During the usual Minnesota Timberwolves fan hand-wringing in my mentions Wednesday night after the Wolves got blitzed on national television by the New Orleans Pelicans, someone brought up the disappointment the team is bringing them after the end to last season. As you might remember, the Wolves from February 1st through the end of the 2015-16 season were frisky as hell, an offensive juggernaut (108.6 points per 100 possessions, 7th during that stretch), and capable of trying to ruin the Golden State Warriors’ pursuit of regular season history.
The Wolves went 15-18 over their final 33 games of the season after they allowed David Adelman to streamline the offense, get things moving faster, and allow the players to stretch their legs of potential on that end of the court. We ate it up too. It was fun. The Wolves weren’t the sad mess we saw in December and January. They were a team that could overwhelm defenses, and even though it was the last half of a dead season when opponents may not take you seriously, you saw life with the young core we felt excitement about. Again, it was fun.
The one problem with this stretch (other than not knowing if any of it was real) was the defense. While the offense was incendiary, the defense was a red carpet to the bucket. The Wolves gave up 109.7 points per 100 possessions over the final 33 games of the season. That was tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for third worst in the NBA during that stretch. The idea seemed to be more “let them play and figure it out” and again, it was fun. But the defense was hemorrhaging points left and right like a Saw victim.
What does any of this have to do with this season and the loss to the Pelicans? The hand-wringing over the third quarter struggles, what the 10th ranked offense is doing, and everything in between lacks perspective, in my opinion. The short-term is never as important as the long-term in sports, and the Wolves have to have a long view of their situation that goes beyond them losing games. It’s all about what they try to build in order to win in a sustained manner for years. That’s not satisfying to fans hungry for immediate results with Tom Thibodeau at the start of this season and those results have been fleeting at best through 14 games.
When I look at this Wolves team on defense in the first month of the season, it looks a lot like a bad shooter working on his jumper. Sometimes it just needs a tweak to the release or the base. Other times, it needs a complete reconstruction and that reconstruction almost never comes in a short amount of time. You have to get muscle memory into the base of the shot form. You have to build the gather into the shooting motion. You have to build the arm motion and the release of the shot into being mindlessly repetitive under any conditions.
That’s what Thibodeau seems to have to do with this team and it makes me wonder how much of the final 2.5 months of last season factor into this. When Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince were resting their old muscles on the sidelines, this team was a mess defensively last season. And they punted (directly or indirectly) on defense at the end of last season, which does throw basic development as a team and individuals into a bit of a pickle.
Team defense is one of the hardest things to build on a basketball court. Simply trying and giving effort isn’t enough anymore like it was 20-40 years ago. With today’s defensive rules, preparation and anticipation within a possession matter as much as putting forth quality and consistent effort. In Thibodeau’s system, that’s the crux of the principles and staples of a good defensive unit. In Chicago, the Bulls had Joakim Noah directing everybody and players taking that direction with the understanding of what to do and the prescient knowledge of what comes next.
So far with the Wolves in most situations this season, they seem to be catching up to the opportunities in front of them rather than dictating what happens on that end of the floor. While the speed of the game on offense appears to be within their control for most of the game (third quarters not included), the speed of the game on defense appears to have this young group of developing stars and role players thrust into the wrong end of a Mr. Krabs meme.
This doesn’t absolve the teaching of Thibodeau and his staff, and it certainly doesn’t absolve the Wolves’ players of grasping the system better than they have so far, but I do believe the lack of disciplined shown and emphasized on defense at the end of last season was detrimental to this team’s understanding of what it takes to be a good defensive team. Last year was chaos for a lot of reasons. Some of them fair. Some of them unfair. But all of it connected.
I believe the Wolves are better offensively so far this season because of what they were allowed to experiment with in the final 2.5 months of last season. Zach LaVine took a step forward and that step forward appears to be legitimate and relatively sustainable right away. Karl-Anthony Towns kept getting to explore his unlimited abilities as an offensive player in those final 2.5 months. Andrew Wiggins made real steps forward and those have been built upon with an offseason of intelligent skill work.
At the same time, the defense is far behind and that’s what happens when you’re not constantly building those core values and disciplines. Does that mean Sam Mitchell is to blame for the Wolves’ defense this season? No. That would be scapegoating and lazy. It would absolve the poor decisions as a team on the court. But like every success and failure in the NBA with any player or team, the buildup to this point matters and young guys simply can’t be that bad on defense one year and then asked to understand and embrace the most disciplined defensive system in the NBA a few months later.
That lack of discipline and preparation within defensive possessions are what have been magnified in the first 14 games of the season and they were pronounced during the Pelicans embarrassing them in the first few minutes of that game and the second half. Sure, part of that is Anthony Davis being an unreal scorer and being able to hit anything Wednesday night, but that doesn’t excuse poor rotations, the help not loading up in the first place, bad defensive stances, and defeated transition defense before it starts.
Thibodeau is reconstructing a broken jumper with this team’s defense. It’s not muscle memory quite yet. It’s not even close to that. It doesn’t mean it can’t start looking that way in a week, a month, or in the final 2.5 months of this season. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect it to get better. There are good elements to the defense this year. They’re pretty good at defending 3-point shots and they force turnovers. But the rim protection and the resistance to opponents getting into the paint are pathetic right now and the majority of that in today’s NBA is prevented through dictating what is allowed by their opponents.
That aspect of their defense needs a lot of reconstruction before we get the results we seek out of a process we find comfort in.