There has been no shortage of excellent on-court production or feel-good stories emanating from the Orlando’s NBA bubble. It started with Devin Booker and his undefeated Phoenix Suns, and it’s carried all the way through to this week with Jayson Tatum’s Boston Celtics and, of course, LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers.
At the summit of those displays of mouth-watering hoops have been the Denver Nuggets. After being pushed aside by the Portland Trail Blazers in last season’s Western Conference Semifinals, the Nuggets took another gigantic leap this season, recovering from a pair of 3-1 series deficits to advance past the Los Angeles Clippers and into the Western Conference Finals.
From a Minnesota Timberwolves perspective, none of the bubble brilliance really impacts them. Presently, President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas is gathering the front office troops and gearing up for an important free agency frenzy and a draft night that sees them hold three picks in the top 33, including the first overall selection.
However, there is a blueprint for every cellar-dwelling team to be found in the playoffs. Minnesota has consistently drawn comparisons to the small-ball stylings of the Houston Rockets and the pace-and-space Brooklyn Nets, but the Nuggets may provide the most stylistically similar template. After the Wolves slashed Denver’s playoff hopes by winning the win-or-go-home game 82 back in 2018, it seemed like the two teams would have side-by-side rises to prominence.
Now, being a perennial playoff squad and having enough talent to push the best teams in the West feels like a pipe dream for the Timberwolves, but it’s a reality for the Nuggets. With both teams, production starts at either end of the positional totem pole. Point guard Jamal Murray and center Nikola Jokic run the show for Denver, and, despite playing just one game together, D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns will be the pillars that shoulder the production in the Twin Cities.
Jokic is the only out-and-out first option center remaining in the playoffs, which is an important success story for a Timberwolves organization doing everything they can to appease and enhance Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s rare to see big men lead winning teams these days, but players who can score or facilitate from all three levels will always be exceedingly valuable. Jokic has been superhuman in the playoffs, particularly in the litany of elimination games Denver has featured in, but there is no reason to believe Towns doesn’t have the ability to produce a similar level of offensive importance.
The Serbian giant possesses generational vision, touch and overall passing acumen at his size, where as KAT has a genuine case to be the most versatile and efficient 3-point shooting big man that the world has ever seen. Both excel as back-to-the-basket bruisers, giving them the all-around talent that allows them to effectively operate as the linchpin of an effective offense.
From the 2016-17 season (where Jokic broke out into a high-usage star) up until the 2018-19 season (before Towns was marred by knee and wrist injuries), the two teams never strayed more than two points per 100 possessions away from each other, both ranking within the top 10 in offensive rating all three seasons, according to NBA.com. Towns and Jokic differ in terms of their top-tier strengths, but they both boast enough firepower to consider themselves indisputable first options.
Murray has been by Jokic’s side since the aforementioned 2016-17 season, growing in stature as a player every year and cementing himself as a true star with some unfathomably awesome performances in the bubble. Like Jokic and Towns, Murray is a different player to D’Angelo Russell, and the latter has a lot of catching up to do to duplicate the big-game production that Murray has displayed. However, throughout their up-and-down careers, the similarities in production and overall impact are there. While Murray’s explosiveness and finishing at the rim rule over Russell’s, the Timberwolves point guard enjoys a higher volume and efficiency in terms of 3-point shooting and a sharper eye for a defense-bending pass.
Much like Murray has alongside a dominant big man, Russell should thrive in a sidekick role alongside Towns. The newly-acquired point guard has been able to get his numbers as a top option in Brooklyn and Golden State, but he was probably tasked with a smidgen too much responsibility to be a truly efficient player. Make no mistake, the Jokic and Murray pairing are different in many ways to the Towns and Russell duo, and there is no denying the chasm in team success for the two duos, but the structure and blueprint for offensive success is undoubtedly comparable.
