Timberwolves' defensive transformation under Tom Thibodeau might never materialize
Here's the good news: the Minnesota offense is clicking. The Timberwolves are scoring 106.5 points per 100 possessions, giving them the eighth-most efficient offense in the NBA. But offense wasn't the issue in the Twin Cities entering this season - it was defense. Under Tom Thibodeau, the team's defense-first coach and president of basketball operations, that aspect of the game continues to get worse.
When Thibodeau was coaching in Chicago, the Bulls ranked first in points allowed per possession during his first year (2010-11) then second, sixth and second before slipping to an above-average 11th during his final year (2014-15). Last season, Thibodeau's first with Minnesota, his team ranked 26th in defensive efficiency (109.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). The group has since fallen to 30th out of 30 teams through six games of the 2017-18 campaign (114.3 points allowed per 100 possessions).
This Minnesota team shouldn't be this bad defensively. New star wing Jimmy Butler is three-time all-defensive team member - twice under Thibodeau in Chicago. Karl-Anthony Towns, a cornerstone of the franchise and former No. 1 overall pick, allowed just 0.59 points per possession during his last year at Kentucky, placing him in the top 4 percent of the college ranks for his defensive ability. Andrew Wiggins wasn't heralded as much for his defensive acumen, but the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2014 was "often asked to guard the other teams leading scorer on the wing, doing an admirable job," per his NBA draft scouting report. Add in veteran guards Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford, another ex-Bull in Taj Gibson and 6-foot-11 big Gorgui Dieng and you have the makings of what should be at least an average team, defensively. Instead, they are being outworked and out-hustled, leading to poor results on the defensive side of the court.
Thibodeau's defensive system is considered by some to be the epitome of team defensive strategy in the NBA. In effect, Thibodeau wants to funnel everything away from the middle of the court and take away the first passing option of the offense. His defenses force ballhandlers - whether in isolation or in side pick-and-rolls - to the baseline with a second defender tasked with preventing dribble penetration to the rim while also forcing opponents into shots from midrange, the least effective shot on the floor. Unfortunately, Minnesota's opponents are enjoying quality shots all over the court, resulting in a league-high 57.5 effective field goal against this season. Spot-up shooters in particular are having a field day against Minnesota, scoring 1.13 points per attempt. Only the Cleveland Cavaliers - who are without both their starting point guard options - and the Phoenix Suns are worse this season. Butler has been torched by those spot-up shooters, averaging 1.62 points per shot with him as the closest defender; only six NBA players, out of 191, have fared worse this season.
Thibodeau's strategy is also designed to give his defense more time to recover from screens and cuts to rim, allowing them to contest shots on the perimeter. Yet Minnesota ranks 27th in points allowed per possession off screens (1.14 with a 56.7 eFG percent), 29th in points allowed per possession off the pick-and-roll (0.995 with a 53.3 eFG percent) - which goes higher when they try to double team the ballhandler (1.12 and 57.8 eFG percent).
It doesn't help that Towns, a cornerstone of the franchise and former No. 1 overall pick, is playing like one of the league's worst defensive bigs. With him on the bench last season, Minnesota's defensive rating improved from 110.8 to 103.6. This year it improves from 118.2 to 104.2. Wiggins, another former No. 1 overall draft choice, isn't much better, and the two of them on the court are allowing 122.9 points per 100 possessions this season. Add in Butler and they are allowing 116.3 points per 100 possessions. To put this in context, the Los Angeles Lakers finished with a 110.6 defensive rating last season, the worst in the NBA.
Plus, there is little hustle on defense. Minnesota ranks 24th for deflections per game (10.7) and 16th for contested 3-points shot per game (19.2). This lack of hustle also explains why the Timberwolves have beentorched in transition (1.18 points per possession allowed, 26th), often not getting back quickly enough in addition to losing track of opposing players. The team even grabs more than a quarter of offensive rebounds (25.3 percent, seventh highest in the NBA this season) while getting their pocket picked just 8.3 times per game (19th in steals allowed), giving them no good excuse for routinely getting beat down the court.
Let's be clear: Thibodeau's defensive schemes aren't revolutionary - contesting shots, grabbing rebounds and disrupting passes are necessities in the modern NBA - but the Timberwolves just don't have enough defensive effort to pull it off. And this gives Minnesota's offense little margin for error, especially late in games when they start to rely heavily on jump shots.
Last season, 772 of their 1,722 field goal attempts in the fourth quarter were jump shots, but they made just 27 percent of them down the stretch, giving them a woeful 35.6 effective field goal percentage. This year, they are 19 for 49 on fourth-quarter jump shots, producing a 55.1 eFG percent, but we will have to wait and see if this is just a factor of being fresh at the beginning of the season or true improvement.