This season did not begin the way the Minnesota Timberwolves wanted. After being projected by many to once again compete for the playoffs, to fulfill their destiny as the Oklahoma City Thunder reincarnate, the Wolves stumbled to a 6-18 record out of the gate. Their offense wasn’t the main factor during their sluggish start – they averaged 103.9 points per game over their first 24 games and their offensive rating has been around the top 10 all season. The biggest reason was their lackluster defense.
The Wolves have struggled defensively all season, something that was thought to be impossible once Tom Thibodeau took the reins last April. Their defensive rating (a metric not without its flaws) has been consistently ranked in the low- to mid-20’s and everyone and their mother bemoaned the Wolves’ lack of communication and togetherness on that end of the court; everything looked disjointed. The help rotations were poor, the pick-and-roll coverage was a mess, and the focus was inconsistent at best and non-existent at worst. The Wolves were an atrocious defensive team.
But lately, things have changed.
Since their 6-18 start, the Wolves have gone 20-19 and have posted a defensive rating of 106.0 (roughly league average) over that time span. Since the All-Star break (infinitesimally small sample size alert), the Wolves have gone 4-2 with a league-best 97.3 defensive rating. Over the last nine games, the Wolves have held their opponents to fewer than 100 points seven times and have posted a record of 6-1 in those games. They were terrible at defense and now, perhaps they aren’t?
How can this seemingly sudden jump from horrible to maybe very good occur? Perhaps the answer lies within motor learning.
Motor learning is a concept, a collection of six theories really, in neuro- and movement/sports science that focuses on the process of acquiring. Motor learning is a direct result of repetition via practice and experience and cannot be quantified or measured directly (that’s where box score numbers and advanced analytics come in). Delving into each specific theory is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that no one theory has been proven to be more correct than the others and, truthfully, how humans learn a skill is probably through a combination of all six theories.
But before we dive more into motor learning, it is important to differentiate between learning and performance. Learning is a much more permanent process, whereas performance is temporary and is highly dependent on context. A person, or in the case of this article, a basketball player, who has learned a skill is able to repeat it on command, no matter the context; think Steph Curry or Kyrie Irving dribbling their way through a forest of defenders in the playoffs with 5 seconds left on the shot clock. A player who can only perform a task can only do it under certain circumstances; consider the same dribbling example: Andrew Wiggins has shown an improved handle this season, however, most of the time he can only dribble past a single defender and really only moves north and south. Wiggins can perform a crossover, Curry and Irving have perfected it.
There are three main human influences that impact the process of motor learning: intellectual, physical, and psychological. Intellectual factors focus on the player’s ability to make quick decisions, consciously or subconsciously sequence their movement, and to effectively communicate with the players around them; physical factors look more at the player’s sensory systems and coordination; and psychological factors consider the player’s motivation and drives. These three influences work in combination and dictate how quickly a player is able to learn a single skill, so you can imagine that their influence only multiplies when the player is tasked to learn a set of novel skills.
Long-term memory is also an important aspect of motor learning and can be divided into two distinct parts: explicit (or the ability to recall facts) and implicit (a more nebulous category) memory. Implicit memory is further broken down into three different categories (which, together, are again beyond the scope of this article), but one of those categories is important to consider for learning basketball-related skills. This category is known as procedural learning and is focused on the acquisition of automatic motor skills (again, consider Curry and Irving dribbling). This type of learning develops very slowly, perhaps taking weeks to months or even longer, and needs to take transferability of the skill into account (i.e. against a bad defender v. against a good defender, in a loud stadium v. a quiet stadium, etc.).
This is where repetition through practice and in game experience is key; players require extreme amounts of repetition in a nearly infinite amount of variable conditions in order to not only learn a skill, but to learn multiple skills and have them be transferable to most if not all the situations that they may encounter. Not only do practice and games influence motor learning, but the specific type of practice and/or game situations effect motor learning. Is practice structured to be massed (practice time greater than rest time, which places players at a greater risk for injury) or distributed (rest time is greater than practice time)? Is practice constant (same skills under the same situations worked on through the entire practice) or is it variable (skills practiced under varying circumstances, which improves transferability of the skill)? Do the players practice the whole skill or do they break each skill into its individual components first? During games are players guided every moment or are they encouraged to discover how to best perform and incorporate a skill?
And then you must take into account feedback from the coaching staff and teammates and its effect on motor learning. Is the feedback concurrent (happening while the skill is be performed) or terminal (provided once the skill is finished)? And how often should feedback be provided? All of these questions influence the speed and efficiency at which motor learning occurs and varies from coaching staff to coaching staff. To put is simply: motor learning is rather complex.
So, how does all of this apply to the Wolves and their recent improvement on defense? On one hand, motor learning could explain fully why the Wolves are seemingly no longer trash on defense. They were finally provided with ample opportunities, via practice and games, to not only learn a bunch of brand new skills, but to be able to transfer them to an obscene number of situations. Thibodeau and his staff finally found the right formula for designing practice and providing feedback and everything finally connected for the Wolves’ players. Unfortunately, we don’t have access to Wolves’ practice, so it’s difficult to postulate how Tom Thibodeau and his staff incorporate the theory of motor learning, whether intentional or otherwise, into their practices.
On the other hand, the Wolves’ recent uptick in defensive prowess could be explained by the post All-Star game swoon that is typically seen every year. Good teams start resting their players and don’t take games against lesser opponents as seriously, and bad teams do everything in their power to tank. Truthfully, it’s probably some combination of the two hands; things are starting to click for the Wolves on defense and the post All-Star break swoon is in full effect. How much the Wolves defense has genuinely improved probably won’t be able to be determined until next season (or, if everything goes right, in the playoffs), however, the fact that the Wolves have a defensive rating in the high 90’s over the last handful of games, and that players and Thibodeau himself have recently noted the team’s improvement would seem to indicate that some extent of legitimate change has occurred.
If I were to wager a guess, I’d say the Wolves are currently in the associative stage of Fitts and Posner’s three stage model for motor learning. The associative stage is the middle stage (sandwiched between the cognitive and autonomous stages) and is defined by the learner showing fewer errors, better error correction, and refinement of their skills. Earlier in the year, the Wolves were in the cognitive stage, where they displayed a large amount of errors and were more experimental on defense, trying to figure out how to best complete the tasks on the fly. But the end goal is for the Wolves to reach the autonomous stage, where everything is automatic and the defense is consistently one of the best in the league. I think the Wolves will get there eventually, and when they do, they will be a force to be reckoned with.