They say defense wins championships. Nowhere does that sports axiom ring more true than the NBA. Since the Minnesota Timberwolves entered the NBA in the 1989-90 season, 21 of the 31 NBA Champions have had a top-5 defense. Eight more were top-10 defenses, and the worst was the 2000-01 Lakers at 21st.
This goes a long way towards explaining why the Wolves have never hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy. In 32 seasons, Minnesota has never once finished in the top five in defensive rating, and only two squads have finished in the top 10. Conversely, they’ve been a bottom-5 defensive team a whopping 12 times.
This season is no different. Over the first 31 games this season under Ryan Saunders, the Wolves surrendered 112.4 points per 100 possessions, 23rd in the league. In the 25 games since Chris Finch took over on Feb. 22nd, the Wolves are the worst defensive team in the NBA with a defensive rating of 117.7. Over the last five games, Minnesota is 1-4 with an abysmal 123.4 defensive rating.
So, to quote my dad quoting the great Vince Lombardi, “What the hell’s going on out here?”
I know Finch is an offensive coach, but how can you possibly turn this franchise around while giving up more than 140 points in back-to-back games against the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics?
Several factors are playing into Minnesota’s defensive problems. The first is simple: The Wolves are the youngest team in the league. Their average age is just over 24 years old. Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels were both born in this century. Grizzled veterans Josh Okogie, Malik Beasley, D’Angelo Russell, and Karl-Anthony Towns are younger than Kendall Jenner. The only regular rotational player older than me is Ricky Rubio. The average age of the last 15 NBA champs is 28.5.
Most NBA players take a few years to learn how to play defense in the league. Perhaps it’s a matter of time before McDaniels and Edwards can use their length, strength, and athleticism to wreak havoc on the defensive end. But for now, we have to watch teenagers learn how to play team defense on the fly.
Looking up and down the roster, there are half a dozen players who are at least average individual defenders. According to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR ratings, only five Timberwolves players have a positive defensive rating: Jarred Vanderbilt, Naz Reid, Jarrett Culver, Jake Layman, and Okogie. Of the positive defensive players, Okogie plays the most at 20.7 minutes per game. The six players who average the most minutes are all negative defensive players. Towns and Rubio are barely negative. McDaniels and Beasley are comfortably in the red (although the eye test says “McDenials” is on his way to becoming a defensive stalwart). And Ant and DLo are two of the worst defenders in the NBA. It’s tough to become a good defensive team when all of your best defenders are coming off the bench.
There are so many ways that this team fails on defense daily. They allow the third-most points in the paint and on the fast break. Minnesota’s defensive rebound rate is the second-worst in the NBA. They are the second-worst team in the NBA defending the 3-point line. And their opponent’s free throw rate ranks 25th in the league. Defense is an issue across the board, and it won’t be an easy fix. So if the sky is falling, what can Finch and the Wolves do to take baby steps in the right direction?
Anthony Edwards had the right answer when speaking with reporters after surrendering 141 points in a loss to the Pacers.
Defense is indeed effort. As good as your scheme is and players know where to be, you can only have a good team defense if your players give a hoot on that end of the floor. It’s about accountability, grit, and imposing your will on the other team.
Kevin Garnett became one of the best defenders in history in part because of his pride and intensity. It’s time for Edwards and the rest of the Wolves to practice what they preach. It’s time to see a strong close-out on 3-point shooters every time. It’s time to sprint back in transition. It’s time to battle for every rebound, stop losing your man in the half-court set, and it’s time to take pride on defense in Minnesota.
Finch and the coaching staff have 16 games left this season and a full offseason to correct the bad habits and fully implement their system for next year. But to paraphrase Edwards, Finch can only say stuff; it’s up to the players to go do it.