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Timberwolves mailbag: on tinkering with defense, judging Gupta and extending DLO

Welcome to the first Timberwolves mailbag, in which Britt Robson answers your questions regarding the ongoing evolution of the local pro hoops teams. 

Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns driving to the basket beside Cleveland Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen during Monday night's game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns driving to the basket beside Cleveland Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen during Monday night's game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the first MinnPost Timberwolves mailbag, in which I answer your questions regarding the ongoing evolution and fate of the local pro hoops teams. 

Your questions raise a host of intriguing and challenging subjects, and in many instances I have “takes” more than remedies or certain answers. But that’s the fun, if not the beauty, of it all. So let’s get to it. 

Q: What can this team do, besides sign a free agent, to rebound better defensively? What can they do schematically? At what cost? Is it worth it?
–Nate Anderson

Britt Robson: This is an incisive, well-framed question. Others broadened it to include the recent drop-off in the Wolves defense overall, so I’m going to offer a lengthy measure of context before answering. 

Head coach Chris Finch instituted a new defensive scheme that prioritized being scrappy, aggressive and disruptive over the more typical strategy of hewing to set positioning and conservative rotations. It was a bold gamble, ventured into because the Wolves have one of the least brawny frontcourts in the NBA and because Finch needed buy-in on a more sustained defensive effort from his two max players, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell.

For years, KAT has struggled in systems that prioritized him dropping back in coverage to protect the rim. The revamped scheme has enabled him to go out and defend at the leverage point of the pick and roll, something he has long contended fits his skill set. But that means rim protection is a team-wide responsibility that involves more scrambling. Fortunately, that style also fits DLo better, as he excels at recognizing and reacting to what the opponent is doing compared to simply stopping the man in front of him. 

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For the first months of the season, the defense was a smashing success. With incoming veteran Patrick Beverley setting the tone of constant engagement and accountability and Jarred Vanderbilt providing inexhaustible hustle, the Wolves led the NBA in creating turnovers and scoring points off those turnovers. It more than compensated for the inevitable flaw in the system: With the big man KAT venturing away from the hoop and the rest of the team flying around instead of getting in position and boxing out, the Wolves ranked last in defensive rebounding percentage, and, by extension, at or near the bottom in fouling and free-throws allowed, largely due to trying to prevent the opposing offensive rebounders from finishing easy looks at the rim. 

Three-quarters of the way through the season, Wolves opponents have better adjusted to that aggressive, once-novel, defensive scheme. The Wolves are still creating turnovers, and points off turnovers, but less frequently. Meanwhile, they still cede the highest percentage of offensive rebounds and the most free throws of any team in the NBA. Fortunately, after a sluggish start to the season, the offense has been rejuvenated and is now the primary reason they continue to have a winning record. 

The past three months the Wolves defensive rating has been 21st, 17th, and 21st, respectively. If the team manages to get into the first round of the playoffs, their unconventional defense will be dissected even further over the course of a series. For these reasons Finch has been tinkering with offshoots, including more switching and zone. 

So after 500 words of context, let me quickly answer your questions. Returning to the classic drop scheme would get the best rebounder, KAT, in better position, but it would also likely mean greater ineptitude and more fouling by KAT on defense. Current attempts to vary the defense with more switching and zone will help with rebounding positioning, but probably not significantly. In my opinion, a heavy dose of drop defense is ultimately not worth it. Better to keep scrambling and hope it keeps producing points off turnovers while the offense continues to thrive. 

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Q: The current team construction, while flawed, is markedly better than when (former president of basketball operations Gersson) Rosas took over … Rosas’ reputation after he left was that he was non-collaborative and wasn’t taking advice from others. I wonder/worry that (Rosas’ former assistant and now successor, Sachin) Gupta maybe didn’t have anything to do with those moves and we have little to judge as to how/if he can build a team.
—Jeff Germann

BR: This is an understandable concern. After more than five months on the job as interim president of basketball operations, Gupta’s most tangible achievements have been re-signing Beverley to a one-year, $13-million contract, and giving a 10-day contract to Greg Monroe during the omicron-related chaos. 

But there are good reasons to have faith in Gupta’s performance thus far. He was the salary cap guru under Rosas and, thus, presumably instrumental in fine-tuning the low-budget, long-term contracts of Naz Reid, Jaylen Nowell, Jordan McLaughlin and Vanderbilt. Each of them has proven to be good (and in Vando’s case, extraordinarily good) value and a boon to roster stability. The length and amount of the Beverley deal was fair and prudent, keeping a key contributor to team culture in the fold without insulting or overpaying him while retaining future flexibility. And the pittance paid Monroe paid extra dividends when he helped the Wolves beat Boston during his brief stay. 

