Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

Will the Wolves ever develop the ability to play sustained team defense?

Coach Tom Thibodeau
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Coach Tom Thibodeau has continued to impose an enormous workload on his two cornerstone players, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

If one were inexplicably in the mood to be charitable toward the Minnesota Timberwolves after they spat in the eyes of their followers during their recently concluded, hideously performed three-game road trip, there are excuses that can be dredged up to mitigate the excessive ego and sloth on display.

When the Wolves began the trip in Boston, they were on the fringe of the playoff picture, three-and-a-half games behind 8th-place Denver with only 16 games left to play. Midway through the second quarter, with the Wolves up by five points against the Celtics, reserve forward Nemanja Bjelica went to the bench with an undisclosed foot injury.

Bjelica had been extremely valuable during the Wolves surge after the All-Star break, logging more minutes than starter Gorgui Dieng. Minnesota outscored Boston by 11 during the 11:19 Bjelly played that night. But with his injury and Dieng’s foul trouble, the Wolves were hamstrung in the front court, a factor in their second-half collapse and 117-103 defeat.

Denver didn’t play that night, but Portland and Dallas were both victorious, launching them further ahead of Minnesota in the standings. The Wolves were now not only four games in back of the Nuggets with 15 to play, but they had to leapfrog two other teams as well. The next day it was announced that Bjelica was out for the season, due to what turned out to be a fractured bone in his foot.

So yes, losing a key, recently improved member of your core rotation at the same time your already dim playoff chances were flickering further away from reality was a dispiriting double punch.

Then there is the fatigue factor. Coach Tom Thibodeau has continued to impose an enormous workload on his two cornerstone players, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, at a point in the season when the schedule is clearly grinding down all of the NBA stars. Indeed, the proclivity of Thibodeau’s peers in the coaching fraternity to rest their marquee players for entire games — especially on the road, depriving paying customers in other cities from watching them perform in the flesh — has recently blossomed into a league-wide controversy.

Thibs has his own controversial methods, minted during his tenure as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, of working his stars to the breaking point. And so it is that Wiggins currently leads all NBA players with 2605 minutes, and Towns is third overall, after James Harden of Houston, with 2580 minutes. During the three-game road trip, their workload actually increased, with Towns averaging over 39 minutes per night and Wiggins eclipsing the 38-minute threshold.

Return of the defensive buffoons

Let us grant, then, that the Wolves, and especially Wiggins and Towns, have cause to be both physically and mentally enervated. Apparently they decided to share that experience with their fan base, while dashing all hopes that this team was acquiring a sense of integrity on defense, by ceding a season-high 363 points over a three-game span in defeats at Boston, Miami and New Orleans.

All three opponents shot at least 54.4 percent from the field — collectively the accuracy was 56.1 percent. All three systemically dismantled the Wolves defensive schemes with ball movement, cuts to the basket, transition baskets and long-range shooting. Boston had 34 assists and only 10 turnovers. Miami had 64 points in the paint on 58.8 percent shooting. And New Orleans had 33 fast break points, shot 46.7 percent from three-point territory and racked up a whopping 75 points in the second half.

What makes this ridiculously sieve-oriented show of defensive ineptitude particularly worthy of scorn is the rugged caliber of play that immediately preceded it. In the first nine games after the All Star break, the Wolves finally flexed the sort of cohesion and comprehension required of quality team defense. They allowed just 99.9 points per 100 possessions, second-best among the 30-team NBA behind only the San Antonio Spurs, even as seven of their nine opponents ranked among the top 13 teams in offensive rating. Better yet, their core players — Wiggins, Towns, Ricky Rubio — were the ones spearheading the defensive stops.

Then — splat! Even if you count Tuesday night’s home loss to the San Antonio Spurs after coming home from the road trip (which actually improves the Wolves recent defensive numbers), Minnesota’s defensive rating over the past four games is 119.4 points yielded per 100 possessions. That’s an incredible 20-point swing from the post All Star break heyday, and a plummet from second-best to second-worst in the NBA.

