The Wolves Need to Clean Up Their Passing and Transition Defense

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves have had their fair share of growing pains in this early season. That was expected despite playing a favorable early schedule. A large chunk of this has been self-inflicted wounds, making the game more difficult on themselves. Bad passing, turnovers, and transitional defense have all been pivotal shortcomings.

Limiting turnovers that keep the ball in play is even more vital now with the league’s rule changes this offseason. A new rule gives players fouled in the open court a free throw and the ball. Limiting these is much more detrimental, especially when they are something you have control over. Teams will run more in transition, and offensive production will increase league-wide because of the rule change. Therefore, teams will be forced to come up with ways around it.

In the first four games of the season, the Wolves are averaging 16.3 turnovers per game, cementing them as the sixth-worst in the league. Last season, the Wolves were still in the bottom third but averaged 14.3 turnovers a game. It still is a small sample size, but the play has been sloppy.

Transition defense is something teams must pay more attention to this season. The Wolves have been allowing the fourth-most points per game off turnovers, giving up 21.5 points per game. For context, the Houston Rockets’ 21.2 average points allowed per game off of turnovers was the league-worst last year. It is an early sample size, but the eye test and the numbers show the change in the style of play without the take foul. League-wide we should see an increase in points scored per game in transition.

Some of the turnovers appear to be a direct result of the rule change. Minnesota has had 14, 20, 15, and 16 turnovers in their games. The largest number is from the Utah Jazz game that went into overtime. The Wolves targeted Rudy Gobert heavily in a couple of these games, forcing passes and many turnovers. They wanted to get him going against undersized teams, but it led to sloppy play.

The players who have been the culprits of the most turnovers thus far are Karl-Anthony Towns (3.8), Anthony Edwards (3.5), and D’Angelo Russell (3.3). Then it’s a drop off to Gobert at 1.8. For those keeping score at home, that’s most of Minnesota’s highest-usage players. In this early sample size, all numbers are up compared to their 2021-22 season.

Once again, the big issue was the passing. Below is a compilation of the San Antonio Spurs’ live-ball steals. Minnesota had many mental mistakes in transition, poor entry passes into the post, and many players had no plan of action if a defender stopped them while they drove to the basket.

Minnesota’s poor transition defense was especially evident against the Spurs. San Antonio has one of the youngest rosters in the league, and they wanted to run and gun. They did so by pushing the ball in any instance, let alone a made basket by the Timberwolves. Also, Minnesota is shooting 28.7% from behind the arc in the first four games, leading to long rebounds and easy run-outs. The Spurs could get 24 points out of transition with ease, usually outnumbering the Wolves as they ran up the floor.

The Timberwolves found themselves in predicaments where they had to hustle their two 7-footers back in transition. Will this be a lingering issue? We’d need a larger sample size to truly know. To illustrate this, here is an example of KAT missing a layup at the rim. It looks like nobody gets back on defense, let alone KAT is far behind the play, leading to a quick bucket.

Whether Minnesota’s bigs can get back in transition is something to keep your eyes on. The Wolves will often face smaller and quicker teams as opponents look to create an advantage. Some factors are out of their control because of the roster makeup, but they must use their own advantages to overpower the shortcomings.

Cleaning up the downfalls of their offense would help tremendously because of its repercussions on the other end of the floor. Things will bounce back to the mean with their shooting miscues, but anything to limit the other team from easy points the better. There should be growing pains as people do not have a loophole to stop transitional opportunities, but it still needs much cleaning up as soon as possible.

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