Timberwolves

What Does It Mean When the Wolves Say Gobert Is the Reason They Don't Lose?

Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves had a below-average defense by relative defensive rating for seven straight seasons from 2014 to 2021. Though the high-energy, blitzing-based defense of the 2021-22 season worked well, it wasn’t until Tim Connelly swung the massive Rudy Gobert trade in July 2022 that defense became a focal point of Wolves basketball.

After posting a 46-win season before that trade, which was, of course, met with bewilderment, there were hopes that a fledgling trio of Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, and Naz Reid could take off with a game-changing defensive big man to anchor them. Not to mention, elite shooter Karl-Anthony Towns was still a massive part of Minnesota’s identity.

It wasn’t a sure thing, just like how first-round picks aren’t guaranteed to pan out, but the Wolves looked like they could be something special. As many remember, Gobert’s first season didn’t go as planned.

Much of their poor record boiled down to Towns’ calf injury early in the season that limited him to 29 games, but Minnesota’s defense wasn’t elite last year. It was by no means bad; they were a full point under the league-average defensive rating and were the 8th best team by points per possession. But last season’s defense was nowhere near this year’s level.

This year, the Wolves have given up 5.1 fewer points per possession than last season, making them Cleaningtheglass.com’s No. 1 defense.

There have been a few factors in Minnesota’s defensive leap. Their defense against the pick-and-roll has been significantly better, they’ve grabbed a larger share of defensive rebounds, and key role players have stepped up. There seems to be an element of luck involved, too, particularly with opponent three-point shooting.

It’s no secret that Gobert excels in drop coverage. He’s been an elite rim protector for the better part of a decade, blocking shots and deterring opponents from driving too deep into the paint and instead settling for tougher, less efficient midrange shots. In this role, he’s rarely the reason the Wolves lose.

“There’s a difference between being the reason you win and being the reason you don’t lose, and Rudy is the reason we don’t lose,” coach Chris Finch said. “He’s an incredible floor raiser, and he just brings it, and he knows when the team needs him to do this the most.”

The emphasis on allowing primarily midrange attempts has been hugely important to Minnesota’s defense.

Opponents are attempting 30.7% of their shots at the rim this season, down from 35% last season. The lost shots need to come from somewhere, and it’s often been from the midrange. Up to 34.7% from last year’s 30.9%, Minnesota exemplifies modern basketball’s evolution.

On average, the league is shooting just 43.4% from midrange this season. Naturally, that figure is 66.2% at the rim. The math is simple: every midrange shot is worth 0.868 points while being worth 1.324 points at the rim. If your defense can force more midrange jumpers and floaters, you should do so.

By limiting the opponent’s shot selection, the Wolves have allowed 0.9 fewer points per possession to ball handlers out of the pick-and-roll.

Many possessions this season end like this:

Jrue Holiday doesn’t challenge Gobert at the rim despite mostly getting past his defender. The stout Gobert is a large reason for Holiday’s shot selection, though it seems improvements in on-ball and perimeter defense have also been a difference-maker for the whole defense.

McDaniels couldn’t navigate around this screen, allowing Chris Paul to bend Minnesota’s defense rather than the other way around. Gobert must return to the roll man and leave Paul, but McDaniels can’t close out in time. The shot below from last season isn’t as valuable as one from the rim, but it’s an open shot nonetheless:

 

McDaniels and the Wolves, in general, have done a better job helping Gobert this season. Gobert is a tall wall to score on, but it’s not impenetrable. He can still give up points if left alone to defend a driving guard:

The level of the screen is important. Cameron Payne isn’t a threat to pull up from three that deep. McDaniels could’ve shot the gap rather than chase Payne as he left Gobert more vulnerable.

The level of the screen is important, though Minnesota still navigated screens slightly worse last season regardless. Anfernee Simons was able to move freely on this play from last season:

The Wolves haven’t just limited shots at the rim. They’ve also fouled ball handlers in the pick-and-roll drastically less.

After fouling the ball handler on 10% of plays that ended via the ball handler in a pick and roll last season (a play where the ball handler either shot, turned it over or got fouled), Minnesota has fouled just 7.9% of the time this season.

Not only have Wolves defenders navigated screens better, but they’ve done so without fouling a shooter. It’s one thing to recover to contest or bother the ball handler; it’s another to do so effectively.

Of course, this pick-and-roll defense still runs through Gobert.

While he was still a solid defender last season, Gobert seems to have an extra gear. Gobert returned to Utah levels of dominance after posting a less-than-stellar first season in Minnesota. He looks like a DPOY again.

