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Elite Offense, No Defense — Can it Work?

Comparing the new Wolves squad to successful teams of the past.

After shipping off solid defenders such as Robert Covington, Gorgui Dieng, Noah Vonleh, and Treveon Graham before the trade deadline, a bad defense has become markedly worse for the Minnesota Timberwolves. The players they received back in those trades, namely Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, and of course, D’Angelo Russell, are better offensive players than their predecessors but don’t offer as much on the other end of the floor.

With a core of Russell, Beasley, Hernangomez and Towns, Minnesota should have an elite offense. The shooting and scoring chops of that group is special, and should be amplified by playing with each other. Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver look to be good defensive players, but still, the defense doesn’t figure to be very good unless drastic changes are made.

That’s the big caveat — this roster still is an unfinished product. It’s fair to assume Gersson Rosas doesn’t view this trade deadline as his final chance to improve roster moving forward. He didn’t trade Robert Covington, and use one of the first-round picks they received in that deal, for MB5 and Juancho just to let them walk, either.

With that in mind, and this core likely locked up (in the offseason) for the next several seasons, it prompted us to look at historical parallels to see if this type of structure can work. Can a team with a great offense, but subpar (at best) defense compete? There’s no perfect one-to-one comparison, but there are a few intriguing ones that were suggested by our team.

2018-19 Brooklyn Nets

This wasn’t the first one that came to mind for me, but once it was suggested, it was the first I wanted to research because of the D’Angelo Russell connection. For those who don’t remember, these Nets were a surprising playoff team, finishing 42-40 on the back of a -0.01 net-rating. Obviously, the Wolves hope to be a better team than that, but it’s a good starting point to consider what that would look like with a player like Karl-Anthony Towns in the fold as well.

The results were kind of surprising. That Brooklyn team actually was better on defense than it was on offense compared to their peers, ever so slightly. They posted a 109.6 ORTG (19th) and a 109.7 DRTG (14th), so maybe that’s not the best comparison.

James Harden-era Houston Rockets

This was one of the initial places my head went to when this question was posed. Harden has been in Houston since 2012-13, and they’ve won a whole lot of games with him as their focal point since then. There’s both fair and unfair criticism of his postseason performances, but consistently getting to the Western Conference Finals would clearly be an acceptable outcome for a franchise like the Timberwolves.

While this era can somewhat be lumped in as one big group, there are quite a few different teams to take a look at. For instance, the 2012-13 iteration was borderline elite on offense (6th), and slightly below average on defense (17th) on their way to winning 45 games and losing in the first round. They always hovered in the same general area under Kevin McHale, peaking in 2014-15 when they eventually were run over in the WCF by the 2014-15 Warriors who eventually won the championship.

Things took a turn once Mike D’Antoni was hired in 2016. That year, they posted the 3rd ranked offense, and had the 18th ranked defense. This was the memorable playoff flameout in which Harden disappeared in the second round against the San Antonio Spurs who were without an injured Kawhi Leonard.

Then, the Chris Paul trade happened, and expectations rose once again. For my money, this was the best non-Warriors team in recent memory. Harden, Paul, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, Trevor Ariza... that team was constructed so beautifully around Harden and CP3. I’ll never forget watching that series against Golden State. The team was similarly awesome in 2018-19, although they once again couldn’t get past even a wounded Golden State.

The problem here is that those teams weren’t constructed like Minnesota. They played AWESOME defense in addition to being elite offensively. The 2017-18 team placed 1st in ORTG and 6th in DRTG. Although the 2018-19 squad was 2nd offensively and only 17th defensively, I’d argue they were able to flip a switch and play a brand of defense specifically designed to slow down the Warriors.

Again, those outcomes were probably disappointing for Houston, but constant WCF appearances would be a fantastic outcome in Minnesota.

LeBron James-led Cavs

No, not the first iteration of the Cavs. We’re talking about the second iteration. The LeBron, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love version.

So, in theory, this is where you’d look to find promise for a contender who graded out similarly to the way the Wolves likely will.

