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Defense (yes, defense) has become a hidden pleasure of the Wolves season so far

Because the Wolves record is still a desultory 4-9, even die-hard fans have had trouble fully appreciating how overachieving the team’s defense has been.

Guard Patrick Beverley's balance of proficient defense and offense is unmatched on a Wolves roster laden with one-way performers.
Guard Patrick Beverley's balance of proficient defense and offense is unmatched on a Wolves roster laden with one-way performers.
Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

If you are sensible enough to keep the Minnesota Timberwolves at arm’s length — perhaps to the extent of taking out a restraining order limiting your exposure to the box scores and video highlights — then you are likely to assume that the opening month of the 2021-22 season has been the franchise’s annual revival of the stumblebum follies. After winning three of their first four contests, the Wolves have dropped eight of their past nine games and are now nestled in the familiar nether region of the Western Conference standings. 

But this edition of the Wolves have tweaked their template for losing basketball games thus far this season, and you don’t have to get your humor from the gallows (although a mordant gloss is always good insurance) to find it oddly compelling. 

Coming into this season, the Wolves were deemed to be a latent powerhouse on offense, sporting a “Big 3” designed to get buckets in bunches. Karl-Anthony Towns had established himself as the most versatile sharpshooting big man in the game today (and maybe ever), a scoring threat from the rim out to 25 feet. Anthony Edwards was coming off a rookie season that stamped him as a tyro terror, with the hops, wiles and inclination to slam dunk over King Kong, should the big ape dare to strap on a pair of sneakers. And D’Angelo Russell checked in as the cunning third wheel, maestro of the dipsy-doodle dribble and stop-and-go, feint-and-pop scoring method, confounding opponents and teammates alike with his shot selection and reliable enough in the clutch to make the mock injection of ice water into his veins his show-off signature. 

Alas, none of them could play defense. KAT had put forth ample evidence of being a “tweener”; too small and soft for rugged rim protection, too slow and unwieldy to stray much beyond the paint. Ant announced his 20 years with a mixture of a short attention span and a desire for instant gratification, becoming a predictable pawn for opposing offenses patiently running set plays. DLo periodically permitted dribble penetration with the side-stepping flourish of a matador and contested shots with whimsical irregularity

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Of course, the prospect of a potent offense being sabotaged by a porous defense is a perennial plotline of Timberwolves season previews. And it always seems to be accompanied by the head coach vowing to harp on defensive principles as the main business of preseason preparation. By now, Wolves fans could be forgiven for regarding these vows as hollow fealty, as performative as those who make the sign of the cross look like a quick game of tic-tac-toe on their chests. 

An indolent, unimaginative and inaccurate offense

Except that this year the coach and the players actually followed through on the vow — and for the most part are still following through. Thus far this season the Timberwolves have turned their ineptitude inside-out. The team that hoped to contend for the playoffs on the strength of a top ten offense that could weather a sub-mediocre defense that at-best would rank anywhere from 15th to 20th in the 30-team NBA, instead has an indolent, unimaginative and inaccurate offense that currently ranks 26th in points scored per possession that is being shored up by a hustling, feisty defense that currently sits at 13th in the NBA in points allowed per possession.

Because the Wolves record is still a desultory 4-9, even die-hard fans have trouble fully appreciating how rare an overachieving defense like this has been for this franchise. Kevin Garnett can conservatively be ranked as one of the top ten defenders in NBA history, yet in his first dozen seasons with the Wolves, the team’s defense was better than the league average only four times, and never ranked higher than sixth in fewest points allowed per possession. And since KG first left fifteen years ago, the Wolves defense has been better than average only twice, barely, during the Rick Adelman coaching era in 2012-13 and 2013-14. 

Remember, the current Wolves roster is built for offense, not getting stops. Both of the big men, KAT and Naz Reid, went on weight-loss conditioning programs over the summer designed to build better core strength and mobility. To the extent they fall down less often and seem quicker, it was a success. But both are still mercilessly bullied for baskets and boxed out for rebounds by opposing brutes in the paint. What makes this especially problematic is the absence of a classic power forward on the roster to compensate for the lack of bulk among the centers. The power forward committee includes Jarred Vanderbilt (214 pounds), Jaden McDaniels (185 pounds!) and Josh Okogie (213 pounds on an undersized, six-foot, four-inch frame). 

