To say the 2018-19 Minnesota Timberwolves struggle to defend the 3-point line would be a massive understatement — and admittance of not having watched the last handful of games.
After the Houston Rockets sprinkled 21 green dots of triple dust on the Wolves Sunday evening, the Golden State Warriors poured on 19 more made 3s in what became the Wolves’ fourth consecutive loss Tuesday night. In just the two games, the damage was 40 made 3s on 92 attempts, good for 43.5 percent. Mind you, 33 3-point attempts allowed per game on 35.4 percent shooting is the league’s median output.
Flush with the likes of James Harden, Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, one could argue those numbers spiking is almost an acceptable offense. What can you really do against, arguably, the league’s two best shooting teams? But factor in the notion that the Wolves four opponents prior to Houston and Golden State also shot a combined 41.6 percent (57 of 137) from 3 — with one of those opponents being the New York Knicks — and a stronger argument begins to form: the Wolves have become the worst team in the league at defending the 3-point line.
The numbers certainly back up the assertion. To be 1.5 percent behind the 26th ranked Phoenix Suns and 4.1 percent behind the league-best Sixers is quite the indictment.
“We don’t want to allow 3s is the thing,” said Ryan Saunders when asked about the mounting 3-point issues. “We understand that the 3-point shot, the free throw and the layup, those are higher points per possession — especially the corner 3s. So we don’t want those.”
It’s hard to know how much of the glare of this decreased efficiency in defending the line should fall on Saunders’ shoulders. On one hand, the Wolves were already the league’s worst 3-point defense during the 40 games Tom Thibodeau was at the helm, and Thibs had Robert Covington for 22 of those games. On the other hand, the 3-point defense has statistically worsened since Saunders took over — up from 37.3 percent under Thibs to a truly devastating 38.5 percent (still league-worst) under Saunders.
To be fair, there are questions about how legitimate of a barometer defensive 3-point field goal percentage is. Some, including Saunders, would argue the volatility in 3-point volume and effectiveness opponent-to-opponent muddles things. This is true, as, particularly in smaller sample sizes, there is a serious element of randomness to an opponent’s shooting. But with a growing sample, this issue that has plagued the Wolves deserves looking into.
The diagnosis is not a simple one. Like most elements of the defensive side of the ball, there is a confluence of factors. If we try and nail down the key factors that are most interwoven, a good place to start with is the defensive point-of-attack, which then attaches to communication, transition defense and defensive rebounding. Of late, the Wolves have struggled massively in all four tenets of effective 3-point defense.
It All Starts at the Point of Attack
The point of attack is almost always the top of the key. In the simplest sense, a team’s point-of-attack defender is the dude defending the offense’s other dude who is bringing the ball up.
But this isn’t always the case. Often, the attack doesn’t start until the middle of the possession, after a few passes. It’s here where the Wolves particularly struggle to defend. Rock the Timber-boat a few times with a few swings and the Wolves’ point-of-attack defenders lose their balance, becoming susceptible for saturation via the 3-ball.
In the below clip, you can see Thompson doesn’t receive the ball at the top of the key until after 15 seconds have already ticked off of the shot clock. Still, it’s the point-of-attack all over again and, in this play, Andrew Wiggins is not able to stymie Thompson’s attack.
You’ll see here, too, a good example of a failure at the second line of defense. It is Anthony Tolliver’s job to perform what is referred to as a stunt on the Thompson drive. Tolliver is actually one of the Wolves best players at this required show-and-recover defensive action, but here he is scrambling to stay with his cutting man. Because Tolliver isn’t square to the top-of-the-key, where he could see Thompson, his stunt is a tick late. The breakdown of this possession is a compounding of a point-of-attack olé that places the Wolves a step behind, and another second lost in the timing of the stunt.
“I think the thing with Golden State, similar to Houston in a way, when you have great individual scorers — and I use the word great because they are great individual scorers — you really have to key in on those guys,” said Saunders who is abundantly aware that his team has only rarely been able to control the point-of-attack without Covington in the lineup. “And what that means is your help defense you gotta be even more on-point in terms of starting in to create one-way stunts, being ready to rotate to open shooters.”
When a team like Golden State can break the paint easily, they are one or two swing passes away from finding an elite shooter.
Again, every team struggles defending the Warriors on the arc. The Wolves certainly are not the first team Golden State has hung that many 3s on. However, for the Wolves, the fear of allowing the 3 is becoming a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction.
Knowing that your team is being busted by the 3-ball can make individual players phobic of being the guy who allows the shot to be hit in their face. Watch Keita Bates-Diop close out in that above play; he doesn’t want to be the one to give up the 3, so he overpursues the closeout — starting the need for that defensive stunt and rotation cycle.
As a means for compensating for a lack of formidable point-of-attack defenders, Saunders has tried other methods for slowing the path into the lane. One of those was a 2-3 zone against the Utah Jazz on March 14 (four games ago).
It is here where the problems of throwing in new schemes midseason rear their head. The Wolves never ran a 2-3 when Thibodeau was in charge. Against a team like Utah, who isn’t exactly loaded with 3-point shooters, a 2-3 zone does make some sense. But running a defensive counter you’ve had little-to-no-time to practice can lead to even cleaner 3-point looks.
In a 2-3, there needs to be a communicated line as to where the top man’s job duties end and the back line defender’s duties begin. On this play, Jerryd Bayless and Karl-Anthony Towns are clearly confused as to where that line is.
Bayless and Wiggins also shared a confusion:
Distract the baseline defender for a moment, as Ricky Rubio does with a hesitation dribble on Dario Saric here, and that same corner is vacated.