Cleveland always had an elite offense, but they finished 18th, 10th, 21st, and 29th in DRTG during LeBron’s second tenure. Unsurprisingly, the year the Cavs actually won the finals was the year they finished top-ten in both offense and defense.

Where can the Wolves Fit?

So, I cut the Cavs section a little short, and there’s a reason for that. Statistically, they’re the most comparable team profile wise. In terms of personnel, though, they couldn’t be more different. With all due respect to Karl-Anthony Towns, he’s not in the same stratosphere as LeBron was during that run. James firmly cemented himself as one of the two best players of all time. That’s without even mentioning the gap between the secondary stars, or how differently a dominant ball-handler like LeBron can impact a playoff series compared to even a perimeter oriented big like KAT.

To me, it’s a classic case of something that I think gets overlooked too often when you just look at the numbers. Sure, teams can have similar statistical profiles on the surface, and it doesn’t much matter how you get there in the regular season. In the postseason, though, the aspect of HOW you get there becomes much more important. There’s nobody who’s flipped a switch in the postseason like LeBron. Unfortunately, that rules them out.

As far as Houston goes, there’s a bit more give-and-take. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I buy it as a great comparison, because their best team was also stellar defensively and perfectly suited to disrupt the Warriors, but it’s closer than Cleveland at least. The connection with Gersson Rosas is also an obvious connection here.

With that said, the outcomes from the early James Harden years would be great for the Wolves. Regularly being in the postseason and occasionally winning a series or two would do wonders for this franchise and fan-base that is dying to support a winner.

One issue I have with that line of thinking, though, is still the divide between Karl-Anthony Towns and James Harden. Harden’s had his share of playoff disappearing acts, but a ball-handler who doesn’t need someone else to get them the ball is still generally a more impactful postseason player in this era. Towns negates some of that by being able to catch and create from the perimeter, and that no doubt will give defenses trouble. Still, Harden has been a top MVP candidate for four of the past five seasons. Towns has a ways to go to get to that level.

The other issue I see is defensively. While most of those Rockets teams weren’t “good” defensively, they were usually still at least average-ish on that end of the floor. It remains to be seen how Minnesota can build an average defense around Towns and Russell. The Wolves will have to put quality defenders around both players, and likely need to modify their scheme to make that defensive pairing passable.

Now, in comparison to those Rockets teams, you could certainly argue that D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley could form a more palatable supporting cast offensively for Towns than what Harden had in those early years. I’m not sure if you’d be right or not, but I think there’s an argument there.

One interesting parallel I would draw here is to the narrative surrounding Karl-Anthony Towns and James Harden. For a while, Harden was one of the worst, least interested defenders in the league. Towns has faced similar criticism. Nobody’s going to confuse Harden for Gary Payton, but he has become a pretty solid defender in recent years, especially on the ball. His ability to switch onto big men and hold his own in the post was a big part of Houston’s switching scheme. While clearly an imperfect stat, Harden has posted a positive DRPM the past 2.5 seasons. If Towns is ever able to make a similar jump from nightmare to respectable defensively, the Wolves outlook looks quite a bit different.

What does this all really mean? Well, it comes down to two things for me. First, the Wolves need to get more effort, discipline, and buy-in from Towns and Russell defensively. I can’t think of many teams who were successful that lacked at least one of a good back line defender/quarterback of the defense while also having a traffic cone at the point of attack. That’s just not a combination that’ll win you postseason games. Teams will target and find Russell, and then either isolate or force Russell and Towns to cover a PnR together.

Secondly, the development of Towns, Russell, and Beasley particularly on the offensive end of the floor will decide their fate. We know this trio will be tough to stop offensively, but just how good can they be? Can they develop enough ways to beat you to withstand the variance that comes with shooting boat loads of threes? In theory, Towns’ post-ups and Russell’s mid-range scoring is a good counter to that, but a wing who can get to the rim on their own would be nice. Maybe Beasley becomes that guy.

The offense should be up there with the best of the best, but for Minnesota to truly build a winner, they’re going to need more from their cornerstones on defense.