Yeah, statistics can careen over the course of a long 82-game season. But anyone who saw the Wolves discover a crisp and exciting defensive identity immediately after the break and then viewed the pathetic semblance of pride and passion that became their defensive façade on the road knows this wasn’t your usual sine wave fluctuation.

Reputations at stake

The brief and predictably specious boomlet of playoff talk surrounding this year’s Wolves was always a marketing fantasy, a mirage pitched to a parched fan base trying to pretend that life could suddenly be a beach after a dozen years without a postseason appearance out here on the frozen tundra.

But that isn’t the only, or most damaging, deflation wrought by the recent defensive lapse. The supposedly smarter denizens of “Wolves nation” had begun to feel they could discount the 2017 playoff malarkey and still be justifiably excited about what the crystallization of Minnesota’s team defense meant to the long-term future of the franchise. They too were suckered.

And “they” weren’t alone. Just nine days ago, on the cusp of the road trip, I wrote:

In the big-picture, it was utterly predictable that a proven motivator and tactician like Thibs, working with superlative athletic talent and relatively high-character players like Towns and Wiggins, would eventually foster something special. But forgive Wolves fans if they needed to see it with their own eyes before totally buying its inevitability.

Well, forgive Wolves fans if they are still not buying.

The wise will preach patience, if only because such counsel can never be definitively rebutted on the spot. Ever since Wiggins and Zach LaVine came to the team nearly three years ago, we have heard how unprecedented it is to have players so young assume and absorb so much of the responsibility for the performance of a franchise.

The addition of Towns — even younger and more talented than Wigs and Zach —now nearly two years ago upped the stakes and the argument for letting youth have time to develop. The hiring of Thibs now nearly one year ago was deliberately meant to accelerate the learning process, especially in the realm of defensive capability. The newly installed head coach and President of Basketball Operations has dutifully made the development of his young cornerstones the abiding priority for this season.

Thibs didn’t sign any significant veterans in his first off-season on the job. Of the Wolves top eight in minutes deployed during this 2016-17 campaign, one, Ricky Rubio, entered the season with five years of NBA experience. Of the other seven, two have three years in the league, two have two years, two have one year and the last one is a rookie. It is a good bet that neither Brandon Rush nor Jordan Hill will be on the roster next season. Cole Aldrich, who signed a three-year contract last summer, is 11th in minutes with 505, just 33 of them logged since the All Star break.

There is some merit to this strategy. Thibs has been able to take the full measure of his extensive crop of inexperienced players, providing the most valuable among them with complete immersion in his methods. Meanwhile his restraint on the free agent market provides him with the financial flexibility to fashion his team for both short-term improvement and long-term development.

But the window of opportunity is beginning to narrow, and the upside of this team’s future, especially on defense, remains stubbornly vague. That nine-game stretch out of the All Star break against quality opponents was too lengthy to be illusory — the Wolves can indeed be, as Thibs puts it, “connected” on defense.

What the awful road trip put into italics, however, is do they have the desire and the character to sustain quality team defense? And if not, why not?

To be more specific: At the end of this October, the Wolves can offer contract extensions to Wiggins and LaVine or face having to match offers from other teams by allowing them to become restricted free agents. Wiggins almost certainly will be offered a maximum deal, averaging $25.8 million per season. LaVine, his season cut short by injury, will either be offered less or given a chance to demonstrate his worth post-injury next season. At that point, the Wolves could be looking at having to match a large tender for LaVine at the same time that they are maxing Towns on a contract.

Are there any reliably decent defenders among this trio? If so, why has their development in that area been so maddeningly slow and inconsistent under a renowned defensive guru like Thibs? If not, then what is Thibs going to do about it?

Some surprising numbers

You don’t have to have that sophisticated of an understanding for NBA defense to notice that Towns is frequently late on rotations down near the basket and that the defensive intensity of Wiggins waxes and wanes according to his implacable moods. The old-fashioned “eye test” also shows us that KAT and Wigs are incredible athletes with extraordinary quickness and leaping ability who theoretically should mature into solid, if not lockdown, defensive players. Indeed, the late Flip Saunders trumpeted their capabilities as “two-way players” at the moment he acquired each one, and each came into the NBA with a better reputation for defending than scoring.

