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The T-Wolves defense: bad … or historically bad?

Head Coach Tom Thibodeau
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
It is up to Tom Thibodeau to own the reality that the fundamentals he preaches are not permeating the fabric of his team.

As the Minnesota Timberwolves pass the quarter pole of the 2016-17 season tied for the third-worst record in the NBA at 6-16, folks pleading patience with the exceptionally young roster are themselves growing weary, if not irritated, at the ongoing ineffectiveness of this counsel. 

No one can dispute that the Wolves possess the most athletically gifted trio of 21-year old players in the league — and perhaps ever, in the history of the game. Nor can anyone dispute that head coach Tom Thibodeau is universally respected, to the brink of reverence, by his peers for his proven ability to create stifling team defenses.

This match made in heaven is currently holed up in Hades, and is thus far refusing to leave.

The Timberwolves are dreadful at stopping opponents from scoring. The fiery coach with the step-by-step template of fundamentals and the titanic threesome already renowned for their curlicue leaps and cheetah dashes are being repeatedly rendered pathetic by a basic pick-and-roll. Where synergy was logically anticipated, corrosion reigns, generating an almost haughty ineptitude. The promise of deliverance increasingly feels like a long con.

According to basketball-reference.com, the Wolves are currently giving up 111 points to their opponents per 100 possessions of the basketball. This is 4.3 points more than the average NBA defense is allowing. Now, Minnesota has witnessed some utterly atrocious hoops — you could spend an evening debating which Wolves assemblage was worst. But in the 28-year history of the franchise, only the notorious “tanking for Towns” season of 2014-15 has seen a team screw the pooch on defense more blatantly, relative to the NBA standard, than the current bunch.

But things are getting better, right?

Nope.

In 16 November games, the Wolves allowed opponents to shoot 47.3 percent from the field and 33.1 percent from three-point territory while yielding 104.1 points per game. In four December contests, opponents are shooting 48 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from deep and averaging 116.8 points per game.

I am using stats to paint a terrible picture. Yes, the Wolves are 4.3 points worse than average in defensive rating this season, but there are currently three teams behind them — they rank “only” 27th in defensive efficiency, indicating the enormous gap between the good and bad team defenses thus far. And four December games is a pretty small sample size, and includes contests against Toronto’s second-ranked offense, and a San Antonio team that is 9th in offensive efficiency.

So maybe the Wolves aren’t historically bad. Maybe they are merely one of the four or five worst defenses in the NBA.

Complacent with the hype

My desire to dramatize Minnesota’s wretched defense stems from the damning discrepancy between the reputations of their cornerstone stars and their head coach and the results they are delivering.

When then-President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders obtained Andrew Wiggins in a trade for Kevin Love and the next season chose Karl-Anthony Towns with the top pick in the draft, he used the phrase “two-way player” to describe both acquisitions. What he meant was that both Wiggins and Towns were regarded as rugged, capable defenders as well as scorers; indeed, both supposedly were more advanced and “NBA-ready” at the defensive end than they were on offense.

In reality, both have been inconsistent, while showing flashes of quality defense, during their brief NBA careers. The other player included in the golden trio, Zach LaVine, is, like Wiggins, in his third season, a year longer than Towns. LaVine has lived up to his billing as the most undeveloped of the three, setting a new level for chronically clueless defense his first two seasons.

Of course one of the primary reasons for optimism this season was the arrival of Thibodeau — specifically his ability to hasten and elevate the defensive prowess of the three kids.

It is accepted wisdom that team defense in basketball comes down to effort, focus, and familiarity with a system, as well as the innate ability of the five individuals playing it. Thibs has a lofty rep for fostering effort and narrowing the focus to a laser-beam like intensity that quickens the collective grasp on the clear principles of his defensive philosophy.

Twenty-two games into the season, there is more than enough blame to go around for the flagrant failure of the Wolves D.

On Thursday night in Toronto, the second half began with all the commentators and trend-watchers buzzing about Minnesota’s tragicomic performances in the third quarter of games thus far this season. It has been a dominant motif in their pratfall campaign thus far and nobody should be more aware of it than the players.

And yet in just the second minute of the third quarter, after Gorgui Dieng missed a jump shot, 22-year old rookie forward Pascal Siakam was able to sprint down the floor wide open and receive a simple chest pass from Kyle Lowry for an unimpeded dunk.

