What’s wrong with the Timberwolves? Hint: Defense

Dec 8, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts during the first quarter against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 8, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts during the first quarter against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports /

With a 7-19 record and sitting in second-to-last place in the Western Conference, its safe to say the Minnesota Timberwolves have underachieved thus far early in the 2016-17 NBA season, but what has the biggest issue been?

Entering the 2016-17 season, expectations surrounding this young team coming from many high-profiled pundits and “experts” may have been too high as just being in position to compete for a playoff spot should have been (and should still be) the goal.

Most Timberwolves fans not only hoped, but expected to be watching the standings at this point in the season to see where the Timberwolves would be positioning themselves but instead are once again forced to play the annual game of who would look good in a Timberwolves uniform, as attention starts to turn to the NBA draft in June.

So why are the Timberwolves under-performing? There certainly hasn’t been any shortage of reasons we can point to, including poor play from the point guard position and second half woes, where they rank dead last in point differential. Plus, the missing presence of veteran leadership or the lack of bench production, where again they rank dead last when it comes to scoring.

Truth is, all of the above play a part in what has been a disappointing season for the Minnesota Timberwolves. But the most telling and problematic issues with this young team stem from the defensive end.

Tom Thibodeau is an intense, detail-oriented, obsessive defensive technician who demands a lot from his players on that side of the ball. Simply put, it takes time to master his system and any expectation that the Wolves would be executing it a high level this early in his regime wouldn’t be realistic.

Thibodeau’s defense is predicated first and foremost off keeping opponents out of the paint and attacking the middle of his team.

At this point, guys are thinking more than reacting and it shows in their performance. There have definitely been highs and lows at certain points this season which is expected and something we’ll take a closer look as we highlight some of the bigger issues that have hampered them on the defensive end.

Minnesota doesn’t have a rim protector

Allowing 45.7 points a game in the paint currently has the Timberwolves ranked 26th in the league in that department. Not good.

Thibodeau’s defense is predicated first and foremost off keeping opponents out of the paint and attacking the middle of his team. So as much as we know, it frustrates him to watch opposing guards and big-men score around the rim at will, die-hard Wolves fans must be equally if not more frustrated due to the expectation of an improved defense this year.

So what’s the issue? For one, as good as Karl-Anthony Towns can be on the defensive side of the ball, he just isn’t quite there yet and has actually regressed in that area this year. Because of this, Thibodeau at times likes to start Gorgui Dieng off by guarding opposing centers, and well, lets just say the results haven’t been pretty.

This was the case in their win against the Bulls on Tuesday in which they gave up 38 first quarter points before slowly making their way back into the game. Dieng started the game guarding Bulls center Robin Lopez. Consequently, the Bulls featured Lopez early, and he responded by scoring 10 of their first 17 points.

Below, Lopez is isolated on Dieng on the Bulls third possession of the game and easily finishes over the top of him.

On the Bulls next offensive trip, they go right back to Lopez, who backs down Dieng deep in the post for another easy two.

…and a couple of possessions later, Lopez again gets good position on Dieng on the box-out. This time for the tip-in off the Taj Gibson miss.

I’ve been a proponent of Minnesota bringing in another big man who specializes in rim protection for a while now. This would not only take pressure off Towns and Dieng, but would give the Timberwolves a legitimate force in the paint.

The guys they have now at the backup center spot (Jordan Hill, Cole Aldrich, and, technically, Nikola Pekovic) provide little to no help except possibly becoming assets in a future trade. A couple of guys I like, however, and who would make sense in a trade scenario include Nerlens Noel of the Philadelphia 76ers and Willie Cauley-Stein of the Sacramento Kings.

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And as my colleague Ben Beecken pointed out, the Kings have been rumored for some time now to have interest in Ricky Rubio, so perhaps there may be some interest on both sides.

Minnesota lacks defensive cohesiveness and veteran leadership

This may be their biggest issue when it comes to their poor defensive play.

I spoke earlier about Thibodeau’s main defensive philosophy in that he prefers to keep opponents out of the paint as opposed to some coaches who prefer their guards to guide traffic inside to where their help is. Thibodeau instead prefers to force ball-handlers baseline, where the sideline and baseline act as additional defenders, thus trapping the ball handler and leaving him with fewer options.

This is typically employed in pick-and-roll situations and is a strategy known as “ice-ing the pick-and-roll”. Notice how Jimmy Butler utilized this strategy, forcing the ball handler to the sideline and leaving him with the only option of passing it back to the screener. Kirk Hinrich rotates over just enough to force the screener (Brook Lopez) to put the ball on the floor and drive to the rim where he runs into multiple defenders.

Now watch it on Minnesota’s end of the floor.

The lack of a defensive leadership is a huge problem for this club as they hardly seem to be on the same page and lapses happen far too often for them to be consistently successful. Guys aren’t talking to each other and are not sure who’s assignment is who’s; which again is giving opponents easy looks close to the rim.

Going back to that atrocious first quarter against the Bulls, notice how Wiggins goes over the pick-and-roll while Towns stays back (with his man, Taj Gibson setting the pick). Ricky Rubio then leaves his man to pick up Gibson, resulting in Jerian Grant cutting the basket for an easy two.

Transition defense

Minnesota gives up 14.2 fast break points per game, which ranks them at 22nd in the league. Teams are pushing the ball up the court and attacking the Wolves’ inability to get back and set on defense, allowing for more easy buckets. This part of the game has nothing to do with skill or ability but rather pure hustle.

Again, we’ll use the Chicago game from last Tuesday as an example. Here, you can see how slow Minnesota, and particularly Towns are at getting back in a set position. Once backup point guard Isaiah Canaan beats Kris Dunn off the dribble, he finds a nice angle to score one-off the glass and although KAT gets there to contest, it’s late and the results were two for the Bulls.

Now, look at the difference in their game against the San Antonio Spurs on December 6th. They held the Spurs to 19 first quarter points; frustrating coach Gregg Popovich to the point where he pulled all his starters early. Guys are getting back in their sets, moving around, getting their hands up to defend passing lanes and contest shots. They all look engaged as one unit, getting their hands on the ball and ultimately forcing a missed shot.

Of course, these examples come from the small sample size of one disastrous quarter from one game, but they still highlight some of the bigger issues facing the Minnesota Timberwolves as they try to take the next step in becoming a playoff contender.

Individually, guys need to perform better and collectively, they need to continue to learn to work together as one unit.

Andrew Wiggins has the potential to be on of the premier defenders in the NBA with his length and skill, but his footwork and technique at times gets sloppy, allowing his man to get past him and puts the defense in a bind. He has to become the leader and catalyst for this defense.

Next: Could Zach LaVine Win Most Improved Award?

Once Wiggins is able to grasp what Thibodeau is asking of him and become the Timberwolves version of Jimmy Butler, in that he can effectively take the opponents best player out of the game while setting the tone on defense, it will go a long way in making everyone else’s job that much easier.