But we now live in an age of analytics, involving increasingly precise and innovative ways to try to calculate player performances. Personally, I try to balance my “eye test” observations with a rudimentary-to-mediocre dive into analytics that doesn’t send me so far down the rabbit hole that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I am also aware of the temptation to use numbers as confirmation bias to what I believe.

Add to that the difficulty of measuring NBA defense, which necessarily is more team-oriented and reactive than NBA offense. Because different coaches deploy different schemes that are themselves triggered by the reactive reads and communication frequency of different players adjusting on the fly, assigning “credit” or “blame” is exceeding difficult to do crunching the numbers.

With that dumptruck full of caveats in place, the defensive numbers for individual Wolves players, in and out of a team context, is pretty jumbled. But there are still some surprises.

For non-insiders like me, Synergy is the most sophisticated measuring system available. Through the first 70 games of this season, the overall defensive rank for Towns is that he allows .882 points per possession on plays in which he is directly involved, which puts him in the 65th percentile and slots him as “Very Good” on defense.

This contradicts the more basic team ratings for defensive efficiency that show the Wolves yielding 109.7 points per 100 possessions when Towns in on the court, a number exceeded only by LaVine among those who have played more than 100 minutes this season.

By the way, LaVine’s “overall defense” Synergy rating is .885 points per possession, putting him in the 63rd percentile and ranking him as a “Good” defender. Meanwhile, Wiggins has a “PPP” (points per possession) of .975, slotting him into the 22nd percentile and labeling him a “Below Average” defender by Synergy’s measure. Yet on the team defensive efficiency rating, Wiggins ranks as the second-best among the starters, behind Gorgui Dieng, at 109.2 points per 100 possessions, according to the stats page at NBA.com.

There are other discrepancies. Shabazz Muhammad is rated even lower than Wiggins by Synergy, a “Below Average” defender in the 17th percentile despite having the second-best rating in team defensive efficiency (behind Bjelica) at 104.6 points per 100 possessions.

Bjelly has a sterling 103.4 team defensive efficiency rating and a “Very Good” designation from Synergy while ranking in the 72nd percentile in overall defense, so perhaps his injury was a legitimately compelling factor in the recent collapse.

Synergy goes much deeper than the one-measurement gloss I have just provided, and there are some interesting theories to be gleaned by delving hard into the numbers. I lack the space, and, at the moment, the time required to validate the “expertise” of any conclusions I would draw from the data — maybe another column.

The greater point is that the Minnesota Timberwolves cannot get enough stops to deliver on the potential of their extraordinarily talented roster. They are currently 23rd in team defensive efficiency at 107.8 points per 100 possessions. Defense matters. The top six and eight of the top 10 in defensive efficiency are playoff teams. The lone team among the bottom eight currently with a playoff berth is Denver, the last eligible seed in the West and owners of a losing record.

Thibs is getting paid the big bucks and granted enormous clout because he has a long and impressive track record of inspiring great team defensive performance. He has a young and defensively recalcitrant roster whose most expensive players down the road are still unknown commodities on defense. How that dynamic shakes out remains the skeleton key to the future of this star-crossed franchise. 

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

About the Author:

Comments (15)

the end

The lads are playing out the string. They've made good progress this year.

New Orleans is the baffling one

Teams like Boston and Miami are more likely to give them trouble because they can't keep up with their shooting and will get killed if they're not focused enough, which they weren't in either game. I'm still baffled how Dieng and Towns don't realize that they have to play the stretch 4s tighter and make them put the ball on the floor; both have the speed to stay with those types of players. I have no idea why they've had so much trouble with the Pelicans; Davis is an awesome player, but they should theoretically be able to double him and get stops because his supporting cast (besides Holiday and now Cousins) stinks. Either way, they have to realize how much less they've earned in this league than they think they have.