This gifted basket occurred because Siakam’s man, Towns, was down near the hoop in rebounding position and didn’t hustle back quickly enough. It happened because Wiggins and LaVine, who both were back, decided to stay with their men and not bother to deter a wide open player in the process of getting a pass twenty feet from the basket.

An exasperated Thibodeau called timeout and presumably reamed out his players for their absence of sufficient effort and judgement. Less than a minute later, after Towns valiantly converted his second putback attempt for the Wolves first basket of the third quarter, Toronto inbounded the ball and threw it upcourt to a wide open DeMar DeRozan, located in the corner halfway between Ricky Rubio near mid-court and Wiggins along the baseline. As the Wolves scrambled to recover, DeRozan drove to the basket, where he was fouled by Wiggins, resulting in a three-point play.

These are the sort of casual, unfocused defensive lapses that will get you hooted at in grade school or on the playground. They happened twice in succession on national television at a time in the game when the Wolves knew their play was subject to added scrutiny. It was, no hyperbole, a shameful display.

Logic tells us that a coach with Thibodeau’s pedigree, relentlessly working with players who perform with such athletic majesty, speak with such apparent self-awareness, and generally comport themselves in a manner that indicates respect for the game, will eventually synergize into a dynamic defensive force. Context tells us that Thibs is 22 games into a five-year contract, that Wiggins, Towns and LaVine had just one year of college experience apiece, and that there has never been such a precocious burden spread among three players this way before.

None of that indemnifies Thibs and his players against the shoddy spectacle of those two possessions in Toronto.

A few games back, after yet another loss in which the Wolves delivered some highlight-reel dunks and contortions mixed in with the usual defensive dysfunction, Thibodeau pointedly noted that these NBA games “are not a show, they are a competition.”

It was a subtle but devastating and concise bit of criticism. The Wolves in general, and Towns, Wiggins and Towns in particular, almost always play as if this was ice skating instead of basketball, in the sense that they are being equally judged on style points as well as technical merit. It is time for these players to own the reality that one spectacular dunk, or one gorgeous drive through traffic that gets replayed to the masses numerous times, is a net minus in comparison to two mundane defensive mistakes that are probably undetectable to 99 percent of the viewing public.

Remedies: prudent or panicked?

Meanwhile, it is up to Thibs to own the reality that the fundamentals he preaches are not permeating the fabric of his team. There are folks among the Wolves fan base who believe that is partly because the coach is a joyless scold, and that his players are consciously or unconsciously rebelling against his hectoring desire for discipline. It is a theory that will acquire more credence the longer his baleful stares and hoarse instructions are stonewalled into oblivion.

Only once or twice has Thibs lost his composure after a game and really ripped into the way he team played. Never in that time has he singled out a player for any sort of criticism, even when I have directly asked for an assessment, and immediately asked again after an evasive response. (Albeit always complimentary, as in “you raise a good point.”)

On the other hand, after a rare, rousing comeback victory over Charlotte last week, Thibs was equally determined not to let his troops marinate in satisfaction over the result. One day at a time, and getting a little better on that day, is his metronomic mindset.

Except that to the less-educated schmoes like yours truly, the Wolves don’t seem to be getting better.

After this 6-16 start, the Wolves will have to play 35-25 basketball the rest of the season to post their first .500 record since 2005, which even then is unlikely to get them into the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Thus far Thibs has doubled down on the potential synergy of his core youth, playing LaVine, Towns and Wiggins the third-most minute s— 555 — of any trio in the NBA this season. Among three-man lineups that have logged at least 300 minutes together, the highlight reel triplets rank second-worst in defensive efficiency, with 114.2 points yielded per 100 possessions. Only the Portland trio of Harkness, McCollum and Plumlee (a killer moniker for a law firm) gives up more, 116 per 100 possessions.

Defensive misery loves company in Minnesota, however, as the third, fourth and fifth worst defensive trios logging more than 300 minutes together, when you swap in Rubio for each of the three principals. Not surprisingly, a four-player combo of Rubio and the three young’uns is the second-worst defensive quartet logging over 300 minutes.

Put simply, Thibodeau keeps throwing this group back into the water, determined to see them swim instead of sink. After 22 games of this, is it prudent or a premature bout of panic to change the mix?

