The Karl-Anthony Towns era Minnesota Timberwolves have always had a few glaring weaknesses that have prevented them from reaching higher ceilings. One was their defensive identity, with player talent and their schemes driving the agenda of the defense. This year has brought the most change we have seen in a while. Minnesota traded for Patrick Beverley, a defensive-minded vet, and Jarred Vanderbilt, who have emerged as core defensive players who can lock down on that side of the ball.
The biggest change might have been moving on from David Vanterpool, though. Minnesota’s former defensive coordinator implemented a drop scheme, which did not fit the Wolves’ personnel. This year the Timberwolves have more chaotic energy on defense, taking advantage of the youth and athleticism of the team. Under Finch’s new system, they swarm opponents and have had more success than with the past concepts.
Chaos, Creating Turnovers
The new formula consists of using better on-ball defenders to be at the point of attack while matching up weaker defenders with favorable matchups. Those weak defenders can use athleticism and instincts to be a help defender and contest shots. We see this mostly off the ball from D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards. Finch uses DLo’s basketball IQ and his length to affect passes and contest shots, and as player-coach yelling out to others where to be when he’s on and off the court.
Ant has shown a lot of struggles with attention to detail on the defensive side. But his ability to read passing lanes and take gambles has helped him contribute defensively.
Pat Bev and Vando fall into both categories. They are the team leaders by example with their defensive play. They match up perfectly for the new style of play, taking a significant load off of KAT. He was constantly stuck on his heels in Vanterpool’s drop scheme. Therefore, Towns often put pressure on the on-ball defender, who wasn’t always a great defensive player. KAT would continuously be stuck in a 2-on-1 situation with the roller and ball-handler, needing lots of help and opening up many different open looks for the opponent. That would make life tough on KAT to defend multiple attackers and made it easy for the opponent to get an easy bucket.
Assistant coach Elston Turner’s new defensive scheme has enabled the team to fly around like madmen to pick up the open man and put pressure on ball handlers. It’s paid dividends. The Wolves rank fifth in the NBA in steals per game at 8.7 and first in turnovers forced with 17 a game. The new concepts have been executed and are working.
Downfalls of Chaos
The most significant downside of the defense has been leaving shooters wide open, particularly in the corners. It’s an externality of the roll man having to be covered with Minnesota’s big man rushing the ball handler, leaving the corner shooter wide open. The luxury is that Jaden McDaniels and Vando are good at recovering and using their frame to get a contest off. But they are not always positioned well and cannot be on the court 48 minutes a game. We saw this highlighted in the Atlanta Hawks game earlier in the year. Atlanta would place Trae Young in the corner on possessions knowing he would be wide open.
The Wolves will always take gambles to create deflections, which makes defensive rotations essential, and there must be constant communication. If they can get on the same page as a unit, have adjustments locked into their head, and know where to be at what time, they will become more consistent. Minnesota has built strong team chemistry over the year, which has meaningfully bolstered its defense. Therefore, trades around the margins will help this team much more than a splash option this deadline.
What to Build On
The Timberwolves could use a massive favor in the form of a rim-protecting big who gives them much more flexibility in situations of need. They need a large player who can hold it down under the rim, affect shots, and limit the drive to begin. These are not KAT or Naz Reid’s strengths. Minnesota has lacked size for years, and adding a rim protector would fill the void.
The majority of improvement will come from waiting for others to step up. We have seen Vanderbilt and McDaniels show resilience in taking on tough matchups and giving it their all. If others can buy into the agenda, it will be infectious on the team and keep the high energy going. Think of the first half of Tuesday’s New York Knicks game. They played together, hustled their tails off, and make life tough on the opponent. Minnesota led 61-51 at the half. However, the defense fell apart in the third quarter. They gave up 40 points, and the Knicks had enough momentum to nearly steal the game. Consistency is key to having sustained success.
Extending Pat Bev would have a huge impact. He is a crafty veteran who knows the game and fits their style of play. Working with the youth and being a vocal leader is vital to Minnesota’s young roster.
Minnesota’s chaotic defense creates an identity. They have a steady plan of action that gives the Wolves many options to gameplan against opponents while keeping the same core concept. If they can continue to buy in and show effort in 90% of games, avoiding the play-in tournament becomes a reality.