Ryan Saunders and Rejuvenating a Stalled Timberwolves Defense

Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves spent a chunk of Tuesday afternoon’s practice, before their victory Wednesday over the Memphis Grizzlies, specifically focusing on their pick-and-roll defense. They broke into 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 drills that focused specifically on any type of high ball-screen action that could be thrown at them.

This was, in part, reactive to Sunday evening’s loss to the Utah Jazz where Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert blitzed the Wolves to death. Their ball-screen action led to way too many Mitchell drives, seven Gobert dunks and when that was happening, a plethora of kick-outs for corner 3s. Mitchell scored 22 in the second half (on 8-of-10 shooting), Gobert added 10 that half (4-of-5 shooting) and the team as a whole got off eight clean corner 3s.

The focus on defending the pick-and-roll action was also forward-thinking. Ryan Saunders was rewinding way back to the first loss of the post-Jimmy Butler era, a defeat at the hands of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Even with Robert Covington in tow, the Wolves had no answer for the Grizzlies high screen action that game. Conley and Gasol, over-and-over, popped-and-dragged Karl-Anthony Towns and Covington until the Wolves finally folded.

In that matchup, Towns was the primary defender on 11 of Gasol’s 13 shot attempts. Tom Thibodeau was also the coach back then.

“We liked that matchup with Taj,” said Saunders, who brought a different tactic to the victory Wednesday. “He’s active and he’s able to show, and impact the ball too. And he’s got good instincts. Guys worked hard in practice yesterday, we spent a lot of time in that, in terms of trying to guard just the ball and the screener. We knew that was going to be important today.”

Gasol shot 6 for 16 on the night and — this time with Gibson on him — was 0 for 2 in a critical fourth quarter. Largely, the Conley-Gasol pick-and-roll was so ineffective that Memphis simply went away from it. Gibson was jumping out to hedge, generally thwarting all high-screen actions.

“Taj is a winner, that’s the only way to put it,” said Saunders. “Marc is hard to guard.”

For a night at least, the pick-and-roll was snuffed. Still, the truth remains that these actions plague the Wolves — particularly the Saunders-led group. Even after the Grizzlies victory, the Wolves are allowing 111.3 points per 100 possessions in the eleven games since the coaching change.

A brushed over fact is that, after the Butler trade, the Wolves defense was humming under Thibodeau. With a defensive rating of 106.5, the Wolves were eighth in defense from Nov. 14 (Covington and Saric’s first game) through Jan. 6 (Thibodeau’s firing), per NBA.com.

Of course, Thibodeau had Covington for 22 of those games and Saunders has had to coach a roster decimated far beyond the starting small forward position. Still, the defense has stalled and their post-trade pick-and-roll defense is a big part of that. Really, the Wolves pick-and-roll defense has been cracking at all three levels.

Three Levels of Pick-and-Roll Defense

When Saunders, or any coach, is attempting to implement tactics to slow opponents in the pick-and-roll, there is a recognition of sorts that defending a pick-and-roll these days is an effort in futility. With the slate of point guards in the league right now, from Damian Lillard to Kemba Walker to Stephen Curry, the goal isn’t to stop the action. A successful pick-and-roll defense is one that does its best to contain the action.

Hell, it was Thibodeau’s famous pick-and-roll scheme in Chicago at the beginning of the decade that gave him the clout to land the job in Minnesota in the first place. The difference is that wall Thibodeau built earlier in the decade is no longer effective in the modern NBA, due to the evolution of the ball-handlers directing pick-and-rolls. The athleticism now found at the point-of-attack, coupled with the surrounding shooters, again, is almost unstoppable.

“I was around John Wall when I was in Washington,” said Saunders, an assistant with the Wizards from 2009 to 2014. “He was in that early wave of very athletic and strong guards, in terms of getting into the paint, and being quick.”

“Point guards have changed dramatically in the NBA,” Saunders continued. “It’s something that a lot of teams have problems with.”

It’s certainly what the Wolves have struggled with of late, from Luka Doncic to Ben Simmons to Donovan Mitchell. So let’s start there, the point of attack — the first line of pick-and-roll defense.

Controlling the Point of Attack

Particularly without Covington, the Wolves have struggled to direct the ball-handler at the point of attack. Too often, as Mitchell does in the above clip, the on-ball defender has been brought directly into the screen, immediately giving the offense an advantage.

