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Why The Tom Thibodeau Defense Is Not Working

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The Wolves have the 27th best defense in the NBA and it is because they have no clue how to play Tom Thibodeau’s pick and roll defense.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It was December 22nd, 2013 and the Wolves were in the playoff conversation for the first time in a decade. Rick Adelman was calling the shots that had led the Wolves to 13 wins before Christmas Day. On December 22nd, the Wolves were led by a group of Europeans and Kevin Love as they headed to California for a matchup against Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers. (Corey Brewer was there too)

The Wolves lost that game in overtime 116-120. A game in which Love and Nikola Pekovic combined for 79 points and 33 rebounds. On offense, the Wolves worked a three-man game with Love, Pekovic, and Ricky Rubio all night long.

As beautiful as the offensive end was, the Wolves were completely helpless on the defensive end. Blake Griffin torched the Wolves. 10 of Griffin’s 11 field-goal makes came in the paint that night. The Wolves defense could not stop Griffin from getting to wherever he wanted to go. And that blame fell on Love and Pekovic.

It was that that game that led Fred Katz (Bleacher Report) to write a column titled: Why the Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic Tandem Won't Work Long-Term. Wolves fans remember this sentiment, as Katz was not the only NBA-mind to pursue this take.

Katz wrote this:

“Opponents are shooting 67.4 percent in the restricted area against Minnesota this season (2013-14), by far the highest field-goal percentage from that area in the NBA. Love and Pek don't really stop anyone from getting shots at the rim... In today's NBA, rim protection is as important as it's ever been. Offenses are more focused on efficiency and shot selection. Because of that, they load up on a heavy diet of layups, dunks, and threes. And that means defenses need someone to deter players from taking those easy shots that are vital to most every offensive scheme.

The Wolves have heeded those words. Fast forward three years and the fabric of the Wolves is completely different, most notably in the frontcourt. The Wolves have swapped out burly bruisers for wingspan and athleticism. Physically, both Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng look the part of modern NBA big men. They have yet, however, to help the Wolves defense get better.

Through their first 107 games together, Towns and Dieng have anchored what has been an atrocious defense, playing approximately 63.4 percent of the total big man minutes. Last season, the Wolves had the fourth worst defense in the NBA giving up 107.1 points per 100 possession, per NBA.com/stats. This season, the defense has gotten worse — defensive rating of 108.9.

In 2013-14, when Katz and many others were calling for the breakup of Love and Pek the Wolves defense was definitively average— 15th in defensive rating, 104.1 points per 100 possessions.

Wolves Team Defensive Rating with Towns and Dieng

2016-17: 108.9 — 27th in NBA

2015-16: 107.1 — 27th in NBA

Wolves Team Defensive Rating with Love and Pekovic

2013-14: 104.1 — 15th in NBA

So, what are the differences other than Towns and Dieng in place of Love and Pekovic? With Rubio the starting point guard in both 2013-14 and 2016-17, the difference is on the wing. Enter two 21-year-old kids.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

It should be no surprise that youth and inexperience negatively effect the defensive end of the floor. Simply adding the length and athleticism of Towns, Dieng, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine has not hindered opposing offenses. We can talk about rim protection, post defense, and effecting the passing lanes but a defense is effective at the professional level through a five-man defensive shell.

Tom Thibodeau has the reputation as the defensive guru of the NBA over the past decade. His “Thibs Dust” was supposed to make the Wolves better at defense. Tom Thibodeau has not changed, it is his personnel that has.

Tom Thibodeau’s Pick and Roll Defense

While under the tutelage of Tom Thibodeau, the Chicago Bulls had a top-6 defense in the NBA four straight seasons. Much of this effectiveness was born out forcing opponents into shots from the least effective area of the floor, the mid-range. This was often executed by the Bulls using the approach of “ICE-ing” the pick and roll on defense.

A pick and roll is ICE-d when the on-ball defender cuts off the ball handler’s ability to use the screen. The below video pauses when Jimmy Butler ICEs the Deron Williams and Brook Lopez pick and roll.

With Butler angling himself vertically he has cut off the route to the screener Brook Lopez, opening the lane for Williams to penetrate. Williams is then met in the lane by Lopez’s defender (Joakim Noah) and a trailing Butler. At this point, Williams penetration has shrunk the floor. Williams has the option of pulling up from mid-range or passing to Lopez for a similarly inefficient mid-range shot. Those are the shots Thibodeau wants to live with.

The most difficult part of ICE is that it requires a great deal of recognition and communication. The screen must be called out by the center (Noah) so the guard (Butler) can sprint and cut off the screen. The center also needs to be able to slide their feet with the guard or recover back to the popping screener.

The Wolves have struggled with the implementation of Thibodeau’s ICE-ing defense in four particular ways:

  1. Recognition
  2. Communication
  3. Recovery
  4. Trust

Recognition

Often times when the opposing ball handler is just standing at the top of the key dribbling (end of shot clock or end of quarter) the Wolves have time to “set” their defense. If the Wolves know a pick and roll is coming they often recognize and force the ball out from the initial ball handler and into the hands of a lesser threat. As they do here against Kawhi Leonard at the end of a third quarter against the Spurs.

It is when the speed is turned up that the breakdowns ensue for the Wolves. In ICE, the pick and roll needs to be recognized by both the on-ball defender and the defender of the screener. If both players do not know the screen is coming, ICE has inherently put the big man out of position.

