A couple of bright spots emerged in what ultimately was a disappointing Timberwolves season.
Karl-Anthony Towns played at an All-NBA level. Thibs, who will go up in the rafters as one of the most disliked coaches, was fired. The Jimmy Butler circus came to an end, with the acquiring two good players in Robert Covington and Dario Saric from Philadelphia.
Covington particularly shined until his unfortunate injury and something he brought to the team is the most intriguing and positive thing about this team- lockdown defense. After being a bottom-five defensive team, Covington turned things around for the team along with Josh Okogie. The Timberwolves were 11th in defensive rating in the 22 games Covington played, and his presence galvanized a unit that was plagued by a mix of laziness and an outdated defensive scheme that prioritized protecting the paint over the three-point line.
Largely because of Tom Thibodeau’s incompetence and preference for veterans, the Wolves didn’t use Robert Covington and Josh Okogie together as much as they should have. The two only shared 91 minutes on the court together largely because Thibodeau leaned on Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague instead. Given the way Ryan Saunders put his rotations together, and the fact Teague and Rose both missed time, we probably would have seen this duo together much more had Covington been healthy.
In these 91 minutes, Okogie and Covington gave Wolves fans an exciting glimpse into a potential future. They posted a defensive rating of 101.1 together. When you add Tyus Jones to the pairing, the defensive rating was 87.5 in an admittedly small sample size.
When looking at small sample sizes you have to be realistic and look at the context. When analyzing this pairing I asked myself the same question I always do:
Would these trends still be similarly positive/negative with a bigger sample size?
Given the defensive nature, aggressiveness and half-court understanding these three players have, there is a legitimate reason to think the Timberwolves have a lock-down trio in their back-court and wing positions. The tape is also enough to make me think that this defensive rating is not an outlier in a small sample size. Okogie and Covington are both excellent at disrupting the back and wing screen games that dominate most NBA playbooks today. With Derrick Rose potentially leaving too, there is not going to be a huge anchor weighing this team down on the defensive end.
Covington is one of the most unique defenders the league has seen. Only Paul George had more deflections per game than him last year. Covington averaged three steals per game and just under two blocks per game. Historically this puts him in elite company, with only Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Bobby Jones, and Gerald Wallace being alongside him. These players combined for 36 all-defensive team nods and multiple defensive player of the year awards. Covington is not just very good, he is a top-five defender in the NBA who should be remembered as one of the great lockdown guys whenever he decides to retire.
The Timberwolves were allergic to switching in Thibodeau’s infamous strong-side defense. The scheme prioritized staying in a ‘shield wall’ type structure, protecting the paint at all costs and not moving to the perimeter unless the ball is about to go to a shooter. When Covington arrived, the Timberwolves modernized their scheme a little bit. Nowhere near enough, but they essentially moved from 1970 to 2002. They still lagged behind franchises living in 2019 who realized attacking the perimeter was the absolute priority but it would be unfair to suggest things didn’t get better.
Covington’s potential partner in crime Josh Okogie is also a player who could provide us all with thrills. He was one of only 19 qualified rookies in league history to average 2.4 steals and 0.9 blocks per 100 possessions. Okogie has a similar knack for blowing up screens and alley-oop attempts and was not scared of any assignment he got last year.
Just ask James Harden.
Timberwolves film was not that fun this year. The offensive scheme was often bland and basic, displaying a real ignorance on how to use and maximize the perimeter. Okogie and Covington made things fun though, and Lord Covington’s run of 22 games was by far the best part of the season.
The minutes that the Jones-Covington-Okogie trio shared were limited, but there were some exciting plays when they did such as the one below.
The Thunder run minimal actions under Billy Donovan to maximize their two elite isolation players, one thing they often do is get their two-guard to run a slip screen. They do this to try and force a switch which usually gives Russell Westbrook an easy opportunity to attack downhill. On this, Okogie and Jones both avoid the temptation to overplay anything, and Okogie makes Westbrook look like a rookie with some excellent perimeter defense. On this play, Jones and Okogie simply did the right thing to stop an action that the Thunder run a lot.
As I mentioned before, the sample size of these two playing together was small. Tom Thibodeau’s infamous hockey-style rotations meant that Okogie often replaced Covington, but there were some small flashes of what they could do as a duo. The play below is an example of this.
