By: Dan Slaubaugh
In a loaded conference filled with premier talent, Tom Thibodeau has coached the Wolves to a 9-5 record, good for third place in the West. Through 14 games, you really couldn’t have asked for a better start from this Timberwolves team.
If a Wolves fan just returned from a 2-year trip of sightseeing the world while having zero access to the NBA, he would probably go, “Wow. I can’t believe Tom Thibodeau, the defensive mastermind, is our head coach. With a record of 9-5, he must have the defense clicking on all cylinders!”
That, as baffling as it may seem, has not been the case. Through 96 games as head coach in Minnesota, Thibodeau’s Wolves have shown far more bark than bite defensively. After acquiring two quality defenders in Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson this past offseason, the Timberwolves defense was supposed to improve in 2017-18, but it hasn’t.
This calls for a dissection.
Why is the Timberwolves defense performing so poorly?
When you think of a Tom Thibodeau-coached team, you probably think about a gritty, get-in-your-face defensive juggernaut that makes their opponents fight for every point with hard work and smart defensive play.
However, after finishing last season with the NBA’s 27th-ranked defense, the Timberwolves are once again playing bottom five defense. With a defensive rating of 107.7, the Timberwolves rank 26th out of all 30 NBA teams.
Minnesota's opponents are shooting 18 free throws per game. That's the lowest number of any team in the NBA, which means the Wolves are doing a great job of playing defense without fouling. However, they are allowing a league-high 49.3 opponent’s field goal percentage. Therefore, they are giving up far too many open looks for the opponent.
There are concerns about the defense of players such as Tyus Jones, Jamal Crawford, Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad and Karl-Anthony Towns. All five have been negatives on defense throughout their careers, and they have continued to struggle this season as well.
For Jones and Crawford, it really comes down to their lack of physicality. Because of their small frames, they are a liability when attempting to guard pick-and-rolls (or pops). No matter how much energy they put in on defense, they will always be a liability that Minnesota will have to account for.
A Muhammad-Crawford backcourt pairing was never going to work defensively. A lot of the holes in Muhammad’s game come from simply not being aware of what’s going on around him. If he’s a little more tuned in to his teammates and how to use his skill set he could prove to be a key piece for the Wolves second unit.
For Wiggins, it comes down to the effort he exerts on that end of the floor. It’s clear that when he is focused and trying on defense he can be an above-average defender. Wiggins individual on-ball defense hasn’t been terrible, but rather struggles off the ball rotating and switching when the ball is moving.
Finally, Towns can be a passable defender at times, but struggles to keep up with bigger, stronger bigs. Towns' best defensive advantage is his lengthy frame, which has allowed him to block a career-best 1.8 shots this season.
It’s up to Tom Thibodeau to make the most of the roster he assembled. It’s clear that in order to truly compete for a championship, teams must be elite on both ends of the floor. How exactly elite do the Wolves need to be defensively? Well, let’s take a look.
A little history
I went back and found the defensive rating of every team who played in the NBA Finals dating back to 2005-06. The average defensive rating of the 22 title contenders was 104.13, while the average league wide ranking was 6th.
For the Wolves to truly compete for a championship someday, they will need to defend at an elite level. Having a top-10 offense and middle-of-the-pack defense simply won’t cut it. That’s why Minnesota must make the jump into the top 10 defensively.
How the Wolves can achieve Top-10 defense
Overall, the personnel on the roster seem like a good fit for Thibodeau’s aggressive defensive scheme. He has his best five man lineup since he’s been in Minnesota; assuming creating turnovers (snaring 4th best 9.1 steals per game) stays as consistent as it has been recently, Minnesota will need to do the little things like communicating and quicker rotations to truly improve the defense.
Having Jimmy Butler slotted in at small forward when the Wolves need a stop is a luxury the team didn’t have last season. With Taj Gibson at power forward, the Wolves can have a lineup for all matchups, and most importantly, a lineup to guard the various small-ball lineups around the league.
One thing the Wolves have done a good job of this season is defending the three-point shot, ranking 13th in the league allowing opponents to shoot 35.5 percent from beyond the arc.
As many are aware, the culprit of Minnesota’s lackluster defense appears to be franchise center Karl-Anthony Towns. In order to back up this claim, I’ll run a few quick numbers by you:
KAT’s defensive rating is 111.3. When he is on the floor, the Wolves defend at essentially a league-worst level. Taj Gibson’s defensive rating is 105.0, which is a large difference. For example, the Warriors and Pacers are about 6.3 points apart in D-rating, with Golden State ranked 4th in defense and Indiana ranked 25th; a jump from the top of the NBA down closer to the bottom.
As Kevin Garnett once said “defense is our backbone,” and young Mr. Towns, and Andrew Wiggins for that matter, need to play like they are fighting for their lives on that end for the Wolves to reach contender territory.
With the cruel tutelage of Tom Thibodeau and improved perimeter defense spearheaded by Jimmy Butler, Towns SHOULD be at least a respectable defender and rim-protector rather than being the focal problem in a frontcourt that’s allowing 47.7 points in the paint (5th worst in NBA) to their opponents.
If the Wolves are still struggling and playing bad defense when the season concludes, you have to ask, “Why is Thibodeau’s characteristic defensive prowess proving to be so ineffective with this club? Is it because the players he has assembled are not a good fit together? Or is his strategy for this team proving ineffective because it is from an era where defense is supposed to be played a certain way?”
The most important question, for now, is whether Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns can mold into the premier defenders they were expected too. With not much wiggle room in the club’s cap space that seems to be Minnesota’s lone path to becoming a title contender.