The early reviews of the D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns pairing are in, and it looks a whole lot like a nascent version of the James Harden and Chris Paul-led Houston Rockets. Which suggests that, after acquiring Russell at the trade deadline, the plan for how Gersson Rosas wants to mold this Minnesota Timberwolves team going forward appears to have adjusted from his originally described archetype.
In short: The plan is to be really damn good at offense — enough so that it can plug holes in what will probably be a leaky defense.
When he was hired on May 1, Rosas made headlines at his introductory press conference, stating that Minnesota “will not be Houston North.” Tucked into that thought was a logic that Rosas explicitly laid out: Playoff teams are top 10 in both offense and defense, and that championship contenders are top five on both sides of the ball. After the Russell acquisition, Rosas has necessarily changed his tune.
“I do think the net of this, talent-wise, for us, is that we’re a very potent offense,” said Rosas after Russell’s introductory press conference. “And the net factor of that is very powerful.”
The idea of net impact is very different than balance. What this inherently suggests is a shift in logic; a suggestion that the Wolves can be a playoff team with a mediocre defense if they’re top five on offense, and that becoming a contender will probably require being the best offense in basketball because the defense might just never catch up. And that really sounds Houston-y. It’s also not a bad thing.
After adding Paul to Harden’s mix in the summer of 2017, Houston went on to have the best record in the NBA during the 2017-18 season (65-17). The Rockets had the best offense in basketball that year and the seventh-best defense. With that, they become a legit contender that was eventually bounced in a seven-game Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
A year later, Houston got a little bit older, lost defensive stalwarts Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute to free agency (replacing them with Gerald Green and Austin Rivers — not defensive stalwarts), and the defense suffered. Houston went 53-29, fueled by an offense that was still really good (No. 2 in the NBA) while the defense drooped to 17th in the league. They went on to be a playoff team that got ousted in the second round, again at the hands of Golden State.
Those teams were about net impact. In 2017-18, they might not have been top five in defense but the offense was so good that they still had the best point differential in the league. And even that next year when the defense fell off, they were still fifth in net point differential. In other words, they could still be really good even though their defense wasn’t. That was the “Houston Way.”
It’s not so much that Rosas is thinking defense doesn’t matter. Not at all. It’s just a belief, inspired by his time in Houston, that offense can be powerful.
“Defensively, we have to improve. All of us individually but also as a team,” Rosas continued. “It’s the group that needs to improve defensively. Karl and D’Angelo have to do it individually — there’s no doubt about that — but as a whole, as a unit, as a group, we have to be better.”
The first glimpses of Towns and Russell playing together in Toronto on Monday night presented a glimpse. The whirling Minnesota offense, led by Russell and Towns, had the Raptors reeling. The Wolves hung 75 first-half points on Toronto’s No. 2-ranked defense. On the other side of the ball, the Wolves had the favor returned — taking a kick in the pants to the tune of 137 total points allowed. Ultimately, the net result was an 11-point Toronto victory, but it illustrated the pendulum-swinging impact of a potent O, even if the D is, well, a lower-case d.
Russell’s ability to not only be a willing but capable pull-up threat behind the arc highlighted the potential potency of the offense. If defenses have to worry about Towns beyond the arc while his point guard is doing this, the value-added is going to make up for many of the defensive leaks.
But it won’t make up for everything. Get in a playoff series and teams will attack the weak spots. When Ryan Saunders went with James Johnson over Josh Okogie in the fourth quarter — presumably for offensive reinforcements — Russell had to match up with Kyle Lowry, who had previously been defended by Okogie. As Toronto is wont to do, they picked at the scab, putting Russell in pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, forcing him to switch onto Pascal Siakam. That didn’t go well.
Maybe that was an overzealous rotation move by Saunders, or maybe it was just his version of rolling with Austin Rivers over Ariza — digging for more offense while willingly sacrificing some defense. Which brings us to what will likely be the crossroads of the fledgling stages here in Houston North. Even if Towns and Russell are rolling, they’ll need a lot from the other guys, and a lot of that will have to come defensively.
“Personnel-wise, I think as you look at our roster, there’s a reason why Josh Okogie is here,” said Rosas, clearly listing off the team’s quality defenders. “There’s a reason why we drafted Jarrett Culver. There’s a reason why James Johnson was part of that deal. We feel that Juancho Hernangomez is a great, great compliment to KAT at the four — a guy who is mobile, who rebounds.”
In other words, Okogie and Culver are theoretically the Ariza and Mbah a Moute. Johnson is this team’s PJ Tucker. (I mean, that one is obvious, right?) And then Hernangomez is the Clint Capela (read: support to KAT). While DLo is James Harden.
If those players can be poor man’s versions of those Rockets guys — and KAT and DLo can be their own version of Harden and Paul — then the Wolves are in the very early stages of becoming a really good offense and mediocre defense. It’s inverted with Towns functioning as the Harden. But, in ways, it’s not all that inverted.
Towns plays at the top of the key, creating his own shot on the perimeter, a la Harden
And then KAT’s ability to find various ways of burying into the lane is Harden’s version taking his man off the dribble.
Double team Towns and he’ll pick you apart with his passing ability, like the Harden to Capela lob.
And then Russell — a mid-range maven in his own right — is the Chris Paul, working his way into the heart of the defense when a crease presents itself.
This is all in theory. To be clear: Towns and Russell are not at the Harden and Paul levels. Nowhere close.
As Rosas suggested, the team’s two best players will need to become better versions of themselves. Specifically so as individual defenders. Paul always acquitted himself as a quality defender, and Harden put in the work on that end when his team needed it. During the 2017-18 season, Paul and Harden both graded out as positive defenders in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) statistic. This season, Russell ranks 471st defensively amongst the 488 players graded by DRPM. Towns has fared even worse: 482nd.
Reference those numbers to Rosas and he’ll scoff.
“That’s team,” said Rosas when DRPM came up. “You look at any team that’s a good defensive team in the NBA, it’s not because they have one good defensive player.”
Again, Rosas doesn’t dismiss the notion that those two need to improve defensively; he’s more so suggesting that the numbers are not indicative of a proof. He thinks they can progress. It’s a suggestion that the lacking defensive output of those two will change. It must. Rosas knows that.
“I think defensively, the things that we’ve tried to do with him (Towns) when our group has been complete have been productive,” said Rosas. “Unfortunately, we’ve had some inconsistencies.”
The consistencies are here now. The aforementioned Culver (21 next week), Okogie (21) and Hernangomez (24) all fit Towns and Russell’s age curve. And Johnson is old (33 next week), just like Tucker (34). (Johnson is already calling himself the team’s “OG.”) And then there is Malik Beasley (23) and Jake Layman (25). We’ll see if they work, but they all fit the mold.
“It’s what I told D’Angelo, as well,” Rosas recalled “‘You guys are 23, 24.’
“My job, Ryan’s job is to make sure we challenge them to become the best players that they can be at 27, 28 and 29. And that takes a lot of work now.”
There’s plenty of work to come but the mold is clear — it looks like a city in Texas. No, Rosas isn’t a Daryl Morey doppelgänger. Towns and Russell aren’t Harden and Paul, either. They’re all just younger approximations of something Rosas is uniquely familiar with having worked. It’s what Tom Thibodeau was doing the TimberBulls, while also acknowledging that the NBA has changed stylistically and that knee cartilage doesn’t regenerate. These Timberwolves may be unbalanced but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be inefficient.
“I don’t think you can just single one area out,” says Rosas “It’s the offense, defense, it’s the balance. It’s the net of who we’re going to become.”
Yeah, that looks and sounds like Houston North to me.