It is fair to say that Gersson Rosas has quickly made his mark on the Minnesota Timberwolves. Though no games have been played, the former Rockets executive has quickly recruited a host of staff to the Timberwolves. Ryan Saunders will return as Head Coach after a spell as interim coach. At just 33 years of age, Saunders is one of the youngest coaches in recent memory. For Rosas, the key was to surround his young coach with a coaching staff that would take care of either side of the ball for him. This NFL Style of having a defensive and offensive coordinator on the staff is something that not every NBA Franchise has really opted for.
While Pablo Prigioni will take care of the offensive side of the ball, the man who is being tasked to fix the Timberwolves porous defense is David Vanterpool. For many years now, Vanterpool has been Terry Stotts’ right hand man, and the man ‘in the ear’ of Damian Lillard. The former Washington Wizards point guard has stuck around in Portland and seen off the temptation for new challenges. It was clear the only way he was ever going to move up internally was with a Terry Stotts firing. After Portland’s remarkable season this will not be happening any time soon. With Stotts’ blessing, Vanterpool has taken a new challenge in Minnesota.
Not only is Vanterpool tasked with fixing the side of the ball that Minnesota has finished bottom ten in for the last five years, he will likely be Saunders’ most senior and most experienced ally. In preparing for this piece, I spoke to Danny Marang of NBC Sports and SB Nation’s Blazers Edge. First and foremost, Danny said that Vanterpool is a great human being. A man so popular that he has never heard a bad word said about him in all his years covering the team. For a Timberwolves team coming off the often grating Tom Thibodeau this is more important than one might initially think.
While this is important, what will earn Vanterpool real prestige is fixing one of the most disorganized units in the NBA- The Timberwolves defense. While the defense wasn’t awful with Robert Covington in the team (11th in defensive rating), it is certainly not a strength. The Wolves played the strong-iside defense under Tom Thibodeau. They put a five man wall around the paint and iced pick and rolls. This led to ball-watching and a team that just got butchered by three-pointers. Minnesota was 29th in opponent three-point percentage this year. Under Ryan Saunders the defense was just hopeless, the team had no plan and it was clear they had no philosophy.
David Vanterpool’s Scheme:
To understand Portland’s defensive scheme with Vanterpool coordinating it, I spoke to Danny Marang of Blazer’s Edge.
In something that might not go down well with people, his scheme is quite Thibodeau-like. Portland switched only sporadically under Vanterpool. Instead, the wing pairing of Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless would fight through ball screens as opposed to switching on them. Switching is a popular concept on Timberwolves twitter, but it’s not always as effective as people think. It’s certainly not the answer for everything. There was quite a lot of pick and roll ‘ICE’ defense in Portland.
In Portland under the supervision of Vanterpool, Portland ran a lot of drop coverage. The big man rarely came above the free-throw line and they hang back in the paint. This was the case with both Robin Lopez and Jusuf Nurkic. This was a passive scheme, they rarely trapped, switched or double teamed. There was a real emphasis on structure in Portland’s defense. The team rarely gambled. This does not mean they weren’t aggressive though. This was a team who pushed teams off the three-point line and funneled them inside to their big man who was of course in drop coverage.
Despite this being a scheme not particularly in vogue in the current NBa, Portland’s strategy was analytically-driven. They were good at pushing teams off the three-point line, notably from the corners. They forced teams into thinking they had a lane to the basket. When the big dropped and covered the paint, the opposition were often forced into mid-range jumpers. Their core principles are similar to the Miami Heat defense under Erik Spoelstra. The scheme looks passive in terms of its pick and roll coverage, but there is an aggression to defending the three-point line without compromising the overall structure.
The Timberwolves have not been particularly great defensively at anything. If they blitzed pick and rolls they often overcommitted and gave up jump shots. But under Tom Thibodeau the Wolves notoriously gave up the same drive-and-kick three about eight times a night. In a way, the scheme was passive but there wasn’t even intensity within the five-man block that was perched around the paint. That is where Portland’s defense has looked a lot different despite the schematic similarities. He fits with a Front Office that will likely be analytically driven because he wants to deny the best shot in basketball- the corner three. Last year, Portland gave up the least corner three attempts in the league.
Given the fact the Wolves have more athletic players than the Blazers in their wing and big positions such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Josh Okogie and Robert Covington, Vanterpool may opt for switches more often than he did in Portland. This is hard to predict, but ultimately I’m not sure it really matters. Regardless of his philosophy on switching in Minnesota, the core principles will be the same. This team will not gamble, this team will aggressively try and prevent corner threes, this team will contest at the rim with verticality, and this team will use drop coverage in pick-and-roll defense. The switching with the likes of Covington and Okogie might come in screen actions where teams will look to find a favourable switch. These two defenders in particular are very switchable so switching on the variety of elbow, wing and baseline screens that are in modern NBA playbooks might not be a terrible idea. But, this defense will have more schematic similarities to Tom Thibodeau’s defense than people might think or hope for. The key will be making sure the off-ball lapses and lack of intensity that just make a passive scheme too passive, will not plague this team. It was clear that the players just didn’t respond to Thibodeau on that end. This is where the other side of Vanterpool will come into things.
Vanterpool was respected by every player in the Blazers’ locker room. In particular he had an excellent relationship with Damian Lillard with Danny Marang referring to him as the ‘Dame whisperer’. The Timberwolves are committed to Towns and Wiggins, so building relationships with the pair of them is key. More importantly, teaching them to be leaders is going to be key. Jimmy Butler’s tactic of trying to bully them into submission didn’t work. Vanterpool clearly has the respect of his players. Despite what skeptics say about the personality of the modern-day millennial, being liked and being a nice person is important. It might be refreshing to have coaches who encourage and interact with them. As opposed to having a man in his 60s screaming at them because they couldn’t execute his outdated scheme that set them up to fail. Given the fact Saunders is young, Vanterpool may be the most important hire of all because he has contributed directly to one of the best locker rooms in the NBA over the past decade.
While it is a tough task predicting how Vanterpool will do, it is clear that there is going to be a modern philosophy on defense. The key will be getting everyone to buy in and play with intensity. I wrote critically about Thibodeau’s strong side defense previously and while I do believe it is out-dated, there were a lot of off-ball lapses that his Chicago Bulls teams rarely suffered from. Vanterpool gradually improved the Blazers’ defense despite having awkward and somewhat undersized personnel, and he did this with a sound analytically driven philosophy and a personable communication style.
I try not to get my hopes up regarding the Timberwolves. I have been let down too many times, and the 1 am tip-offs here in the UK have broken me. But I can’t help and be excited about what David Vanterpool might be able to do with this team.