Defensive free falling in the New Year
The Wolves are in a bad place right now and have been all month long.
Heading into the month of January, the Minnesota Timberwolves had a lot of hope. The team was 14-13 and one of the top defensive squads in the NBA. Kevin Love was still trying to find his way after coming back early from his hand but he was at least rebounding and providing a threat to the defense (he wasn’t shooting well but they defended him like he might). Ricky Rubio was working his way back from an ACL tear and showing some flashes of the wunderkind point guard that dazzled us in his rookie campaign.
And while the team was struggling offensively, they could rely on defense and grinding out victories to stay in the playoff hunt in the Western Conference. It wasn’t going to be an easy road by any means, but the Wolves were avoiding the eventual fallout of having to deal with so many injuries to so many key players in their rotation.
Once January hit, everything changed for the worse.
After the first two games, Kevin Love broke his hand again and is now out for eight to ten weeks after successful surgery this past week. From there, role players were asked to continue to fill in for stars, minutes had to be stretched, and the team basically fell apart. The Wolves are just 1-5 since Love re-broke his hand and their one win came against an Atlanta Hawks team that was reeling as badly or maybe worse than what the Wolves are going through.
Through the first two weeks of January, the Wolves’ offense has managed to stay at the exact same pace it was heading into the month. They score 100 points per 100 possessions. It’s not great offense. Heading into the month of January, they were 22nd in the NBA in offensive rating. In the month of January alone, they’re still sitting at 22nd in offensive rating with the exact same number.
The problem with this 1-5 stretch without Love and the 2-6 record since January began is all in the defensive numbers. They are atrocious.
The Wolves had a defensive rating of 99.2 heading into the New Year. That was good for sixth best in the NBA — a startling revelation this season considering we were all worried how they’d defend when it was constructed this off-season. It was phenomenal to see Nikola Pekovic rotating on defense like he never had before, Kevin Love (yes, he was actually good at it even when his play struggled) and Dante Cunningham finding themselves in good defensive position, and Andrei Kirilenko locking down opposing scorers while still play free safety on defense to disrupt opposing offenses. And the Wolves were ending possessions with lots of rebounding.
In the last eight games, everything has fallen apart. The rebounding has slipped considerably (predictable with Love’s departure) on the defensive end. They’ve gone from being the best defensive rebounding team in the NBA, grabbing 76.1% of available defensive rebounds, to 11th in the month of January by grabbing 73.8% of available defensive rebounds. Overall, the Wolves’ defensive rating in the month of January has been 113.6 points per 100 possessions. That’s the 29th best or second worst (depending on how positive you want to spin this) January defense by the Sacramento Kings at 114.6.
Minnesota has gone from the sixth best defense through the first 27 games to the 13th best defense after 35 games. That’s a pretty big drop for just eight games. The regressing rebounding and defense is due to the fact that the defense is just horribly out of position and lacking consistent effort during this stretch.
I took a look at Synergy Sports to try to see if I could pin point what part of the defense the team was having issues with. Synergy Sports breaks defensive play down into ten different categories: isolation, pick-and-roll ball handler, pick-and-roll roller, post-up, hand-off, spot-up, off screen, cutter, offensive rebound, and transition. I figured maybe if it’s just the transition defense or spot-up shooting or if it’s just on guys cutting to the basket, there could be an easy strategic fix to the problem and the Wolves’ defense could be good again.
And I was able to figure out where the exact issue is with the defense this month.
It’s the entire damn defense that is suffering right now.
The Wolves have regressed in eight of the ten categories, according to Synergy Sports, and seven of those eight regressions have been very significant. I decided to break it down into a chart for you to view.
Only post-up defense and defense when giving up an offensive rebound with the rebounder going back up with the shot have improved, while the rest of the defense has gone Zero Darko Thirty on us.
Defending against the hand-off has been the worst defense of the bunch for the Wolves but those types of plays have only been 2.9% of what is resulting in field goal attempts, free throw attempts or turnovers for the opposing team (that’s how Synergy defines these categorical possessions). Defending against players cutting to the basket is something the Wolves have only had to defend against 8.7% of the time. The biggest issues have been defending spot-up shooters and getting back in transition.
Spot-up possessions have happened 20.1% of the time against the Wolves (jeez, that flying Darko is distracting even as I’m writing this; I can’t imagine how you’re able to read with him buzzing about) and transition possessions have happened 15.4% of the time in these past eight games. The Wolves simply aren’t rotating effectively enough against shooters in the halfcourt and they’re not getting back on defense when they miss a shot, make a shot or turn the ball over.
The good news is they’re taking care of the ball a lot more. The turnover rate in January has dropped from 16.3% (27th) before the New Year to 15.2% (16th) in the past eight games. When they are turning the ball over, they’re still not getting back on defense well enough, but at least it’s less of a problem than it was. The problem is their already abysmal eFG% (field goals plus half of 3-pointers made divided by field goal attempts) has gotten worse. Before January, they were 24th in the NBA in eFG% at 46.8%. In January, it’s fallen to 44.4%. Only the Pacers have been worse this month.
I was hoping to dig into this defensive project and find a simple solution. That was probably just hubris or ego or naivety on my part, but regardless, I thought there was going to be a relatively easy fix to just an area or two that was plaguing the Wolves. Unfortunately, it looks like the easy fix is simply asking them to play better, smarter, and harder on the defensive end of the floor. That’s going to be a lot to ask with guys having to fill roles they’ve never had to fill before.
But that’s part of the NBA. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you because of your injuries. You just have to trudge through it and hope to grind out a victory.