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One Big Bubble Takeaway: The Weakest Link

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What it takes to play solid postseason defense is becoming abundantly clear, and it doesn’t bode well for the Timberwolves

Brooklyn Nets v Toronto Raptors - Game Two Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The level of play in the NBA’s Orlando bubble has been fantastic, largely due to the fact that that the eight worst teams in the league weren’t invited. Outside of the Washington Wizards, no team was clearly outmatched before the opening tip.

The fun part about that is it gave us an extended, up close and personal look at all of the best teams and players in the league. That, coupled with the first few games of the playoffs, has made it easy to marvel at what makes each team so good.

From a Timberwolves perspective, all we can do is try to take bits and pieces of what we see and apply it to the future-Wolves. A lot of attention goes towards Minnesota’s potentially robust offense centered around Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, and how that looks in a playoff setting.

That definitely deserves attention, and I do have my concerns there, but they are so minuscule in comparison to how I feel about a Russell/Towns led team on the defensive end of the floor in the postseason, should they ever make it. I think in the back of my head I always knew this, but this tweet really hit me.

I think this rings really, really true. We sit and think all the time about star player mano-y-mano match-ups, but the reality is that in today’s NBA, offenses don’t waste their time trying to score against your best defender, regardless of who they’re guarding. Instead, they’ll run you through a series of screens, both on-ball and off-ball, until they get your worst defender on an island with their best scorer.

This is the entire basis of what the Lakers and LeBron James do, as well as what Houston does with James Harden and the Dallas Mavericks do with Luka Doncic. We often hear the phrase “where can you hide player x?” Well, the reality is that in a playoff game in 2020 and beyond, you can’t hide anyone anywhere.

This isn’t necessarily a new concept, but it’s only becoming more and more prevalent around the league as time goes on. Heck, the Cavaliers used to use J.R. Smith as their primary ball-screener in the NBA Finals in order to force Steph Curry onto an island with LeBron. When that didn’t work the first time, all they did was re-screen until Curry was FORCED to switch onto James. It didn’t much matter that Draymond Green, Andre Igoudala, and Klay Thompson were on the floor too, because James was going to get the matchup he wanted and exploit it ruthlessly. This kept the games competitive until Kevin Durant joined the fold.

We’ve seen James do something similar this year as well. In one of the last games of the regular season before the stoppage, James’ Lakers finally beat their LA rivals by relentlessly using Lou Williams’ matchup as LeBron’s screener.

Another good example of this, and maybe to a more extreme extent, can be found in the Nuggets/Jazz series currently taking place. As Kevin Arnovitz talked about on the latest release of Zach Lowe’s The Lowe Post, every single possession Michael Porter, Jr. is on the floor, Utah is targeting him in some screening action involving Donovan Mitchell.

It doesn’t matter who he’s guarding, whether it be Joe Ingles or Royce O’Neale, they’re using that guy as a screener with Mitchell and getting great looks every time down the floor. MPJ brings a lot to the table offensively, but there’s only a handful of guys in the league who can be THAT bad defensively, especially working around screens, while still adding value to your team.

To this point, even screening action is different than it used to be, and it puts more stress on defenses now. Sure, LeBron James and Anthony Davis run a legitimate pick-and-roll looking to create a look directly off of that action, but more often than not, teams are just using ball-screens as a way to take advantage of switching defenses and get the matchups they covet.

Luka Doncic is showcasing this in the Mavericks’ series with the Clippers. It almost doesn’t matter that the Clippers have Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley to throw at him, because Dallas is just setting a ball-screen immediately and getting those guys switched off of Doncic while he goes to work against Williams, Marcus Morris, or the poor soul of Reggie Jackson who had wound up switched onto Doncic for his real “I’m here” moment in the playoffs. Doncic is patently absurd, by the way.

To be sure, having great help defenders on your team can make up for some of this, but the point remains that it’s less important to have one great defender in the playoffs than it is to not have a glaring weak spot.

That’s where I worry about a Towns/Russell core defensively. I think Towns can probably switch onto the perimeter a little bit, so it might not be that that hurts them necessarily, but teams are going to run actions that result in Russell and Towns guarding some sort of screening action. That’s going to be a problem. It won’t matter how good the other three defenders on the court are if those two are able to be easily exploited on that end.

To this point, I’m less worried about Towns than I am Russell. Make no mistake, both players have been very bad defensively throughout their careers. Towns gives me more hope, mostly because we’ve seen him go through spurts of strong defensive play in the past. We’ve seen him do it before. I’d like to think a team that legitimately intends to be competitive with a coaching staff he trusts can bring that out of him.

Where I really worry is with Russell. NBA games, and playoff games in particular, are won by outstanding perimeter scorers/defenders impacting the game. Rim protection is super important, but it’s more impactful if you can deter offenses from getting to the rim in the first place.

There’s absolutely nowhere to hide on the wing in a playoff game. If you can’t defend, they’re going to find you, and we just have not seen really any indication that Russell wants to be a solid defender. He’s 6’5” with a 6’10” wingspan, so there’s clearly some physical tools to work with there, but he isn’t explosive athletically, which hampers him some.

It does feel like, with an uptick in effort, he could probably be around average or slightly below, which, to the point of the aforementioned tweet, is really all we’re asking for. We’re not asking for Russell to become Tony Allen, merely just to be a player that teams can’t target on end throughout a playoff series.

I’ll also be the first to admit that part of the reason I am more comfortable with Towns is that he’s also just a better offensive player, which makes him more capable of making the defensive shortcomings worth the pain.

I actually think this theory also holds true on the offensive end too, but to a lesser extent. Any critical postseason minutes played by a total non-shooter are wasted minutes unless they are absolutely elite as a defender.

For the Wolves, this pretty obviously applies to Josh Okogie. Josh is an elite on-ball defender who has a tendency to fall asleep away from it at times. I love JO, and I want nothing more than for him to be a reliable postseason rotation player. For that to happen, he probably needs to turn into either a semi-reliable shooter from three, or round out his defensive game to turn into a legitimate All-Defensive level player.

Oklahoma City is currently going through this with Lu Dort. They have no hope of containing James Harden without him on the floor, and Dort has been legitimately incredible on defense. On the flip side, Dort’s playing time makes it pretty impossible for OKC to play their lethal three-PG lineup with SGA, Paul, and Dennis Schroeder, and his lack of shooting kills their spacing.

The Nuggets have this problem as well with Torrey Craig. Craig is an awesome defender, but he just can’t shoot enough to keep the floor spread around Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Without Gary Harris and/or Will Barton, Denver has found themselves in a similar position as Minnesota where they have to choose one of shooting or defense, without getting both at the same time.

JO needs to be able to make teams respect him enough that they don’t entirely leave him. In the regular season, you can get away with having a non-shooter on the floor, sometimes two if you’re lucky. In real postseason minutes that matter, though, any non-shooter is going to get exploited tremendously.

That’s how you end up with a player as talented as Ben Simmons score one (1) point in a playoff game. That’s an All-NBA level player who was neutralized due to his lack of shooting. Simmons has been an impactful postseason players since then, and his shooting woes are extreme, but would defenses really treat the current version of Josh Okogie much differently in a playoff environment?

Maybe this is all just a pointless thought experiment because Minnesota does have so many holes to fill before they end up in the playoffs anyways, but they’ve made it clear that their goal next season is to make the playoffs. If that’s their goal, it feels fair to hold them to that standard and think about what a playoff series might look like.

The crux of the issue for the Wolves really is that they’ve been searching for 3-and-D players and have ended up with primarily 3-or-D players. If they want to be taken seriously, they’ll need to patch up their weakest links.