On paper, the math made sense. The Minnesota Timberwolves subtracted two of their best wing defenders. However, they added one of the best rim protectors of our generation and expected exponential growth from their two youngest players. It should all add up to the Wolves being approximately as good on defense as they were last year, if not better, right? Unfortunately, in Minnesota’s first four games, we’ve learned that no math problem is that simple in the NBA.
Perimeter defense has been one of the biggest problems in Minnesota’s first two losses this year. Last Friday, the Utah Jazz put up 132 points on the Timberwolves while taking 50 attempts from three-point range and making 40% of them. Two of Utah’s starters, Kelly Olynyk and Jordan Clarkson, shot a combined 12 of 18 from beyond the arc. While this wasn’t Minnesota’s only defensive issue, their inability to limit the Jazz’s three-point efficiency is a big part of why they lost the game.
In the Wolves’ Monday loss, the San Antonio Spurs didn’t shoot particularly efficiently from three-point range, making only 32.4% of their attempts. However, on far too many of the threes they made, no player on the Timberwolves was even close to within range to contest the shot. There were multiple plays where San Antonio’s shooters were so wide open that they had several seconds to wind up and take the shot like they were in practice. As a result of these easy looks, several of the Spurs’ young players shot 50% from beyond the arc, including Isaiah Roby, Josh Primo, and Devin Vassell. The latter splashed five threes with ease.
The open threes the Wolves have given up mostly don’t seem to come from a lack of effort. And it’s not like they’re incapable of getting out to the perimeter and contesting the shot. Rather, it seems the perimeter defenders aren’t quite comfortable with their defensive assignments yet. As a result, they aren’t always in the spots they need to be before the opponent is shooting.
Optimistically, a lot of these problems point to the Wolves having growing pains getting used to their new schemes and changed personnel. However, it’s at least a bit concerning that an offensive formula that can expose Minnesota’s flaws has been created so early on in the season. It will become much more concerning against teams with even better three-point shooting and off-ball movement, like the Los Angeles Clippers or the Golden State Warriors, who will be competing for home court advantage in the playoffs. Thus, it seems important for the Wolves to make improving their perimeter defense a point of focus early on in the season so that this concerning trend does not become the team’s Achilles heel.
What Can the Team Do to Improve?
As mentioned before, the biggest thing the Wolves defenders can do to improve their perimeter defense is to better learn their assignments. Last year, the Wolves played an aggressive scramble defense that focused on applying pressure on the ball and creating turnovers. This year’s defense is much more conservative, especially when Rudy Gobert is in the game. Chris Finch primarily places Gobert in drop coverage to defend the paint, while everyone else is supposed to contain the perimeter.
This is an oversimplification, of course. However, the two schemes are very different. Because of that, learning the new defensive scheme may be difficult, and primarily achieved through in-game experience. That’s especially true for Karl-Anthony Towns, who was unable to practice much with the team during preseason and training camp due to a serious illness. The more the Wolves personnel learn their assignments in the new scheme, and learn who they should be switching onto in different pick-and-roll situations, the less possessions there will be where two Wolves are unintentionally guarding the same player and leaving someone else wide open.
The Wolves also need to improve their perimeter defense in transition. Two of Vassell’s wide-open threes happened during fastbreaks where there seemed to be a breakdown in communication that left him open. One of the worst breakdowns happened with about seven minutes left in the third quarter. Jeremy Sochan got the ball passed to him with an open lane in the paint on a fastbreak. Minnesota’s first line of defense succeeded. Gobert cut off Sochan’s driving lane and forced him to dribble under the basket and pass out.
However, it crumbled after that when Towns, who was the last Wolf back on the fast break, was still covering Jakob Poeltl (the Spurs 5) man to man and stopped behind Poeltl at the top of the key. As a result, when Gobert recovered from diverting Sochan’s fastbreak, to his normal drop spot in the paint, both he and Karl were only in position to guard Poeltl, even though he didn’t have the ball. This left Vassell wide open on the wing for an easy three.
If KAT had recognized his assignment earlier, he could have stopped guarding Poeltl, and gone out to contest Vassell’s shot, because Gobert was already in position to guard Poeltl once he got into the paint. Additionally, if Rudy had communicated his presence, KAT may have recognized quicker that he needed to be out on a wing.
Anthony Edwards was also somewhat in limbo during the play. He was caught between guarding the fast break and returning to his half-court assignment. Although he was attached to Sochan throughout the play, it’s possible that a fluid version of the Wolves’ defense would see Karl switch onto Sochan as soon as he was capable, allowing Ant to return to the perimeter instead. Regardless, it will be important for the Wolves to work on their court awareness in fastbreak situations so that open shots like these don’t happen all the time. That will be especially important for KAT now that he is taking on power-forward duties, which he is less experienced with than center duties.
Another thing that may help the Timberwolves defend the perimeter better is leaning into the advantages that Gobert provides in half-court defense. In theory, having a great rim protector should allow Minnesota’s wing defenders to play closer to their opponents, and focus primarily on taking away the three-point shot, rather than worrying so much about what happens if their opponent gets by them. Of course, it’s counterproductive to overplay a pump-fake and jump past your opponent and out of position when trying to contest.
Still, suppose Minnesota’s perimeter defenders do their best to limit open threes, and someone gets by. In that case, they are more likely to take a mid-range shot, or pass out to a teammate, instead of attempting to score at the rim against Gobert. Given that most players not named Kevin Durant shoot inefficiently from the midrange, it’s a spot on the floor you can live with letting people shoot from.
Almost every defense has its weaknesses no matter how great they are. Therefore, they have to choose what to focus on taking away from their opponent. If Minnesota’s perimeter defenders better focus their efforts on not giving up any easy threes while trusting Rudy to protect the paint, it should be a formula for success against most opponents.
The good news is that the Wolves have enough strong athletes who have shown great potential as defenders, that this should be a problem that can be fixed internally, and not through personnel change. The solution to most of the Timberwolves perimeter defense problems will come from learning. Fortunately, learning can be done throughout the season as players get more experience playing with each other and the new defensive scheme. Let’s just hope they can fix it soon, as their schedule is going to get much tougher in November.