More to the point, Gupta has a great reputation around the NBA. He reportedly was offered and turned down the general manager’s job in Sacramento. He was the assistant to Sam Hinkie during “The Process” in Philadelphia, and has demonstrated similar painstaking patience in his handling of the Wolves roster, even during a time when he could be forgiven if trying to impress new owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez with a bold move or two. His relationship with Finch is tight and productive. I hope Lore and A-Rod remove the interim tag and allow him to do his job with minimal interference. 

Q: If you had to decide today, what is your current take on a 4-year, $30-million per year extension for DLo in the offseason?
—Alex Hoge

Q: What should the Wolves do regarding the DLo extension? He’s young enough to not likely be an albatross but also locks in your core, which barring internal improvement may not be enough?
—Taylor Williamson

Q: Where would you rank Russell among all-time point guards the Timberwolves have employed?
—Mark Snyder

BR: DLo has had an impressive season, one that has elevated my opinion of his value and importance to the Timberwolves. But I believe it would be better for both sides if the final year of DLo’s deal, which will pay him $31 million next season, is allowed to play itself out and we see if the marriage remains in the best interest of both the player and the team. 

DLo is a very good point guard, but not elite. Committing to him long-term at a max or near-max level is hardly a no-brainer. Yes, there is a chance he will continue to improve and thus enhance his value — and if that happens, the Wolves will have to make the kind of pleasantly tough decision that afflicts all successful teams. For his part, DLo clearly respects and enjoys playing for Finch, but he is a thoughtful person capable of decision-making that isn’t solely about dollars and cents. Right now it is a positive union. If the good times hold a year from now, concerns about whether he is worth being paid as a piece that helps the Wolves become a serious playoff team will diminish. 

As for DLo’s place among Wolves point guards, it is not even apples and oranges but a whole fruit basket for comparison sake. He’s never had a season as electrifying as Stephon Marbury or Sam Cassell, but also hasn’t had a chance to display the consistency of a Terrell Brandon or Ricky Rubio. If I put him in a middle tier with Pooh Richardson, Micheal Williams and Jeff Teague, he would come out on top. If he performs at this season’s level for another 2-4 years, he has a solid argument for passing Brandon and Rubio in terms of Wolves career value. 

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Q: It seems that the team isn’t emphasizing KAT 3’s as a primary offensive option. I’ve seen multiple guys pass up the opportunity to get a wide open KAT 3. Since the guy just won the 3-point contest, shouldn’t he be taking 10 3s a game?

Q: Re: KAT’s fouling/complaining: Conventional wisdom is he just needs to shut up. But what specific tactics does he need to change or adapt in order to cut down on fouls (offensive specifically) and get to the FT line more?

BR: Like everyone else, apparently, my feelings about the play and usage of the Timberwolves’ best player rise and fall like the tides. But right now, I prefer to look at the glass being three-quarters full instead of one-quarter empty. 

It seems self-evident that a player who ranks 7th all-time in career true shooting percentage, including 39.6% from beyond the arc, should shoot more often from long range. But here’s a weird stat: KAT shot at least 8 treys in seven of the Wolves’ first 13 games and the team lost six of them. Since then, he has played in 42 of 49 games with time out for a brief injury and another bout of COVID and shot more than 8 treys only once, in a win against Charlotte on Feb. 15. The Wolves win-loss record in those 42 games was 27-15.

Monday night in a nail-biting win over Cleveland, KAT made only one three-pointer in four attempts — a tie-breaker from the top of the key with 13 seconds remaining in the game. “We wanted to move him around, get some of that size out of the paint tonight,” said Finch in the postgame press conference. “KAT, he’s a team player. He’ll do whatever we ask him to do and that is what we needed most tonight. We knew they were going to double him in the post so we used that as a way to create some shots too.” 

For the game, the Wolves shot 54.7 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from distance while compiling 30 assists versus 13 turnovers to score 127 points against an opponent with the 4th-best defense in the NBA. KAT was 6-for-9 from two-point range, grabbed just four rebounds but chipped in three assists, a steal and a block versus one turnover. In the 25 games since KAT returned from COVID protocols, the team is 16-9 and has the best offensive rating, 117.7 points scored per 100 possessions, in the NBA.

