Defense, Defense, Defense. It’s something the Minnesota Timberwolves have needed to improve upon for years. Minnesota’s best players are offensive-minded players, while their role players are defensive-minded. The Wolves have not had a rim protector since Gorgui Dieng, and opponents have been coming downhill 2-on-1 against Karl-Anthony Towns and scoring at ease for years.
So how do the Wolves shore up these issues?
It all connects back to moving on from assistant coach David Vanterpool in the offseason. He was essentially Minnesota’s defensive coordinator and implemented the drop scheme pick-and-roll defense. How big of an impact could this possibly have? Well, all it took was a simple scheme change from a new coach.
Vanterpool and the Drop Scheme
Vanterpool’s drop scheme defensive strategy forces the trail man in the pick-and-roll to still have an impact. However, this was difficult to pull off when KAT, barely an average defender, was stuck between two attackers. In today’s era, when teams try to get mismatches as often as possible, we often see D’Angelo Russell running back to cover an elite pick-and-roll attacker (say, Donovan Mitchell), with his running mate rolling for a lob chance. It’s an easy bucket for the opposition every time.
The pick-and-roll is one of the primary ways NBA teams run their freelance offensive flow; it’s basketball 101. Space the floor outside of it with shooters and let your roll man and elite scorer make the best decision.
This dynamic is why it was such a deficiency for the Wolves. Under Minnesota’s old scheme, they are stuck having to receive help from the corners, where teams put three-point shooters, in this scenario. The corner man will get a kick out from the aggressive help from his man, no time to rotate over and help, and the other team gets a wide-open look. It leads to complete disarray because the Wolves lack the personnel to defend the pick-and-roll without giving up an open three.
The final core tenant of the drop scheme is to force more contested mid-range shots, with the ball-handlers defender working back to get a flyby contest. Teams increasingly adjust, putting the screen much higher near the halfcourt line, leading to an opportunity for this to be a three-ball or attack. Inadvertently, it would mold the other team’s offense into being more efficient, which is the opposite of what the scheme is supposed to do.
Switch to Hard Hedging
The most significant impact this defense has had this year has come from the ability to hedge screens very hard, meaning that the roll man’s defender comes up high to check the ball-handler and disrupt before getting back to his man. It dovetails with KAT’s skillset because he does not have to be stuck on his heels under the rim with an attacker coming downhill with no resistance.
The other end of the defense will react to the roller, sliding a corner or wing defender down to tap the big man. Once the screener’s man returns from hedging, the reacting help defender will get back to his respective matchup or pick up anyone if disarray comes from it. It is a much easier scramble to make as everyone is on a man, to begin with, usually just one player to pick up and rotate to.
Anthony Edwards excels in being the player to tap the big man. He is the strongest, most compact player on the team and won’t let the big push and bully him around. He has also been switched a ton when the matchup suggests, usually with Jaden McDaniels or Josh Okogie.
Here is him being switched onto Christian Wood and holding his own.
The Wolves have just implemented this scheme, but the effects are already showing. The ball gets out of the ball-handler’s hands quicker and makes them reset or send it to someone else to play-make. Extending possessions and making the other team work harder should be prioritized over results.
Potential Downsides and Spots to Grow
Ultimately, opponents will find weak spots in the scheme because of the Wolves’ lack of defensive personnel. The players that need to be in to maximize the hedging aren’t always going to be on the floor because of their lack of offensive game. When Minnesota’s best players are in, the team is also getting smaller, which leads to a lack of rebounding. Their roster is small to begin with, and going even smaller with DLo-Ant-Malik-Jaden-KAT lineups amplifies that weakness.
It is essential that when the guys like Vanderbilt, Okogie, and Patrick Beverley are on the court, they do their best to help the Wolves in a positive direction with steals, deflections, and rebounds. They must hold their own with what they excel at.
Changing the scheme is a step in the right direction for limiting pick-and-roll dominance, but those other factors are still seeping through and must be next on the agenda to fix.