After being completely outclassed and “outpunked” as Chris Finch put it after Monday night’s deflating defeat, the Minnesota Timberwolves have a lot of work in front of them. Getting walloped on your home hardwood by a young, pesky San Antonio Spurs team that looked and played with approximately 1000% more interest and desire in winning—contrary to the directions both teams are supposed to be heading during the 2022-23 season—is certainly cause for concern, even if it’s only game 4 of 82.
Exactly how much concern is up for debate, but it’s fair to have some questions after an uninspiring 2-2 start with two wins over the disinterested tanking Oklahoma City Thunder, a close loss to the Utah Jazz, who are much better than expected, and whatever last night's embarrassment was. Even the best teams have horrible duds during the exhausting season. But losing the way the Wolves did this early in a campaign with such high expectations, with no energy, effort, or execution from the jump, is definitely not fine. That’s why the fans were booing at Target Center that’s why there’s been a lot of early outrage.
While finding myself firmly in the extremely patient crowd, I figured it might be informative to look at one of the important why’s behind the total meltdown. First, we already know a couple of areas of weakness that need immediate attention. The transition defense is a mess that needs some miracle cleaner to fix—Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt aren’t walking back through those doors either—and the defensive rebounding (will everyone please box out) needs to be re-emphasized for the millionth time even with the Twin City Towers.
There’s also the fact they are shooting 28.7% from three, 29th in the league on 34 attempts per game (15th) which is both hurting the offense and leading to long rebounds and easy outlet/transition opportunities.
But the focus of this post is about turnovers and how to clean them up. It’s an issue on both sides of the floor, too. They aren’t creating any—which was the staple of last season’s chaotic, scrambling, Flying Around With Purpose defensive scheme—and keep throwing possessions away to make matters worse. The Wolves are currently dead last in opponent turnover percentage at 10.3% and are coughing up the ball too much at an estimate of 13.4 TOV% per 100 plays (22nd in the league). We can burn all of this latest film at a later date when hopefully the kinks have been ironed out. Until then, the Wolves need to watch their turnovers on a loop and realize how much those dead possessions are bleeding into other issues like their brutal transition defense.
16 Turnovers To Dissect
The first turnover of the night is nothing to get too upset about but highlights a couple of important issues. D’Angelo Russell is probably crunched down too close on his entry pass to Karl-Anthony Towns, so the spacing starts a bit jacked up and doesn’t improve. It’s still the right read and they have to hammer this mismatch on point guard Tre Jones in the post. KAT goes quickly at Jones as he should, but doesn’t fully account for Jakob Poeltl as it appears he’s trying to force-feed Rudy Gobert the lob. Jones is the bait and Poeltl slides over immediately on the touch to swat the attempt away and gathers the possession. Gobert is spaced away around the dunker spot but the Spurs sell out. Towns could be more patient and crafty but they could run this action again the next time down and maybe it works. Mostly it’s an excellent play by the Spurs’ C but also the start of many messy sets and one example of how teams will defend a post set like this.
The next turnover is a great example of what a lazy Wolves possession has been looking like early on this season. The blame goes all around here. D’Angelo for the slow bounce pass, Ant for not cutting hard off the “screen,” firing out of his break and into receiving the pass, and ultimately Towns, who probably deserves the most blame for not setting a hard screen on Edwards’ man to start the set. Towns doesn’t even touch Keldon Johnson on the down screen that’s supposed to free up Ant. It’s a perfect example of what happens when the entire team isn’t fully engaged in the action. The only player going full speed here is the defender in Johnson.
Ant starts in the left slot, again receiving a poor screen from Towns, who barely touches Josh Richardson with his hip before rolling right into the lane, cutting off Ant’s drive and clogging everything up by bringing Poeltl in the lane. Johnson sinks down if he needs to help on Towns, though he’s still in a position to intercept the corner three pass to Jaden McDaniels. Bad screen, spacing issues, poor read, turnover. This starts the fastbreak and ultimately the Josh Primo AND-1.
For whatever reason, the Taurean Prince bad pass turnover #4 was not viewable on NBA.com so TP gets a visual pass here. Who is Prince paying over there?
Moving along to the next turnover...the Wolves are now down 18. Everything is falling apart. Russell starts at the top of the key after Ant hands him the rock. The play is set to run through Towns on the extended high right elbow but they don’t even get to the part where he surveys and reads the floor. Instead, we see another example of disconnect and not running the set fully engaged. D’Lo doesn’t make a smart pass to begin with—he should see the defender is already in a position to snatch the pass with his long arms—and Towns doesn’t do his job to seal off the hungry, prowling, defensive-minded rookie in Jeremy Sochan either. Neither of them are locked into the action here. Turnover. Transition. Alley-oop. “It’s been a clinic so far by the San Antonio Spurs,” says Jim Pete.
Edwards is the culprit of the next turnover but this time in transition. This clip should look pretty familiar as it’s happened a number of times early this season to various Wolves. The best version of Edwards may be in transition where he can attack scrambling defenses, though he remains very far away from his ceiling in this regard. It’s hard to be mad with him firing up the floor full speed ahead looking for blood as the Wolves have somehow made this into a 58-49 affair.