The high-minutes thing has become grating. No elite team plays their best guys that much each game, and those guys get nights off for rest. Additionally, it's rare that a team's leading scorers are also the guys doing the grunt work defensively; Jordan and Pippen were skilled but had each other (and later Ron Harper) to guard tough wing matchups, along with a top defensive PF throughout their tenures in Chicago. Even LeBron hasn't been above-average defensively this season, and the Spurs have to give Kawhi Leonard plays off on offense to keep him fresh. Towns is basically a combo of Duncan and Dirk (with a dash of Chris Webber); Dirk has never been a good defender, and Duncan's main complements were excellent scorers in an egalitarian offensive system. They could've been giving Muhammad 20-30 mpg all season and finding more minutes for Tyus.

Free agency is probably not going to be a panacea. They'll either have to overpay or trade their pick (post-draft) to get rotation-caliber players. They may like Taj Gibson, but so do 29 other teams. They need to think long-term with this summer's pick and then shift more into getting college upperclassmen who can be physical/guard somebody/make shots/move the ball.

good realism

PSR--

I agree that free agency at best will caulk a seam, and if it is a major one like a flexible forward who can defend on the perimeter and in the paint, he is worth about $15 m a year.

I do think Dunn can be a wing stopper and as long as they don't continue to try and cram him into the PG slot he can be the kind of upperclassman you envision (in fact in some important respects he already is).

I don't expect either Towns or Wiggins to be predominantly defenders, but I get why Thibs is laying the leadership mantle on them for defense as well. The Wolves are locked into both for max money and their offense is such that they will continue logging heavy minutes (just hopefully not over 35 on average).

I was going to write this in the column but landed the Synergy info and went with that instead: The Wolves need a veteran defender. Not a graybeard like KG or Prince, but a functional player who emphasizes defense, along the lines of what Hassell and Erv Johnson provided last time this squad made the postseason in 03-04. They also need to prune redundancies; Dieng and Towns are too similar and ditto Wiggins and LaVine. They need defensive role players on both the wing and the paint. I think Dunn may eventually fill the bill on the wing, if he can shoot straight and Rubio maintains his current level of accuracy.

Finally, I think Davis was on a mission against the Wolves this year over the GM survey that said Towns was the player they'd most prefer to build a franchise with from the ground up. That designation was AD's until this off-season and he wants it back. The fact that neither Towns nor Gorgui could stop him says a lot about a healthy Davis as well as about the deficiencies of our bigs.

Thanks as always for chiming in.

All the good team on defense switch more than the Wolves.

Pops who hates to switch started doing it with the Spurs almost exclusively 2 years ago. With Thibs sticking to his "push or blue" pick/roll defense, it stretches out the weak side and opens holes when the offensive guard drives hard baseline dragging his defender and the big low. A simple switch with the guard fronting the big man if he rolls is much less complicated for young players to execute. I think Thibs is the right coach for this team but he has to simplify his defensive schemes so the young guys can use their athleticism and quit thinking too much.

I have been and am still more concerned with getting the right guys to compliment Towns. If you have to trade either Wiggins or Lavine to get better do it. Towns is the corner stone and the Wolves need to get competitive next year to keep any momentum for the team going.

personnel important

Ron Adams began a trend when he was assistant coach in charge of defense for OKC about 6-7 years ago. Presti drafted a bunch of athletic guys about the same size and Adams switched all the time.

But that is harder to do with the Wolves lineup. Both Wiggins and LaVine are undersized for their position and neither Towns nor Dieng can be the designated guy to close out on the perimeter versus stretch 4's and 5's. Add in the inexperience and you've got a problem that simply executing switches more often won't solve.

That said, in today's pace and space game, medium sized athletes who can switch in a savvy manner are becoming a premium.

trade wiggins?

Say it ain't so Joe...

heavy minutes

IMO the heavy minutes Wiggins & KAT have played this year are taking their toll mentally emotionally and physically. Neither has developed the body yet to bang with the 26-30 year old men in the NBA, They are worn down mentally, emotionally & physically. They don't have the gas in the tank to play hard at both ends for 35+ minutes.

Wiggins & KAT know they have to carry the load offensively. So they are prone to coasting on defense.