On the subject of complaining and fouling, I have written two columns this season, one that ripped KAT and one that defended him. But it bears noting that he has in fact dramatically reduced his quotient of offensive fouls over the past six weeks. He had a whopping 44 in 38 games as of Jan. 20, and 9 in 17 games since then. 

In terms of getting to the line, KAT currently is averaging .351 free throws per field goal attempt, not as high as the previous two seasons but the third-highest of his 7-year career. No, it is not as much as Joel Embiid’s ridiculous rate (.605) and the paint-centric Rudy Gobert’s total (.816), but it is higher than Nikola Jokic (.328), Julius Randle (.316), Lebron James (.267), and in line with Anthony Davis (.358), to name a few. Only Jarred Vanderbilt, and then barely (.353), has a higher free throw rate than KAT among members of the Wolves regular rotation. And KAT might get there even more frequently if he could figure out a better way to complain, or, as the questioner Czieg notes, simply complain less. 

Q: Is there a buyout possibility for a big we should take a look at?
—Mike Baltz

BR: After the trade deadline, Gupta hinted that the Wolves might add a bargain basement player to take the currently unoccupied 15th slot on the roster. Today, March 1, is the deadline for players to get waived and still retain playoff eligibility for teams that pick them up, which obviously will clarify the market.  

Given that 6’1″ bulldog Patrick Beverley was purposefully guarding 6’11” “small” forward Lauri Markkanen against Cleveland Monday night, it seems pretty clear that the Wolves need defensive-oriented size in the frontcourt. But odds are it can’t be a classic big, like the recently waived DeAndre Jordan or leviathan free agent Moses Brown, a pair of rim protectors who can only be effective in drop scheme defenses, which, as I detailed at the top of this mailbag, is not something the Wolves run. 

Sources I trust indicate that the Wolves were closest to swinging a deal for 6-8 forward Montrezl Harrell at the deadline, which indicates what type of player they were looking at to bolster their lineup—although Trez is much more of a scorer than a defender. To cut to the chase, without knowing of any late-breaking waiver adds, and scanning the list of available players who are combo center-power forward types, I’m surprised that 6’11” Cody Zellar is there. Another available veteran who might help in emergency spot situations in the postseason would be 7’1″ Meyers Leonard. And if you are looking to add a young big to develop, former U of M center-forward Daniel Oturu, who is 6’10”, is on the list. 

To be clear, one of the reasons the Wolves like backup center Naz Reid is because his skill set is that of a poor man’s KAT in terms of skilled finesse. That’s why they cut Monroe loose after 10 days and play Naz over the more defensive-minded, albeit foul-prone, Nate Knight. And Finch hasn’t seemed overly concerned about patching in underweighted Jaden McDaniels or undersized Taurean Prince at the power forward slot behind Vando. In other words, while it becomes an interesting parlor game for fans, if and when the Wolves fill that 15th slot, it almost certainly won’t move the needle very much, if at all, in the team’s performance.

Q: In your opinion, who gets playing time in a reduced Wolves rotation?
—Todd Thisius

BR: With the rising stakes and intense search for matchup advantages in the postseason, teams naturally cut down on their roster rotations. The Wolves have been trying to do this in preparation, and have pretty much taken Jaylen Nowell out of the picture. But that reduces eleven players to 10, and playoff teams generally go with eight, maybe nine players, tops. 

This is going to be hard. DLo and PatBev are locks for extensive time in the play-in and/or playoffs, but Finch loves the way Jordan McLaughlin stimulates the coach’s “first principles” of moving the ball and moving without the ball on offense. But if Finch is going to be brutal about it, J-Mac will see his minutes drastically reduced, if not eliminated.

The wing players are Anthony Edwards as the starter and Malik Beasley off the bench. Jaden McDaniels will see plenty of time at both forward slots, although he is obviously much better suited to small forward. If Finch agrees, then Taurean Prince sneaks in with backup minutes at power forward, but I believe Finch has more confidence in McDaniels’ ability to defend power forwards than I do, which means Prince may primarily ride the pine. The other option is that Naz Reid is the frontcourt man out and Finch goes small on occasion, especially if the playoff opponent is Golden State. 

Last but not least, Finch could vary the folks off the very end of his rotation, using any one or two of J-Mac, Prince and Naz while sitting the second and third out for a game. 

Whatever happens, the fact that potential playoff rosters and rotations can be seriously discussed here in March is the latest sign of what an enjoyable and successful 2021-22 season it has been thus far.