The Minnesota Timberwolves made it clear in the preseason that they would be running much less drop coverage when defending the pick-and-roll. Instead, they would keep the big at the level of the screen and rely on off-ball rotations and awareness to cover the roll-man. While the highlight of the defensive change is at the point of attack, it is a new scheme that engages and relies on all five defenders.
When the change was mentioned, it was met with overwhelming applause. Once we saw it implemented, the results were staggeringly positive. As we’ve gotten deeper into the season, though, we’re beginning to see some chinks in the armor.
The Timberwolves currently have the seventh-best defensive rating of 103.7, force opponents to shoot the 11th worst effective field goal percentage of 51, and force opponents to commit turnovers on 19.4 percent of their possessions, which ranks first in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. In the last few games, though, the Timberwolves have allowed 115 points to the Orlando Magic, who have the 26th worst offensive rating of 102, and let the Los Angeles Clippers have an all-time great shooting night with 60/58/92 shooting splits.
Since the changes have been chiefly positive, let’s start there before we dive into the muck. By keeping the big at the level of the screen, the Timberwolves are immediately putting more pressure on the ball and giving the on-ball defender a little more room for error in navigating the screen. Last season, the Timberwolves’ guards were disturbingly inept at navigating screens which routinely put the dropping big in a lose-lose 2-v-1 situation every time. The ball-handler would have an open shot or easy lob every time. Now, the ball-handler is immediately met by pressure which further disrupts their vision and gives the on-ball defender an extra split-second to recover before the big retreats to his man.
While the on-ball adjustment is important, the real magic happens on the backside of the defense. While that is happening on-ball, the low-man defender (the weak side defender closest to the baseline) is tasked with rotating to the lane. This ensures that the screener doesn’t have a vacant rim to attack. If the low-man doesn’t do his job of shading to the lane and immediately recovering to the corner shooter if the skip pass is made, then the entire defensive impact is nullified.
Here, we see Jarred Vanderbilt press tightly on Brandon Ingram as Jaxson Hayes goes to set the screen. Due to Vanderbilt’s pressure, Ingram takes the only route afforded to him and dribbles away from the incoming screen. As Ingram attacks, Naz Reid meets him at the elbow, and Hayes begins to roll into what looks like an unattended lane. Reid’s pressure forces Ingram to pick up his dribble while Vanderbilt scrambles to recover to Hayes. On the weak side, though, Taurean Prince has rotated to block Hayes’s path. Ingram sees Prince’s rotation has taken away Hayes as an option, so he attempts to make the skip pass to the corner shooter. At this point, Vanderbilt has recovered to Hayes, so Prince starts to rotate back to his man, reads Ingram’s eyes, and steals the pass.
Here, the Magic run a side pick-and-roll with Cole Anthony going towards the middle of the floor and an empty strong side corner. The Magic know that Karl-Anthony Towns will stay at the level of the screen and are trying to nullify the low-man rotation by having Wendell Carter roll to an unoccupied area of the floor. As the low-man, Malik Beasley preemptively reads the Magic’s intention and begins to rotate. Anthony feeds Carter with a lovely pocket pass that should result in Carter getting downhill to the rim. However, since Beasley started his rotation early, Carter pulls up at the elbow.
Beasley doesn’t get a strong contest here, but his awareness and movement prevented Carter from getting what should be an easy layup and instead encouraged him to settle for a long mid-range jumper. Additionally, Prince and Anthony Edwards do a great job of rotating to cover for Beasley. As Beasley slides over, Edwards drops to Beasley’s previous spot, taking away the Franz Wagner cut, and Prince drops to where Edwards was, taking away the skip to the corner.
With extra quickness in the low-man spot, the Timberwolves have off-ball defenders who can cover greater spans and disrupt passing lanes. When they have a bit more length and size in that spot, they have a more substantial weak side rim protection presence. This is the case when Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels assume the low-man responsibility.
Here, Ivica Zubac runs a side pick-and-roll with Eric Bledsoe, with Zubac rolling to the middle of the floor. As Bledsoe comes off the screen, Reid stays high (which allows Beasley to stay tight to his man in the strong side corner), and Bledsoe counters with an immediate pocket pass to Zubac. Zubac has the expectation of an open dunk (he had a few these last two games), but Vanderbilt times his rotation perfectly. By positioning himself on the opposite block and keeping his eyes on the ball, Vanderbilt can quickly react without having to cover a tremendous amount of ground. Vanderbilt is the first one off the floor, stays vertical, and blocks the dunk. Vanderbilt is the key here, but Jordan McLaughlin also makes an excellent rotation to Paul George in the corner to cover for Vanderbilt. It isn’t meaningful in this possession, but it is essential for how this new defense operates.
The Timberwolves’ new defensive improvement feels legitimate and lasting, but it requires constant execution. The entire possession is ruined with one slip-up, and beating this scheme doesn’t require a doctorate. Getting the ball in the middle of the floor (like we just saw with those pocket passes) is the quickest route to success. Once the ball gets to the middle, the offense is now winning the numbers battle and can counter the defense’s rotations, or lack thereof, accordingly.
Here, Terrence Ross immediately feeds Carter after coming off the screen, and D’Angelo Russell meets him on the catch. Beasley, currently the low-man, has also made his rotation to the lane, anticipating the Carter roll. In a vacuum, neither player is wrong, but since they both make the same general rotation, both weak side shooters are left wide open.
The responsibility of the rotation there was Beasley’s, and Russell likely shouldn’t have been the one to make it. However, since Russell met Carter so far from the rim, it isn’t a bad decision. Since Beasley can see the entire floor, he should have moved to recover much sooner instead of lingering in the lane ball-watching.
Here, we see George promptly feed Zubac after he slips the screen. McDaniels is spot on with his rotation to protect the rim outside of the restricted area, and Edwards quickly drops to cover for McDaniels to take away the skip pass to the corner shooter. Unfortunately, Towns and Josh Okogie are late in their return to action as both essentially stop playing once George passes to Zubac. The result is neither covering for Edwards, leaving the shooter wide open.
This time, the Timberwolves nearly do everything correctly. Edwards shades towards the lane to deny Zubac and quickly recovers to his man when the skip pass is made. Additionally, Beasley rotates off his man in the opposite corner to the lane to cover for the space Edwards just vacated. Unfortunately, Edwards’s youthful instincts take over as he bites on the shot fake and has a genuinely awful closeout, giving up the wide-open three to Nicolas Batum.
Edwards’s ball-hawking instincts yet again get him in trouble here. As Anthony approaches the Carter screen, Edwards has positioned himself to tag the soon-to-be roller. However, Anthony has caught Russell committing to the screen too early, so Anthony takes Russell’s hips and denies the screen. At this point, Edwards should stunt towards Anthony and recover to his man in the strong side corner, allowing Vanderbilt to rotate from the weak side to contest Anthony. Instead, Edwards fully commits to the ball and gives up the wide-open strong side corner three.
The Timberwolves being a quality defensive team is something no one expected coming into this season. Even though they’ve had a few stinkers recently, their new defensive scheme feels sustainable, but there is no room for error. All five defenders must be fully engaged on every possession. If they aren’t, a slight slip-up will lead to an easy bucket.
Teams will constantly look to punish the Timberwolves this season with pocket passes out of the pick-and-roll and skip passes to weak side shooters. If the Timberwolves continue their commitment to communication and activity, they have a chance to be a tenacious defense all season. However, if the Magic and Clippers games are an omen for future performances, the defensive decline will be precipitous and distressing.