2 areas where the Minnesota Timberwolves’ defense could easily improve

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Patrick Beverley blocks a shot. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Patrick Beverley blocks a shot. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports /
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Minnesota Timberwolves, Karl-Anthony Towns
Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns blocks a pass by Los Angeles Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe. Mandatory Credit: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports /

The Minnesota Timberwolves may be struggling on the offensive side of the ball, but they’ve been a pleasant surprise on the other end of the floor.

Still, there are two areas in which the Wolves are still drastically underperforming, and if they can straighten them out, they could end up cementing themselves as a top-10 defensive unit.

Let’s start with what’s going right for the Wolves’ defense.

What’s going right with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ defense so far

After holding the San Antonio Spurs to 90 points on Thursday night, the Timberwolves defense improved to No. 12 in defensive rating at Basketball-Reference.com.

Last season, the Wolves finished No. 28 in defensive rating. The year before, they were No. 21. Back in 2018-19, the Wolves were No. 24. Even with Tom Thibodeau as head coach, Minnesota finished No. 27 in each of his two full seasons at the helm.

Suffice it to say, it’s been a minute since the Wolves have had anything resembling even a competent defense. So, what’s gone right so far this season?

Let’s start with the obvious. The Wolves have switched up the majority of their pick-and-roll coverages, choosing to allow their big men (usually Karl-Anthony Towns) to defend up at the level of the screen instead of playing in drop coverage, the latter of which saw Towns sagging in an attempt to cut down driving lanes. Too often, this resulted in wide-open mid-range jumpers for opposing ball-handlers and/or foul trouble for Towns as he back-peddled while trying to defend against ultra-athletic attacking guards.

The Wolves also struggled with back-line help defense, and the Wolves bigs were left on an island with frequency in past years.

The “at the level” coverage has allowed the Wolves to muck things up a bit more in the middle of the floor, making life more difficult for opposing defenses while asking their own players to simply be a bit more alert and crisp in their rotations. The only true downside has been the occasional possession when the low man ends up being a more diminutive player — D’Angelo Russell or Malik Beasley, for instance — and offenses have been able to dump the ball into the paint for a relatively easy basket.

Overall, however, the revamped pick-and-roll coverage has made a huge difference.

The other big change is that the Wolves have deployed multiple switchable defenders for the first time in recent memory. One of Jaden McDaniels or Jarred Vanderbilt has started in every game thus far, bringing the ability to guard a minimum of three positions on the floor with length and athleticism.

Don’t discount the addition of Patrick Beverley, either. Beverley has been named to the All-Defensive Team three times in his career and has been one of the best defenders regardless of position for the last several years.

Lastly, as noted by Wolves radio broadcaster Alan Horton, the Wolves have done a phenomonal job defending the 3-point line so far this season.

Opponent 3-point shooting percentage is always a bit noisy, as there’s definitely a level of luck connected to the success.

But there’s also an art to it, and the Wolves’ new pick-and-roll defense, combined with an improving zone that Chris Finch is deploying more and more often, and improved close-outs on shooters by individual players, there are tangible reasons to credit for at least some of the success here.

Let’s take a look at the two areas in which the Wolves have a clear path to improvement and the possibility of completing the transformation of this defense into a top-10 unit.