The Minnesota Timberwolves have struggled defensively for years, and this season was more of the same. Specifically, where can they improve?
For ages, the defense has been the bane of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ success.
(Also, front office decisions, injuries, etc., but let’s run with defense for the sake of this piece.)
For years, the Wolves have lacked attention to detail, effort, and schemes adjusted for the modern NBA. Unfortunately, the significant roster turnover and injuries continued this lack of defensive success.
The Timberwolves ranked No. 20 in defensive rating this season, continuing their six-year run of having a defensive rating in the bottom half of their league. The hope was that new additions to the coaching staff would install more modern schemes, but continuous injuries and roster turnover eliminated any growth opportunities.
This season, the Timberwolves were horrid defending in three specific defensive areas: transition, pick-and-roll ball-handler, and running off screens. While there are many reads and decisions that go into defending these situations, the effort is a significant component.
This season, the Timberwolves ranked No. 20 in the league in transition defense, per NBA Stats, allowing 1.12 points per possession (PPP) in the open floor.
A few significant components of quality transition defense include effort, communication, and awareness. This season, the Timberwolves lacked all of those. They frequently got caught ball-watching after shots instead of retreating on defense, and they lacked the necessary communication on who was guarding who.
The combination of these miscues resulted in many easy scores for opponents, as we can see below.
After the rebound, Orlando doesn’t initially look to push the ball; however, as Markelle Fultz advances, he realizes that no one is in the lane, and he isn’t being picked up. As he crosses half-court, Fultz accelerates to blow past Naz Reid, who has yet to turn around, for the easy layup.
This defensive lapse isn’t solely Reid’s fault, though. Yes, he absolutely should have been more eager to be in a proper position, but he wasn’t the only one paying zero attention to the play. Malik Beasley was casually jogging back instead of cutting off Fultz.
Again, the Timberwolves show their complete lack of communication in transition. The Mavericks wisely push the ball as Hernangomez hits the floor after his shot, giving them a five on four advantage.
Initially, the Timberwolves are in a decent position. James Johnson covers the lane, Jordan McLaughlin picks up the ball, Jarrett Culver covers the strong-side corner, and Russell is watching the weak side shooters. While the positioning is fine, the communication is nonexistent.
Hernangomez is working hard to get back in position to cover his man who cuts toward the lane. As the ball advances, Johnson needs to signal to Hernangomez to recover to Kristaps Porzingis on the wing since Johnson in covering the lane. Instead, there is no communication, so Hernangomez recovers to the wrong man, and Russell is unaware that he should at least stunt towards the shooter.
Ideally, the Timberwolves transition defense will next season with more cohesiveness among the roster as the lack of chemistry was apparent last year. By improving their transition defense, the Timberwolves will eliminate a lot of easy buckets.
Another area the Timberwolves’ lack of chemistry shown through was defending the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. This season, the Wolves ranked No. 23 in the league as they allowed 0.9 PPP to the pick-and-roll ball-handler.
In the below clip, we see the Timberwolves give up an incredibly easy layup out of the pick-and-roll. Initially, Russell does a horrible job of navigating the screen. Despite being 30 feet away from the hoop, Russell goes over the screen. He completely avoids contact with the screen, which puts him in the wrong position and completely takes him out of the play.
This decision leaves Reid, who is not a strong pick-and-roll defender, on an island. Coby White has a nice burst of speed to beat Reid, but Reid is shading too far towards the lane to cut off the drive, and he is in too square of a stance to adjust to the drive.
Again, we see the indecision and uncertainty the Timberwolves have in defending the pick-and-roll. Beasley immediately dies on the screen, suggesting he intends to switch it, so Reid stunts towards the ball-handler. As the screener begins to roll, however, Beasley fights to recover to the ball-handler.
Seeing this, Reid drops to recover to the roll man to not give up an easy dunk. The result is the ball-handler being left wide open for an easy three.
The pick-and-roll is such a prevalent action in the NBA now that the Timberwolves must learn to defend it to have any form of success. Late in games, teams almost exclusively run the pick-and-roll with their two best players. In the bubble alone, we’ve seen the Trail Blazers and Nuggets use it in abundance to create easy shots and put their opponents away.
Another area the Timberwolves defense was dominated was when opponents ran off screens. In these scenarios, the Timberwolves ranked No. 28 in the league, allowing 1.07 PPP. Staying with shooters through screens requires a high level of effort and a basic level of communication for switches.
When running off screens, the Timberwolves showed a similar lack of effort to avoid screens as they did in pick-and-roll situations. They frequently died on screens, didn’t communicate switches, and were late to react to their opponent’s movement.
The below video is a typical example of a Timberwolves defender just falling asleep. The Magic go to set a simple floppy screen for Terrence Ross, guarded by Jake Layman. As the screen comes, Layman gets caught ball watching. This inattention makes him late to react to Ross’s jab step. Layman then is too far behind the play to effectively contest the shot.
It may seem insignificant, but that quick lack of awareness is all it takes to be taken out of the play. Off-ball shooters are experts at lulling their defender to sleep before exploding through a series of screens. The Timberwolves have a lot of work to do to avoid getting burned.
Here, we see how the lack of chemistry and communication killed the Timberwolves when they were run through screens. After initiating the post up, the Celtics immediately look to run Jaylen Brown through a stagger screen at the top of the arc. As Brown starts his movement, Beasley chooses to go over the first screen.
Recognizing that he has his defender on his back, Brown decides to cut down the lane, instead of running off the second screen where Beasley could stay with him more easily. Once Beasley hits the first screen, he dies and exerts zero effort to stay with Brown. Beasley eventually points to Kelan Martin to switch, but it is far too late as Brown easily scores.
The Timberwolves’ lack of defense has been frustrating for a long time. They don’t play as a team, their effort wanes, and they don’t communicate. The lack of effectiveness defending in transition, the pick-and-roll, and off screens killed the Timberwolves this season. I’m willing to chalk some of it up to roster turnover, but their current roster doesn’t suggest any significant improvements.
Next season, the Timberwolves will likely be in the bottom half of the league on defense once again. While we shouldn’t expect significant defensive growth from anyone except maybe Okogie, we can hope that the additional time will iron out the communication and effort issues.