'The New NBA, Finally': Tom Thibodeau and the Theory of Defensive Evolution

Jan 16, 2018; Orlando, FL, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau talks with guard Jeff Teague (0) against the Orlando Magic during the first half at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For the 2018-19 Minnesota Timberwolves, the most easily discernable departure from the identity of last season’s 47-win team is found in this new group’s willingness to play with pace.

In Monday evening’s 101-91 victory over the Indiana Pacers, the Wolves tallied 26 fast-break points. After having scored 29 points on the break against Dallas on Saturday, these totals marked the first set of consecutive games for the franchise with 25-plus fast-break points since 2001.

This development, in addition to an increasing propensity to look for the 3-ball on offense, is a modern move that is paying dividends for a team harangued for their antiquated style a season ago.

What has split past the passer-by, likely because it hasn’t led to the same positive externalities (yet), is the Wolves’ defense also beginning to evolve. For the much-maligned, and this season consistently booed, Tom Thibodeau, an evolving defense is perhaps the most enticing modern addition to the quiver.

Why? Because the system in Thibodeau’s first two seasons was, in fact, old school. And it wasn’t working; the Wolves were 27th in defensive rating, per Basketball Reference, both of the past two years.

Let’s spin back to what those cumbersome defensive tactics looked like before jumping into what has begun to evolve.

Drop and Ice Coverage When Defending The Pick-And-Roll

In a league that has become increasingly defined by the pick-and-roll, a team’s defensive identity is often defined by how they counter an opponent’s ball-screen action. For the Wolves, much like the Chicago Bulls of latter-day Thibs, they have carved out an identity that recognizes the big man countering the pick-and-roll by retreating backward.

“Drop” or “blue” coverage is the common terminology for this defensive maneuver against the pick-and-roll.

Drop Coverage

Particularly last season, and most demonstrably in the Wolves playoff series against the Houston Rockets, the Wolves became a team known to drop coverage on almost all “high pick-and-rolls.”

A high pick-and-roll is typically thought of as a ball screen in the center quadrant of the floor. Picture three quadrants on the court — top, middle, and bottom.

In the below play, the Wolves drop a high pick-and-roll — in the center quadrant of the floor — against James Harden and Clint Capela. Notice how deep Towns sinks into the paint, welcoming Harden to take a midrange jumper or meet him at the rim.

Again, this is very similar to the drop coverages the Bulls ran earlier in the decade.

Ice Coverage

Ice-ing is the cousin of drop coverage in that it also sends the big backpedaling into the formation of a wall. The biggest difference between ice-ing and dropping is the location on the floor in which it typically happens. A “side pick-and-roll” is where one would most frequently ice, and side pick-and-rolls occur in those other two quadrants — the ones closest to the out-of-bounds lines.

A second, but critical, tenet to ice-ing a side pick-and-roll is the role the on-ball defender plays in directing the ball-handler towards the ice-ing big. Here, Ricky Rubio negotiates himself through a screen in an effort to send Eric Bledsoe towards Karl-Anthony Towns — the ice-ing big.

And here, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah instill the same principles against a Brooklyn Nets side pick-and-roll. (The GIF pauses after Butler has scrambled over to ice the screen, redirecting the action towards the side.)

Utilizing ice against side pick-and-rolls is not a poor strategy.

In fact, it carries a good deal of logic even in today’s modern NBA. Being able to defend ball-screen action with only two defenders is a coup. Period. And even more rewarding is the nature of flow that pushes the ball towards the out-of-bounds line — a third and undefeated defender.

The problem for the Thibodeau-led Wolves when it comes to ice-ing is that they never became particularly apt at executing the action. Blame falls in numerous corners for this folly. In part, it is on Thibodeau for not getting his players up to snuff. But just as blame-worthy are the players themselves, who have been chronically poor communicators in an action predicated on the big announcing the ice call.

Additionally, when Towns is the most frequent tentpole of this defense action you have a problem due to his still developing spatial awareness on the floor.

These are two examples of broken down communications that liquidate the ice strategy.

Still, continuing to ice side pick-and-rolls should (and will) remain a pillar of the Wolves defense, because it works with proper execution. However, holistic improvements and a willingness to not be married to the concept also needs to happen.

As for drop coverage, it would be alright to let go the insistence on its utilization. (Which has begun to happen. More on that in a second.)

The logic in straying from drop coverage comes from an admittance that the league has changed. Why dropping pick-and-rolls was once such an effective tactic came from the shots it invited: pull-up 2s. Now, many teams in the league — particularly those with capable pull-up shooters — are simply setting the high screen even higher so as to allow the ball-handler to pull-up from 3 rather than the midrange in an effort to earn back some equity in the shot.

Notice where Dwight Howard sets the screen on this as Towns lurks back towards the paint.

Given the relative ineffectiveness of the Wolves in defending both high and side pick-and-rolls, due to a multitude of factors, the request to evolve is fair. And one that Thibodeau has obliged to.

Putting Pressure On The Pick-And-Roll

The common refrain from every player on the roster throughout training camp, when asked what this group needs to do to improve on from last season, was something along the lines of “committing to defense.” They know the numbers, but moreover, they know that opponents went on runs due to extended lapses on the defensive end. It’s demoralizing to consistently allow your opponent to get looks that are far easier than those you are getting yourself.

Does this require a schematic change? Perhaps more switching?

“Yeah, we’re all what 30 at the most? I think Taj is the oldest guy in the lineup,” said Jeff Teague when posed the switching question. “We’re all still young and athletic. We need to get up, switch. Every other team does it.”

He went on to elaborate on how “putting pressure” on opposing ball-handlers after a screen is critical. (Something he should know a thing or two about as a player who has started over 500 games at the point guard position in his 10-year career.)

“I think we’re not really a team who’s really putting more pressure on the pick-and-roll. We’re not getting up, but sitting back and running backwards and letting them take us wherever they want to go.”

Aggression on defense is a fine line to walk. It opens up your defense to more holes but does fight back for control in the flow of the game. With opponents consistently finding those holes even against the Wolves more conservative drop or ice system, why not?

Again, Thibodeau has obliged to depart from some of his Chicago ways. And finally, in Monday’s victory against the Pacers, the Wolves saw that aggression work. They have started “showing” the big on more ball-screens and even “blitzing” them by sending both defenders in the action at the ball-handler.

Here, Towns raises up beyond the 3-point arc to “show” onto Darren Collison while still living in a position to recover onto Myles Turner.

This play here is Taj Gibson blitzing the high screen with Tyus Jones, who gets his hand on the kick out pass that leads to a turnover and dunk.

And even Towns showing into a full-on switch allows the big man to rely more on his lateral agility than a drop that would ask him to think on his toes. For now, finding ways to have Towns play on his toes rather than think on them is a win.

I asked Jeff Teague after the game if this was the aggression he was talking about in training camp.

“I was so happy to see it,” was his response. “I was like, ‘there we go. The new NBA, finally.’ It made them do something different. They started iso-ing, trying to make a play. And that’s tough, man, to come down every time and do iso basketball.”

Thibodeau agreed, calling the victory over Indiana the team’s “best overall defensive performance of the year.”

“I thought our activity was great,” he continued. “And I thought our stops got us out into the open floor. The attack was good.”

To be fair, the bar was set pretty low for best defensive performance of the year, having given up 140, 131 and 112 in the first three games of the season. But it’s undeniable that Monday’s win was progress for this Timberwolves team.

And more exciting: it might be the beginning of an evolution.

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Jan 16, 2018; Orlando, FL, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau talks with guard Jeff Teague (0) against the Orlando Magic during the first half at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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