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Timberwolves Defense by the Numbers

A look at the side of the ball where the Wolves have struggled.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Minnesota Timberwolves Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves sit at 7-3 on the young season, tied with the Golden State Warriors for second in the Western Conference, a half game behind the 8-3 Rockets. Just writing that sentence makes me giddy. They are currently on a five game winning streak, the first such streak since Bassy Telfair was roaming the North back in 2009.

Since enjoying nice things goes against my nature, I am writing today about one aspect of the Wolves season that has not gone well to this point: The defense. After a disastrous 2016-17 season defensively in Tom Thibodeau’s first year as coach, major changes over the summer were supposed to improve things, and allow Thibs’ system to reap results.

So far, that really hasn’t been the case...or has it? I’m going to dive into some numbers to try to figure out what direction things are going and what we can learn about the defense so far.

Using the widest lens, the defense has been disappointing. They are 25th in defensive rating (108.2, per They are allowing the highest field goal percentage against in the league (49.5) and the third highest effective field goal percentage (55.) There is very little to hang your hat on defensively beyond their avoidance of fouls (they have the lowest FT/FGA ratio in the league, and allow the second fewest FTAs per game.)


They have been particularly poor at transition defense. They give up 15.2 fast break points per game, second worst in the league ahead only the Phoenix Suns. This is especially distressing because they score so little in transition themselves (only 6.2 per game.) This nine point negative disparity in fast break points is the largest in the league, though it is down from 11 just a week ago (on which, more later.)

I believe part of their issues in transition stem from their aggressiveness on the offensive boards. They are having success there, with the fifth best offensive rebound percentage and sixth highest second chance points figures in the NBA. The problem is that they are leaving the floor unbalanced and getting beat back down for far too many easy baskets. The Warriors will eviscerate them on Wednesday night if they don’t do better.

Karl-Anthony Towns in particular can be cited as making poor decisions about getting back in transition. He often pursues offensive boards that he has little chance of corralling, and has repeatedly seen opposing bigs get ahead of him in the open floor. But he isn’t alone in poor decision-making that leads to fast break opportunities for opponents.

It seems to me the commitment at least has gotten better over the last few games; the losses to the Pacers and Pistons stick out for the apparent lack of effort to run the floor defensively.


It hasn’t been a lot better in the half-court, where once again there are plenty of numbers that make one cringe. Opponents get to the rim way too much (3rd highest percentage of shot attempts within three feet in the league) and convert too easily (5th worst field goal percentage in that area.) This is a big part of why their field goal percentage against is so abysmal.

Many of the problems have come in fairly staple NBA sets: Pick and rolls and isolations. What we are seeing is a team that doesn’t help effectively, a problem that dates back to last season’s disastrous performance. Again, Towns is a real culprit here, often arriving too late, or taking poor angles. He doesn’t appear to have the natural feel on the defensive end that he does on offense, which, well, you can’t have everything I guess.

He is certainly not alone, however. Understanding and executing team defensive concepts is a roster-wide problem, with the possible exceptions of Thibs’ old guard, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. But actions that involve multiple defenders, especially pick and rolls, tend to confound this group and lead to good looks.

One thing I’ve noticed regularly is they too rarely make things uncomfortable for the ball handler. Far too often, the player with the ball is given space and time to make decisions, whether it be a shot or a pass. Often multiple players get caught in no-man’s land, neither aggressively taking on the ball, or cutting off angles. The fact they did this so much better against Charlotte on Sunday was eye-opening, in good and bad ways.

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that the Wolves are getting killed on long two point jumpers. And this begins the good news. Their defense has looked worse than it really is in part because teams are shooting a league high 49 percent on shots from 16’ to the three point line. That’s an unsustainable number that no team was within seven percent of defensively last season. It will (and already has) come down, which will make things look significantly better. It’s difficult to exactly figure, but a merely below average field goal percentage against such shots as opposed to the horrible one they currently feature is probably worth a couple of points per game.

The Winning Streak

How much better has the Wolves defense performed during their winning streak?

FIrst, two caveats. Ten games is too small a sample to draw firm conclusions about most things, and five games is most certainly even smaller, so boulder of salt on that. Also, I am engaging in arbitrary end points, which is always suspect. That said, what I’m interested in is trends, though I wouldn’t put a ton of faith in them continuing.

That out of the way, the answer is: A lot better. Their 102.6 defensive rating over that time period is good for 12th in the league. They have brought their fast break points allowed down to a still bad but more manageable 13.4 per. After giving up field goal percentages above 50 for five straight, they have held their last three opponents below that number.

One area where they have both improved and been fortunate is three-point shooting. On the season, opponents are hitting 35 percent from three against the Wolves, which is good for 12th in the league overall. Over the last five, that number is under 30 percent. They have done a much better job of closing out and chasing guys off the line, but of course that number will always vacillate. Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t.

The key for the Wolves is building on what we’ve seen over the past few games. The transition defense still has to get better; hopefully a point of emphasis in practice has been when to crash the glass and when not to, and how to balance the floor effectively. They also have to continue to improve in defending the pick and roll. This will ultimately make or break their season.

Of course, things could collapse over the next five games, and certainly Wednesday night in Oakland is going to be a massive test against, by far, the best offense in the NBA. But the trend has been up, and there’s reason to hope it will continue.