There are even comparisons to be made with low-usage bit-part players from the two teams. Gary Harris and Torrey Craig are reminiscent of defensive-minded, shooting-challenged wings Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver. Out-of-the-blue guards Monte Morris and Jordan McLaughlin share similar stories, measurements and strengths. Even former Nugget Malik Beasley, size be damned, shares the same sort of machine-gun shooting mentality that Michael Porter Jr. has exhibited throughout the latter part of the season.
In terms of offensive shot-plotting, there’s more difference than there is with personnel. Both teams strive to feed the ball through their big man’s hands as often as possible, usually from the top of the key, and both are trying to get to the rim and the free throw line at a high rate. With Jokic’s superior facilitating chops, the Nuggets have found it easier to get open looks at the cup. Throughout the regular season, Minnesota actually attempted the third-most field goals from within five feet of the rim and 2.9 more on average than Denver (34.2 to 31.3). But, Michael Malone’s team finished fifth in field goal percentage in that area (63%), compared to 24th for Ryan Saunders’ men (59.8%).
It should go without saying that Jokic is a genuinely great passer (perhaps the best playmaking big the game’s ever seen). But Towns is no slouch in that department, and it would be nice to see Saunders take a page out of Malone’s playbook and find creative ways to get the two-time All-Star creating high-percentage looks for his teammates. Take the simple yet elegant offensive wrinkle in the clip below for an example. Jokic’s baseline curl cut is facilitated by a Murray down screen, as soon as Jokic makes the catch, a quick dive behind the switching defenders and a nifty pass gets Murray an easy layup.
Another one, this time even more basic. A side pin down screen and a hard-cutting Porter Jr. gives Jokic an easy target to feed from the top of the arc.
There is clearly onus on Towns to make these passes, and Russell, Culver, Beasley etc. to move toward the rim with purpose, but Saunders wasn’t creative enough with his offense this season. Instead, he leaned on a basic system, relying on back cuts and passing out of collapsed defenses to help Towns facilitate offense.
The final, and perhaps biggest difference in offensive philosophy, however, is Denver — Murray especially — are much more inclined to try and create from the mid-range area, where as Minnesota are living and (often) dying by the long-ball. It’s unclear how much the Wolves will let Russell, Beasley and (insert draftee here) work in the mid-range throughout a full season, but as of now, you can see the divergence in shooting philosophy from the two team’s season shot charts:
If the Wolves are to be truly successful, it would be wise to let Russell operate in his preferred in-between range. They don’t have to go overboard or change the analytic-driven style that has become popular throughout the league, but there is merit in letting shot-makers hunt hot zones. Per NBA.com, Russell and Murray both attempted 3.9 mid-range shots per night, adding another piece of kindling to the comparison fire. Of the 33 players who took more than 3 mid-rangers a game, Russell ranked fifth in field goal percentage (48.6%), while Murray ranked 8th (46.3%).
It’s easy to see that Rosas and Saunders want to play a certain way, and they are absolutely correct in following the path the analytics are leading them towards. But players like Russell and Murray should be given a longer leash and allowed to flourish in the spots they’re comfortable in — especially if you’re looking to maximize them completely. In 14 games with Minnesota, Russell was around that same mark (3.8 mid-range shots per game), so perhaps Saunders has taken a a step in Malone’s direction, which should only lead to similarly positive results to the ones we have seen in Denver.
With so many easily constructed similarities, the biggest question remains around why Denver has kicked on and become a Western Conference elite and why the Wolves are praying yearly for the lottery ping pong balls to drop their way. Since Jimmy Butler willed Minnesota into the playoffs and promptly bolted to Philadelphia, Minnesota has won just 55 games of the 146 they’ve played, finishing 11th in the Western Conference in 2018-19 and 14th in 2019-20. On the other hand, Denver have won 100 of their 155 regular season games over the previous two seasons, banking two playoff series to boot. The answer is defense, which is where the personnel differences really start to rear their ugly head.
