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What Can the Timberwolves Learn From the Best in the Bubble?

The NBA’s best put on a clinic on both ends of the floor night-after-night. Here’s a look at what actions and concepts the Wolves should look to implement on the floor next season.

While you continue to enjoy live, meaningful basketball between the best teams in the NBA this week, I’m sure you - like me - wonder to yourself, “Why don’t the Wolves run more of that or try and play defense like that?”

Instead of answering why the Timberwolves don’t involve certain actions in their offense or play defense in a particular way, today I will explore what actions and defense they should look to implement into their existing basketball infrastructure.

Our beloved Wolves will deploy certified firepower on the offensive end of the floor next season when Karl-Anthony Towns joins forces with D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley, but the team need to add more to the offensive gameplan in order to more effectively weaponize a dynamic, multiple offense.

OFFENSE

The first team I want to look at from an offensive perspective is the Toronto Raptors, one of the most versatile offensive teams in the NBA.

Nick Nurse very well may be the best coach in the NBA, because he finds a way to weaponize the strengths of not just his best players, but also those of his role players, too. Masai Ujiri has done a masterful job building an abundant collection of players who can shoot, create offense for themselves and others, and defend, which Nurse has taken full advantage of.

With two bigs that are equally potent roll and pop threats in the PnR in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, Toronto gets very creative with how they deploy the two both separately and together on the floor.

Here, Nurse runs a set play for Norman Powell, one of the most underrated 3-and-D players in the entire league. Powell is an excellent shooter (38.9 percent on 5.3 attempts per game in 2019-20) but is also a terrific finisher around the rim (72nd percentile on runners and shoots 58 percent around the basket). Since most defenses are prepared for his deadly shooting off screens, he has Ibaka set a screen for him to curl around, while Ibaka rolls to the basket.

Both defenders trail Powell hard here, but the big defender loses sight of Ibaka, who finishes for an easy two. Imagine if KAT is that screener, while Beasley or Layman flies around that screen. KAT could pop out easily for either a wide open look or a one-on-one matchup going downhill for the cutter, which is a matchup you love as an offense. Put a guy like D-Lo or another shooter in the opposite corner and you are cooking with gas.

In this next clip, Nurse calls a horns set. For those who do not know what that is, horns actions involve one ball-screener on each side of the ball-handler at the top of the key, with the two other offensive players most commonly placed in the corners.

You can do just about anything out of a horns set, but I love what Toronto does here. Most times, Horns screeners screen the outside of the point-of-attack defender, but Chris Boucher gets inside of Dame, sending Van Vleet to the left, where Gasol is screening the outside of the switching defender. This allows FVV to get downhill and attack the dropping big. Kent Bazemore assumes Gasol will roll, but he pops instead for a wide open trey.

This is a huge reason why I think the Timberwolves need to be open to two-big lineups. While the five-out concept is great if you can kill teams offensively, having the option to turn to a two-big lineup that can defend opposing two-big lineups and run horns or dual pin down concepts with shooters around them would give the team a better shot on the glass, on defense, and ultimately, on the scoreboard.

If the Wolves do stick with strictly one-big lineups, there is still plenty of potential for a more high-octane offense that utilizes KAT’s shooting and scoring gravity to unlock a new level for himself and his teammates.

Most basketball fans who watch the Celtics more than a few nights per year are familiar with their well-documented deployment of “Spain” PnR actions. Spain PnR involves setting up shooters in both corners, the ball-handler/initiator on above the break, while a shooter (could be a guard or wing) sets up in the paint and the big is at the elbow.

In this play, Brad Stevens has Daniel Theis set a back screen for Terry Rozier so he can get into position in the paint. Rozier then sets a fakes a screen on Theis’s man while Theis is screening the ball-handler in order to lift to the perimeter. The defense is confused with the shuffling below the screen and overcommits to Gordon Hayward, leaving Rozier wide open for an easy 3.

Given D’Angelo Russell’s unique, slippery off-ball ability as a point guard with some good size, the Wolves could very easily deploy him in Rozier’s position here, while Beasley, Okogie, or James Johnson initiates things.

