When D’Angelo Russell dropped 52 points against Ryan Saunders’s Timberwolves on November 8th, Saunders knew he had been playing with fire. Russell’s 52-point performance was the second time in just the first eight games of the season that the Wolves had managed to win while surrendering 50 points to one player. On opening night, another Wolves victory, Kyrie Irving peppered the Wolves defense for 50 with a very similar, very pick-and-roll heavy attack.
“I was happy we won, but as soon as the buzzer sounded I was on my way back to the locker room I was just thinking about the things we need to work on,” said Saunders at the Wolves’ practice facility the morning after that Golden State game. “I was just thinking about working on pick-and-rolls because we’ll (continue to) see plenty of those.”
Fast forward just over a week and the Wolves have now surrendered two more massive individual performances by perimeter creators. Bradley Beal went off for 44 points at Target Center on Friday night, and the next night James Harden put up 49. Both in home losses for the Wolves.
These performances were different than Irving and Russell’s, though, because of the way the Wolves opted to defend the Beal- and Harden-led attacks. After the Golden State game, Saunders decided it was time for some schematic adjustments.
“Our pick-and-roll defense was not where we want it to be,” said Saunders. “Everybody knows how we’ve been playing Karl. We’ve been playing him dropped.”
To have Towns “dropped” is to have him hang back behind the pick-and-roll action, dropped towards the rim. The defensive goal in this scheme is to force the ball-handler into an on-the-move shot from the midrange.
In the aggregate, the tactic is wise. Generally speaking, players shoot worse off the dribble, and the midrange shot is the least efficient look in the game.
“We’re not giving him the three,” Saunders explained. “In our philosophy, we wanna try to ride guys over the top, get a rearview contest, and be in contact with them to force them into a contested two, where KAT would be more in that shooting range.”
Where the logic of this tactic breaks down a bit is when the ball-handler is someone of Russell or Irving’s ilk. Typically inefficient midrange shots are decent looks for those types of players. And once they’re rolling, they can be deadly. Russell shot 49.1% from 8-to-16 feet last season, and Irving shot 50.9% from that same distance.
In the above clip, the Wolves do force Irving into the on-the-move jumper from the midrange. From Jeff Teague, they also get one of those rearview contests Saunders was describing. A rearview contest is an action that follows “getting knocked off by a screen, where you’re kind of trailing a bit,” according to Saunders.
“You’re looking at it like they’re driving a car,” Saunders continued. “You come into the mirror at the last second, so you’re not dead on the play.”
But when the defender does die on the screen, and the rearview contest does not happen, having the big sitting back deep can be particularly costly. The ball-handler can just step into an uncontested midrange look, as Russell does after Josh Okogie gets caught on the Willie Cauley-Stein screen in this play:
Die on the screen when it is set particularly high — like Jarrett Allen does in the play below — and the ball-handler can twist the knife. With Noah Vonleh dropped deep, Irving has a clean look at a pull-up 3-point shot. Irving shot 35.5% on pull-up 3-point shots last season, according to Synergy’s tracking data.
The bottom line: Russell and Irving are drop scheme breakers. Because of that, and because Saunders looked out at the schedule ahead and saw Beal and Harden, it was time for an adjustment.
In conjunction with his staff, Saunders has pre-marked breaks in the schedule where they are not only looking to adjust their schemes but also to add to the playbook. A homestand in the last week presented an opportunity for those additions.
“I’d say it’s evolved a lot over the last three games,” said Saunders of the Denver, Detroit and San Antonio games that came in between Russell’s 52- and Beal’s 44-point games. “We have our season mapped out. It’s very fluid what we want to install in certain months. We’re going to have three practices in this stretch and this is where we’re going to be able to install this certain type of defense.”
Against the Nuggets, Pistons and Spurs, the gaping hole of space between the screener and Towns or Vonleh shrunk. That was the adjustment baked into the minutia, but the added frequency of switches was clear to the naked eye. Broadly, those adjustments led to success. They held Denver to 100 points in an overtime loss, Detroit was a road victory on a back-to-back, and San Antonio was another W.
