When Tom Thibodeau was hired to be the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves in August 2016, the biggest hope for everyone involved was that Thibs would fix the horrid defense that had plagued the team in the past. In that first year, they finished 27th in defensive rating.
The following summer, they made waves by trading for Jimmy Butler. The idea was that Butler, a player with as solid of a defensive reputation as anyone in the league, would immediately help turn things around on that end in 2017-18. The Wolves once again finished 27th in defensive rating and the issues were still there.
At that point, many were left perplexed. Not even a former defensive mastermind and one of the most well-respected wing defenders in the NBA had helped the team improve defensively from the years they were playing both Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine on the wing.
It was fair to wonder whether or not a team with Karl-Anthony Towns as its anchor would ever be a respectable defensive team. KAT’s defensive struggles to begin his career have been well publicized, so there’s no need to dig into those too deep right now. The point is that he was a big negative on that end of the floor, and it wasn’t clear if his defensive shortcomings were something this team would ever be able to overcome.
Then, all at once, everything has changed. Since November 10, the Wolves are 3rd in the NBA defensive rating after being 28th in the NBA before that date. What’s that? They traded Jimmy Butler that day? That’s strange. I would’ve thought their defense could improve a bit but ... this much? Well then, surely Butler’s new team, the 76ers, have gotten significantly better on defense since he got there, right? Well, not so much. Philadelphia has slipped defensively since acquiring Butler. They haven’t exactly been defending offensive juggernauts either.
Yes, it’s only 5 games. But, just for fun, here’s who the Wolves have played:— Charlie Johnson (@cjohnsNBA) November 24, 2018
-vs NOP (3rd ranked offense)
-vs POR (7)
-vs MEM (23)
-vs DEN (8)
-@ BKN (11)
And the 76ers have played 6 games w/ Butler:
-@ ORL (24)
-vs UTA (26)
-@ CHA (5)
-vs PHO (28)
-vs NOP (3)
-vs CLE (22)
Well, would you look at that. This is where I should be an unbiased blog boy and make sure to note that the Sixers offense has been much better with Butler and they were 4-2 over that stretch above, but that’s not quite as fun.
Anyways, what the heck happened to the Wolves on the defensive end of the floor? Well, let me introduce you to my very good (new) friend, Robert Covington.
Mr. Covington is quickly becoming THE fan favorite in Minnesota. This is partially because Thibs refuses to play Josh Okogie, but my point still stands.
Covington’s presence on this team cannot be overstated. Since coming over to Minnesota, RoCo leads the NBA in steals per game (3+) as well as deflections per game (4+). At 6’9”, he is a big wing player. What really separates him from the pack is his 7’2” wingspan and non-stop motor. This wingspan allows RoCo to get his hands on anything and everything in the passing lanes. In his short time in Minnesota, the amount of plays Covington has made on the defensive end has been truly astounding.
Covington made 1st Team All-Defense last year, but he’s arguably having a better defensive year to start this season. He is currently ranked 2nd in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus. The next closest true wing player on that list is Paul George all the way down at 17th. It’s hard to overstate exactly how good he has been for the Wolves.
So, the benefits of having Covington on this team for his individual defense are obvious, but what about the residual effects of having Covington on the floor?
For one, his presence has seemed to help Andrew Wiggins on that end. Wiggins is not the best defender in the world by any means, but he has been considerably better since Covington came over and much of this has to do with him guarding the smaller wing. Wiggins has made it no secret that he prefers to play shooting guard, which offers him better matchups on both offense and defense. The addition of Covington has allowed Wiggins to slide down to his preferred position, and in turn has yielded better results defensively. Both players had four stocks apiece earlier this week in Cleveland.
The other guy that Covington seems to be helping is Karl-Anthony Towns. KAT has had a few really solid nights defensively since the addition of RoCo, namely against the Pelicans.
What is most encouraging about this dynamic is that this relationship between wing stopper and franchise cornerstone seems to have gotten off on the right foot. It began with the way Towns welcomed the new guys to Minneapolis, and has continued with RoCo being a strong teacher for KAT.
Being a strong leader and influence to KAT and Wiggins without breaking them down the way the old guy did is so important for the future of this franchise. It seems that both of these things are happening, mostly due to this quote from Covington to Dane Moore of Zone Coverage. You can find Dane’s entire column here.
Having a leader on the defensive end of the floor with no ego is going to continue to do wonders for this team.
On a larger scale, he’s somehow cracked the code to getting Thibs to adapt defensively and switch more often. Thibs mentioned that this would be something they’d try now with Covington in the mix, which is great. You can’t see it perfectly here, but on this late possession Towns got switched out onto Collin Sexton last night and held up well. This is what we’re looking for moving forward.
OKAY KARL pic.twitter.com/Xi69usVqNe— Kyle Ratke (@Kyle_Ratke) November 27, 2018
I legitimately don’t know why Thibs didn’t think he could switch at all with Butler around, but at least he’s incorporating it now with Covington. Also, the possessions where he literally just rips the ball out of a guys hands has to make Wolves’ fans go wild with enthusiasm. Don’t bring your lunch around RoCo.
Jordan Clarkson has no lunch. pic.twitter.com/3gbLB3Yu6d— Kyle Ratke (@Kyle_Ratke) November 27, 2018
While Covington is having a massive impact on the Wolves, there is one big stipulation to make here, and that’s the sample size. It has been a very short amount of time with Covington on the roster, and it’s probably not reasonable to expect the Wolves to continue this run as a top-5 defensive team throughout the rest of the season.
There’s no reason this unit can’t finish in the top half or top-10 in defensive rating this year, but this current run has been insane. Even Covington’s individual production is likely to tail off a bit as we go along. His recent average of 3.2 steals per game would be the highest in a single season since 1988-89.
The defense will come back to earth a bit, but either way, we are in good hands with our new best friend, Robert Covington. Here are two highlight videos from two of our Canis Hoopus writers for your enjoyment.
Robert Covington has quickly become one of my favorite Wolves players I've ever watched. Utter pitbull on defense with a will to make defensive plays like few Wolves ever have.— Jake Paynting (@jakepaynting) November 26, 2018
Here is a little highlight reel of his first 6 games in the Twin Cities: pic.twitter.com/1DUr4SnjQy
Robert Covington had 4 stocks last night, bringing his season total to 75. He leads the entire NBA. #RoCo pic.twitter.com/ahPzT5FPYb— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) November 27, 2018