As a mitigation strategy for the puny physicality the Wolves are able to muster in the paint, head coach Chris Finch designed a defensive scheme that emphasizes athleticism, relentless energy, and scrappy, underdog arrogance. Instead of the Wolves big men automatically dropping back in coverage, which often gives opponents a head start toward overpowering them at the rim, the bigs stay at the leverage point of offensive attack on the pick-and-roll play, leaving the “low man” defender in the corner or on the weak side to scramble over and disrupt the roll man. This scramble mode also applies to perimeter defense, where dogged man-coverage is favored over switches where possible, requiring gritty, agile avoidance of picks and consistent hustle to contest shots and force turnovers by denying options while speeding up the decision-making process for the opponents. 

Watching the Wolves batten down and frequently execute this well, even at times when they rightfully should be overmatched, is the most enduring pleasure of this star-crossed season thus far. 

The four factors

Let’s get specific. Finch is a big believer in the “four factors” of measuring a team’s effectiveness. Those factors are comprised of: effective field goal percentage (which weights the added value of three-pointers); turnover ratio (how often are turnovers ending possessions); offensive rebound percentage (how often are rebounds prolonging possessions); and free throw rate (which adds offensive efficiency and burdens the defense with fouls). 

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Note: I prefer to use the “four factors” data from the invaluable website Cleaning the Glass because it eliminates the statistics accumulated during “garbage time” when the game is no longer in the balance and teams don’t try to compete effectively.

Because they are so frequently overmatched physically down near the rim, the Wolves defense ranks dead last in two of those four factors. Opponents grab a higher percentage of offensive rebounds and get to the free throw line at a higher rate against the Wolves than any other team. That should sound the death knell for any NBA defense. Easy shots (known as “putbacks”) after an offensive rebound and free throw attempts are two of the most efficient ways to score. But the Wolves’ feisty, high-risk, high-octane style of defending opponents compensates for these gaping vulnerabilities. 

Because of the preponderance of offensive rebounds, opponents score more points on putbacks against the Wolves than any other team. But the Wolves don’t cede those points without a fight, and consequently reduce the damage. They swarm at the rim and keep defending, ranking sixth among NBA teams in the amount of points allowed per putback. 

That consistent engagement and grit extends to the entire halfcourt defense. Despite their lack of bulk, the Wolves rank a respectable 14th in opponents’ accuracy on shots at the rim, and they hustle to contest three-pointers well enough to rank third in reducing opponents’ shooting percentage from long range. Even so, with all the putbacks and free throws it must contend with, the Wolves wouldn’t be a surprising 12th among the thirty NBA teams in points allowed per halfcourt possession without their league-best ability to generate turnovers. Nearly one in five possessions, a whopping 18.1%, defended by the Wolves results in them taking the ball away. Toronto is second back at 17.1%. The NBA average is 14.7%.

The players that epitomize the team’s defensive identity

Anyone who has watched multiple Wolves games this season can identify the four players who epitomize the team’s turbocharged defensive identity. It begins with veteran Patrick Beverley, acquired by highway robbery in a lopsided trade with Memphis. PatBev sets the tone with an infectious passion that occasionally indulges his inner asshole for the sake of provocative distraction on the opponent and to keep his own emotionally complicated mojo going. There is a method to his mania: More than seven years older than any other member of the regular Wolves rotation, his hot-headed antics hide a sage who knows every nuance of winning hoops and how best to exploit those nuances. 

The other night in a close loss to Phoenix, PatBev was whistled for a crunchtime foul in which there was noticeable air and distance between him and the opponent going for the layup over the entire play. Usually he will use the flimsiest thread of an argument to get in the face of the official, but this time just raised his arms and slumped as the crowd lustily booed the call. In a subsequent timeout, with his teammates in the huddle, he wandered over and had a lengthy, seemingly solicitous conversation with the ref, who undoubtedly saw on the replay how badly he’d erred. 

Who knows if that is an example of why PatBev gets away with more physical defense than any player in the NBA. Just as likely it has to do with the fact that he plays that physically all the time, and that he is so obviously a lunch pail player being judged by referees who are the ultimate lunch pail arbiters compared to those regulating the rules in other major team and individual sports. 

A final note on Beverley: His balance of proficient defense and offense is unmatched on a Wolves roster laden with one-way performers. His three-year contract expires after he earns $14.3 million this season, and given his age and coveted value to a playoff team, it could be a bitter but ultimately prudent move for the Wolves to deal him at the trading deadline if they continue to fall out of contention.

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Vanderbilt and Okogie are not two-way players. Both perform on offense as if they’re in a vaudeville skit. Vando is so left-hand oriented that if you hacked off his right arm his shooting percentage would be the same. More than three-quarters of his shots are taken within three feet of the hoop, 93.7% are within ten feet, yet only half go in. (On the other hand, 11-of-12 from the free throw line is a huge improvement over last year’s 55.9%.) 

