The last time the Timberwolves had an above-average defense (2013-14), Anthony Edwards was 12 years old. Given how the Timberwolves played last season, there wasn’t much concrete evidence that suggested significant improvement besides blind faith, complete infatuation with Jaden McDaniels, or conviction on an imminent Ben Simmons trade. However, what the Timberwolves showed in their first preseason was the first time we’ve been provided legitimate, on-court evidence of a commitment to defense.
In recent seasons, the Timberwolves have been plagued by lazy point-of-attack defense, indifferent off-ball defense, weak defensive rebounding, and the dreaded drop pick-and-roll coverage. Given their lack of size, their rebounding woes are likely to continue. We even saw stretches of it against the Pelicans, and it would’ve been worse if Williamson or Valanciunas were playing. However, the rest of the defense looked unquestionably improved, and the Timberwolves’ defensive success wasn’t merely a result of the Pelicans missing shots.
The point-of-attack defenders navigated screens with purpose, the pick-and-roll coverages varied, and the off-ball rotations were timely. We didn’t get a whole serving of the new-look defense we were promised as there was still a good heaping of drop coverage, but there was still a meaningful shift in Karl-Anthony Towns and Naz Reid meeting the ball-handler higher on the floor instead of ushering them to the rim. The transition in pick-and-roll defensive coverage will take some time to fully implement, but what we saw was encouraging.
Leading up to preseason, Coach Finch continued to praise Anthony Edwards and the exquisite on and off-ball defense he was playing. Hesitant to buy into training camp inflation, his praise felt more like lip service rather than foreshadowing. One game in, and Edwards not only looks like he has picked up where he left off last season as a defensive playmaker but has also improved his off-ball defensive awareness.
As the Pelicans bring the ball up, Edwards avoids the pin-down screen and positions himself on the elbow. As Brandon Ingram comes off the dribble handoff, we see the Timberwolves’ new defensive philosophy in action as Towns meets him at the free-throw line. Towns isn’t alone, though. Edwards plays perfect nail defense as he stunts towards Ingram to help Towns deter the drive. After stunting and sufficiently impeding Ingram’s drive, Edwards moves to recover in a timely fashion while not taking his eyes off the ball. Ingram attempts a no-look pass to counter against Edwards’s off-ball help, but Edwards’s awareness and positioning allow him to steal the pass and take it the other direction for a grown man finish.
Moving away from drop coverage makes sense for this team, but it is an adjustment that the entire team needs to make, not just the center. When Towns or Reid stays high off the screen, it leaves the paint wide-open. It is now the weak side defenders’ job to shade towards the lane and make any necessary rotations into the paint.
Here, we see a great example of the Timberwolves doing just that. As Devonte’ Graham dribbles off the screen, Towns stays high, and D’Angelo Russell is helping at the nail (similar to Edwards in the previous video). Further away from the ball, we see Edwards and Josh Okogie shading to the lane in case they need to help on a Willie Hernangomez roll while also being in a position to recover if a skip pass is made. Graham fakes a shot which gets Towns to commit to a contest before making a pretty pass to Hernangomez on the roll for what should be an easy dunk. However, due to his defensive preparation, positioning, and athleticism, Okogie meets him at the rim and turns away the dunk.
The Timberwolves’ pick-and-roll coverage varied throughout the game regarding where the center picked up the ball-handler. There was still some traditional drop coverage, but even in these cases, the Timberwolves’ center typically contained the ball-handler much earlier instead of waiting under the rim for them. This slight change puts a defender in the ball-handler’s face much earlier and doesn’t give them ample space to attack and process a decision.
Here, we see Towns drop to contain Ingram, but Towns is essentially switching to Ingram at the elbow. As Ingram drives, Edwards communicates the switch with Russell on the weak side before dropping to the paint to tag Hernangomez. At the same time, Okogie also stunts towards Ingram’s drive from the strong side corner.
Typically, this is a big no-no, especially with NBA shooters, but Okogie isn’t guarding a lethal shooter, has the athleticism to recover, and is merely stunting instead of full-on helping. Okogie’s stunt tempts Ingram into passing out of his drive to Okogie’s man. Okogie quickly runs Naji Marshall off the line and contests the mid-range pull-up. The Timberwolves give up the offensive rebound (something I’m afraid will be a common theme this season), and the Pelicans quickly get the ball to the dunker spot. In the past, after giving up an offensive rebound, we’d frequently see a dejected Timberwolves team give up on the play. Instead, Towns and McDaniels immediately swarm the ball and turn away the would-be dunk.
The Timberwolves’ improved off-ball defense wasn’t only applicable in the pick-and-roll or with the starters. Players appear to have bought in on making the extra effort and that when they make a rotation, their teammate will be there to back them up. This commitment to quality defense seems to have permeated all levels of the rotation.
Here, Josh Hart has a favorable matchup against Reid on the perimeter and wisely attacks. Reid doesn’t get burned, but Hart has a quality angle to score. However, Pat Beverley has entered the conversation by frantically rotating off the weak side corner shooter to deter Hart’s layup. Hart makes the proper read and kicks it to Graham in the corner. Jarred Vanderbilt quickly rotates, forcing Graham to make the extra pass. Taurean Prince follows suit by rotating and running Ingram off the line, who carelessly drives into Reid.
The timing on the rotations wasn’t necessarily pristine, but the effort was there. As the season progresses and players become more familiar with each other, that timing will improve. The effort and commitment to defense, though, is something new and fascinating.
It has been ages since we’ve seen the Timberwolves committed to defense from the top of the rotation to the bottom. They are slowly implementing a defensive system focused on success together instead of amplifying individual successes and failures. The easy line of thinking is that this game was a blip on the radar, and once they face adversity, old habits will resurface, and incompetence and disinterest will reign supreme again.
This defense felt different, though. It had a sense of accountability and buy-in. There was communication, effort, and awareness. Hope conquers all in the preseason, and there is very little that we saw from the Timberwolves’ defense against the Pelicans that should dampen that hope.