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A look at how Tom Thibodeau’s defensive scheme holds the Timberwolves back

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Tom Thibodeau’s famous ‘Strong Side’ defensive scheme is holding Minnesota back

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the first playoff appearance in 14 years temporarily reviving the franchise, the Timberwolves are entering the season amid bad feelings and passive aggressive negativity. The Jimmy Butler saga is a huge part of this, but some revealing comments from Jeff Teague about how this team didn’t see much of each other over the summer reminds us that chemistry, for what it’s worth, is in short supply.

Many teams with fractured locker rooms have managed to overcome this by winning games and because of good coaching. Unfortunately, for the Timberwolves, this isn’t something that appears to be there in abundance. Tom Thibodeau appears more worried about begging Jimmy Butler to return to a broken and failing marriage than matching his strategies to fit with the modern NBA.

Heading into the year, there are real concerns with the team. The preseason isn’t something I read into, I just expect the squad to look competent. This team looks anything but competent, and the bad habits some of the players have developed over the years appear to be getting stronger and more problematic.

The thing that worries me most about this team is the schemes. I have written before about how the Timberwolves offensive efficiency numbers can be somewhat misleading. Despite this, the bigger problem is obviously the defense. For some reason, Tom Thibodeau continues to persist with his defensive scheme, best named the ‘strong side defense’.

Though he routinely gets clowned for trying to recreate the Chicago Bulls, I think we do need to momentarily cut him some slack. His scheme changed the NBA and was still a very good system no more than five years ago. Attempting to run it with the Timberwolves made a lot of sense, and it was personally something I was very excited for.

The problem down the line? It simply hasn’t worked out at all. The Timberwolves don’t have the players required to run it, and the strategy has been killed by opponents scheming for three pointers rather than getting them out of the flow of the offense.

Before diving into why it is such a bad fit with this roster, it makes sense to look at some of the key principles of the scheme. The first one, is that defending the paint and drives to the basket is the absolute priority. It is similar to Steve Clifford’s scheme in that sense. At times, the Timberwolves will put a five man wall around the paint in order to hopefully force teams into mid-range jump shots.

When Tom Thibodeau really emerged as an elite assistant with the Celtics in 2007, the NBA was very different to what it is now. Isolation and post ups were more common and were simply the bread and butter of most NBA offenses. Protecting the paint made a lot of sense, and it is obviously a good thing to not allow the highest percentage shot in basketball at a ridiculously high rate.

The picture above is really the best visual aid of the defense. The Heat are in an isolation set with LeBron James and despite the decent spacing, the Bulls are focused on protecting the paint. Every possible angle to the paint is covered, meaning the only way James can penetrate the paint is by blowing by Jimmy Butler. Even in the case that happens, the Bulls have enough guys who can come over and help.

This brings me to the second main principle of this scheme- pre-rotating. The Bulls have accounted for every man on this possession and if James rotates the ball out to Norris Cole, the Bulls will quickly go out to Ray Allen and Shane Battier in anticipation of the extra passes. This system was excellent at nullifying isolation and post-up styles of basketball, which is why it changed the NBA. The extra helper was a good way of neutralizing individual basketball, and many coaches did not really have the extra wrinkles in their schemes to work around this.

Pre-rotating and defending the paint seems like a great idea, but something butchered Tom Thibodeau’s strategy- The emergence of small ball and the stretch four. Teams had better spacing at all times and were comfortable creating their perimeter looks without having to infiltrate the paint first. Even in the still image above, a simple double wing screen or a flare screen would have created real problems for the Bulls. The best way to beat this system was by hitting the corner three on the weak side. The Bulls were good at defending this for the most part. But as coaches began to find ways to create threes in other ways, this revolutionary scheme was left behind.

The play below is a good example of where the strong side defense can cause problems.

The Wolves rotate to the strong side and protect the paint. But Marvin Williams is wide open on the weak side for the entirety of this play. It must be noted that this defensive play is an absolute abomination that goes beyond the scheme in some ways, but the lack of attention given to the shooters on the weak side, especially stretch fours, is something that has caused this strategy to falter.

Despite the clear problems with this system, Tom Thibodeau is still insistent on running it. Even after bringing in Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson who were masters of the scheme in Chicago, they were still atrocious on defense. This is of course not all on the system. The Timberwolves had some very bad perimeter defenders such as Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford, but the system doesn’t really help.

Many thought Crawford was the main issue, but the bench unit defense has looked just as horrendous in preseason as it did with Crawford in the back court. I don’t like to make sweeping conclusions from preseason ball, but this is a belief I have held for some time, and I don’t see it being shaken any time soon.