By no means are the Nuggets an elite defensive unit — they ranked 16th in defensive rating in the regular season and only four teams have fared worse in the postseason — but they have found a way that works a whole lot better than the Timberwolves. When you have an offensive force like Jokic or Towns and a sidekick who has shown they can handle the lion’s share of ball-handling duties while lighting up the scoring column on any given night, you can bank on your offense being good — making a middle of the pack defense enough to drag you over the line.
Like Minnesota, their weaknesses defensively start with their stars. Jokic’s basketball IQ is off the charts, on both ends, meaning he can make up for some of his deficiencies purely with elite feel for the game. However, that doesn’t completely absolve the fact that he is flat-footed, slow and suspect to up-and-down bouts of effort. Murray has made strides defensively, and he has the body to continue doing so, but he’s also incredibly inconsistent and is yet to post a single season with a positive defensive player impact plus/minus.
Those same problems plague Towns and Russell. Towns has the athletic edge on The Joker, but his defensive nous is severely lacking, with the same slow feet and erratic motor anchoring him down. Russell is probably the worst of the quartet. His 6-foot-5 size and 6-foot-9 wingspan should lend itself to being a better defender, but his lack of strength when fighting through screens and his lackadaisical off-ball defense shatter a defensive shell far too often.
Where Denver recovers from these deficiencies is with the system and players they have put around their two stars. Instead of secluding Jokic on an island by dropping him in the pick-and-roll, they have adopted the hedging technique which puts less onus on the All-Star to play constant quarterback for the team defense. Rather than waiting in the paint to protect the rim (which he is poor at), the hedging coverage dictates that Jokic get up in line with the screen and move his feet and hands to stifle the ball-handler and minimize the passing window to the roller.
Thanks to factors like lineups and opponents, teams are flexible switching between schemes and the fine print within those schemes, but Denver was one of the teams least likely to run drop scheme. According to Cranjis McBasketball via Second Spectrum, Denver ranked in the top five leaguewide in blitz and hard hedge defensive coverages.
The Timberwolves went the opposite direction, choosing to run drop coverage virtually anytime Towns was on the floor. In the drop scheme, the big drops into the paint, protecting the rim and making it easier to cover the roller if the pass does get through. With the drop scheme, the goal is obvious; force the scorer to make a mid-range jumper, the most statistically inefficient shot in the game. We have seen it work quite well with teams like the Milwaukee Bucks with Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe causing defensive havoc for other teams, but their personnel fits the scheme much, much better.
The problem with the drop scheme, particularly in Minnesota’s case, is it requires the other defender in the pick-and-roll to fight through the screen and stay somewhat attached to the player with the ball, making the mid-range shot that little bit harder. It also demands the rest of the defenders to be on a string, as any sort of miscommunication or bungled rotation from the corners can result in a wide-open triple.
Minnesota has looked more promising with Okogie or Culver (their versions of Harris and Craig) guarding the ball-handler, but eventually, it’s always come back to Russell, Jeff Teague or Andrew Wiggins being hunted and picked apart. With those three (and others) failing to put pressure on the screen-setter and initiator, Towns usually gets caught flush between the hammer and the anvil. With the 24-year-old already lacking positional awareness and defensive work rate, he isn’t forged strong enough to withstand the blow.
Jokic’s quick hands and ability to think the game one step ahead of his opponents are both things Towns would need to improve, but the biggest helper for the Denver defense is the personnel that surrounds him. Back-side defenders in the form of Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant act as a security blanket, mopping up the spillage on the more than odd occasion that Jokic gets caught out of position.
In all of the plays below, Jokic comes out to try and hedge or trap the pick-and-roll ball-handler. In all of them, he gets stuck in the mud and effectively gives up a lane to the rim in one way or another. That’s where great help defenders like Millsap and Grant are invaluable, rotating off their man and making the stop at the rim.
