Ah, well, here we go again, I suppose. While the entire season has been an up-and-down rollercoaster for the Timberwolves, this recent five game losing streak certainly feels different than the eight losses in nine games stretch earlier in the season.
For the most part, Minnesota was remaining somewhat competitive during those early season losses. This latest skid has been different, namely the past three games. During their three game homestand, Minnesota was outscored by 60 points, and without garbage time the losses could have been even worse.
While the offense still is in a rut, there is still (blind?) reason to believe that D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, and Karl-Anthony Towns will be able to figure out how to score efficiently as a group.
The defense, however, is showing some real cause for concern without an obvious in-house or strategic answer. That’s a huge problem.
Much was made of Minnesota’s outstanding start to the season on that end of the floor, and it was deserved. By bringing Karl-Anthony Towns to the level of ball-screens, Minnesota had found a way to engage their most important defender in a way that drop coverage could not and had not. The Wolves relies heavily on players like Anthony Edwards, Malik Beasley, Jaden McDaniels, and Jarred Vanderbilt to function as the “low-man” to (in theory) take away the easy lob or dump-off to the Big rolling to the rim.
Over Minnesota’s first 23 games (all but the most recent three-game skid), the Wolves held opponents to an outstanding 105.5 points per-100 possessions, which was roughly a top-5 mark in the league. During the recent homestand, though, Minnesota has been absolutely shredded, giving up 123.8 points per-100 possessions. That number is so bad, that it is difficult to put into perspective. Needless to say, the defense has fallen off of a cliff.
While some could try to argue that this is merely a small sample size problem, I’d argue that the eye-test shows real cause for concern that this may not get better any time soon.
It didn’t help that Minnesota’s last three opponents are three teams with a deadly pick-and-roll attack, but the Cleveland Cavaliers put up their second-highest point total of the season last night, the Utah Jazz put up their second-highest point total of the season, and the Atlanta Hawks made the most three-pointers in the NBA this season on Monday night. That’s not just bad defense, that’s catastrophic.
EVERY single three-pointer from our franchise record-breaking night pic.twitter.com/7hlE5lOrd1— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) December 7, 2021
As alluded to before, the difference has come in the way teams have fared against Minnesota’s PnR defense, and the big worry for me is that I don’t think the Wolves have really changed the way they’re defending these actions, or defended them “worse”, necessarily.
In fact, that Minnesota has defended these all the same way is the problem. In the early portion of the season, teams hadn’t completely scouted the Wolves new defensive identity. It’s not that teams had never seen a team play at-the-level before, but every defense does things just a little bit differently, with their own intricacies.
With a quarter of the season now past, it’s fair to assume that teams have the Wolves scouted.
That has left the Wolves looking like a middle of the road relief pitcher in baseball. The Wolves are the career journeyman who throws a 96mph fastball up in the strike zone every time. You can get away with that against lower level competition, but against top competition, that reliever needs a second pitch to keep the hitter off-balance.
The Wolves have no off-speed pitch, or at least no passable one. Like the journeyman reliever, the Wolves default defense is the scheme for their talent and personnel. It should be what they’re playing the majority of the time, but NBA offenses are simply too good to just do the same thing over and over again against.
Teams and players adjust, and that’s a bit of what we’ve seen lately. Trae Young dragged the screen out high, forcing Towns or Naz Reid to switch onto the ball-handler. He also made quick passes to someone like Kevin Huerter on the wing, who then could attack a scrambled and spread-out defense. Utah has been one of the best PnR teams in the league for years, and they used Rudy Gobert’s size to pin Minnesota’s low defenders off while Donovan Mitchell waltzed down the lane for layups. Finally, Cleveland used their size and stellar passing to go over-the-top of Minnesota’s low-man, ending in repeated lobs to Jarrett Allen.
A dunker's delight.— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) December 11, 2021
The Wine & Gold threw down 1️⃣3️⃣ big ones last night in Minnesota! pic.twitter.com/i5e3O3BC98
These teams saw the same thing over and over again, and the Wolves couldn’t figure out how to adjust, in part because their personnel does not allow them to play several different coverages adequately.
We’ve seen Chris Finch try to throw a zone at teams with varying levels of success. While the Wolves are willing to fly around in that zone, one of the big weaknesses of a zone is that it makes defensive rebounding more difficult. The Wolves struggle to box-out and grab defensive rebounds in man, so this problem is only magnified when they sit in zone.
Minnesota went to their current more aggressive PnR coverage because we’ve already seen what KAT and the rest of the Wolves defense looks like in a more passive drop coverage. Spoiler alert: it’s really freaking bad.
So, Finch is currently stuck between a rock and a hard place. His base defensive coverage is the coverage best suited to his personnel, and for that he deserves credit. His down-to-earth and composed demeanor have suited him well thus far, but it’s about time to hit the panic button. There just aren’t many good alternatives right now.
Getting D’Angelo Russell back will help the defense (never thought I’d type that out), in part because he’s one of their best communicators, but I think that he will help this team the most by getting the offense going.
We often hear about good defense helping an offense out by getting steals and producing easy buckets in transition, but I think Russell’s value will be felt most by getting the offense more organized. The Wolves need their offense to score efficiently and make the opposing team take the ball out of the net, walk the ball up the floor, and play against a set Wolves defense.
The Wolves have been scoring just 104.6 points per-100 possessions over the last three games, which, extrapolated out over the full season, would be the fifth-worst offense in the NBA. For the season, they are turning the ball over on 15.5% of their possessions, fourth-worst in the NBA. Minnesota eFG% sits right at 50.0%, which is sixth-worst. Combine the poor shooting with the high frequency of the turnovers, and you end up giving the opposition a ton of transition opportunities, which are obviously more efficient possessions than trying to score in the half-court.
The looming question is whether or not the Wolves will get aggressive in the trade market, but until that really heats up, it’s somewhat useless to speculate on what the team could add or may add.
Suffice to say, the Wolves might not have a good schematic option to help fix their defense, that now looks scouted if not broken altogether. The best they can do on that side of the ball is mix-in a few possessions with traps, a possession of drop here or there, and maybe a little zone out of timeouts to keep teams from scheming out easy ATO plays. Ultimately, though, they’ll need to ride out their current scheme.
Besides that, they need the offense to play up to the level it’s capable of, and help out the defense that kept the team afloat for the first quarter of the season.