The Pelicans run a pick and roll to get Julius Randle doing what he does best- attack downhill. The Wolves cover it relatively well but he makes a good pass to the corner to an open shooter. Robert Covington covers a lot of ground to force him off the three-point line, and Josh Okogie once again shows his already elite defensive footwork to stand his ground and end up blocking the layup.
One of the positives of Ryan Saunders’ reign as interim coach was that he tried a lot of different lineups. Essentially he threw lots of things at the wall and hoped they would stick. This philosophy is what makes me believe in this pairing so much. Tom Thibodeau clearly pre-determined his rotations and stuck to them, which meant we saw very little of Okogie and Covington despite the fact they played really well with each other on the defensive end. This Timberwolves roster is likely stuck in place due to Jeff Teague opting in, and Andrew Wiggins’ disaster contract. This means internal improvements are going to be key to keeping this Wolves team competitive as they have little room to maneuver. Leaning on the potential of this pairing would be a good start.
On-ball defense is extremely important, but I feel that off-ball defense and instincts is something that is more important than ever in the NBA. Many teams are running a lot of ball screens to force favorable switches and get cutters attacking downhill. Having a pairing such as Robert Covington and Josh Okogie to blow these up on the perimeter gives the Wolves such an advantage, as you can see below.
Every team that has a stretch big uses dribble hand-offs as a part of their playbook. A mistake many defenders make is ‘pre-rotating’ and trying to beat them to receiving the hand-off. This can leave you open to a back cut or a fake dribble hand-off. On this play at the end of the shot clock, Robert Covington makes this possession end in nothing for Boston. He initially gets in front of Kyrie Irving, then makes sure he defends the back cut opportunity, and he then darts in front of Kyrie to make the steal.
One of the reasons that Covington is overlooked by many is because his level of defense takes a lot to understand. He is unique because his best attribute is his disruption and his understanding of offensive sets, as opposed to being a powerful or clinical shot blocker. Essentially, what Covington does is not always obvious, but you can bet that he is one of the most horrible players to play against.
Okogie does similar things, as you see on the play below.
Despite being fired from the Kings, Dave Joerger still ran some of the best sets in the NBA this year. On the play below, Harry Giles receives the ball at the elbow, and Buddy Hield looks as if he is going to set a flare screen for Fox in the corner. Okogie calls the switch and ends up taking the dangerous Buddy Hield who quite often would peel off to the corner in this set. Tyus Jones stays on the perimeter expecting Fox or Hield to come round and shoot a three-pointer. Fox reads this and cuts to the paint as Jones isn’t in a position to stop it. Okogie shows excellent instincts and gets a hand in there, therefore breaking up what would have either been an easy layup or an action that created an open three elsewhere.
In Okogie and Covington, I believe the Wolves might have the most disruptive defensive wing-pairing in the NBA outside of maybe Oklahoma City and Milwaukee. Both players are very capable on-ball isolation defenders, but their real value comes in the form of what they do to the opponent’s offensive sets. They are great at getting deflections and disrupting the rhythm most teams want to create.
The main roadblock for this pairing will come offensively. Covington is a terrific spot-up shooter but he cannot create his own shot. Okogie showed some offensive flashes, but his rookie season was a struggle offensively. He shot 39 percent from the field and 28 percent from downtown, and struggled with shot selection. Playing in a very basic offensive scheme that encouraged guard-heavy tactics when the two best offensive players were bigs didn’t really help him.
At this point, the Timberwolves biggest need is a shot creator. The defense was missing its best player and Ryan Saunders was still having to use a lot of Thibodeau’s outdated principles, so I wouldn’t judge the defensive ratings too harshly.
Though Josh Okogie and Robert Covington excite me defensively, there is a clear need for a guard or wing who can create their own shot and make plays for these two because they are rarely going to do it themselves. Andrew Wiggins isn’t the answer to this either as his handle is simply not at an NBA level. Options such as Darius Garland and Nickell-Alexander Walker are quite intriguing. Both fill a need, as this team needs more on-ball threats on the offensive side of the ball.
This season was weird, and many believe the Wolves are set to sit in the middle of the pack for a while. I am usually a realist or even a pessimist, but I can’t help but be excited by this wing pairing. They are the modern wings, and when scouting college players we need to look at off-ball defense more often. Thibodeau didn’t give this franchise a lot given the great situation he inherited, but Okogie and Covington were the final gifts he gave us before the break up. Let’s hope the new people in charge can fully unleash them.