Here, Nemanja Bjelica knows the screen is coming and puts himself in the proper place for ICE, but Kris Dunn does not. Because Dunn does not ICE off the screen Bjelica has been put out of position and rendered useless.

Recognizing a pick and roll is particularly difficult for the on-ball defender, often the point guard. If the pick itself is disguised within the motion of the offense, the Wolves young point guards are almost always caught off guard. This is why communicating “ICE ICE ICE” is crucial.

Communication

To combat ICE, opponents often sprint into the pick and roll so as to catch the defense off guard. Due to poor communication, this works against the Wolves. Here, Shabazz Muhammad is anticipating ICE so he defends the middle, but Tyus Jones does not know the screen is even coming. This allows Sean Kilpatrick to burn by both Jones and Muhammad.

(I don’t know what is worse, Wiggins’s effort in the corner or the belly flop by Muhammad.)

Kris Dunn often gets caught up in the difficult job of simply staying in front of NBA-caliber point guards. Just as before against Conley, Dunn is slow to recognize the screen. Aldrich and Dunn do not communicate and recognize the screen effectively. Aldrich proceeds to get burnt by Brandon Jennings who now has a head of steam off of the screen.

Here, again, both recognition and communication have gone awry. Dunn again finds himself in no man’s land as this Zach Randolph handoff serves as a pick. If Dunn becomes trapped under a screen (as he often does) he needs to communicate a full switch to Towns. Instead, both Dunn and Towns stay on Randolph leaving Conley wide open for a layup.

Recovery

ICE is not only difficult in slowing the ball handler but the “popping” screener must also be accounted for. In numerous games, the Wolves defense has been eaten by big men who can stretch out to the three-point line.

Brooklyn Nets (November 8th)

Brook Lopez and Justin Hamilton: 6 of 11 from three.

Charlotte Hornets (November 15th and December 3rd)

Frank Kaminsky: 6 of 14 from three in two games.

New York Knicks (November 30th and December 2nd)

Kristaps Porzingis: 5 of 13 from three in two games

Detroit Pistons (December 9th)

Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris: 6 of 9 from three

Golden State Warriors (December 11th)

Draymond Green: 5 of 8 from three

While all of those threes did not come out of the pick and roll, some did. Those possessions can be attributed to an ineffective close out on the popping big man. This could because ICE has the bigs reacting to the pick and roll in a way that feels unnatural. Most big men do not grow up having ICED pick and rolls.

More common, especially at a non-professional level (high school, AAU, and college) is “hedging” a screen, or simply switching. In both of those defenses, the big man does not have the responsibility of guarding the opposing big man if he pops. The inclination that Dieng and the other young bigs have almost been classically conditioned for is to be preoccupied with defending the lane.

As you can see here, Tyus Jones effectively ICEs the guard from using the screen but Dieng is slow to recover to Justin Hamilton. Dieng is then simply out of position while watching the ball handler. After the pass, there is no reason Dieng should not be sprinting to Hamilton who is little threat of penetrating off the dribble. When Hamilton catches the ball there are six seconds on the shot clock— if Hamilton does not get that shot off the possession dies for the Nets.

Trust

Dieng more so than any other player looks confused in pick and roll defense. Dieng simply does not seem to trust the process of the Wolves defense, often showing a hesitancy in committing to the play in fear that it already has or will break down.

In addition to not closing out on shooters, Dieng has shown an inability to stop guards in penetration following a screen. Here, Dieng and Rubio both fear Marc Gasol becoming open for yet another three-point shot on the pop. On this play, Rubio jumps up into the passing lane to Gasol. This should indicate to Dieng that he has become responsible for the defense of the baseline. Instead, Dieng stays in limbo.

Admittedly, Dieng has a difficult job in the pick and roll but he is doing that job terribly. Where Dieng places himself on this play he can neither recover to Gasol nor contest the wide open drive. Free two points.

A lack of trust in the Wolves defense is not limited to the two players directly involved in ICE. Maybe it is due to the sheer number of times the defense has broken down in pick and roll this season, but the other three defenders often look ready for the second shoe to drop.

On this play, the ICE execution is solid. Rubio and Towns recognize a switch. Rubio is all over Kristaps Porzingis to prevent the pop and Towns has denied the lane to the rim on Derrick Rose. The breakdown comes outside of the ICE. Aldrich unnecessarily leaves his man to contest the shot Towns already has contested, causing a negative chain of events to occur. LaVine has to drop all the way to the block to shield Aldrich’s man. It is then that Rose finds LaVine’s man who is wide open for the three. LaVine sprints out to contest and fouls Justin Holiday for the four-point play.

To ICE the pick and roll is a difficult defensive concept. Even the best defensive teams fail often in any pick and roll defense. The good news is that at least physically the Wolves have all of the defensive tools. Right now, implementing those tools is the crux of the Wolves problems.

There are flaws in both Towns and Dieng’s games defensively, but they both have better individual defensive tools than Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic ever did. Because of that, there is a hope that this defense will improve. Believe it or not, the Thibs Dust has already been sprinkled. From here, it is cohesiveness that will lead to success, not the waving of a magic wand. The future defensive efficiency for the Wolves will come from; recognition, communication, recovery, and trust.