In the four days that covered those three games, the Wolves had the 8th-most efficient defense in the league. But none of those teams had one dominant perimeter scorer. Containing the perimeter against Jamal Murray or Derrick Rose of Denver and Detroit, respectively, pales in comparison to the challenge of a Russell or Irving. And San Antonio loves the midrange but prefers to find it through ball movement more than from the usage of an individual creator.
“There are a number of really good things that we are doing defensively,” Saunders said after that victory over the Spurs. “We did a number of different things tonight off the ball, on the ball with different numbers one through four, three through five. Their cutters were moving so we wanted to try to keep a blue shirt on a white shirt.”
Even though Patty Mills hits this shot, it was encouraging to see Towns involved in a switch with a wing. Towns raises up to defend Mills on the switch only to hand him back off to Jake Layman when Mills backpedals out onto the perimeter. They even switch the re-screen, and Towns got a solid contest on the deep midrange look. That’s a tough shot.
And on this play, Gorgui Dieng shows out onto Marco Belinelli while Treveon Graham switches onto the popping Chimezie Metu.
What was working began to fall apart after the Spurs game, though. Uncoincidentally, the next two opponents presented the challenge of an elite perimeter creator. Bradley Beal came first, and he was everywhere. Thirteen of his 22 shots came in the lane, four from midrange, and five from beyond the arc. And that’s a notable difference. The way Beal picked at the defense was far more diversified than any of the Wolves’ previous defensive failings.
“Beal didn’t get a lot of his off pick-and-rolls,” Saunders said of the difference when I asked if Beal’s performance was similar to what Irving and Russell were able to do. “He got his off catch-and-shoot and miscommunications, and defensive breakdowns. I felt we had a good game plan going into it.”
The miscommunications came on missed switches, like this backscreen set by Davis Bertans for Beal. You can see Layman is late pointing out toward Robert Covington right before the pass to Beal at the rim.
As for the ball-screen actions Beal was involved with, the defensive breakdowns often came outside the two Wolves defenders immediately involved in the action. In the below play, Teague and Kelan Martin appear to be confused as to whether or not they are supposed to switch between Bertans (heading to the corner) and Ish Smith (who is raising up from the baseline). And in that confusion, neither Teague or Martin tag the rolling Moe Wagner, who catches the easy drop-off from Beal.
In the locker room after that Washington game, every player that spoke mentioned not playing with the requisite energy to handle Beal and the Washington attack. They also acknowledged that they would need to rectify that quickly with an even better version of Beal coming to town the next night.
“If we do what we did tonight, he’ll score more than Bradley Beal,” said Karl-Anthony Towns of the challenge of James Harden. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to make those corrections.”
Against Harden, the Wolves had to play without their energizer. Josh Okogie missed the game with knee soreness. But that excuse fell on deaf ears considering Houston played without Russell Westbrook, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and Danuel House.
Harden did end up scoring 49 points, but, much like Beal’s 44 points, this production was different than what Irving and Russell were able to do. This was true for a couple of reasons. Again, the Wolves brought a different scheme; they freely switched more than they had in any previous game. And in that, they made it hard on Harden; it took 41 shots for him to get his 49 points — four more shots than it took Russell to get 52 and eight more than the 33 Irving took to get 50.
“He scored 49 on 41 shots,” said Robert Covington after the game. “That’s what we want. But it’s just the other guys hurt us. We followed the game plan with him. He shot 22 3s and made eight. That’s part of the game plan. We knew he was going to come out but it’s other guys — the same thing we did yesterday — that we allowed to hurt us. And that’s what dictated the game.”
Covington is right, it was the other guys, too. Ben McLemore stretched the defense to the tune of 20 points. Chris Clemons had 19 points on 11 shots (without any free throws). And Isaiah Hartenstein put a ton of pressure on the offensive glass, totaling 16 boards on the night.
McLemore was Harden’s kick-out when the Wolves brought a second defender.
Clemons gave Harden a breather when he needed it.
