Despite being ravaged by injuries to six of the top seven players on the roster, the Minnesota Timberwolves have still managed to start the season with a 5-4 record. With the roster reduced to Andrei Kirilenko and a cast of role players, scoring has been predictably hard to come by throughout the early stages of the season. In order to eke out some early wins, the Wolves have managed to hold opponents to just 90.4 points per game so far, which is good for second in the NBA. While one good explanation for the impressive defensive statistics is the relatively poor level of competition that the Wolves have faced thus far, there have also been some outstanding individual performances that must be recognized.
Andrei Kirilenko has long been lauded as a standout defensive player, making the NBA All-Defensive First Team in 2004 and 2005 and the second team in 2006. In recent years, however, Kirilenko appeared to have lost a step in defending some of the bigger, faster wing players. This year, Kirilenko has recorded at least one block in every single contest, and is averaging 2.2 blocks per game through the loss to Golden State on Friday night.
While still recording a number of his blocks via help defense and sneaking up on unsuspecting shooters and swatting the ball away from behind, Kirilenko has stepped his defensive game up to mid-00’s levels. From 2007-2011, Kirilenko recorded a blocked shot rate of just 3.4%. In 2012, Kirilenko’s block rate is 4.5% through nine games. Kirilenko had a blocked shot rate of 7.0% over the three season span that his name appeared on the NBA All-Defensive team awards from 2004-2007, and owns a career rate of 5.3%. Still, Andrei Kirilenko’s help defense has been huge in limiting opposing team’s ability to navigate the lane, and has caused shooters to think twice before attempting to score in the general vicinity of AK-47.
Much has been made of Derrick Williams’ continual struggles on the offensive end of the floor, and Rick Adelman made it very clear at the end of last season that Williams was not playing up to par on the defensive side, either. Being too small to guard power forwards and too big to guard small forwards, Williams has lived up to his “tweener” label in his young NBA career. So far this season, however, Williams has shown surprising strides on the defensive end.
Derrick Williams has started at power forward in all nine games for the Timberwolves so far in the 2012-13 season. While keeping in mind that Kirilenko and Dante Cunningham have guarded opposing power forwards a fair amount of the time this season, take a look at opponents’ starters at the power forward position against the Wolves to this point, omitting the victory at Dallas in which Williams played only 12 minutes:
|Thompson (SAC)||10||7||2||0||4-10||40 %||4|
|Valanciunas (TOR)||4||1||0||0||2-8||25 %||3|
|Humphries (BKN)||2||4||1||3||1-2||50 %||2|
|Davis (ORL)||4||6||3||4||2-9||22 %||3|
|West (IND)||19||13||1||2||8-16||50 %||3|
|Boozer (CHI)||2||9||4||1||0-5||0 %||4|
|Mullens (CHA)||12||15||2||0||5-12||42 %||5|
|Lee (GS)||18||13||3||1||8-15||53 %||2|
Admittedly, the Wolves have not exactly faced a murderer’s row of power forwards, but the numbers are still solid. Williams has not allowed an opposing player to score more than twenty points in a game this season, and the two most successful games against Williams and the Wolves from a power forward are from the very good David West and David Lee.
Williams has done a good job of bodying up bigger power forwards and forcing them to shoot contested shots over him outside of the paint. He did an especially good job guarding Orlando’s Glen Davis and Chicago’s Carlos Boozer, all but shutting them down. Against Davis, Williams was fantastic in staying low and moving his feet on defense, forcing the larger Davis to choose between shooting long jump shots over him or trying to get around him, both of which he was unable to accomplish.
In Chicago, the Bulls started the game trying to get Boozer involved by getting the ball to him in the early offense to try and get him going, but it did not work. Williams was active with his hands in the passing lanes, by fighting through screens to contest jump shots, and by forcing Boozer to work to attempt tough shots.
The effort that Williams has expended on the defensive end has absolutely not helped his production or decision making on the offensive end, as his issues with hesitation and tentativeness are still very real. However, he has seemed to heed Rick Adelman’s repeated warnings that defense is what will keep him on the floor, and that has held true for the most part, although injuries have certainly played a large part in Williams’ relatively consistent playing time.
Moving forward, the Timberwolves should only improve defensively. Even a not-quite-100% Ricky Rubio will be a massive upgrade over the diminutive Luke Ridnour and his porous defense. The length in a backcourt consisting of Ricky Rubio and Alexey Shved, combined with the 6’ 9” Andrei Kirilenko playing minutes at small forward next to the beefy frontline of Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic should be a superbly stout defense. As long as Kirilenko does not become too worn down, Rick Adelman should be able to expect the defensive effort, and in turn, results, to remain positive for the remainder of the season.