On Wednesday, the Minnesota Timberwolves suffered a tough loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. During the first half, it felt like the Wolves could win the game. Anthony Edwards was hot, and the Clippers, leading the league with just 12 turnovers a game, had already turned the ball over 13 times. This has been Minnesota’s modus operandi this season. The team plays a hyper-aggressive defense style, forcing opponents to turn the ball over 2.3 times more than their season average. They are forcing a lot of turnovers.
But the game slipped out of reach during the 3rd quarter. The Clippers hit 9 of 11 three-pointers, putting them up 103-88. As Lawler’s Law states: The first team to reach 100 points wins the game. Los Angeles would go on to win the game 126-115.
This loss stung even more after a late-game collapse against the Orlando Magic on Monday. The Wolves would fall to a 43-19 4th quarter run by the Magic. Franz Wagner and Cole Anthony put up a combined 24 points, and Orlando shot 8-12 from beyond the arc. The Wolves were defeated 115-97.
This new brand of defense that Finch has the Timberwolves playing is exciting and vibrant, but is it sustainable? Currently, the Wolves have the 7th best defense in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. The top-10 defensive rank the Wolves hold is largely bolstered by the fact that they are 1st in the league in defensive turnover percentage by a wide margin. As I mentioned earlier, teams have turned the ball over more against the Wolves than they have their other opponents so far. Two additional turnovers per game might not seem like a huge difference-maker, but it is significant.
Last season NBA teams averaged 1.12 points per possession (again using Cleaning the Glass’s garbage time filter). If Minnesota’s opponents lose two possessions per game on turnovers, we can expect them to score about two points per game less than their expected scoring average. Last year, the difference between the Phoenix Suns’ 6th-ranked defense and Toronto’s 19th-ranked defense was two points.
A closer look at the defensive numbers has me a bit worried that the floor might fall out beneath this defense. Behind the flashy exterior, the turnovers, the fastbreak opportunities, lies an incredibly flawed foundation. From the eye test, my initial impression of the Wolves’ defense is that it seemed like they’ve been giving opponents a lot of open shots. But it’s not just that they are giving up open looks; it’s the types of open looks that they’re giving up that is the problem.
The Wolves defense collapsed against the Clippers and the Magic partially because their defensive shot profile seems destined for failure. Opponents are shooting 41.8% of their shots from 3-point range this season. A closer look shows that 12.6% of those 3-pointers are coming from the corner, one of the most efficient shots league-wide. The numbers also tell me that the Wolves aren’t forcing opponents to take many midrange shots. As it stands, teams are taking most of their shots against the Wolves from the 3-point line and at the rim. Generally speaking, that’s the most efficient way to play offense.
However, the Wolves are the beneficiaries of some significant shooting luck from their opponents. I like to use Cleaning the Glasses’ location effective field goal percentage tool, which helps filter out some shooting luck. Shooting, specifically 3-point shooting, has high variance from game to game. It’s hard to gauge how well teams are defending based on field goal percentage this early in the season. The location field goal percentage tool uses a team’s shot profile and applies league-average shooting percentages based on location. Whether shots go in or not may have high variance, but the types of shots that teams give up are much more predictable. This season the Wolves rank 15th in effective field goal percentage. They rank 28th using location effective field goal percentage.
As I wrote earlier this week, shooting percentages are down across the league to start the year. If the Wolves cannot adjust their shot profile before the league’s shooting averages inevitably shift up, their “top-10 defense” is destined for collapse. They’ll be highly susceptible to huge runs like we saw against Orlando and LA. Relying on forcing turnovers can only take a team so far if they give their opponents high-quality shots — especially a team like the Wolves that has struggled to create quality half-court offense.
The season has just begun, so a lot could change. No, seven-game trends are not the most predictive measure for the Timberwolves’ future performance. But, the early signs are pointing to some glaring issues that the Wolves will have to address if they hope to maintain success on the defensive end.