IMO Losing Zach & Belly to injuries hurt moral more than their actual loss on the court.

Thibs either knew this would happen or should have known it would happen, if he played Wiggins & KAT heavy minutes & he did it anyway. Now he gets to live with the consequences of his decisions.

If there is a end of season collapse this year, Thibs need to be held accountable for it. Because the Wolves finished strong last year. Beating GS, Wizards, NO, Kings & Blazers in their last 11 games

I agree this team needs 1 or 2 5-10 year vet who is/are a defensive stopper(s) to set the tone on defense

Wiggins max contract ?????

IMO at this stage of their very young careers neither Wiggins or KAT are worth $ 25 KK per year yet. In 3 -5 years if they continue to develop, get a coach that plays them reasonable minutes they may be worth it.

At this point in thier young careers they are not worth LaBron, KD, etc. money.

x

heavy minutes

Thibs has a history of playing his starters heavy minutes. Which results in injuries and short careers. Wolves fans should not expect 10 year careers for Wiggins & KAT if Thibs is the coach.

IMO with Thibs, there is a max 5 year window before the bodies get injured and broken down. And one year of the window is already almost over.

Heavy minutes are particularly hard on young bodies that have not fully developed yet.

KG played heavy minutes until he was traded to Boston (it only took him 10 seasons to equal the minutes McHale played in 14 seasons) Compare KG at the end of his careers whose knees retire 3 years before he did,to Duncan who had his minutes managed by Pop (3 years ago when the Spurs blew Miami out in 5 games, Duncan and the rest of the Spurs averaged less than 30 minutes / games during the season) who was still a functional player his last year.

Per Britt interviews with Flip & Sam M, Wiggins does not like to be yelled at in public. Thibs has yelled at all the players constantly this year.

IMO there is a real risk that Wiggins may turn down any offer Thibs makes him and elects to become a free agent. The young players talk to each other via text, Twitter Snapchat etc. so they know the coaching style of all the coaches in the league.

responses

Mike--

Thanks for chiming in.

Whether or not Wigs and KAT are worth the money at the moment they sign their deals, these are typically four-year contracts and the way the NBA salary cap is structured, if you don't pay max money for the players you regard as your cornerstone performers of the future, you won't keep them.

Under this system, both Wiggins and Towns are certainly worth max money and will get it from another team in a blink if not from the Wolves.

As for Thibs and his heavy minutes for players, the practice has been well publicized and much debated, with no conclusive results that would say it is either harmless or harmful enough to actively cease. Is it a gamble that bucks the current trend? Yup. But Glen Taylor and the Wolves were certainly aware of this when the flipped the keys of the franchise to Thibs for the next 5 years.

a respectful push-back

You're my favorite Wolves writer, Britt, and you also know more about bball than I do, so I push back here with some wariness, but I will say this: following basketball Twitter not just Wolves Twitter but of a wide array of NBA teams this year has taught me a lesson about the danger of interpreting micro-trends.

Every franchise (except San Antonio, maybe) gives their fanbase a cyclical diet of reasons for optimism followed by reasons for hopelessness. Shortly after Durant went out, it looked like a team with basically the same lineup that set an NBA record for regular season victories was coming apart at the seams. Right now the defending champions and (imo) the only real candidate for MVP can't stop anybody. And yeah, the Wolves just had an embarrassing defensive presence on a three game road trip.

You begin your article by mentioning the enormous mileage on Wiggins and Towns this year. I honestly think this whole collapse can begin and end with that (with maybe a dash of "loss of Bjelly" thrown in.) Wiggs is being exhausted. Everyone has seen that for about three weeks. Then I think the Boston game was a sort of psychological "well, that's it" for both the fanbase and the team. While not mathematically eliminated, the players knew they were pretty much out of the race after that game. And this game - so unforgiving to players who don't stay focused, with energy and hyper-awareness... it just ate them alive.

I think the team is much more going to resemble the hopeful future you wrote about last article. But this Thib-running-guys-into-the-ground thing... this is a problem that needs dealt with.

a respectful response

Dan--

Thanks for your comment. You probably already know that I enjoy independent takes that come at things differently than I do, especially when they are intelligently rendered.

