Minnesota Timberwolves’ new defense shows promise

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 23: Josh Okogie #20 of the Minnesota Timberwolves blocks a shot by David Nwaba #0 of the Brooklyn Nets. (Photo by Matteo Marchi/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 23: Josh Okogie #20 of the Minnesota Timberwolves blocks a shot by David Nwaba #0 of the Brooklyn Nets. (Photo by Matteo Marchi/Getty Images) /

The first week of the NBA season is over, and the Minnesota Timberwolves are already showing signs of a promising new defensive identity.

The Minnesota Timberwolves new identity has been on full display during the first week-plus of the season.

The Wolves are playing faster, shooting more threes, utilizing a smaller lineup, and certainly being more aggressive in every sense of the word. This aggressiveness culminated in a *nearly* eye-popping brawl during the game against Philadelphia. Now as the team prepares for the fallout of that incident, with Karl-Anthony Towns suspended for the next two games, there are other basketball-related elements worth diving into.

Head coach Ryan Saunders and president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas promised this summer to challenge the norm and bring Minnesota into the modern age. Through four games, there are already noticeable changes to the team’s defensive scheme that are a far cry from the defense fans witnessed during the majority of the 2018-19 season.

Minnesota’s utilization of Karl-Anthony Towns stands out as perhaps the biggest difference from last season to this season on the defensive end. Towns is now dropping deep on every pick-and-roll in an attempt to guard against a direct attack to the rim or a lob opportunity.

Meanwhile, the other defender is being told to fight through the top of the screen, baiting the opponent into pulling up for a midrange shot with a defender on their hip. If the player chooses to attack the rim or attempt a pocket pass to the roller, they now have to contend with Towns who is already in position to block the shot or break up the pass. This defensive scheme is the same scheme used with Jusuf Nurkic while David Vanterpool was an assistant coach in Portland.

Thus far, Karl-Anthony Towns has thrived within this scheme, averaging a team-best 2.5 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. Most impressively, Towns is only allowing opponents to shoot 41.5 percent from the field, a vast improvement from the 47.6 percent shooting that he gave up last season. For the first time in a Timberwolves jersey, Towns looks comfortable on the defensive end and is proving to be a legitimate concern for opponent’s game plans.

The other part of the pick-and-roll defense is the Timberwolves’ effective use of their athletic wings to aggressively defend against the point of attack.

The team has made a point of fighting through screens and prioritizing active hands as ball handlers attempt to dribble through the lane. As a result, Minnesota is second in the league in steals per game with 11.3 and lead the league with over 20 forced turnovers per game. This is a crucial element of the identity that Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas are looking to implement. Minnesota wants to play fast and so far their ability to create turnovers and start the fast break has allowed the team to do just that.

Unfortunately, not all of the team’s defensive changes have been positive.

In the opening three games, the Timberwolves had won the rebounding battle despite their lack of size thanks to a team effort from players such as Robert Covington and Josh Okogie getting into the mix.

However, the 76ers game on Wednesday proved how detrimental Minnesota’s size can be when matched up against a talented team with two bigs. The Timberwolves had little to no chance of competing due to the rebounding disparity of 56 to 34. Every time the Wolves threatened to make a run, Philadelphia was able to grab an offensive board and score second-chance points to the chagrin of Minnesota’s defense.

Of course, Minnesota will not have to face Philadelphia every night and fans would be hard-pressed to find a team that causes as great of a size mismatch as the Sixers do. Saunders and Rosas have been vocal that they want to showcase their own identity and force opponents to math their play-style. While this idea proved difficult against Philadelphia, Minnesota did have success playing small ball in their opening three games and will look to cause greater problems for opponents as players continue to grow within the new system.

Overall, Minnesota’s new defensive scheme is having success and there’s reason to believe that success should continue. Minnesota’s defensive numbers have been in the top half across the board this season despite a few anomalies.

For example, the team has given up a league-low number of open attempts from beyond the arc and yet opponents are shooting over 42 percent on such shots. Numbers such as this are unsustainable and should result in improved defensive numbers moving forward.

Next. Surprises and disappointments from Wolves' first week. dark

As the Timberwolves become more accustomed to Saunders’ defense, there are reasons for fans to believe that this team could be a formidable threat on the defensive end throughout the 2019-20 season.