Some would argue for Kris Dunn to replace Rubio at the point. At least at the defensive end, the stats are unkind to this gambit—Dunn with the three kids has a worse defensive rating than Rubio. However the quartet’s net rating is significantly better because the offense functions much more efficiently with Dunn over Rubio.

There are some matchups where it seems like a clear advantage to play Cole Aldrich at center instead of Gorgui Dieng. Tonight’s home game against the Detroit Pistons is a case in point: Aldrich could take on behemoth center Andre Drummond while Towns handles power forward Tobias Harris. This offers the advantage of keeping the core youth intact, although another enticing possibility is adding Nemanja Bjelica to the starters as a larger small forward better able to guard the beefy, 6-9 Markieff Morris. This would bump Wiggins down to shooting guard and throw LaVine to the second unit, where he can maintain his offensive chemistry with Dieng.

As mentioned, Thibodeau has steadfastly resisted this sort of tinkering. Only injuries — which cost Rubio five games and LaVine one — have prevented the same starting quintet from coming out for the opening tip every time.

Maybe this steady jackhammer-style repetition will break through. Thus far, Thibs has coached like a guy at a slot machine, yanking that lever time after time, grinding down the odds for his jackpot. Well, he’s got five years’ worth of tokens, assuming the kids don’t bolt for free agency or the fans don’t burn down Target Center first. 

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Comments (12)

Incapable or Unwilling

Great to see this article and not a moment too soon. As I watched last night, I couldn't help but be frustrated with all aspects of the team's defense. At times, it seems like the Raptors picked a player in the huddle and decided that they would go to that guy a handful of times in a row to get their guys going with little or no resistance from the pups.

My question at this point is are the young guys not able to understand the defense that Thibs is asking them to play or are they unwilling to simply hustle back after a made shot? I really hope it isn't the later because that doesn't lend a lot of hope for the future of our Big Three. I knew that they might stagger a bit on defense but never in my imagination did I think simple hustle would be an issue for a group of young kids looking to make a name for themselves.

It is also too bad that Ricky's defense has turned sour with his shooting. His steals and disruption on the defensive end was about 60% of his value in the past. Either this system or his pouting has all but destroyed his effectiveness as a valuable defender.

My dreams of getting run out of the building in the first round of the playoff by Golden State are all but vanished already and we are not even half way through the schedule. I guess there is next year.

a blend of the two

Chris--

Thanks for commenting.

I think the incapable or unwilling scales of the equation is what everyone concerned with this team is trying to balance right now. My own take is that the rigor of NBA defense remains a formidable burden that the kids haven't fully grasped--in part due to inexperience, in part due to the love they get for being such phenomenal players already in other aspects of the game.

Hence, they dig down and play good defense 70-80 percent of the time. And within those 20-30 percent where they don't, a chunk of the time they fool themselves into thinking they are on point. Still, inevitably, their lack of mettle is exposed.

The rest of this season will be fascinating to watch. The tools and the coaching are there. Under the circumstances, can there be a quality finished product?

At what point do we throw a bit more shade Thibs way?

They're young....we know. We've been hearing that for the last 2 years. I also understand that it takes time for players to adjust to new systems. They've been through a couple of systems now. Maybe more time if the BBIQ of the players is not high to begin with (Lavine). But Towns? I thought he had a very high BBIQ? So why isnt he "getting" it? Point being that at some point maybe we should be asking tougher questions on our head coach who doesnt seem to be able to get the finer points of his defense down to a digestable level where the kids (and apparently Rubio) can get a handle on it. I was hoping that Thibs was going to be more of a teacher as opposed to a drill sargent where "there is one way of doing things". I was hoping he had the ability to take what he was given and find a way to make it work...while working towards his end goal.

A very smart person once said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity... Which is why I agree with your point about maybe switching things up a bit. Wiggins and Lavines best position is at the 2. Someone should move to the 2nd unit to give them more of a scoring punch. I did like the Bjelly/Lavine swap we did (once!) to good results. Would love to see it again. Gorgi/Towns is probably not a great pairing long term but I'm not sure what to do there. I dont like Towns guarding 4's and taking him away from the basket but until we get a better 4...maybe it has to be this way.

Anyway, as a season ticket holder (for many years) I was really looking forward to better basketball and not more of the same old same old. I guess I should have known better. Great article as always Britt and love the podcast with DB. (BTW, I'd love for you guys to have special guests on there like maybe someone from Canis or Punch Drunk wolves, etc.)

