right around the time Williams needs a break at point guard and is replaced by LaVine, Dieng too must sit, leaving Saunders with his choice of woefully undersized replacements—6-8 forwards Anthony Bennett and Robbie Hummel have both been matched up on players three or four inches taller and fifty pounds heavier in recent games. Then, surprise surprise, the Wolves get blown out in the second quarter.
To address this disturbingly chronic problem, the Wolves successfully applied for an injury exemption that enabled then to add a 16th player to their roster. Ironically, and sadly, the person they tabbed is Jeff Adrien, who likewise vertically challenged at just 6-7, although he is inordinately strong. He made his Wolves debut versus the Clippers. Adding him means that either Pekovic and/or Turiaf must remained sidelined at least another two weeks.
Soon — maybe even the next column — I’ll go back to trolling for bright spots, which could include the inspired improvement of second-year swingman Shabazz Muhammad, the way Mo Williams has re-tailored his game to accommodate a heavier load strictly at the point guard position, and the positive aspects that second-year youngsters Dieng and Bennett have exhibited thus far.
Meanwhile, the winless Philadelphia 76ers arrive at Target Center on Wednesday night. They are by far the worst offensive team in the NBA — a worthy challenge for the Wolves D.