The Minnesota Timberwolves wrapped up the eighth week of the season with a 13-13 record that left them sitting in 11th place in the Western Conference. The Wolves remain without their All-NBA big man Karl-Anthony Towns, and 11th place would be a massive failure if it doesn’t change, but oddly enough, things are starting to feel more encouraging. Despite being in the 11th seed, they’re also only a game back from the sixth seed and two games clear of the 12th. So, what’s changing?
More Like D-High Point… Am I Right?
Bad puns aside, D’Angelo Russell has seemingly found his groove. The other week we went through nearly every stat imaginable ranging from on/off numbers to game averages to efficiency ratings, and they were all easily the worst of Russell’s career. It wasn’t that he was just off to a slow start, he was detrimental to any success the Timberwolves were searching for.
In his last six games, Russell is averaging 23.5 points, 5.0 assists, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.3 steals on 54.2/44.2/85.7 shooting splits. On the season, Russell is now recording an effective field goal rate of 54.9 (86th percentile), shooting 48% in the mid-range (81st percentile), 36% from three (69th percentile), 1.154 points per shot (75th percentile), and an assist-to-usage rate of 1.15 (58th percentile), per Cleaning the Glass. After the start that Russell got off to, it is a minor miracle that these numbers have leaped to their current levels.
Rightly or wrongly, Russell has been a common scapegoat for much of the fanbase when things don’t go well. He also rarely gets the recognition he deserves from these same people when things are going well. Russell is far from a perfect player, but the Timberwolves success and his individual performances are largely intertwined. Russell isn’t the franchise cornerstone he was originally drafted as, but his performance is a strong indicator of how the Timberwolves will perform.
These last few weeks, Russell has been extraordinary. There are still some careless turnovers, but those are inevitable with his usage and the types of risky passes he tends to make. These passes often generate some of the prettiest assists of the night, and the occasional turnovers that accompany them are sometimes the price of doing business. More importantly, though, Russell has rediscovered his shooting touch. He’s been lethal from outside, especially in the fourth, dynamic in the mid-range, and more aggressive getting to the rim. This is the Russell that the Timberwolves desperately need, and things could really start to turnaround if he maintains this form.
Most Frustrating Defense Ever?
In the past, Minnesota’s defense has been a point of frustration, but it was because they were simply bad. It was easy to accept and deal with. They were bad in transition. They were bad in the half-court. They were bad all-around. Now, though, they have the nerve of being exceptional and truly awful all at the same time.
What in the world are we supposed to do with that?
If you followed me through that, congrats, you get me. If not, no worries, I promise I’m the problem. So far this season, per Cleaning the Glass, the Wolves have the 13th ranked defense at 112.3 points per 100 possessions. Compared to a few seasons ago, fans would’ve killed for this ranking. The frustrating part, though, is that the Timberwolves’ defensive rating in the half-court of 93.3 ranks third in the league. This is an exceptional number and a major testament to the impact of Rudy Gobert and Jaden McDaniels, along with the other additions and improvements throughout the roster. The vast majority of the game is played in the half-court, so why are the Wolves still struggling on defense?
For starters, only 79.1% of the Timberwolves’ defensive possessions come in the half-court. This ranks 17th in the league, which isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t where you want it to be for a team that is thriving as a half-court defense. Another issue is Minnesota’s complete lack of defensive rebounding. The Timberwolves are currently allowing 1.184 points on put-backs, which ranks 24th in the league. When you combine this with their defensive rebounding rate of just 71% (22nd in the league), it results in opponents getting multiple opportunities and the Timberwolves not capitalizing on their hard work paying off on misses.
Taking a quick detour to provide some context to the rebounding struggles, the Timberwolves had a defensive rebounding rate of 71.6% last season. That was the second worst rate in the league. This season, they have a worse rate despite making a massive trade to essentially counteract that exact weakness. Before you start freaking out about how three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert isn’t doing his job, he is.
His individual defensive rebounding rate of 24% ranks in the 90th percentile. This is down a little bit from recent seasons, but he’s doing his job. His pure presence, though, may have engendered a sense of complacency with the rest of the team as they are frequently just watching, waiting, and assuming someone else will get the loose ball. Another potential reason could be that the Timberwolves are allowing the fourth most 3-point attempts per game, a shot that naturally has longer rebounds. So, there may be some flukiness to it, but regardless, it’s in a pretty dismal spot. Back to the main event.
The final reason for the Timberwolves’ defensive woes is that they are yet again one of the worst transition defenses in the league. The Wolves have started doing a better job of limiting opponents transition opportunities as their rate has dropped to just 14.8% of possessions (13th in the league), but they can’t stop anyone when they do run in transition. So far this season, Minnesota are allowing 1.302 points per possession in transition (23rd in the league). Even when they are getting back in transition, they aren’t doing anything. Simply running to a spot isn’t good enough. No one stops the ball, there isn’t communication on who needs to defend who, and if more than one pass is made, odds are high that it will result in a bucket.
The Timberwolves have oddly enough seemed to have figured out the toughest part of defense: the halfcourt. There are still struggles and inconsistencies with their pick-and-roll communication and off-ball positioning, but the numbers are what they are for a reason. What makes this team’s defense so insufferably frustrating is that they don’t do the simple stuff. There is a lot more that goes into defensive rebounding and transition defense than just energy, but that is the majority of it. If they can stop allowing constant leak outs, stop the ball in transition, and find a body when a shot goes up, this defense could see experience a legitimate renaissance.
The Reemergence of Ant’s Defensive Playmaking
The expectation for Anthony Edwards this season was a significant leap in his defense. There were really encouraging trends towards the end of last season, but the beginning of this season felt like he had taken a step back. The on-ball defense was generally fine, but the off-ball defense was woeful at best. He constantly missed boxouts, would regularly get back cut, and tended to simply lose his man for extended stretches due to ball watching. Recently, though, Edwards has reemerged as one of the preeminent defensive playmakers in the league.
So far this season, Edwards ranks fourth in steals per game with 1.9, third in total steals with 49, 21st in deflections per game with 2.6, and his steal rate of 2.2% ranks in the 92nd percentile. Edwards has also recorded at least one steal in his last 12 games and at least two steals in his last six games.
The tough part about defensive numbers is that they can easily be fake or inflated. They don’t always tell the actual story of who the player is as a defender. Edwards is a perfect case of this. Even at the start of the season, Edwards had plenty of games where he had impressive steal numbers, but no one would’ve classified his defense at that time as good. Even now, calling Edwards a good defender feels like a bit of a reach due to the lapses he still has. The difference, though, is that he is making a more concerted effort on that end.
His steals and blocks are the result of good rotations and measured gambles. Simply ending an opponent’s possession is a great result, but when Edwards is as active as he’s been, it means that these steals are also resulting in easy baskets at the other end. Transition scores are great for the Timberwolves at large, but they also help Edwards get in an early rhythm. It builds his confidence early, and his defensive activity early in games is often a strong indicator for what type of performance he’ll give throughout the game. Edwards likely won’t ever be the most sound defender in the league, but as long as he continues to put forth the effort and make an impact as a defensive playmaker, the Wolves will be in a much better position.