A key element of this action is having your ball-handler be both a driving and shooting threat, as it forces the defense to respect both elements of his game, likely leaving at least one offensive player wide open. Minnesota could run several variations of this that also involve KAT as:

  1. The ball-handler - who could get a switch onto a guard who he takes down to the low-post for an easy post-up, kick out for 3, or drive to the rim.
  2. A corner threat with immense shooting gravity that opens the lane for a driving Beasley or strong-side cutter.
  3. An elbow screener who can pop or roll.
  4. The shooter who can lift to the perimeter for an open shot or dive to the rim if a smaller defender switches onto him.
  5. I would also love to have KAT (the roller in this play) set a pin-down for a corner shooter, such as Jake Layman or Beasley, who can shoot off the screen, back cut, or curl around the screen for a take to the rim. KAT could slip that screen and pop out on a back cut, too.

Spain PnR would enable so many primary and secondary action opportunity for a team like Minnesota who has a shooting big and shooters to go around him, which should make it a no-brainer addition to the Wolves’ offense next year.

With more perimeter shooters comes the opportunity to make slight variations to simple actions to put added pressure on the defense in the halfcourt.

In a similar action to Spain PnR, the Thunder throw a wrinkle into a simple PnR play. CP3 throws a pass to Lu Dort coming off a screen from Steven Adams, who brings the ball back to Paul to enter a two-man game with Adams. CP3 is such a threat from the midrange as he attracts the attention of three defenders, with a fourth under the basket, leaving a wide open passing lane to the opposite corner for an easy 3.

In having three shooters surrounding the PnR pair of a lethal midrange shooter and excellent rolling big, the Thunder force the defense to honor the rolling big or the perimeter shooters, causing a mismatch one way or the other.

Sound familiar? It should.

D’Angelo Russell is an outstanding midrange shooter who regularly makes defenses pay for dropping bigs in front of him in pick and rolls. KAT is obviously a monster rolling down the lane, and the Wolves can now surround them with perimeter shooting from Beasley, Hernangomez, and Layman.

It appears to be a simple play, but I cannot understate enough how important it is to have at least four players that can shoot on the floor at once. With these added shooters, KAT will also have more options at his disposal to create for others when bolting down the lane after setting a high ball screen. While his passing took a huge step forward in 2019-20, KAT has been presented a never-before-had opportunity to vastly improve his short-roll passing.

The PacersDomantas Sabonis is a unique short-roll passing talent. His vision and quick decision making once he receives the ball creates so many open looks for his teammates and is a huge reason why he has also improved as a scorer over the course of his career.

Thanks to his growth as a passer, defenses respect his playmaking acumen as much as his scoring as a roll threat. Understanding this, Sabonis has perfected his head and ball fakes, allowing him to get defenders in the air, draw more fouls, and create open looks for himself at the rim. KAT will (hopefully) be able to do the same and morph into a triple-double threat next season.

In this clip, Sabonis quickly recognizes three defenders swarm him, so he scans both corners, sees Frank Ntilikina baiting him into a pass to Myles Turner so he kicks it to scintillating NBA Bubble legend T.J. Warren for an easy 3.

As a somewhat pass-first roll man, Sabonis will frequently scan the floor and then post up smaller defenders if the defense blitzes the PnR ball-handler and no one else is open. Thanks to his post offense, he usually attracts a second defender, leaving an open player on the perimeter for a good look at a 3.

We all know that KAT is an elite post player, but opposing defenses have rarely blitzed Wolves guards because of their inability to make defenses pay for playing a drop coverage scheme.

With a midrange virtuoso in Russell running the show next season, that will surely change and allow KAT to attack defenses in more ways as a roller next season.

DEFENSE

On the defensive end, the Timberwolves need to be more adaptable. Their strict use of a drop pick-and-roll coverage and apparent tunnel vision on bringing in an offensively-minded 4 to pair with KAT will only make the adoption and development of a more versatile, well-rounded defense more difficult.

However, I believe that even with the personnel they will take into next season, there are changes in defensive ideology and action the team can roll out in order to defend opposing teams (at least slightly) better than a few turnstiles could.

When the Nuggets realized that a drop scheme was not working for Nikola Jokic early in his career, they did not force him to adapt and play to his weaknesses. Instead, Mike Malone went to Jokic and got his input on how he felt most comfortable playing defense and worked to craft a defensive identity around their superstar center’s strengths - vision, basketball IQ, and timing.

In 2017-18, Denver was 25th in defensive points per possession, per Synergy, while deploying a drop coverage scheme. The following season, the Nuggets blitzed opposing PnR ball-handlers, enabling Jokic to attack offensive players, cause turnovers, and trust his backline help defenders. They jumped to 14th in DPPP and went from 25th in PPP allowed to PnR initiators in 2017-18 all the way up to 2nd last season. Consequently, their record improved from 46-36 (9th in the West) to 54-28 (2nd in the West).