From here, already a step ahead, Mitchell has an array of options: attack, hit the roll man or kick to a spot-up shooter.

“Dribble penetration, that occurs a lot when you get sucked in and don’t take care of things at the point-of-attack,” said Saunders after the Utah game. “[It is] controlling the dribbler so help doesn’t have to come.”

Tagging the Roll Man

When help does come, to control the dribbler, this often leaves the big open rolling to the rim, as Gobert successfully does in the above clip. But that too is a correctable flaw. In this play, Josh Okogie needed to come in to “tag” Gobert — essentially knocking him off of his roll to the rim.

“When guys are hard rolling to the rim, you have to get in to tag,” said Saunders. “You have to get in to bump early, and then you get out to 3-point shooters.

“You want to start in, as a help-side defense, so that you create one-way stunts to get out to shooters. So you hit the man early, you bump him towards the big in pick-and-roll coverage and you get back out to the shooters.”

Okogie was clearly, and naturally, concerned with his man (Mitchell) becoming open for the three. But that is the next step layer of pick-and-roll defense.

Defending the Corner 3

Communication is particularly critical in this third step. By this point of the action, so many pawns on the chess board have moved.

In the above play, the point-of-attack was controlled and the threat of the roll man was mitigated by the stunt of Luol Deng into the middle of the lane. The problem is, Dario Saric also stunted, leaving no one to be able to rotate to the corner.

“You want to be there to either stunt or to rotate to him,” Saunders said of the weak side stunter (in this case Deng/Saric). “But the big thing is, principles still apply. We need to be in the correct positions to get back to the corner 3-point shooters.”

Improvement Begins With Towns and Covington

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

There are an array of fundamental breakdowns happening in the Wolves pick-and-roll defense, and they are not just limited to the Utah game. The thing is, though, even the best defenses have similar breakdowns. Again, defending this action is a practice in futility.

The difference is, with the best defenses, they have erasers; players who paint over their team’s warts with their talent. First and foremost, for the Wolves, that is Covington. He’s an eraser.

I asked Saunders if these issues are fundamental and bigger than simply missing their best defender. “Yes and no,” he said.  “I will say this about Robert: there’s a reason he’s a first-team All-Defensive guy.”

“You can put him on different size players,” Saunders continued. “We put him on a lot of point guards. That’s because he’s got a nose for the ball, he’s got quick hands and he moves well. And his length bothers people. So having him does make a difference, especially at the point-of-attack.”

This below play may end up with a bucket for Walker, but good luck doing that 10 times again. Covington puts point guards in point-of-attack hell.

Related, and perhaps Covington’s best attribute is how he seems to unlock KAT in these situations. Defensively, Towns is a different player with Covington. The point-of-attack defense from RoCo puts a fire in Towns’ feet that taps into a good reckless abandon — a happy cousin to the abandon that perpetually puts him in foul trouble.

For the season, the Wolves have allowed 107.4 points per 100 possessions when Towns is on the floor. When he shares the floor with Covington, that number drops to 105.5. Of players he shared the floor with last season for over 900 minutes, Towns’ defensive rating was only that low when he shared the floor with Butler (105.0). An optimized KAT needs an eraser next to him on the wing.

Timberwolves 500-Plus Minute Two-Man Lineups

The Wolves have an opportunity to not only be serviceable when Covington returns but a very good one. At least that’s what the numbers suggest. If KAT is freed to play with that vigor when Covington returns and the two are also flanked by Okogie, something special could happen. Not only do Towns and Okogie have an elite 100.5 defensive rating in the 607 minutes they have shared the floor this season, but it is also it is improving. Since Covington suffered the bone bruise to his knee, Towns and Okogie have posted a filthy 98.3 defensive rating in 290 minutes.

The recent defensive results for the Wolves are concerning, and Towns’ foul trouble is particularly concerning — no player has more fouls than Towns’ (477) over the past two seasons. But still, there is room for optimism. One day this team will be healthy, and that very well could lead this group’s defense to come to form.

“KAT’s improving with it,” Saunders said of the defense, trying to find the big picture. “But it’s also one of those things, too, you have guys out there.”

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