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If the Wolves Want to Make the Playoffs, Improving Defense Should Be Their Top Priority

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Three-point shooting often gets the nod as the Wolves' greatest need this offseason. Improving the defense may just be the bigger need.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I'm not sure anybody within the Minnesota Timberwolves organization knew that the three-point line existed last season. The team finished 29th out of 30 teams in three-pointers made as well as attempted and finished 25th in three-point field goal percentage. The Wolves only had three players who saw significant playing time -€” Zach LaVine (38.9%), Nemanja Bjelica (38.4%), and Karl-Anthony Towns (34.0%) -€” finish around the league average for three-point field goal percentage (35.4%, according to Basketball-Reference).

With the way NBA teams place so much emphasis on three-point shooting and how it is increasingly becoming such an integral piece in every team's arsenal as each season passes, it only seems natural to assume that the biggest need the Wolves have this offseason is to improve in this facet of the game. The fact of the matter is that three is greater than two and, therefore, winning games comes by way of the three.

It is at least somewhat reasonable to expect the young Wolves' players to improve on their three-point shooting with more experience and a greater volume of attempts. I don't think it is out of the realm of possibility for LaVine and Bjelica to reach the 40.0%-mark next season with an improved offensive system that places a greater emphasis on three-pointers, especially from the corners. Also, if Towns and Wiggins can improve their shot enough this summer so that they can convert at a league average clip or slightly below next season, and Thibodeau adds another player or two who can extend beyond the arc, all of the sudden, Wolves' fans would be staring at the face of an average three-point shooting team.

But can the same expectations be had in regards to the Wolves improving on defense? Ricky Rubio is already an elite point guard defender and Karl-Anthony Towns is on track to becoming an elite rim protector, but other than those two, who else currently on the Wolves' roster is an average or above average defender? I think Andrew Wiggins will make a giant leap this coming season and will progress towards becoming the wing defender many thought he would become coming out of Kansas, but the only other player on the roster that has any projectability on the defensive end is Zach LaVine, and he's only projectable because of his physical tools, not because of previous results like the ones Wiggins produced mostly during his rookie campaign.

The Wolves were absolutely abysmal defensively last season, finishing with a defensive rating (Def Rtg) of 110.1, which placed them 28th in the league, according to Basketball-Reference. While the hiring of Thibodeau will undoubtedly help improve the team's defense (especially with rotations and in transition), expecting a jump from league bottom to even league average, with the way the roster is currently constructed, seems nearly impossible. To put this into context, last season the league average Def Rtg was 106.4. That means for the Wolves to improve to league average from their 110.1 mark, they would have to improve by 3.7 points. A jump of that caliber would be the equivalent of a league average defense making the leap to a top three defense (think this years' Chicago Bulls making the leap to becoming an ever so slightly less suffocating version of the San Antonio Spurs or Atlanta Hawks).

However, even that doesn't quite do justice to just how bad the Wolves were defensively last season. To point out just how inept Minnesota was last season, let's look at opponent field goal percentage as well as the Wolves' defensive statistics against four common and important offensive strategies: off-ball screens, transition, handoffs, and the pick-and-roll. According to NBA.com, the Wolves finished 28th in opponent field goal percentage (47.1%), in the 6.9th percentile in defending off-ball screens (1.04 PPP), in the 10.3rd percentile in defending in transition (1.16 PPP) and off of handoffs (.94 PPP), and in the 34th percentile in defending the roll man after a screen (1.04 PPP). Woof.

Now this isn't to say that three-point shooting isn't a major need (it most definitely is), but targeting and acquiring players that excel at defense via free agency, the draft, and/or trades should be Thibodeau's top priority this offseason. Bolstering the defensive presence on the roster in combination with Thibodeau's philosophy and gameplan could be enough to propel the Wolves toward becoming at least a league average defense next season.

But why is having a league average defense so critical? Being league average isn't THAT good, right? Well, over the last five seasons, only two teams missed the playoffs after producing a league average defense and a top 12 offense (a feat the Wolves recorded last season despite their aversion to the three-point line): the 2014-15 Oklahoma City Thunder and the 2013-14 Minnesota Timberwolves. In both instances, pretty unique circumstances kept the teams from making the playoffs; the Thunder were beset by major injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, while the Wolves posted an abysmal record in close games.

Two free agents that come to mind right away that would fit what the Wolves need are Courtney Lee and Marvin Williams. Both players would improve the team's defense drastically, while also improving the team's three-point shooting. As for the draft, Dragan Bender, Kris Dunn, and Jaylen Brown fit the bill defensively, though only Bender and possibly Dunn project to be threats from beyond the arc. And for trades, how about a certain Chicago Bull?

At any rate, improving the team's defense is the key to getting the Wolves back to the playoffs after their over-a-decade-long drought. The addition of Tom Thibodeau and his defensive wizardry will be the force that makes this happen; however, his roster will need a little push before the momentum can take over. Adding players that only add three-point shooting, while it is a great need, won't be enough to get the Wolves over the hump. What they need are players who can defend first, and add scoring second.