“General soreness” was the reason announced for Jimmy Butler’s sudden absence from Wednesday’s game against the Utah Jazz. Following Sunday night’s enveloping defeat to the Portland Trail Blazers, it would be an apropos title for the Wolves’ season to date.
Of the team’s first 10 games, seven have come against playoff competition. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has been forced to start eight different players en route to earning a 4-6 record. After Andrew Wiggins was sidelined for three early games with an injured right quad, Butler and Jeff Teague have each missed a handful of contests.
The shorthanded Wolves didn’t put up much of a fight against the well-rounded Blazers, but it’s difficult to compete against a talented opponent with the lineups that Thibodeau was forced to deploy. When Karl-Anthony Towns was replaced by Gorgui Dieng with three-and-a-half minutes remaining in the opening frame, the Wolves held a narrow two-point lead. But after the entire second unit made itself known – two-way signees Jared Terrell and C.J. Williams, Wiggins, Anthony Tolliver and Dieng – the Blazers went on a nonchalant 11-4 run.
As Towns re-entered the game with eight minutes to play in a vital second quarter, the Wolves trailed by seven and appeared to be quickly losing control. They were outscored by nine points to finish the half and proceeded to lose by a forgettable margin.
In the wake of Sunday night’s disheartening loss, the Wolves’ defensive rating – or points allowed per-100 possessions – has slipped to 114, the fifth-lowest mark around the NBA.
And after 256 games since the Timberwolves drafted Towns – all of which the big man has been healthy and active for – the franchise continues to pursue the elusive aim of defensive development; specifically that of their cornerstone center.
Offense has never been a problem.
When Towns arrived, the Wolves exploded to 13th by offensive rating (2015-16), a far cry from their 26th-ranked unit the season before. That’s an impressive mark for a team that was run through three 20-year-olds; for comparison, the Blazers ranked 13th by offensive rating in 2017-18.
They’ve since improved to 10th and to fourth while the big man became an All-Star by producing on that end. But through just a few weeks of a brand-new campaign – another opportunity for Towns to rebrand his one-way reputation – consistently acceptable rim protection has been karmically fleeting.
Towns is at fault for a swath of the dismay; the same smattering of mistakes have barred his effectiveness through three seasons and change. He’s always stalked blocks like a vindictive ex-spouse – appearing to feel useful only when a ball flies into the seats. But that over-aggressive nature consistently causes problems.
It leaves his man open for easy dump-off passes, like in this instance from October against Serge Ibaka and the Raptors; and it likewise hands opponents second-chance points and free-throw opportunities.
Though effort is rarely a concern, Towns also displays periodic aloofness that plucks him from position in pick-and-roll coverage or transition containment.
But some of what has branded the Wolves defense inept shouldn’t be blamed on their All-NBA center. Thibodeau’s base pick-and-roll coverage relies on algorithmic execution from the entirety of a unit; it just so happens that when it goes wrong, Towns appears to be the last line of defense.
The rosters that Thibodeau has assembled – via holdovers and newfound additions – through his tenure in Minnesota have hardly done Towns an abundance of favors. The group inhabiting the floor during his first season at the helm – Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Wiggins, Dieng and Towns – was never going to be able to compete on that end. And while Butler’s efforts are elite and Gibson has helped Towns by shouldering a portion of his rim-protecting duties, the other high-profile signings that joined the team last season – Teague and Jamal Crawford – were a first line of resistance unable to add value.
A team’s point-of-attack defender can be a feather in a cap of the big man behind them; but if they’re unwilling or unable to provide proper resistance, they’re more aptly described as a thorn in the side.
Both Teague and Towns are at fault in this instance. Once the former is caught up by a well-placed Ibaka, he isn’t compelled to fight back and disrupt the ball handler. And after Ibaka changes the angle of his screen, Towns loses a step and fails to catch up.
In a league that continues to emphasize this play-type, a duo like Teague and Towns is bound to be exploited. What’s more, when a young and volatile player like Towns is deployed with suboptimal defensive partners, his learning curve on that end becomes steeper and more treacherous.
But there are players on this roster who are capable of helping their center produce.
Tyus Jones Pick and Roll Ball-Handler Defense
Tyus Jones has always had a knack for exerting discord on unsuspecting offenses; for that reason and others, he’s tended to help Towns find success as a defender. In 2017-18, Jones and Towns shared the floor for more than 800 minutes – their 104.1 points allowed per-100 possessions was an effort more promising that Teague and Towns put forth (107.3).
And with the Wolves’ first-round draft pick, Josh Okogie, making his claim as a defensive disruptor, the Wolves can deploy a capable second-unit backcourt on that side of the ball. Towns has already benefited from playing behind the pair; both of whom fight to stay in position.
After Derrick Favors approaches to set a screen on Okogie, Towns drops in coverage and invites Rubio to attack. But Okogie manages to stay in the play, thus allowing Towns to remain relatively calm. As Rubio attempts to dump the ball to favors, Okogie and Towns combine to force a steal.
It should come as no surprise that the results meet the eye test, at least as it sits this early in the season.
Timberwolves Two-Man Lineup Combinations
Towns would seem to make sense with the other backups as well.
Though Tolliver can be exploited man-to-man – especially against opponents who are quick off of the dribble – he excels in help defense, picking the right spots to leave his man and aid a teammate.
As Pacers guard Victor Oladipo forces his way to the rim with Towns on his hip, Tolliver peels off his man (No. 21 Thaddeus Young) and elevates for a block – inciting a Wolves transition opportunity. Tolliver is posting new career-highs by numerous defensive measures while embracing his scalding reputation from deep.
To this point in the season, Towns and Tolliver – arguably the two best shooting big men in the entire NBA – have shared the floor for 81 minutes; during that time, the team is outscoring opponents by more than six points per-100 possessions.
Even if Derrick Rose is playing in Okogie’s stead, it provides an offensive weapon more willing to feed Towns. Not only has Rose been the team’s most effective pick-and-roll ball handler, the Wolves boast a similar plus-six net rating when he’s playing with the aforementioned all-star center.
So why not let Towns spend more time on the court with these second unit players?
His start to the season has been volatile at best, and there’s evidence that this group could help right the ship. Their defensive skill-sets can assuage his tense traits, and his usage on offense could be boosted by their deference.
Rotational adjustments are easier said than done, but it wouldn’t be completely innovative based on Thibodeau’s recent past. Through a majority of last season, Towns was the first player taken out of each game. He’d be replaced by Dieng while the starters finished their shift and reinserted with the bench near the end of the opening quarter. It helped him get the touches he so often lacked and feast on backup centers with his unique versatility.
But through just 10 games of this emotional campaign – one described most thoroughly by what’s transpiring off of the court – Butler has been the one to play with the backups – adding a secondary creator that the group admittedly needs.
But whether Butler is ultimately traded or not, he’ll presumably be relegated to his former rotation – after all, Thibodeau hasn’t been known to deviate from his strategy when players return to 100-percent.
And whether the disgruntled star is generally sore or not, affording Towns additional time with the Wolves’ more compatible group of reserves is a strategy that could jump-start his teetering performance.