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Driving the Wolves Improving Defense

The Wolves defense is looking much better this season. Here’s one big reason why.

Miami Heat v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Just before tip-off on opening night, Jim Petersen, as he always does, gave us his keys to the game, and one of the things he mentioned was limiting the lob dunks to the Nets’ big men Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan.

Sure enough, the Wolves’ first defensive possession of the game wound up with a side DHO into a screen-and-roll between Allen and Kyrie Irving. In past years, Towns might have jumped out too far on Irving, leading to an easy lob for Allen. This time, he sank to take away the straight drive to the basket, and was in position once Allen received the pass in the lane to contest. Instead of an open dunk, it became a contested hook-layup, which rolled off the rim.

Anything written about the Wolves and their bright start is of course subject to small sample caveats, but the obvious defensive improvement has been an early season delight. Their 102.0 defensive rating (per BB-Ref) is good for tenth in the NBA, rare air for a franchise that has been near the bottom of the defensive barrel in recent and not-so-recent memory. That rating is despite opponents making an unsustainable 40 percent of their three pointers, which suggests further room for improvement.

There are myriad reasons for their defensive success, but one in particular stands out: Their rim deterrence. Allowing unchallenged layups and dunks has been a bugaboo for the Wolves in the Karl-Anthony Towns era, but so far this season, things are changing.

One of the enduring images of the recent era of Wolves basketball is guys like Jordan and the RocketsClint Capela fattening their field goal percentages against the Wolves with open dunks that the Wolves defense seemed almost designed to concede. But it appears they have turned a corner under Ryan Saunders and especially new defensive coordinator David Vanterpool.

It was notable opening night against the Nets, and Jordan. Jordan, when he was with the Clippers, used to torture the Wolves as the finisher of lob dunks courtesy of Chris Paul, yes, but also the Wolves’ own abysmal defense. On opening night, he and fellow athletic center Jarrett Allen were limited to eight combined points in 53 minutes, because the Wolves took away anything easy at the rim.

This comes, admittedly, as somewhat of a surprise given their commitment to small ball—I was concerned about their rim protection with only one big on the floor, especially given Towns’ struggles in this area throughout his young career.

But so far so good: Wolves opponents are getting 26.9 percent of their shots within three feet (13th lowest in the league) and making them at a 61.8 percent clip (3rd lowest!).

Compare those numbers to last season, when opponents got 30.9 percent of their shots in this area (6th most) and made 65.7 percent of them (13th).

The Wolves are thriving with Vanterpool’s “drop” coverage on pick and rolls. Drop coverage is a tactic in which the big guarding the screener drops back into the paint when the screen happens. This allows the big to both cut off the easy lane to the rim for the ball-handler, and also switch back to the rolling big man before he gets an easy layup or dunk.

One of the keys to making this work is a discipline the Wolves have rarely exhibited in the past. The big man dropping has multiple responsibilities. He must stay at the same “level,” or distance from the baseline as the roller, because if he stays too high, the big can get behind him for a lob, but if he sinks too low, it ushers the ball handler right to the basket.

So far so good, as the Wolves are keeping opponents away from the rim and challenging them more effectively when they do get there. Overall, the shot mix they are conceding looks like a top 10 defense: 13th and 7th best (lowest) in terms of opponent percentage of shots from the rim and three respectively, top 10 in most opponent shots in all ranges from three feet out to the three point line.

In particular, the Wolves have pushed some of those shots at the rim out to the 3’-10’ range. That might not seem like much, but it makes a big difference. Last season opponents took 15 percent of their shots from that range, this season it’s up to nearly 19 percent. The difference is stark: Teams are shooting 37 percent against the Wolves in the 3’-10’ area, which is not a particular outlier; League average is usually around 40 percent from that range.

The margins might seem small, but a few less shots at the rim and a couple of extra misses there per game can be the difference between a solid, playoff caliber defense and one that struggles along in the bottom third of the league.

So far, the Wolves are playing an active but disciplined brand of defense that is making a real difference. We’ll see how it sustains.