Defense Is Becoming Part Of Minnesota's Identity Again

Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Every week, several other basketball news outlets release power rankings. They try to order the strongest teams in the league from 1 to 30 based on their season record and recent play. The rankings are not always an accurate depiction of which teams are best, given how much can change in a week in the NBA. However, they still give us a decent snapshot of the state of the league.

NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, one of the league’s most prominent and respected power rankers, had the Minnesota Timberwolves taking the highest jump this week, up five spaces from 16th to 11th place. Schuhmann praised Minnesota’s play during their West Coast road trip. He noted that they outscored the Sacramento Kings, who have the best offense in the league, and held the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers to an average of 99 points per 100 possessions. Schuhmann also points out that the Wolves are “now back in the top 10 in defensive efficiency for what would be the first time in 19 years (since their 2004 Conference Finals team).”

Regardless of how you feel about the validity of power rankings, Minnesota’s recent defensive play is a genuine reason to believe that the they are one of the 11 best teams in the league. And they could continue to rise into the top 10 of the power rankings with their current core.

The adage that defense wins championships feels about as old as sports themselves. Although it may be a cliché, people say it for a reason. Even in the NBA, where teams have begun to average more points per game every year, the teams that are best relative to the norm of each season tend to win the most consistently during the regular season and playoffs, unless their offense is truly abysmal. The Milwaukee Bucks currently have the second-best defensive rating in the league. Their offense may rank only 19th, they are still in first place in the Eastern Conference, and have the best winning percentage of any team. The Miami Heat have the fifth-worst offense in the league. Yet, because they have the fifth-best defense, they’re four games over .500 with a legitimate chance to climb into the sixth seed over the Nets.

Obviously, the teams who are top 10 in both categories have the best chance to win a title. Still, the NBA’s best dynasties — including the Bill Russell era Boston Celtics, the Michael Jordan era Chicago Bulls, and the current Golden State Warriors — all had dominant defenses.

It should be no surprise, then, that the Wolves have only made the playoffs twice since the last time they had a top-10 defense. While the Wolves don’t have an amazing record this season to pair with their top-10 defense, much of this has to do with their slow start.

Before Jan. 1, the Wolves ranked 14th in defensive rating at 112.8, and had a 16-21 record. Since the new year, the Wolves have ranked 9th in defensive rating at 112.9, and have an 18-11 record. While their points allowed per 100 possessions increased by 0.1, that’s actually impressive given the massive spike in team offense across the NBA since the beginning of 2023.

Before the new year, the Celtics had the highest offensive rating in the league at 117.2, and only 7 total teams had an offensive rating of 115 or above. In 2023, the Kings and the Philadelphia 76ers both have an offensive rating above 120, and a whopping 16 teams have an offensive rating of 115 or greater. Thus, the Wolves being able to weather this unprecedented offensive storm with minimal change to their defensive rating, and win games at a rate well above .500 is a sign of massive growth for the team’s defense.

Minnesota’s defense has gotten so much better that it has again become a part of their team identity like it was last year — but in a very different way. Instead of basing their defensive almost solely to fly around and force turnovers, this season’s team can show a variety of quality defensive looks including (but not limited to) drop coverage with Rudy Gobert, fly around coverage with Naz Reid, and occasionally small-ball sets with Kyle Anderson.

It will be extremely valuable to have that variety in their bag and the personnel to execute it. The Wolves will get more comfortable switching back and forth during games, and they will be able to better tailor their defense to counter the strength of their opponents. Furthermore, teams that only have one defensive style they can play comfortably will learn how to exploit it throughout the season. They will also be better prepared to scheme against you if you make the playoffs.

Additionally, while the team is not flying around on defense every game like they did last year, that hasn’t stopped them from forcing turnovers. The Timberwolves are currently 4th in opponent turnovers per game at 15.8. While a small portion of those turnovers are unforced errors, most are not. Minnesota ranks 6th in the league in steals (8.2), 4th in blocks (5.5), and 2nd in deflections (16.4) on a per-game basis. Additionally, they are the only team in the league with four players in the top 30 of combined steals and blocks averaged per game: Anthony Edwards (10th), Gobert (19th), Anderson (21st), and Jaden McDaniels (26th). While it may look different from last year, their new core has still found a way to be incredibly disruptive to opponents’ offenses.

The steady improvement of Minnesota’s defense throughout the season is reason to believe that they can become the defensive juggernaut that most teams Gobert has anchored have been. While they’re not really contenders this year, solidifying a top-10 defense for the first time in almost 20 years is a giant step in the right direction towards the Wolves’ ultimate goal of winning a title. Two of their best defenders, Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards, are 22 and 21 and getting better every year. Therefore, Minnesota’s defense should be sustainable long term. We may be entering a new era of defense-first Wolves basketball that hasn’t truly been seen since the end of the Kevin Garnett era.

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