As I alluded to last night, one of the most encouraging elements of the Wolves nice start has been their basic competence on defense. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re a Wolves’ fan of long standing you know the thrill in the blood induced by those simple words. Great defense isn’t truly satisfying until you’ve been made to watch (and cheer for) hours and days of awful defense; and lord knows we have. Its true that the team hasn’t played many offensive juggernauts so far–of the Wolves’ five opponents, only the Nets have managed to crack the top-25 in offensive efficiency. Still: the Wolves are allowing just .93 points per possession, good for seventh in the league. That is happy news no matter who you’re playing.
Part of the reason for this is surely the simple fact of not having monsters of nonchalance and inattention like Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Darko Milicic and Anthony Randolph on patrol. Part of it, too, is the presence of newcomers like Greg Stiemsma, Dante Cunningham and Andrei Kirilenko, players who are genuinely hungry to defend. AK, in particular has been a holy terror so far this year; he’s easily the Wolves’ best defender since Kevin Garnett. And he performs many KG-like functions: disrupting the opponents’ offensive schemes with his length and anticipation; pressuring the ball; cutting off driving angles and passing lanes; setting an example of passion and integrity for his younger teammates.
But a large part of it has to do with improvement by the players that are already here. Against Indiana, both Nikola Pekovic and Derrick Williams showed off some newfound defensive chops. Williams was, surprisingly and impressively, able to hang with David West in the post. He stayed low, used his strength and size effectively to deny West his preferred spots, and stayed in front of him without fouling. That West still managed 19 points and 13 boards is less a comment on Williams than on Dante Cunningham, who guarded West for much of the fourth quarter and ceded him a considerable strength advantage.
Pekovic looked pretty good himself, particularly considering his disadvantage in height and length in his matchup with Roy Hibbert. His leaner frame, not to mention what appears to be a better understanding of opposing offenses, have allowed him to anticipate the opponent’s actions in ways he never could before. He is moving his feet more quickly on pick-and-roll; he is rotating into the lane to deter penetrators more effectively; he is even getting up to block a shot or two. Indiana’s big men–Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough and Ian Mahinmi–did not fair well offensively last night, shooting a combined 8-19, and not just because the latter two aren’t very good: Big Pek was active and disciplined all game.
The Wolves’ major defensive weak spot is on the perimeter, as evidenced by George Hill’s commanding 29-point, 11-17 performance on Friday. As he did against Deron Williams in Brooklyn, Luke Ridnour struggled both to contest Hill’s jumper and keep him out of the paint. But even this phase of the game has been less of a catastrophe than I had feared. Chase Budinger has been a better defender, both on the ball and within team schemes, than advertised. And although Alexey Shved’s slight, narrow frame are still serious disadvantages, he is both longer and rangier than I had realized. He’s still a very limited defender but, for the most part, he’s been able to keep the ball in front of him and harass jumpshooters, which is a whole lot more than you can say about plenty of Wolves’ guards we’ve seen over the past few years.
So: a great start; something to celebrate. We’ll see what happens when some real offensive firepower comes to town.