Those kinds of point-saving plays have happened countless times throughout Denver’s rise to the upper echelon of the Western Conference, and it’s the most visible area that Minnesota’s porous defense is missing. So, who are the players that the Wolves could feasibly bring in to fill this role? Of course, the obvious candidate is Grant himself, who’s filled that role beautifully for the Nuggets as Millsap has aged and slightly withered. When you consider the athleticism he possesses — allowing him to play at the high-tempo pace Ryan Saunders is striving for — and the fact hit connected on 39% of his 3-pointers over the last two seasons, there may not be a better on-paper fit.
The hurdle there is that Grant has a player option for $9.3 million to return to Denver next season, and he won’t get much, if any, more from Minnesota with their Mid-Level Exception (MLE). Unless Rosas can tempt Grant with the prospect of long-term financial security, it seems like a stretch to imagine Grant leaving Colorado for the Twin Cities.
Another dream scenario would be Miami Heat forward Derrick Jones Jr., who’s an unrestricted free agent when free agency opens. Like Grant, DJJ will have multiple suitors, but might be more likely to leave, considering he has struggled to get off the bench for Eric Spoelstra’s team in the playoffs, Miami’s loaded cap sheet and their constant high-profile free agent luring.
Known for his jump-out-the-gym bounce he exhibited through multiple dunk contests and in-game posters, Jones Jr. translates all of that athleticism and 7-foot wingspan into defensive prowess. He isn’t the offensive threat of a Grant, but, at 6-foot-7, he moves like trout through a river with the quick-twitch reactions and hunting instincts of a jaguar on the prowl.
When a coach of Spoelstra’s ilk places the kind of faith in you defensively that he has shown Jones Jr., their rarely a greater compliment. According to Basketball Index, the 23-year-old was tasked with spent guarding All-NBA players 86 percent more than the average player, and All-Star’s 87 percent more.
If the situation requires more skint and unpolished options to fill the role of a defensive-minded power forward who can put out fires and help Towns crawl out of the hole he has dug himself with years of underwhelming defensive performances, Toronto’s Chris Boucher is another classic shot-blocking help defender.
The 27-year-old late bloomer has plied his trade with one of the league’s elite development teams over the past two years, and could be looking for more consistent minutes and a bigger healthier bank balance. He is a restricted free agent, meaning Toronto can match any offer he receives, but he has spent the last few years on the fringes of the Raptors rotation, and Toronto President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri has the much more important contracts of Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol to worry about. Throwing the Bi-Annual Exception — which will be in the range of $3.8 million depending on the COVID-19 cap hit — should be enough to tempt him away and stay out of the Raptors price range.
Even in limited minutes, Boucher has shown himself to be an exceptional shot-deterrent and presence around the rim, with impressive side-to-side and up-and-down athleticism that allows him to move around the court fluently. He is more prone to clumsy fouls and general lack of experience plays the Jones Jr. or Grant, but the numbers he possesses speak for themselves. The former Oregon stud ranked in the 94th percentile for rim contests per 75 possessions, the 96th percentile in blocks per 75, and players shot 16.5% less than expected at the rim when he was protecting it, per Basketball Index.
If Minnesota instead turns to the draft to fill this role, second-round prospect Paul Reed and (especially) mid-to-late first-rounder Patrick Williams both fit the mold snugly. They’ll need time and nurturing, but both have the chance to become great defenders down the line and might cost no more than the 17th pick on draft night. Rangy bundles of energy, both are raw, but have terrific defensive instincts, a budding offensive outlook, and the body to play multiple positions defensively.
Even if Saunders, Rosas and Defensive Coordinator David Vanterpool (if he isn’t snapped up by a team looking for a head coach) stick to their guns and remain in the drop coverage, it would be malpractice not to throw an offer sheet or pick at one of those options. All five can slot into both defensive schemes and add immediate value, and the Wolves need capable defenders more than anything.
With Minnesota, the clock is ticking. They have found the basis of a core that they believe can work, but now it’s time to start turning this ship around. Through Denver, they can peek into the crystal ball and glimpse what life can be like when you surround talented yet flawed stars with the right pieces and the right schemes. No two teams are ever the same, but it’s a copycat league, and the Timberwolves have a pretty handy blueprint right under their noses.