And on the glass, Hartenstein made the Wolves pay for pulling Covington out of the defensive power forward role.
That last part is particularly noteworthy. For the first time all season, Covington was given the duty of defending the opponent’s best perimeter creator. Previously, Covington had broadly been limited to defending opposing power forwards, being as he has shifted up a position this year.
After Irving’s 50-point performance on opening night, I asked Saunders if he was tempted to put Covington, who defended plenty of point guards last season, onto Irving when he was rolling. This was Saunders’s response:
“Yeah, you’re tempted. But we also have our reasons within the system for right now. That’s something that we probably will eventually move towards, Robert being a guy who is guarding a ball-handler like that. But you also gotta remember, we’re smaller. So a lot of times, if he’s guarding a guy like Taurean Prince or those guys, they’re good rebounders, so if we put a smaller guy on him, it’s tough for us down there and we know we have to get rebounds.”
As evidenced by what Hartenstein was able to do, there is a logic behind needing to keep Covington inside to rebound. But the temptation of moving Covington out onto these dynamic perimeter creators has to be mounting. The cracks in the defensive foundation are widening. After the loss to Houston, the Wolves find themselves in the bottom half of the league in defensive efficiency for the first time all season.
Their current league ranking of 17th in defensive rating is exactly where it sat when Tom Thibodeau was fired last season. Once Saunders took over for Thibodeau, the Wolves fell to 27th defensively. It’s unfair to do a one-to-one comparison of the defensive efficiency under Thibodeau versus Saunders because the Wolves dealt with approximately one million injuries after Saunders took over. But it is worth noting how Thibodeau used Covington differently on the defensive end.
Under Thibodeau, Covington became the staple of the Wolves point-of-attack defense in the 11 fully-healthy games he played, and Covington changed everything during that stretch. Not only were the Wolves actively switching off of the ball, but they were also switching pick-and-rolls. Karl-Anthony Towns was not dropping; he was switching with Robert Covington. It was a menacing look.
The Wolves thrived defensively during that Thibs-RoCo-KAT stretch, winning eight of the 11 games. They were third in the league in defensive efficiency over the run and were outscoring opponents by a whopping 8.6 points per 100 possessions.
Maybe it isn’t shifting Covington out onto the perimeter, but, no matter how you slice it, the adjustments need to keep coming for Saunders defensively.
There have been major defensive leakages in every extended chunk of time within his coaching tenure, and they all connect to containing ball-handlers on the perimeter. Last season, the biggest hole materialized in the Wolves’ inability to defend the corner-3 effectively. Opponents would puncture the heart of the defense by getting to the middle of the floor and would then find kick-outs in the corners. After Thibodeau was let go, Minnesota opponents made 43.2% of the corner-3s they took while only four teams in the league allowed more corner-3s over that 42-game stretch.
Saunders has caulked up that corner leak this year. After allowing 8.5 corner-3s per game under Saunders last season, that number has dropped 6.4 (9th-lowest in the league) this year. Better yet, after 20.5% of the 3s teams took against the Saunders-led Wolves were deemed by NBA.com to be “wide open,” that number has dropped to a league-best 12.5%.
Unfortunately, though, those corner-3s have been traded for buckets from the Irvings, Russells, Beals and Hardens of the league, even if how they’re getting those buckets has changed a bit of late. So the question becomes simple: Are they taking away the right shots?
Saunders’s recent defensive adjustments suggest he believes they need to strike a better balance. But as he’s learned with the corner-3s, he knows that you often trade one thing for another defensively in the NBA.
“There’s a common theme that we talk about as coaches where you can’t catch every raindrop,” said Saunders. “So you’re gonna try to stop anything, naturally, but there are times where you’re going to have to concede something.”
With the Wolves playing Donovan Mitchell (twice), Devin Booker and Trae Young all in the next week, how much they opt to concede at the point-of-attack is prescient. Dropping less, switching more, whatever the adjustment may be Saunders and the Wolves need to move that rain bucket because Beal and Harden just put 93 more holes in the roof this past weekend.