He said the same thing earlier in the season during an interview with Jon Krawczynski. “I feel better than I’ve ever felt,” he told Krawczysnki, “because I feel like I’m stronger than I’ve been.”

There’s even some statistical evidence to back up what he feels.

It’s not a huge difference, but Gobert has moved at an average speed of 4 mph this season, up from 3.9 last season. While he’s racked up more defensive miles (he runs an average of 1.21 miles on defense after running 1.09 miles last year) and defended more field goal attempts (7.0 to 7.4), this is more a product of an increase in minutes played.

He’s running roughly the same miles per minute and has actually defended fewer field goal attempts per minute. Still, the fact that Gobert is playing four more minutes per game this season is a testament to his physical condition.

Gobert’s 34.1 minutes per game is the second-highest average of his career, behind only his 34.3 with the Jazz in 2019-20.

Minnesota has only benefited from more time with Gobert on the floor, and that benefit has only grown greater as the Wolves have found better lineups to pair with him.

Reid has been an excellent wingman for Gobert.

The lineup of Mike Conley, Edwards, McDaniels, Reid, and Gobert has allowed opponents to score on 51% of attempts at the rim, for a total of 48.9 eFG%. With Towns in for Reid, those numbers jump to 65.4% at the rim and 52.2 eFG%.

That’s not to say Towns is a poor player. His numbers in that lineup are an excellent 51st and 73rd percentile. But with Reid, it’s 96th and 90th percentile among NBA lineups.

Reid is attentive on the floor. He bases much of his movement on what Gobert does, always filling in when Gobert has to leave his assignment to stop the ball. His terrific instincts and timing help him time blocked shots should an opponent make it past Gobert.

The best defenses limit and alter an opponent’s shots and clean up the misses they force.

Defensive rebounding was an issue for Minnesota last season. They gave up an offensive rebound on 28.5% of defensive possessions, the fifth-worst mark in the league. The Wolves have completely flipped the script by being the ninth-best defensive-rebounding team, giving up an offensive rebound on just 26% of possessions.

This jump in rebounding appears to be related to the Wolves’ disinclination to get out in transition. Just 13.2% of offensive plays began in transition (the third-lowest mark in the league), compared to 14.7% last year.

With more bodies back to rebound, or at least theoretically, ending defensive possessions is far easier. That may come from keeping an extra guard back to rebound.

Using data from NBA Advanced Stats, you can see the average rebound distance for each Wolves player.

Last season, guards grabbed rebounds 8.06 feet away from the basket, while forwards/centers grabbed rebounds 5.73 feet away.

One might expect guards to have rebounded the ball closer to the hoop if Minnesota elected to keep bodies back, but the opposite was true. Guards rebounded the ball 8.39 feet from the basket compared to bigs at 5.48 feet.

The answer partially lies in “defensive rebound chances.”

Last season, guards grabbed just 60% of the rebounds they had “a chance” on. Not every player improved, but that number grew to 62.8% collectively. The same can be said for the bigs, going from 63.6% to 65.1%.

Minnesota grabbed more rebounds it had a chance on, with some key players making the adjustment.

McDaniels ballooned from a minuscule 52.7% to 58.5%. Conley managed to improve from 59.2% to 62.5%. Even the 5’11 Jordan McLaughlin grabbed 62.8% of available rebounds this season, up from 54.9% last season.

D’Angelo Russell’s exclusion from the team also may have helped. Last season, he grabbed just 50.7% of available rebounds.

The Wolves controlled what they could control.

They limited shots to more ideal spots on the floor, navigated around screens without fouling, and grabbed a larger share of available rebounds. But some things were out of their control.

Opponents shot 1.6% points lower on three-pointers this season vs. last season. Most of these extra misses came in “open” and “wide open” situations.

*Data from NBA Advanced Stats

It’s unclear if this drop in efficiency is purely luck. It’s possible Minnesota allowed shots from less efficient shooters this season, though that will remain unknown for now.

A drop in efficiency like this could be associated with shot selection on the floor, but it’s worth noting the Wolves gave up threes from almost exactly the same spots (corner vs non-corner).

Regardless, Minnesota’s defense reached the league’s upper echelon this season, and it wasn’t entirely by accident. They have a deep lineup of defenders, with more in Leonard Miller and Josh Minott working towards big league minutes in Iowa. It’s all built on the pick-and-roll foundation Gobert brings. That’s the reason his team says it is the reason they don’t lose.

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