By: Dan Slaubaugh
If you follow our Twitter page, @ontheprowl_MN, you have probably seen tweets in the past including the sentiment “Life is good in Wolves land.”
The last time I tweeted “Life is good in Wolves land” was January 23, the day after Jimmy Butler and co. pulled out their 7th victory in 9 games in Hollywood against the LA Clippers. They were sitting comfortably in third place with a record of 29-16.
Since the date of the post above, I have not tweeted "Life is good in Wolves land" and Minnesota has accrued a 14-16 record, sporting the 21st-worst record in the NBA.
Think most of those were without soon-to-return Jimmy Butler? Wrong. Minnesota’s leader played in 14 of those 29 games. Before Jimmy got hurt, the Wolves went 6-8. After Butler’s injury, the Wolves are 8-8.
During the 31-game stretch, the Wolves have continued to be stellar offensively with an offensive rating of 110.6 (6th-best), but their lackluster, outdated defense continues to be the team’s achilles heel. In that span, Minnesota ranks 27th in defensive rating, allowing 112.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
For a team trying to break a 13-year playoff drought, that is unacceptable. In fact, by taking a look at teams 20-30 in defensive rating on that list, the only teams playing for something other than ping pong balls are Cleveland and Denver - two teams notorious for lackluster defensive performance.
But how can a coach who was brought in for his defensive expertise continually show to be incapable of getting his team to play league-average defense?
That is certainly the most pressing and important storyline of the present and the future. One that could prove costly in the franchise’s efforts to develop into a true championship contender.
There are three main factors surrounding Minnesota’s inability to defend at a high level:
1. Difficult personnel to craft schemes around
2. Karl Towns, Taj Gibson, and Gorgui Dieng non-factors at defending the rim
3. Jimmy Butler sidelined
For number one, you can blame President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau for failing to construct a roster with more than two above-average defensive players (Butler and Gibson). For number two, you can blame the players for not having the rim-protecting instincts needed to defend the basket at a league-average level. For number three, you can blame the basketball gods. Because while the team hasn’t been good defensively for the entire season, they did rank a tolerable 21st in defensive rating before Butler got hurt.
Still, if Rick Adelman can get Kevin Martin, Kevin Love, and Nikola Pekovic (all poor defenders) to play like the 12th-best defensive team, there should be no reason Tom Thibodeau shouldn’t be able to get Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns to perform league-average (around 106.0 DRTG) defensively.
Unfortunately for Wolves fans, Thibs hasn’t been able to get his team to play league-average defense, and there are no signs pointing towards him being able to in the future bar he adapts an array of modern defensive schemes (which put heavy emphasis defending the corner three and paint).
Most of the Wolves problems this season have been defensive related. In fact, I have said "The Wolves should be embarrassed" so many times this year and 99.9 percent of the time it's because of the defense.
Anywho, I’ve now realized this entire article has been about the Wolves defensive woes, when in reality it was supposed to be how the Wolves haven’t just struggled over the past week, but over the last two months as a whole.
Perhaps that suggests the defense lies as the primary cause for those struggles, which in turn spurs a domino effect to blame specific players, minute distribution, and the coach (all reasonable things to point fingers towards).
The Wolves will try to improve their position in the Western Conference over the next few years. They won’t be able to accomplish that if their defense continues to struggle.
Many suggest their defense will continue to suck as long as Thibodeau refuses to adopt new defensive schemes. In that case, the Wolves would stay complacent and be in danger of turning into the 2012-2016 Los Angeles Clippers - a quality regular season team that could never make it over the hump of the 2nd round and into the Western Conference Finals.
That certainly wouldn’t bold well for fans who not only want to see their team win games but also to compete for championships.
In the meantime, the Wolves will try secure their first playoff berth in over a decade over the next week and a half. But let's not forget the ultimate goal.
Hopefully Glen Taylor doesn't.