Timberwolves’ guards are a defensive liability


When the Minnesota Timberwolves added veteran point guard Andre Miller, there were a number of conflicting opinions about the signing.

On one hand, Miller’s leadership and ability to act as a mentor for Ricky Rubio and Tyus Jones will ultimately be very important. Head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders obviously sees veteran leadership as being of the highest importance, as he’s also added Tayshaun Prince since the signing of Miller.

However, Miller’s poor defense isn’t really what the Timberwolves needed. Aside from Ricky Rubio, the group of guards on the roster is horrendous defensively. Hopefully, the presence of Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng on the inside can help that, but I have my doubts.

Again, while the veteran leadership from Miller is important, that doesn’t change how bad he is on the defensive end. For the 2014-15 season, Miller recorded a defensive rating of 106.9. (Defensive rating measures the amount of points allowed per 100 possessions while that player is on the floor.) He’s been a poor defender for his entire career, and his current age definitely doesn’t help his cause. He simply doesn’t have the athleticism to stay in front of anybody anymore.

April 5, 2015; Sacramento, CA, USA; Utah Jazz guard Bryce Cotton (8, top) shoots the basketball against Sacramento Kings guard Andre Miller (22) during the third quarter at Sleep Train Arena. The Jazz defeated the Kings 101-95. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

An example of that lost athleticism can be found by looking at Miller’s defended field goal percentage statistics, which measures the field goal percentage of a player when Miller is defending the shot. Players made 33.5% of three-pointers defended by Miller last season, which is respectable. However, that percentage quickly increases to 54.5% on shots of 10 feet or less and 64.8% on shots inside five feet. In other words, Miller constantly relies on help defense to contain the player he’s defending.

Kevin Martin is another veteran leader playing a guard position on this Wolves roster. Offensively, Martin is a prolific scorer. Defensively, he leaves a lot to be desired. His defensive rating from last season measured worse than Miller’s at 111.7 (which ranks in the bottom 9% in the league). For Martin, it appears to be a lack of effort more than anything, because he shows flashes of athleticism on the offensive end. Additionally, Martin’s defended field goal percentage on shots 10 feet or closer is 64.2%. That’s just a hideous stat.

Again, for Martin, it appears to be a lack of effort more than anything. I mean, it’s possible that he genuinely doesn’t know where he’s supposed to be or just doesn’t know how to defend. But if that’s the case, he shouldn’t be considered a “veteran leader” whatsoever.

Zach LaVine is another member of this group of guards that has a lot of room for improvement on the defensive end. In his rookie season, it took LaVine awhile to get acclimated to playing defense at the NBA level, and frankly he’s still getting acclimated. The most troubling thing about LaVine’s defense is his slow reaction to ball screens, as well as his misunderstanding of whether to go over or under those screens.

LaVine’s inexperience is a big reason for his poor defense in his rookie season, although there were times when a lack of effort contributed as well. Overall, LaVine finished the season with a defensive rating of 112.4, which ranks in the bottom 6% of the league.

Apr 13, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Tyreke Evans (1) shoots the ball over Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine (8) in the third quarter at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

However, I’m optimistic about LaVine improving his defense simply because of his elite athleticism. This guy can jump out of the building and is quicker than a hiccup, and at some point he’ll figure out how to use that to his advantage on the defensive end.

Lastly, and who knows how much playing time he’ll get this season, but Tyus Jones wasn’t exactly an elite defender in his collegiate career. His limited athleticism is part of the reason for this, as he was usually matched up with a better athlete. Now that Jones is playing at the NBA level, this issue will only get worse. Jones will have to rely heavily on his high basketball IQ to become a good defender in the NBA, but that will certainly take time.

And then there’s Ricky Rubio, the only competent defending guard on the Wolves roster. In fact, Rubio is pretty solid perimeter defender by NBA standards, and maybe his play can even out the play for the rest of his teammates playing the guard position. Rubio has been plagued by injuries for much of his career, and if he goes down again, this Wolves team might have the worst group of defenders at the guard position in NBA history.

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So, as much as Saunders wants to value veteran leadership, it won’t help much on the defensive end in the case of Andre Miller. The Wolves ranked dead last in the NBA in defense last season, so signing Miller is a curious decision in that regard.

As much as we hope for these players to improve on defense this season, it’s not likely we see much improvement (outside of LaVine, maybe). Two realistic things we CAN hope for are 1) Rubio stays healthy for the entire season and 2) the Wolves’ interior defense is strong enough to minimize the defensive errors from the guards. Unless both of those things happen, the Minnesota Timberwolves will likely find themselves at the bottom of the NBA in defensive statistical categories once again.

(All stats courtesy of NBA.com)

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