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Tuesday Musings: Is the Defense Real?

Taking a look at the stats to see if the Wolves defense is sustainable

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The league has been put on notice by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Since December 1st, the Wolves have gone 16-7 (12-3 in the last fifteen games) and have the 2nd best offensive rating, which has been top-five all season. Their once league-worst defensive rating has been, over that span, the 12th best in the league, but in the last 15 games is 4th in the NBA. These games have included huge wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, while also having a span of seven games where the team held the opponent to under 100 points.

Wolves Defensive Rating by Month

  • October - 113.3 (so so bad) over 7 games
  • November - 104.6 (13th in NBA) over 15 games
  • December - 107.8 (19th in the NBA) over 15 games
  • January - 100.6 (4th in the NBA!) over 8 games

That is a wild jump. Teams do not often have a ten-point improvement in defensive rating. Last year, only three teams in the NBA raised their defensive rating by more than one point after the first month of play. No team raised it by more than two points. In the first month of the season, the Wolves defensive rating was 106.8, 22nd in the NBA. The Wolves have, at this point, raised their defensive rating by 0.4 points, but if they keep up their current play, or at least a facsimile of it, that will only go up.

However, we have seen this with the Wolves just last season. Over a brief period from just after the All-Star break to March 10th, the Wolves had the best defensive rating in the league and were 5-2, with victories over Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, and Washington Wizards. But then, everything fell apart.

On the most recent Zach Lowe podcast, Jim Peterson was on to talk about the Wolves and they dove into this improvement on defense. Two points they keyed in on were 1) Towns staying on his man and not chasing blocks and 2) the team, particularly Andrew Wiggins, focusing on getting back in transition defense.

The stats back up the transition change, as the Wolves, for the season, rank 21st in the NBA in fast-break points per game (12.6 points), but since December 1st they rank 11th, giving up 11 points per game. That is a vast difference as compared to October (16.4 points per game), November (12.3 points per game), and even December (12.8 points per game).

Peterson mentioned that the Wolves specifically asked Towns to chase blocks early on, as a way to encourage his activity on defense and have since reigned him in. It is hard to believe that alone has been the cause for his drastic change on that end of the court, but his defensive numbers are striking.

Town’s Defensive Rating by Month

  • October - 115.6
  • November - 106.4
  • December - 104.5
  • January - 96.9

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason that Towns has become this monster on defense, whether it is Wolves coaching staff, natural improvement, or simply Joel Embiid calling KAT out, but the results are there.

Another reason for the team’s success is that the Wolves are killing it in the turnovers and free throw battle. This has likely helped ameliorate the three-point disparity. The Wolves, over the whole season, have the 3rd best turnover percentage and the 2nd best opponent turnover percentage. They have the 5th best free throw rate while having the 8th best opponent free throw rate. Since December 1, the Wolves give up 19.8 free throws per game while taking 24 of their own.

Again, since that magic December 1st date, the Wolves have the best opponent turnover rate in the NBA (17.2) percent, while sporting the 2nd best turnover percentage (11.9). The variance is about 6 points, which is huge. In actual turnovers per game, that is 16.7 turnovers the Wolves are forcing while committing 11.5 per game. That is five extra possessions the Wolves have each game.

The other piece of good news is that the Wolves are not relying on bad opponent shooting during this span, so there is no real clear indicator that this stretch is unsustainable. Over the 23 game stretch, the Wolves opponent field goal percentage is 46.7 percent, which is 18th in the NBA. Their opponents are making threes at a 36.1 percent clip, which is 17th in the NBA, which is consistent with their opponent three-point percentage for the season of 36.2 percent.

Across the board, it seems that the Wolves defensive improvement is here to stay. They will likely not end the season with a top-ten defense, as the beginning third of the season will drag down their numbers, but this new and improved Wolves team is going to be legitimately competitive in the playoffs. There are no wonky numbers to suggest that the Wolves are simply sliding by due to opponent shooting variance. This team is playing to its strengths and, as a result, has become one of the best teams in the NBA.