When the Minnesota Timberwolves hired Tom Thibodeau as head coach and president of basketball operations last summer, it was obvious the organization wanted to be serious about improving its defense. It was a defense that allowed 106 points per game (ranked 23rd in the NBA) and had a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 110.1 (ranked 28th in the NBA,) so it would have been unrealistic to expect a quick turnaround. Entering Tuesday’s home game against Cleveland, Minnesota is allowing 105.9 points per game and has a defensive rating of 111.1, despite playing at the fourth slowest pace in the NBA.
If the lack of statistical improvement is not enough to raise an eyebrow, perhaps even more concerning is that the team appeared to be improving, but has fallen back off over the last month. From January 9-30, the Wolves went 8-3 and allowed 104.2 points per game. Since then, Minnesota is 2-5 and is allowing 111.9 points per game in February.
Center Karl-Anthony Towns attributes the team’s lack of success this month to a lack of discipline and energy.
“We just have to play with a little more energy,” Towns said. “We’ve got to be a little more hungry, especially on the defensive end. We were disciplined last month, that is why we came out with a lot of wins.”
For Thibodeau and the coaching staff, the message has been consistent, but the results have not
For Thibodeau and the coaching staff, the message has been consistent, but the results have not. After last Friday’s 122-106 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, where Minnesota allowed its opponent to shoot a season-high 60 percent from the field, he stressed the importance of not taking a play off and needing to play with consistent energy.
“You know, you have to do it every day,” Thibodeau said. “You have to do it every night, it has to be consistent. If you can’t play with intensity, you won’t win. If you do, you can beat anybody. It’s that simple. You can’t take a day off, a play off, or a possession off. You have to go.”
Forward Andrew Wiggins — who has scored 21 or more points in his last 13 games — said the players need to be responsible and Thibodeau’s message can only do so much.
“It’s on us,” Wiggins said. “If you don’t get stops, you don’t win. He keeps saying it, but he can’t be out there physically playing defense for us.”
Over the last seven games, Timberwolves’ opponents have scored 107 or more points in six games. The only exception was the 89 points scored Sunday afternoon by a depleted Chicago Bulls team playing without its best two scorers. In the previous month, the Wolves held its opponents under 106 points ten times.
“We had a stretch where we were playing good defense,” Rubio said. ”Now we put ourselves in this situation and we have to get out of it.”
As individuals, the Wolves only have one player (Cole Aldrich) who has played more than 100 minutes this season and has a defensive rating lower than 109. Aldrich, Towns, Gorgui Dieng and Kris Dunn are the only players on the roster who have a positive impact in defensive box score plus/minus.
Just based off skillset and athleticism, most of the Timberwolves should profile as good defenders. Towns and Dieng are both athletic big men, Wiggins is 6-foot-8 with wingspan and Ricky Rubio and Kris Dunn are both pesky on-ball defenders who combine to average 3.9 steals per 36 minutes. Yet as a team, the unit breaks down and allows its opponents to score seemingly at will at times.
“We do a good job initially of stopping offenses, but we break down when it gets deep into the shot clock,” Towns said. “We need to make sure we continue to play to our advantage.”
If the young Timberwolves want to improve on the defensive end this season, a good place to start would be behind the 3-point line. Minnesota’s opponents are averaging 9.6 made 3-pointers per game while shooting 36.5 percent from behind the arc. Eliminating open 3-point shots and forcing them into contested shots inside the arc should help lower the 52.3 percent (third worst in the NBA) that Wolves opponents have shot on 2-point shots this season.
Minnesota seems to have the players and skillset to defend in the NBA. It definitely has a man in charge who is dedicated to stopping opponents and winning games with defense. What remains to be seen is if they can put everything together and stop opposing offenses. Up to this point, there has been a lot of talk about improving the defense with little to show for it.
“The games reveal exactly where we are,” Thibodeau said.