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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.