Why Can't Gobert and the Wolves Defend the Paint?

Photo Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

In late July, if you had told me that the Minnesota Timberwolves would be having trouble guarding the paint, I would not have believed you. Despite off-season projections and having a three-time Defensive Player Of the Year on its roster, the Wolves are struggling to defend teams down low – one of the biggest flaws of last season.

Last year, Chris Finch ran Jarred Vanderbilt (6’9”) at the 4 and Karl-Anthony Towns (6’10”) at the 5. This relatively small frontcourt allowed bigger, more athletic teams to have their way in the paint. Despite their size, last year’s Wolves squad worked their tails off on the defensive end, resulting in decent defensive numbers.

Experts didn’t expect the Wolves to be competitive last year. ESPN listed them as the 22nd-best team in the league and projected them to finish 31-51. We all know that the team exceeded expectations. However, they did so by turning teams over and playing a very live-wire defense style.

This year, the Wolves are still trying to find their identity 20 games into the season. Some of that is only natural after Tim Connelly and Co. overhauled the roster. However, their issues defending the paint are completely unacceptable.

Defense is a team game. Adding Gobert would not solve all the Wolves’ issue’s down low. That much became evident during the Utah Jazz’s recent playoff runs.

Aside from Royce O’Neale, the Jazz didn’t have that much perimeter defense on the roster. As a result, 7’1” Gobert had to do most of the heavy lifting on the team. Using Gobert as a defensive anchor is pretty much a no-brainer. Still, the second he steps outside the paint, Gobert looks like a deer on ice.

Former Jazz head coach Quin Snyder ran a spy-type defense with Gobert. That meant Rudy would stay down low while matching up with the opposing teams worst 3-point shooter, living with that guy shooting open triples.

That plan worked for the most part until the Jazz faced the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2021 Western Conference Semi-Finals. A game in which Terance Mann, Gobert’s defensive cover, dropped 39 points – doing most of his damage from deep. As we saw during Gobert’s time in Utah, having a good paint defensive team starts with having fierce perimeter defenders, which is something the Wolves possess.

Jaden McDaniels, Taurean Prince, and even D’Angelo Russell, to some extent, have been the Wolves’ most reliable perimeter defenders this year. Beverley and Vanderbilt brought a consistent defense presence every game. Now that they’re gone, the rest of the players knew they needed to step up in their absence. The Wolves’ paint defense was pretty much mediocre to open the season. But recently, Minnesota has been getting pieced up in the painted area.

Amid their five-game win streak, the Wolves had all the momentum when they took the floor against the 5-14 Charlotte Hornets. Minnesota started the game relatively strong despite the Wolves being down Prince and Jordan McLaughlin. However, as the game progressed, the Hornets took over from the painted area and came back to beat the Wolves 110-108.

Minnesota could not do anything about Charlotte’s attacks to the hoop, regardless of whether Gobert was on the floor. This issue seemed to stem from the Wolves being without one of their best perimeter defenders.

In the clip below, Kelly Oubre Jr. drives hard at Rudy Gobert off a Mason Plumlee pick. This was pretty much the story of the game – Charlotte attacking and the Wolves having no answer in return.

The Wolves were hoping to put this letdown of a loss out of their mind as the Golden State Warriors were in town the next game. However, the Wolves were down another crucial defender in McDaniels, and he proved to be a massive loss for the Wolves.

The first concern after the Wolves traded for Gobert was how they would fair against great three-point shooting teams like the Warriors. Golden State outplayed Minnesota from the jump. However, not from the three-point line but rather from inside the paint.

The Warriors got down low early and often with little to no resistance from the Wolves. Andrew Wiggins, of all people, kicked off the paint festivities for the Warriors. Steve Kerr dialed up an alley-oop for him off the tip.

Golden State’s early paint domination led the Wolves to yield open triples most of the night. By allowing 47 first-quarter points, the Timberwolves dug a hole too deep to crawl out of, and the Warriors routed them 137-114.

Gobert has been trying to compensate for the Wolves’ lack of perimeter defenders in recent games. However, his efforts have been coming up short. Defending has not been a strong suit overall for the Wolves. It’s a trend that will need to be turned around if the Wolves hope to be a contending team soon.

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