Not only is this strategy outdated, but it doesn’t make use of the potential defensive strengths of the Timberwolves roster. My personal opinion on the strong side defense is that it values intelligent defenders at the expense of needing raw athletes who can fight through screens and make highlight plays. For such a defensively sound team, the Bulls didn’t really show up on many highlight reels for their defensive plays, because they weren’t the type of great plays that really made people jump out of their seats.

I am not ready to be ‘out’ on Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns as defenders yet, though I don’t think either have All-NBA potential. But a system that requires instincts and intensity is a system that is crowbarring them into something they are not. The most notable potential ‘strength’ defensively for the Wolves two young cornerstones are their athleticism. Towns was praised coming out of College as being a center who was so talented that he could step out and defend guards, but he doesn’t get a chance to do this in the Timberwolves scheme.

Wiggins is a divisive player, but I do think he has improved steadily defensively. He got better at denying penetration to guards and closing out on shooters. With regards to the Wolves system, Wiggins doesn’t really get much of a chance to do this on a regular basis. The Wolves will sag off shooters and stick to their zones, which requires concentration and intensity. These are not two things that I would really attribute to Andrew Wiggins overall game. I am not excusing Wiggins’ lack of defensive instincts, and I think he is rightly criticized for this lack of overall intelligence and decision making. But surely the job of any coach and certainly any scheme is to put players in positions where they can succeed on a nightly basis? Forcing Andrew Wiggins to be a read and react defender on nearly every possession just isn’t a use of his strengths.

The ceiling of a defensive unit with two high-minute starters who struggle with natural instincts is not that high, but it is certainly higher than their ceiling in this current set-up. Wiggins could potentially be excellent at denying penetration to guards and fighting through screens, but this defensive scheme doesn’t give us much of a chance to see this.

Outside of this scheme being a bad fit with the personnel, it has made the Wolves very vulnerable to teams who run a lot of off-screen action. Shooting from screens was made popular by the Warriors, and other teams have started to emulate it. It is a great way to attack the Wolves, who like to pre-determine their defensive rotations in half-court setups.

The play below is one that really emphasizes the limits of this defensive set-up.

The Wolves once again get into their strong side set-up, creating a five man wall around the paint. Kemba Walker manipulates the defense by faking to come inside. The Wolves are playing off the weak-side shooter like they usually do, but the Hornets exploit this with some excellent hammer action. This is a very effective action, but the Wolves may as well ask teams to do it because of the way they defend against corner shooters. It is well executed, but it is far too simple.

Outside of not necessarily paying enough attention to the presence of outside shooters, I feel that the strong side system can cause players to be guilty of staring at the ball rather than understanding other actions. The play below is an example of this.

The Magic run a simple high pick and roll in this play. The Wolves actually defend it quite well, the strong side principles mean that Speights gets overwhelmed and Jonathon Simmons ends up running into a cul de sac. But there is a clear lack of engagement on the rest of this play, and something I have noticed when the Wolves run this is that players become guilty of ball watching. Simmons is going nowhere, all five Wolves defenders are in the paint. But it is far too easy for Mo Speights to just creep back to the three-point line. Sure, some of this is because of Dieng’s lack of awareness, but I think the Wolves over-defend the paint at times.

Below is another example of this, and one I find mind boggling.

The Wolves once again initially defend things well, and Mo Speights receives a dump-off pass at the top of the key. Gorgui Dieng has a good position to deal with this, but Shabazz Muhammad aggressively rotates across and ends up leaving Jonathon Simmons wide open in the corner. Simmons does miss the shot, but this is still a bad practice. If it’s Joel Embiid or Anthony Davis at the top of the key then by all means go and give Gorgui some help, but it’s Mo Speights. I would rather live with him taking a contested layup than give up a wide open corner three to a solid shooter.

The defensive strategy is not only flawed in 2018, but the Wolves stick too rigidly by it. It honestly seems as if they prioritize defending the paint regardless of who the opponent is, which is farcical. And in all honesty, this is my main issue with the Tom Thibodeau era on the whole. He lives and dies by his schemes, and I really do question his adjustments and how he game plans for specific opponents. Both plays above are examples of how the Wolves are too set in their ways and stick to their scheme rather than using some simple common sense.

I don’t think there are many systems that could make this roster a good defensive team. But a coach would be absolved of some of the blame if they actually edited their strategy and used one that maximizes their roster and fits with the way the game is going.

This season could get ugly quickly, and the chief reason for that will be this defense.