The Wolves Demanded National Attention In the First Half of the Season

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

“I, I do,” Jon Krawczynski responded with a stutter of disbelief to Ryen Russillo’s question about the Minnesota Timberwolves’ ability to win the NBA championship, “and that sounds just mind-blowing…”

Krawczynski’s answer may come as a shock to the national media. The first-place Timberwolves have the ninth-best odds to win the championship. To Wolves fans who have been watching all season, though, Krawczynski’s response couldn’t be more accurate. Led by a suffocating defense and a turnover-laden offense, Minnesota could win the championship this year.

The Wolves have been elite defensively. They currently hold the best defensive rating at 108.2, 2.1 points better than the second-place Cleveland Cavaliers. The Timberwolves also rank first in defensive field goal percentage (44.7%) to go along with the sixth-best defensive three-point percentage at 35.2%.

Minnesota is also top five in:

  • Defensive rebound percentage (4th)
  • Opponent fastbreak points (4th)
  • Opponent second chance points (5th)
  • Opponent points in the paint (2nd)

The data above suggests that Minnesota’s defense is complete and sustainable. They have turned any weakness that may have been perceived due to their size into a strength. For example, Minnesota’s traditional two-big lineup was supposed to be poor against defending against the fastbreak and the three.

While the Wolves struggled against the fastbreak and outside shooting at the beginning of the season, they have found solutions to both problems. Starting with their pick-and-roll coverages, Rudy Gobert has switched to guard the point guards on certain matchups or even blitz before the screen and pressure the would-be ball handler. Therefore, teams have not attacked Gobert on a switch or isolated him as much. He has proven to be a capable, if not great, on-ball defender.

Minnesota’s willingness to adapt their game plan has also thwarted their opponents’ fastbreak tendencies. They have done this by subtly changing where the offense lines up. Most NBA offenses are set up similarly. The point guard will bring the ball up and be at the top of their point line, the big who intends to screen will be in the paint, and the other big will be standing in the corner. A two-guard or small forward will be on the wing and the other in the opposite corner.

In Minnesota’s case, they have been running increasingly more of their offense off the wing, allowing Karl-Anthony Towns or Naz Reid to stand at the top of the three-point arc or on the opposite wing. That allows the faster wing players to fill both corners. In practice, this allows for Towns or Reid to have a 20-foot head start in getting back on defense and allows the center to be the lone player who is slow getting back. Below is a visualization of this. Notice how far back Towns is at the top of the three-point arc. After the Edwards miss, Towns and Jaden McDaniels are already at half-court, leaving just Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Edwards to hustle back as Gobert attempts the offensive rebound.

The coaching staff’s understanding of their players and the defense’s adaptability is largely why the Timberwolves do so well in almost every metric. Against high-volume three-point teams, the Wolves play more man coverage and blitz on screens, slowing the speed of the guards and wings to get back into the play. Against good mid-range or inside shooting teams, Minnesota can occasionally play zone and switch on screens to shut down easy pull-ups. That allows the Wolves to match up against virtually every team and give themselves an opportunity to win.

Minnesota is also starting to show signs that it can be above-average offensively. The Timberwolves are 18th in points per game (114.0) and 17 in offensive rating (115.2) going into the All-Star break. The Wolves are shooting 49.0% from the field (seventh in the league) and 39.3 from three (third).

But turnovers and stagnation continue to give Minnesota trouble. The Wolves turned the ball over 14.8 times per game, the sixth-worst mark in the league. 15.0% of Minnesota’s total plays end in a turnover. That’s approximately one in every 6.7 offensive possessions that ends in a turnover. (Side note: They rank fourth in fast break points while turning the ball over this often, which adds more credit to their ability to defend against the fastbreak.)

The Wolves play at the NBA’s fifth-slowest pace, 98.2 possessions per game, which magnifies their turnover issues. Their slow pace, combined with the turnovers, occasionally leads to a sluggish-looking offense. Interestingly, the Timberwolves averaged 7.5 turnovers in the first half of games and 7.3 in the second half. And the Wolves rank either fifth or sixth in all four quarters individually.

That counters the notion that the Wolves are young and make more mistakes in the fourth quarter or start by playing carelessly in the first quarter. While turnovers are Minnesota’s greatest offensive issue, they are at least consistent with their volume and appear to result from their style of play. Eight of Minnesota’s rotation players not named Monte Morris, Jordan McLaughlin, or Mike Conley are between 9.7% and 12.3% in turnover percentage. Regardless of how often they play each player, Minnesota’s current offensive scheme is inherently turnover-prone.

On Russillo’s show, Krawczynski finished explaining why the Wolves can win the Finals with a sentence that fans can relate to. “Can they win?” he asked rhetorically. “Who knows? But just to say those words, Ryen, in these parts, is completely mind-blowing.”

That is the truth that all Wolves fans, writers, critics, and perhaps even the players are dealing with. They were carried by an elite defense in the first half of the season, and the offense has one clear hole that they need to fix – turnovers. If the Wolves can do that, then maybe Kevin Garnett said it best.

“Anything is possible!”

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Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

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