Basketball is all about taking advantage of matchups. Ensuring that your players are targeting the weaknesses of the opponent’s defense while fully capitalizing on their own strengths.
Five Thirty Eight recently published an interesting piece, which they somehow found time to write amidst creating a national bedwetting about the election, about how the Warriors are trying to break the game by essentially investing in shooting ability and predicting that putting all of the shooting savant outliers on the same team will lead to success regardless of other positional detriments, such as a lack of bench depth or skilled rim protectors.
While this strategy certainly is made more effective by placing together two MVPs, three of the best shooters in the NBA’s history, and four All-NBA players all on the same team, every team in the NBA is essentially trying to “break the game” in some way by utilizing their talents to press advantages of specific parts of the game, such as offensive rebounding or three point shooting, so that other teams will either have to change matchups to counter or simply lose.
This thought process is the root idea behind having players move up a position, creating “Stretch-4s” out of Small Forwards. If a team can take an advantage on offense through shooting and playmaking ability while only losing a smaller comparative advantage on defense, then they will force the other team to adjust or be run off the court.
The Timberwolves have gone in the other direction of this idea with their frontcourt, playing two traditional bigs with Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng. This combination was successful in the Post-All Star break period last year and the two players have certainly developed a strong chemistry on offense. While some of us have lamented how this caps the ability of the Wolves to truly run a modern offense, the team has shown it has enough firepower to sustain the combination and Dieng and Towns are both extraordinary shooters for big men, even if Dieng is unable to step out to the three-point line.
Theoretically, the Timberwolves should be able to take advantage of playing two bigs to win the battle in the paint, as while their frontcourt may not be as athletic as other teams due to essentially playing two centers, they should out-rebound the smaller frontcourts and deal with the size of other teams who play two traditional bigs.
This season has shown anything but success with that hypothesis. Although many of the losses thus far in the season have been close, the Timberwolves have matched up against the few teams in the league that also are playing two Bigs at the same time and they have demolished the Timberwolves’ interior defense.
It is important to point out that defense is a team operation and perimeter defense that stops the point of attack is integral to allowing success for interior defense. Ricky Rubio’s absence has been significant in this regard, which is an all too familiar sentiment for fans of this team. Watching Tyus Jones allow his man to drive past him on offense and then dump off a pass to the opposing center so he can dunk on Cole Aldrich has already become routine viewing.
However, the teams that the Wolves have faced so far do not have the type of “Stretch-4s” that we assumed would give our frontcourt difficulties in matching up against. This is potentially problematic, as if the Wolves also end up having challenges with not only teams that are playing Stretch-4s, then their interior defense is going to have continuous problems throughout the year if they fail to successfully capitalize on their potential positional advantage.
While the game against the Thunder was likely an outlier in terms of the team’s poor performance, the Wolves also had extreme difficulties against the Denver Nuggets’ frontcourt, particularly with Jusuf Nurkic. Now it is true that many teams have challenges containing the size and strength of Nurkic, as well as Enes Kanter on the Thunder, if the Wolves are unable to either deal with size (as the Wolves are one of the few teams in the league also employing a Center heavy frontcourt rotation) and speed, we are going to be in for a long season.
Hopefully we will see a team-wide lockdown on defense, especially once Ricky Rubio comes back, and the Wolves can fully use their strengths to force teams to adjust to our lineups rather than the Timberwolves being the team that is scrambling to matchup.