According to NBA.com’s defensive rating, it has been nearly a decade since the Minnesota Timberwolves finished the regular season with a top-15 defense (2013-14: 12th; 105.2). It’s been almost two decades since they finished with a top-10 defense (2003-04: 6th; 98.5). In what should not surprise anyone who has followed the team closely since their conception in 1989, they have never finished with a top-five defense.
Yet, within the top-five (99.0) is precisely where the 2021-22 Wolves find themselves through a paltry four games this season.
“Unbelievable performance for us tonight from start to finish,” Wolves head coach Chris Finch told the media following his team’s 113-108 win over the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday night. “Offense dried up a little bit as we went along, but our defense never really let down.”
Burgeoning star — both on the court and the podium — Anthony Edwards was a little more, shall we say, energetic about the Wolves’ defensive performance.
“Man, we lock up, man. I don’t care what nobody say about us. We play the best defense in the league. I stamp that. We gonna have two, three people on the All-Defensive Teams, no what I’m saying. And I might be on one of them,” Edwards joked after the victory. “We definitely been winning games on the defensive end, man.”
While their new system remains a work in progress — Finch likened it to algebra compared to the Bucks’ calculus on Wednesday — a couple of essential tweaks and a renewed sense of focus on that side of the ball have the Wolves playing championship-level defense.
Perhaps the most significant — and impactful — change was how they attack pick-and-rolls, as highlighted in the video posted by Dane Moore below.
1st clip: Josh Okogie and Karl-Anthony Towns guarding a high pick and roll in the 2021-22 season opener— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) October 22, 2021
2nd clip: Josh Okogie and Karl-Anthony Towns guarding a high pick and roll in the 2019-20 season opener
Prettyyyy different pic.twitter.com/mR80ozXiio
Save for the first game against the Pelicans, the Wolves have swapped out their big man drop coverage for applying pressure at screen level. This is something that Dane and other media members have spoken on and written about extensively, but making this switch accomplishes a couple of tasks.
The new scheme takes advantage of the overall length and athleticism of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Jaden McDaniels, in effect constricting the passing lanes available to the ball-handler as he comes off the screen. It also prevents the ball-handler from getting a head of steam towards the hoop and allows the Wolves’ defenders to dictate the opposing offense’s actions rather than reading, reacting, or predicting what they will do.
Attacking the screen is particularly a boon for Towns, who would often look like a deer in the headlights in seasons past when defending the pick-and-roll as his ability to react to the actions of the ball-handler was poor, to put it lightly. However, the scheme also plays to the strengths of Vanderbilt and McDaniels, namely their elite lateral quickness, long limbs, and nose for getting their fingertips on the ball, which has resulted in the Wolves accumulating an average of 11.5 steals per game (third-best overall).
(Quick side note: Another change seen in the video above is that the Wolves have drastically cut down their number of switches off screens. Finch has said that refraining from switching increases individual accountability to stepping up on defense, something easily seen through four games.)
Another adjustment the Wolves have made is stressing the importance of contesting 3-point shots. Vanderbilt, McDaniels, Edwards, and Josh Okogie have been exemplary at quickly closing the gap and getting a hand in the face as they rise, which has resulted in opponents shooting a trifling 28.6% from beyond the arc (tied for second-best overall). Opponent 3-point field goal percentage is one of the more volatile defense stats, so it should be taken with more than a grain of salt. However, the numbers back up what the eye has perceived in this instance, which lends greater credence to the stat.
The last significant change made by the Wolves is placing an increased emphasis on protecting the paint.
“You got to stop something, and most good teams are stopping the rim,” Finch said. “We feel we got to win that battle as much as we can, first and foremost.”
Jarred Vanderbilt is so awesome. There are only a handful of NBA players who decide to execute this rotation and do so without fouling. pic.twitter.com/dlXTjVBbZO— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) October 27, 2021
The Wolves have held opponents to 43 points in the paint on average (tied for eighth-best overall) and a 55.3% field goal percentage within six feet of the rim (third-best overall), of which Towns deserves the lion’s share of the credit. They’re also blocking an average of 7.8 shots per game, placing them second in the NBA.
Finch and his coaching staff have wholly revamped the Wolves’ defense by making common-sense adjustments that play to his athlete’s strengths while minimizing their deficiencies. While the regular season is a slog, and there is still a long road ahead of them, the Wolves’ odds of finishing with a top-15 defense are much better now than ever thought possible before the start of the season.