Fan outcry vs. attendance

They're not playing well, but I'd love to see a poll of how many of the fans complaining about them on social media have attended even 1 game this season. There's not much evidence that they should care about the fans much. The fans are only going to matter to their bottom line if they attend, which they likely won't until the winning picks up; they've chosen a path that will delay that for at least another season. The best comparison to them is the Pistons, who have a similarly highly-regarded coach with the same power and went 32-50 in his first season there.

I was never under the assumption that this was a playoff team because their roster construction flouted a pretty firm truth about the NBA: young don't win. Veterans, even unspectacular ones, know how to prepare and play as a team; that's the reason KG dragged those journeymen teams to the playoffs year after year between Marbury/Googs and Cassell/Spree, and it's why a starting lineup with 39-year-old KG and 35-year-old Tayshaun Prince could start last season 8-8. The Wolves have arguably 2 rotation guys in or past their prime: Bjelica and Aldrich, 7th and 9th in minutes played, one in his 2nd NBA season and the other barely accustomed to regular rotation minutes and only 102 career playoff minutes. The OKC example can be thrown out all one wants, but Zach LaVine ain't James Harden, Wiggins ain't Russell Westbrook, and there is no Serge Ibaka. Even LeBron James, who was surrounded by vets, didn't make the playoffs until his 3rd season in the weak East.

Amin Elhassan of ESPN said something a while ago that seems to fit here: basketball is easy to play, but difficult to master. At the very basic level, almost everyone can make a basket, which makes everyone think they understand basketball in a way they wouldn't claim to understand other sports. The 3 young guys have really improved individual skills, but it's obvious they don't have the court sense yet to play good help defense and consistently make good offensive decisions. Many NBA teams will make them pay for that, and opponents have motivation to play well against them as preseason national media darlings. A guy like Anthony Davis sees NBA GMs choose Towns as the guy they'd start a franchise with, sees he didn't get any votes despite being a superior player at a similar age, and probably gets motivated for a national TV game.

Dunn's effect on the lineup above Rubio is overrated. The 108 minutes he's played with other 4 starters includes 22 minutes of +26 against Memphis' JV squad in the 3rd game of the year. If those had been Rubio minutes as usual, his lineup would be -41 and Dunn's would be -37 in far fewer minutes. Dunn grinds the offense to a halt with his indecision and slow movements. If they got a decent offer, they should move him now and look to get their real future PG in next year's lottery. Unlike the other youngsters, there's no guarantee he develops due to already being 22.

Bad offense leads to bad defense

Tied at 59 at halftime, our 1st 3 possessions of the 3rd quarter were

1 - high pick and role with Wiggins and Dieng, Towns in one corner, Rubio and Lavine on the other side. Well defended, no movement, long contested shot by Wiggins. Toronto rebounds, runs a set play, foul on Towns, 2 FT

2 - hgh pick and role with Wiggins and Dieng, Same set - Towns in one corner, Rubio and Lavine on the other side. Well defended, no movement. Wiggins lowers his head and commits an offensive foul trying to create something out of nothing. Toronto pushes, gets a 2 pt floater in the lane.

3 - post up by Dieng (!!!) no movement, 5 dibbles to a horrible 12 ft turnaround fade away that leads to a Toronto rebound and the horrible transition defense that you described above. (By the way, if you watch the replay again, you will see Rubio barking out and pointing to Lavine and Wiggins trying to get them to pick up the open men in transition)

These 3 possessions were all called from the bench, resulted in no movement, poor shots, and points for Toronto. Where was the motion that we saw in the 1st quarter? A quarter when the guys were more engaged, moving, and frankly more successful on offense that helped make playing defense easier.

Thibs needs to do a far better job managing the flow of the game to keep our guys moving and more engaged. Our guys seem to frequently hang their heads after poor offensive possession leading to our opponents pouncing. Thibs can help this by encouraging more movement and calling less set plays - especially the Wiggins high pick and roll from the top of the key.

One final comment. Thibs has a proven track record as a top defensive coach. But in both Boston and Chicago, he had some strong, veteran guys to serve as cornerstones to build his defense around. I was stunned when he did not bring in a few players like that this summer to round out our roster. I personally think Thibs is struggling just as much trying to teach 4 or 5 key young players (add Dunn and Shabazz) as these young guys are struggling to learn. It looks like a full year long process to me - which is really too bad after all the hope earlier this season.