That said, I do not believe the theme of my piece was totally negative; rather it was frustrated with the vagueness in which "progress" has been made this season.

For example, your take makes sense and may even be right. But if all performances are cyclical, then why isn't the nine-game spell right after the All Star break the outlier? The Wolves have been mediocre to terrible on defense the entire season save for that nine-game stint.

You want to lay the exhaustion of Wigs and Towns as the primary culprit here. But what if it was just going home instead of going to the All Star break, and hearing from their buddies how disappointing the Wolves have been this season? Maybe that was the temporary motivator--if so, it makes sense that it didn't sustain.

I am not saying you are right or wrong. And all I can do as a regular columnist is reflect and react to what I see and feel and learn. Sometimes it is going to sound like a "hot take" and sometimes it is going to sound too restrained. But the bottom line is, nobody knows if all this will pan out. We certainly know less now than we did just nine days ago. And under the current circumstances, I felt that was worthy grist for a column.

" all I can do as a regular columnist is reflect and react..."

This is a totally fair point. Upon considering my initial comment, I didn't give you a lot of space to do that. My apologies. I think I've just really gotten hypersensitive to the notion of small-sample takes this season (not that your piece is without context) and my initial reaction to almost everything I read these days is to be a moderating influence. Carry on with the great work!

I can't see the Synergy ratings...

...so, just for fits and giggles, do you happen to have the Synergy defensive ratings for our point guards?

As for our big three, I am old school by training and experience, and still working on adapting from Boston Garden's 80's parquet floor, so you'll have to understand that I am having problems adapting to the as-it-is economic realities that, in order to keep Wiggins and Towns, we will have to offer max contracts to them, when their defense has not been satisfactory (simply put, if it were possible for me to offer both nice raises, but nowhere near maximums, without losing either, I would do it in a heartbeat). If I had to choose only one to offer a max deal, I would choose Towns over Wiggins without hesitation.

As far as LaVine goes, what is the likelihood that we can get a replacement 2 that can play better defense, and not-quite-as-good offense, so we don't have to pay him a max contract if another team offers him one? (Not through the draft this year, I agree that getting a good 4 is more important right now.)

What I am worried about is how much it will take to resign Rubio (he won't likely get a max deal from anyone, but deserves a raise - and his last year of his current contract, 2018-19, his salary will be $14.8 million.

I'm actually more worried that the Timberwolves, looking at Rubio's salary in 2018-19, won't want to keep Rubio at all, because we don't have anywhere near as good a point guard as Rubio is now, and I don't see Dunn or Jones forcing me to change my mind on this by 2019, and well above average, but not quite All-Star, point guards don't spring fully formed from Thibodeau's forehead. I'm not sure if there will be any better free agent point guards that we can make a run for by then, especially if we have Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine all signed to max deals.

I'd love to see the Timberwolves prove the naysayers wrong, that their post-All Star break run was not a fluke, but the light at the end of a non-Acme tunnel. The rest of this season, is it fair for me to think that the Timberwolves need to show us something like that part of the season, and not the New Orleans game after it?

Thibs

I hate to say this, but I do wonder if thins is the right coach for this group. His stubbornness around playing Wigs and Towns so many minutes is frustrating and doesn't look good on them, especially Wiggins. The flip side of that is more frustrating to me-not developing the bench players and, this is my big gripe, not holding guys accountable by pulling them sometimes. I've written this before here, that I would like to see him sit guys who don't give the effort he wants, a la Popovich. Thibs idea of tough love apps to be to leave them out there to struggle through it.
I think this is a big moment for this franchise. They can't keep closing seasons by quitting on the last dozen games and then thinking they've made progress. At some point you need to create winning habits, and you forge that during downturns and difficult stretches (e.g., hear how Durant etal. talk about how the end of the 53-loss season set OKC up for sustained success in the years to follow. It's important for the wolves to go into the off season with their heads high; I'm worried whether Thibs can lead them there and beyond.