It’s well established that this Minnesota Timberwolves team leaves a lot to be desired on the defensive side of the ball. Even before they use or trade the three draft picks they hold and gather up some free agents, outplaying teams offensively is going to be this team’s calling card.
With a generational offensive talent who struggles to make a similar impact on the other end like Karl-Anthony Towns as the franchise’s pillar, this was always the case. That approach was hammered home even harder when they moved their best defender in Robert Covington and ended up remodeling their team with D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley flanking Towns as the centerpieces of the team.
Along with the rest of his front office comrades, president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas will undoubtedly seek to bring in players who help raise Minnesota’s defensive ceiling. But, players that are true difference makers and simultaneously available are few and far between, so it’s extremely likely the Wolves are still going to be slugging it out in back-and-forth offensive gunfights for the foreseeable future.
On the surface, that seems like a bad idea. The old adage has always suggested that defense win championships, and that’s probably true. However, a high-powered offense can hide many defensive flaws. It just depends on how much firepower that offense really has.
In the last 10 seasons (including this one we are currently trying to figure out), there have been 11 Western Conference teams that have ranked in the top 10 in offensive rating and still haven’t been invited to the playoff party. The Wolves have done so twice themselves, the 2016-2017 and 2013-2014 squads, the latter of whom had the best defensive rating (12th) of the 11 teams.
While those teams all possessed an offense worthy of competing on the biggest stage, their defensive ratings averaged out at 20th in the league. With over one Western Conference team missing the playoffs per year, it’s simply not good enough to have a ‘good’ offense and a bad defense. The offensive standards need to be higher than that if the Wolves are going to get to the next level on scoring ability alone.
Towns’ muddled pick-and-roll coverage, chronic block-chasing and frustrating slow feet, are only the tip of the iceberg. There are just so many leaks in the Timberwolves’ defensive boat for a top 10 offense to buoy them. Russell struggles to keep any point guards in front of him and is prone to more than a few mental lapses during the game, and while Beasley does try harder than his cornerstone teammates, his technique needs a whole lot of polishing before he will be considered as a league-average defender.
On the other end, the script gets flipped. Despite playing but a single game together, it’s easy to envision how Russell and Towns can thrive as offensive partners. In the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop, both players are capable of playing their role at a world-class level. Russell is a fantastic passer and pull-up shooter while Towns has never had any problem scoring from anywhere on the court.
Sprinkle in some Beasley and you instantly create one of the best high-volume shooting trios in the league. In his short time with Minnesota, Beasley launched 8.2 3-point attempts per game and connected on 42.6 percent of them. For the season, Towns got up 7.9 a game and hit 41.2 percent while Russell hit 36.7 percent of the 9.2 he jacked. The Dallas Mavericks (Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr.) were the only other team to have three players attempt more than seven 3-pointers per night — and they were the best-ranked offense in the league.
In ancillary roles, players like Jake Layman, Josh Okogie, Jarrett Culver and Jordan McLaughlin can all find ways to contribute offensively. Add in some talent from the draft or the free agency pool, and it’s easy to see this team as not only a great shooting squad, but a great offense in general.
Put simply, great shooting creates great offenses, and great offenses are hard to beat. That’s where history starts to look at teams who excel on offense and struggle on defense a bit more kindly. Since the 2009-2010 campaign, only two teams have missed the playoffs after finishing top five in offensive efficiency. Some teams that had top five offenses and bottom 10 defenses that did feature in the postseason include the ‘17-18 Timberwolves, the ‘16-17 and ‘17-18 iterations of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the ‘14-15 Toronto Raptors, the ‘11-12 Denver Nuggets and the ‘10-11 New York Knicks.
The latest team to miss out on the playoffs while earning a place as a top 5 offense was the 2016-2017 Denver Nuggets, who finished 40-42 and missed the playoffs by a single game to the eighth seed Portland Trail Blazers. They finished 4th in offensive efficiency (112.2 points per 100 possessions) but were battered defensively, ending up with the second worst defensive rating league-wide.
At a glance, they weren’t nearly as talented offensively as the 2020-2021 Timberwolves — if all things click — are projected to be. Nikola Jokic had just broken out, averaging 16.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists, but wasn’t nearly the player he was today and was undoubtedly an even worse defender and player than Towns currently is. Star players are important and Denver just didn’t have one yet. Minnesota does.
Danilo Gallinari was at the peak of his powers and their leading scorer, but didn’t do much else outside putting the orange ball in the cylinder; a bit like Malik Beasley. Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler and Will Barton were all high-quality role players, which is the kind of players Minnesota need Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and Jake Layman to become. Neither a young and inefficient Jamal Murray, aging Jameer Nelson or erratic Emmanuel Mudiay could hold a candle to the point guard abilities of D’Angelo Russell currently possesses.
It’s unlikely that the ‘16-17 Nuggets team is much better than the future Wolves, if they are at all (at least not at the top end of the roster). And it wasn’t like the Nuggets weren’t in and around a bunch of devastating offenses. Joining them in the top five were the champion Golden State Warriors, the Moreyball Houston Rockets led by James Harden, the LeBron James/Kevin Love/Kyrie Irving version of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and of course the Lob City Los Angeles Clippers.
The only other team to finish as a top five offense and miss the playoffs in the last 10 years was the 2010-2011 Houston Rockets unit. They are an even stranger case study. According to NBA.com, they finished 4th in offensive rating and 18th in defensive rating — numbers that are overwhelming likely to propel a team to the playoffs. However, they weren’t as talented as the Wolves on paper, either.
Timberwolves legend Kevin Martin paced the team in scoring with his 23.5 a game, but he was notorious for his turnstile defense and inability to impact the game in any other way. Towns and Russell might be known for their own brand of matador defending, but they are undoubtedly more versatile and multifaceted players than K-Mart. Martin is probably more comparable to the Timberwolves version of Malik Beasley, who averaged 20.7 points as a score-first player and is comfortably the third-best player on this Minnesota team.
Flanking Martin was a prime Luis Scola, who was underrated during his good years but still probably not on the level of Minnesota’s top-tier talent, and a 24-year-old Kyle Lowry who was just beginning to find his niche in the NBA. They did have a certain icon by the name of Yao Ming, but the All-Star center was limited to just five games for the season while dealing with a series of stress fractures. The bench was filled with scrappy role players (and former Wolves legends) like Chase Budinger, Courtney Lee and 34 games of Aaron Brooks. Maybe it’s homerism, recency bias or just blind faith, but none of that screams out to be better than the current and future iteration of the Timberwolves.
For reference, that Rockets squad was joined in the top five by the pre-trade Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups Nuggets, the post-trade Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire Knicks, the ‘Heatles’ and, of course, the ever-consistent San Antonio Spurs .
If this history is anything to go by, the Timberwolves have a genuine chance to push themselves into playoff contention if they can hit on all cylinders offensively, especially if they can continue to hit on draft night and role players like Culver, Okogie, Layman, Reid and McLaughlin.
There are certainly barriers, though. Minnesota would have to uproot one of the top five teams from this current season (as it stands, that’s the Mavericks, Rockets, Clippers, Lakers and Celtics). Tough, tough ask. This would likely require more from the stars and more from head coach Ryan Saunders, who has failed to impress in his first 106 games as a lead man.
But, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Improvement on the defensive end is what will get this team over the hump as a true Western Conference threat, but streamlining their offense and squeezing the most out of it could see them at least start to feature in the playoff race.