Edwards has made some questionable decisions in his fastbreak opportunities thus far. He sees Russell out of the corner of his eye ready for an open catch-and-shoot trey in the left slot, or an extra pass to Jaylen Nowell for the wide-open corner three if the defender jumps up, but he doesn’t feel the trailing defender Isaiah Roby behind him. Roby makes a tremendous grit defensive transition play as Petersen points out on the telecast. Edwards either needs to pass this two seconds earlier to Russell around halfcourt while the passing lane is clear or he should attack the rim fearlessly. If he wants to play things really safe, he could even pause for a split second, wait for the trailing defender to fly by, and then hit the pull-up jumper or settle the offense. Roby also deserves a ton of credit here; the hustle is what keeps fringe role players like him in a rotation.
One of the smartest defenders on the team is Jordan McLaughlin with his quick hands and nose for passing lanes. This is a pretty classic J-Mac steal and another turning point in the game. You feel the momentum shifting a bit only for it to come crashing down a second later. The Spurs do the same thing in defensive transition and it’s where they dominated the Wolves in this game. Tre Jones comes flying back down the court to intercept almost the same exact feed to the slot that Edwards tried making above. Primo only makes one of two at the free-throw line after being fouled on the other end but the damage is done as they get hosed in the transition battle again.
Time to talk about setting screens again. This probably is going to be an issue that arises quite a bit with this team. Towns has never been a strong screener—he’s too eager to roll or pop or chip or ghost screen—and Gobert sets so many screens that he’s bound to get called for some illegal ones even if he’s the best in the league at it. This one below is questionable after further review but the point to take away here is that Towns needs to improve this part of his game in the worst way. He has a really bad rep with the refs, too. At this point, they’re so accustomed to calling him on illegal screens; his reputation proceeds the actual play and this will continue until he cleans it up over an extended period of time. 50/50 turns to 75/25.
Turnover #10 is an Anthony Edwards offensive foul but the clip I could find is only 4 seconds. They have to cut down on the offensive fouls...
Next up is another display of two things: the unfocused passing of the Wolves and how damn good the Spurs were with steals, deflections, and getting into passing lanes. Teams will have to be careful with this Popovich squad. They are long and fly all around the court with a mammoth center that controls the paint with those fire hydrant knees (shout-out Jim Pete again that was a hilarious description). It’s seven different shades of defensive smoke with SAS. D’Lo needs to either make the pass over the top or probably more wisely pull it back out, reset, and get Poeltl on an island. Then re-attack. If it feels like the Spurs were playing in transition all night, well, they were.
Stick with me here. I’m trying to be informative even if this is a frustrating process! My goal was to better understand why these turnovers are happening in the first place. Of course, mistakes are going to happen, and defenses work hard to spoil everybody’s best stuff, but a lot of the turnovers in this latest loss felt avoidable.
WARNING: This next clip may cause you to exit the browser in anger. Please return when you’ve calmed down.
We’ve seen this far too many times. We’re probably in need of an intervention. KAT draws our friend from Apple Valley in the mismatch again. It’s center vs. point guard starting the possession between the elbow and three-point line. Huge mismatch. Towns drives erratically and Eurosteps right into Jones—who watched and studied KAT plenty of times at Target Center while still in High School—before flailing, screaming for a foul, and losing the rock. Once again we’re off to the races. The result: another uncontested alley-oop to Sochan.
The boos rain down on the squad. TVs around town are switching channels. The same type of discourse is unfolding once again. My suggestion is for Karl to catch the ball, face up, and shoot right over that little fella's head. Maybe start with a Kobe/Melo type back down and see what happens. Do a couple of KD rip-throughs? KAT could dish it to the left corner and re-post on the block in a better position to score. He doesn’t have to make things so hard on himself by driving to the cup all of the time. I get the urge to go at a PG or any small defender defenses throw at him before the quick help rushes over but this ain’t it.
To be clear, Towns was one of the only players that played well in this game minus some lackluster defensive sequences but that was everyone (27 points, 11 rebounds, and five dimes) and this is a film session of turnovers. He had four of them, including another bad read and pass below. The Wolves were toast at this point. Still, this is a total, careless, we’ve absolutely given up type of play that is especially irritating. He has Edwards standing all alone for an uncontested catch-and-shoot three, which is exactly the offense they should crave.
Nowell comes off the Naz Reid screen actually quite well, rubbing off the screen to make the defender take a wider angle around to catch up, but J-Mac and Jaylen can’t make the connection—a constant theme in this one. Not sure if the pass was just out of reach or if Nowell miscalculated it off the bounce. Either way, another turnover and fastbreak bucket by Keldon Johnson (who, by the way, looked very good). You get the point by now.
Another subtle thing to keep an eye out for this season is this move by Jaden McDaniels off the catch. It’s kind of a go-to move for him. A simultaneous hard jab step to the right with a quick dribble crossover pull-up or drive. I’ve thought this was a travel a couple of times already this season but this might’ve been the first time they called him on it. The move looks a bit weird to the naked eye but I can’t decide if it’s traveling or not after numerous views. He likes to do this off the catch when he’s on the perimeter with driving room to the middle of the lane. What do you think? Travel or not?
We already talked about screen setting and how that can be an issue with this team so why not end things with one more whistle for an illegal push-out screen on Gobert. It happens. I can see why they call the foul. I can also make the case this is a huge flop by Primo because he knew there was exactly zero chance he was going to get to contesting Towns.
Well, that’s it, folks. For those of you sleeping in the back of the room, this film session is now over. Yes, every team turns the ball over but in search of truth and insight, hopefully, this helps give a glimpse of how the Wolves can clean up some of their turnover issues. What did you learn? What stood out most to you? See you in the comments.