Leadership

Britt: I get the sense the team could use a stronger veteran leader on the floor, a trait perhaps they should be getting and expected to get from Rubio.

What's going on with the point guard? Is he resigned to his fate with the drafting of Dunn?

my first sample for this season ...

... of the TWolves was that 3d quarter ... happened across it looking for something else, watched. In pain. Decided to keep searching for my original choice by the 4th. Hope they turn it around.

Thibs

Sometimes less is more. Whether I'm watching on TV or at the game I find the continuous hoarse bellowing from the sideline to be irritating. My guess is that these young NBA players have either tuned it out or are resisting it.

To state the obvious, the relationship between Thibs and his players does not appear to be off to a good start. In the NBA the players are always more critical to the value of a franchise than the coach, even one with a five year $40M contract. There are clear deficiencies in this roster and the talent drop off after the Big Three is dramatic, but Thibs is going to have to figure out a different way to get through to his players or it will quickly slide into another season of oblivion.

Every once in a while something happens that causes a team to turn a disaster into a fairy tale season. A trade, an inspirational story in the locker room, a galvanizing lineup change, etc. etc. I keep looking for a spark. Anybody see it?

No Fun Wolves

What stands out to me as I watch this team flounder away is that it looks like nobody is having fun. The body language is abysmal and players jog up and down the court as they get into their YMCA noon ball offense of standing around. Seriously, when is the last time the Wolves got a basket on a cut to the hoop?

I felt like in the past, the Love/Pek and even (gulp) Mitchell's team looked like the players were enjoying themselves. They were more engaged and playing looser. By the way, I include myself in this,I have watched every game but two. When I am watching this team, I am enjoying watching basketball as much as Darko enjoyed playing it.

Amen to No Fun Wolves

I love the Wolves, and it make me sad to that this year Thibs has sucked all the joy out of this team, as I feared he would. Remember last spring when this team was playing with joy and abandon. That team should not have gone south, but under the strict Thibs it definitely is. Mitchell must be getting a laugh out of this, though I am sure he feels really bad for his guys. I wanted Mitchell to go badly, but I had a bad feeling about Thibs coaching this young team, and my worst fears are coming true. They are probably so uptight trying to do everything exactly as coach wants, and wow does that make them play tight.

I tell you what...they are "no joy" to watch offensively...

No ball movement, isolation play, etc. Very boring basketball to watch. Definitely not what I was expecting. I was hoping at least to have some stellar defense to cheer for.

Playing for each other, & body language

I agree with so much of this...I won't try to apportion blame but I don't like the "no fun Wolves" and body language of this team. Hanging their heads, jogging back in transition, not talking very much in and around timeouts (sorry, haven't been to games this year so don't know what's happening off-camera), few smiles, too little accountability demanded by the players of their peers. They aren't playing for each other; at the end of the day, they can't play for the coach, they have to figure out to play for each other.
Solutions? I have some ideas, others here have suggested some good ones too. Whether it's lineup changes, rotation changes, a trade--something needs to happen. The point Britt made at the end of his article--that Thibs is sticking with the players and minutes and rotation he has, expecting that repetition will get it done--I really think needs to change. I've been counseling patience in my comments for the last year, and I'm patient in the long view, but what are once vices become habits too quickly, and I think something needs to change now before things sour. Otherwise, the team develops bad attitudes that take a long time to undo. In no particular order, I would try...
1) giving Jordan Hill some minutes, so he can gain a voice there and push the big men;
2) find regular minutes for Tyus. I know he has challenges, but he's the one guy who, to my eye, has the high BBIQ, who knows what he can and can't do, and what his teammates need to do and where to be. Give him some authority that comes with minutes;
3) Pull more Popovich-like moves: pull units en masse if they play dumb ball, pull guys who don't apply themselves, reward effort and intensity above all. Don't keep letting Wiggins and LaVine get away with their lousy transition defense;
4) sign or make a trade for a glue guy soon, and play him: there's usually someone in the D-League who has fought for years to get into the league and will play hard, every second. Get a guy like that via sign or make a trade for someone like that; or
5) something else. I'm not so worried about wins but I am worried about team cohesion and its effect on long-term growth.