But even if Vando never scored he would still be valuable. Among the top ten on the Wolves in playing time, he leads the team in offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds and steals per-minute, and ranks second in blocks. Beyond that, no player in the NBA continues to hound the opponent after they secure the rebound more assiduously, and his relentless activity not only gets him rebounds at both ends of the court, but creates opportunities for his teammates to grab the rock. If PatBev sets the tone with his passion, physicality and mentorship, Vando carries the torch for indefatigable competitive energy. 

Although he is only seven months older, Okogie is Vando two seasons down the line. The rookie who came into the league nicknamed “Nonstop” has learned to put a filter on his homing device and now target his bursts more effectively. After three seasons of happily repeating that his teammates keep telling him to shoot, he has learned discretion — the classic Okogie parlay of a highlight-reel steal or block immediately followed by a slapstick shot off a kamikaze court-length dribble and drive are fewer in number. Yes, his current turnover rate is a career high and his true shooting percentage a career low (Finch wisely never plays Vando and Okogie together), but his hockey assists, impactful shot contests and other intangibles are borne out by the fact that the team plays its best defense with him on the court (92 points allowed per 100 possessions) and that he has the best net rating — the team’s offensive rating minus its defensive rating when he is on the court — of any player in the rotation. 

Then there is Jaden McDaniels, who has become a metronomic fouling machine because he is a relatively frail but hyper-competitive wunderkind regularly guarding opponents who outweigh him by at least 20 to 30 pounds and sometimes much more. Last year’s effective habit of using his length to trail his opponent and closing out for the block or contest only when his man committed to the shot has been sussed out and now the bruisers he defends deny him any separation and instigate the contact that taunts his lack of bulk and fiery spirit. 

Even so, McDaniels’ length, aggressive finesse, and focused intelligence on the defensive end makes him the best stopper on the roster against tall, multi-purpose scoring wings — at least until he has to sit due to foul trouble. The amount of muscular poundage he can cloak on his lanky frame will determine how high the escalator travels to meet his tantalizing potential. Finch has notoriously already likened him to a burgeoning Scottie Pippen, a statement that might be foolish or simply immature. 

At least one, usually two and sometimes three of the aforementioned quartet are simultaneously on the court for the Wolves, consistent kindling for the spontaneous combustion that makes this season’s defense so unexpectedly pleasurable to watch. More than offense, however, defense is a coordinated team endeavor, and the rest of the Wolves rotation players, including the Big 3, rate honorable mention. 

Minnesota currently ranks third in drawing charges, fourth in deflections, sixth in steals, eighth in blocks, 10th in contesting shots (including seventh in contesting three-pointers) and 12th in loose ball recoveries. Ant, KAT and DLo lead the team compiling those gaudy stats in minutes played and are numerically prominent in many of those categories. 

Underscoring the lack of offense

Given yet another lousy won-lost record, however, the unexpected boost from the defense simply underscores how rotten the team’s offense has been, and how exorbitantly the Big 3 have failed to synergize their collective talent. 

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Indeed, without stellar play by the Wolves defense, the offense would be even worse. When your defense generates the NBA’s highest rate of turnovers, your offense is gifted numerous transition opportunities. In a similar vein, when the defense doesn’t succumb to the added pressure of Finch’s dictum to hit the offensive glass hard and only then scramble back in transition, the offense is enabled with more second and third chances to score on a possession. The Wolves rank second in points scored off turnovers and fifth in second-chance points. Yet they are 23rd in total points scored because they are 26th in offensive efficiency. 

I could spend an entire column doing an inverse on the defensive theme and showcasing how and where the offense should be indicted. But the glass half-full approach is also viable. A roster topped by a Big 3 of KAT, Ant and DLo should not reasonably sustain one of the six least-productive offenses in the league. 

Sooner or later, KAT will pass out of post-ups where he is double-teamed and not engage in what Finch wonderfully called the “stray voltage” of thinking he can pivot and outmuscle two bigs. Ant will continue to realize that his offense thrives when he operates from the inside-out, with those monstrously gorgeous drives to the hoop magnetizing defenses into wide open jumpers for himself and his teammates. And DLo will perhaps try to get his teammates off before his own shot is cozy.

Finch is not exempt here either. The coach needs to run fewer isolation plays and more pick and rolls to exploit the KAT-DLo pairing. He needs to get more involved in the always touchy issue of touches — who has primacy in certain circumstances when matchups and performance obviously favor one or another of the Big 3. 

“They are getting good shots,” Finch maintained, when I asked him after the Phoenix game if the Wolves’ identity should be as an offensive team or a defensive team. “I think we can be both.” 

That would be a real tweak of the template.