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How Will the Timberwolves Play Defense?

Every NBA analyst on the intertronz has the same question for the Timberwolves: can they play defense well enough to make what should be an explosive offense into a winning team? Let's take a look.

Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports

It's a little odd that a team that finished 13th in defensive efficiency and 25th in offensive efficiency last season is being barraged with questions about its defense as we head into this year.

Given the changes made over the summer, however, and the roster make-up as a whole, the questions are legitimate. Other then Ricky Rubio, the Wolves lack players with reputations as quality individual defenders, and last year's ranking was the high water mark for the franchise since the days of Kevin Garnett.

Let's start here: What do the best defensive teams do well?

Mostly what they do is suppress opponent field goal percentage.  This is the common thread for the best defenses in the NBA; some force turnovers, some don't.  Some foul a lot, some don't.  But the very best all limit opponents made shots, particularly inside the arc. Perhaps the best example of this from last season is the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers led the league in lowest opponent FG%, and EFG%, and finished 5th in DREB%.  On the other hand, they were not particularly effective (and one senses not particularly interested) in forcing turnovers, finishing well below league average in opponent TOs/g and TO%.

That isn't the Wolves. They simply do not have the personnel to consistently force poor shooting from their opponents. The Pacers are able to deploy long, rangy, and athletic players on the perimeter like Paul George and George Hill while having one of the best paint protectors in the league in Roy Hibbert behind them, making open areas on the court difficult to find for opponents.  The Wolves simply don't have players with those attributes, and complaining that they don't defend like the Pacers is akin to complaining that your local diner isn't up to the standards of this place or this other place.

Last season's Wolves, in fact, were 24th in the league in both opponent FG% and EFG%.  Two factors: their opponents shot 37% on 3s, and almost 50% on two point shots.  This was largely the result of ineffective defense in the paint. They managed to scrape their way to an above average defensive rating by being good at all other aspects of defense: they didn't foul (5th in opponent FTAs and FT/FGA), handled their defensive glass (11th in DREB%), and forced turnovers (3rd in TO%).

This last is largely attributable to Ricky Rubio.  Consider:

Opponent TO/g by month

Nov: 13.2
Dec: 14.5
Jan: 14.6
Feb: 16.5
Mar: 16.2
Apr: 17.8

That two turnover per game increase in the 2nd half?  Rubio's return to fitness.  His numbers are incredible.  His steals+charges drawn/g led the league by a significant margin despite playing less than 30 minutes a game and recovering from the ACL.  Among point guards who played regularly, he averaged nearly 2 more st.+chg/g than the average point guard, again despite the limited minutes.

Essentially, he's creating two extra turnovers per 36 minutes by himself over the average point guard.

Helping the Wolves generate turnovers last season was the now departed Andrei Kirilenko, who carried the 2nd highest steal percentage on the team.  Whether his absence negatively effects opponent turnovers is something we'll have to see about.

Kirlenko also helped limit the Wolves fouls.  He had by far the lowest foul rate of any Wolf who played significant minutes; on the other hand, the Wolves do not have a foul heavy lineup.  In both of the last two seasons they have been in the top ten for fewest opponent FTAs.

So that was last year.  The Wolves forced turnovers, rebounded fairly well, and didn't foul.  However, and possibly related to the not fouling, they also weren't able to limit their opponent's good shots, both outside the arc and inside, enough to make it any better than an average defense.

Can they achieve similar results this year?

First, the good news: Rubio is healthy from the start of the year.  This makes an immense difference for them in terms of forcing turnovers, as we saw above.  Corey Brewer, who has his shortcomings defensively, also consistently generates steals.  We've seen the same pattern this pre-season as we did last year: the Wolves are roughly +4.5 in turnovers per game, forcing 18.6 per.

Similarly, the Wolves have continued to get to the line more often; they are +10 in FTA.  This was a huge part of their game last season, and with the return of Kevin Love, should be even more of a positive.  On the defensive end, their ability not to foul eliminates a significant number of free points for opponents, as last season they gave up about 1.5 fewer points from the line per game then the average team. I expect this to continue, as it has been a strength under Adelman in both of his seasons so far.

Perhaps the biggest key for the Wolves in replicating last season's decent defensive performance will be controlling the defensive glass.  They were 11th last season in DREB%, but only 16th the year before, when they had the services of Kevin Love.  This year, there might be a trade off involved.  While Corey Brewer might replicate Kirilenko's ability to force turnovers, he won't be a big contributor on the glass.  The alternative appears to be Derrick Williams, who is a decent defensive rebounder, but won't contribute to opponent turnovers in the same way. Either way, the glass is going to be essential; the Wolves are simply not good enough to give up a lot of second chances and still hold their own defensively.

Finally, we are again seeing the Wolves get outshot by their opponents in pre-season.  Pre-season is a terrible guide, but it is a continuation of what we saw last year. They don't have the chops to deny opponents every decent shot like the Pacers or the Bulls do, and we should set our expectations accordingly.  They lack the singular player who can control the paint, and do not have players with the same recovery abilities of the best defensive teams. The Wolves are not going to be in the top 10 in FG% against.  The best they can hope for is to limit the open looks from three while forcing turnovers, not fouling, and grabbing rebounds.

We've seen this combination work before, and with the expected offensive improvements, a replication of last season's defense should be good enough to put the Wolves in playoff contention.  Losing Andrei Kirilenko is a big blow, but having Rubio healthy (knock on wood) for the entire season and the return of the league's best rebounder should help make up for that.

Everyone seems to be expceting a lot of 112-109 games for the Wolves this year.  I'm not entirely sure that they will be that extreme on either side of the ball, but as long as they have the 112 more often than not, I won't complain about it.

How do you expect the defense to evolve this year?