This type of zone also isn’t penetration proof. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert weren’t distracted by the new look and still approximated their patented pick-and-roll action. Given that it was Mitchell and Gobert, the Wolves bit time and again.
Watch, all it takes is a Mitchell head fake to Gobert for Tolliver to stunt into the lane, freeing Georges Niang in the corner.
Again, rolling with a 2-3 in the second quarter wasn’t necessarily a bad idea. Niang, Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale, the three players who hit the 3s in the above clips, aren’t exactly sharpshooters. But even against weaker opponents, that communication element is critical. You can only draw a line in pencil on the whiteboard in practice; it is communication in the midst of the game that emboldens that confusing line into ink.
Lack of Communication, Particularly in Pick-and-Roll Defense
Every time the Wolves have played the Jazz this season, they have been bruised by Utah’s pick-and-roll. A ball-screen action demands point-of-attack control and communication from the Wolves defense.
Part of this confusion, I believe, is born out of the myriad pick-and-roll coverages Thibodeau implemented and Saunders has hesitated to deviate from midstream.
In this play, for example, Josh Okogie (at the point-of-attack) and Taj Gibson (in the drop of the coverage) are hyper-focused at managing the Mitchell and Gobert read. It is when a third Utah player (Kyle Korver) is thrown into the action that communication from Korver’s man (Keita Bates-Diop) needs to happen. Both Gibson and Bates-Diop end up sticking to the initial pick-and-roll and Korver is left very open.
Even the simplest screen or handoff actions just move faster than the Wolves do. A team makes up for a lack of speed with communication. Here, Bayless falls a step behind Korver on the dribble-handoff and does not communicate a show to Gibson before the shot is up.
This lack of communication is troubling, however, for the Wolves, the most egregious lack of communication comes when teams force them into transition defense.
Awareness in Transition
Many will point to a lack of effort as the biggest issue for teams who struggle to defend in transition. Just get your butt back on D! is a common refrain. But that isn’t always enough. I would, again, point to communication as a critical element. (The most critical, in my opinion.)
Here, the four Timberwolves who didn’t fall over on the offensive end actually do a good job of getting their butt back on D. The issue is Gibson and Okogie do not communicate fast enough who is going to stop Crowder at the point-of-attack — thus starting the cycle. This brief drop-step by Okogie is just enough to allow Crowder to pull cleanly. Proper communication would eliminate the drop-step and potentially deter the shot attempt.
Transition happens in the halfcourt, too. This is often referred to as “the scram.” Typical transition defense is a 94-foot scram where a mid-possession scram is more like 9.4 feet.
In this halfcourt set, you’ll see another example of that hesitation drop-step, this time by Andrew Wiggins. Utah has hit Derrick Favors on the roll, sending the Wolves into a scram. Bayless and Wiggins do not communicate whose job it is to stay with Favors and whose job it is to scram out to contest Joe Ingles shot. Again, to hesitate is to lose — or at least to allow open 3-pointers.
A scram is frequently needed when the roll-man receives a pass and is moving towards the rim. But a not-so-distant cousin of this type of scram comes from allowing offensive rebounds. Similarly, a player you don’t want to have the ball in a place you don’t want him to have the ball happens when an offensive rebound is surrendered — triggering the need for a scram.
Recovery Following an Offensive Rebound
For the fifth-consecutive season, the Wolves are in the bottom-six of the NBA in defensive rebounding (measured by defensive rebound rate, per NBA.com). Not so coincidentally, the Wolves are 24th in defensive rating this season — the fifth-consecutive season the Wolves have fallen in the bottom-seven of defensive efficiency, per NBA.com.
Allowing offensive rebounds is a death fueled by a 3-point barrage that can follow. As Saunders said above, lay-ups, free throws and 3s are the worst shots to allow. Think about it: What usually happens after an offensive rebound? A lay-up, a foul or a kick-out for a 3. Right?
Again, much like transition defense that follows a defensive rebound allowed, surrendering an offensive rebound forces a scram to match up. This type of shuffle is particularly difficult to enact because, as a defender, your head needs to pivot from looking at the rim for the rebound out onto the perimeter. Again, there is no time to hesitate.
Here, Gobert secures the rebound, clears space and swiftly kicks to the one perimeter player the Wolves have not scrammed to (Ingles).
The Wolves have a reliance on Towns to defensively rebound. But he can’t be everywhere. One of the fairest rips on Wiggins is born out of the frequency with which he pulls down contested rebounds. Like team defense, defensive rebounding is a five-man exercise.
It is all four of these elements of the defense consistently breaking down that lead to clean 3-point looks. And that should inspire some agita about the idea that simply putting in a new scheme will fix the defense next season.
If the Wolves don’t improve at the point-of-attack, they will be forced to lean on a group of players who struggle to effectively communicate assignments. This, in turn, will lead to a greater need to rely on full- and half-court transition situations. And if the team doesn’t improve its defensive rebounding rate, the whole cycle will keep perpetuating.
Which brings us to a bigger conversation (for a different column): the Wolves need to address their defensive personnel just as much as they need to adjust their scheme. Right now, they have schemes that are allowing 3-point attempts at, both, too high of a volume and too high of an efficiency. But they also have players who appear to be incapable of — or, worse: disinterested in — addressing the issue.
The stakes aren’t high now — allowing 3s that perpetuate losing, actually, has tanking benefits. But eventually, if the Wolves have real playoff aspirations, addressing every element of the defense is a must. In a league only further embracing the 3 by the day, correcting the litany of issues that are perpetuating the league’s worst 3-point defense should be one of the first steps.