Here is a perfect example of why Denver’s defense is so stifling. Jokic blitzes Dame around the screen, knowing he has Jerami Grant to help on the back side if Lillard gets by him. Instead, Jokic backpedals, turns his body square to the rim and blocks Lillard from behind.

Dame has no other options but to go up with it because Grant converges in the lane and Jamal Murray and Will Barton are set up perfectly in the passing lanes to steal any pass Dame would attempt to make to weak side shooters.

In this play, KAT’s first instinct is to blitz Kyle Lowry, but he backs off of him because he has no faith that anyone is behind him to help and gets caught in no man’s land, forcing him to commit a preventable foul.

If the Wolves played to KAT’s strengths (defensive length, quickness, and hands) and allowed him to blitz more, I truly believe the team defense would perform much better. Part of this would be contingent upon the franchise acquiring a 4 man with legit defensive tools and range on the back side, such as Denver’s Jerami Grant or Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr.

The blitz coverage requires off-ball wing defenders to be smart and consistently in the right place at the right time. Here, Will Barton steps up to be in between Noah Vonleh and Josh Okogie, which allows for Jokic to get back and defend the paint when JO comes around Vonleh’s screen in the secondary action.

Josh Okogie, Jake Layman, Jarrett Culver, and Malik Beasley are all guys I trust to make this style of play work because they pay attention to detail and all have a desire to be strong defenders and move the needle for the team on that end of the floor.

However, if Minnesota does decide to roll with the drop coverage moving forward, they need to have better help defense to converge on diving bigs and cutters in the lane, so KAT is not left to deal with them all by himself.

Two teams that do an excellent job of this are the Bucks and the Raptors. I will let you guess who the number one and number two teams in the NBA are in defensive rating, respectively (hint).

First, in this play featuring both Eastern Conference juggernauts, Boucher is playing a drop coverage (with a little show at the top). Instead of leaving Boucher to fend for himself against the reigning MVP, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson joins him in the lane to provide some added resistance.

KAT is too frequently alone in the lane, which makes him more foul prone and often leaves him forced to defend multiple players in the paint at once, which usually results in an easy basket. Even if the Timberwolves do not have a ready collection of athletic, long defenders, they can still be in the right position and swarm the ball in the paint like the Bucks do here.

Brook Lopez almost exclusively drops in the PnR but switches onto Rubio here since Bledsoe opts to not go over the screen. When the big starts to make his move, all five Bucks defenders have a foot in the lane, ready to help, while all maintaining positioning to get out and contest a 3 if need be. Diallo has no choice but to go up with the ball and gets gobbled up for an easy block.

The Timberwolves should be more than able to pack in the defense and swarm mismatches in the paint, considering how long KAT, D-Lo, and Josh Okogie are defensively. They just need to do it more frequently rather than leaving KAT stranded on an island.

Utah is another team that tries to drop as much as possible, because they have two-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert manning the middle.

Rather than forcing Gobert to step out onto Kevin Porter Jr., Royce O’Neale does a phenomenal job spinning under the screen to force KPJ out to the free throw line, where Gobert can more easily defend him. O’Neale then steers his man beneath the basket, where he just has no chance against a vulturous paint warden like Gobert.

There is a huge difference between funneling a ball-handler going downhill into a big and a defender steering him into a spot that makes it easier for the big to defend him. The Timberwolves often did the former, while the Jazz just perfected the latter.

This is unsurprising considering Associate Head Coach David Vanterpool’s defensive construction in Portland was perfect for funneling everything toward Jusuf Nurkic while also having strong defensive wings like Zach Collins, Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, and everyone’s favorite 2019-20 Wolf, Evan Turner, there to provide backup and swarm the paint. The Timberwolves, conversely, do not have any bigger, small-ball 4’s like that to help stabilize things for Towns.

At the very least, the Wolves have added pieces that will allow them to open up the playbook on offense and become a much more dynamic, versatile team that can attack defenses six ways from Sunday. Whether or not the team takes a big step forward on defense will likely come down to how rigid Gersson Rosas and David Vanterpool are in regard to the defensive ideology and how they address the 4 spot this offseason.

KAT is not an elite paint defender and likely never will be. In order to go all in on offense, you need to have a rock solid paint defense at the very least, and the Wolves still have a long way to go in making life easier for its generational big man. Offense can win you games and get you into the playoffs, but defense is ultimately what decides if you sink or swim when you match up with the titans of the Western Conference.

Only time will tell if the Timberwolves agree.