The Minnesota Timberwolves are 7-5, and 4-1 at home, and 11th in the NBA in offense, with a pair of wins over the hot-shot Oklahoma City Thunder already on their résumé. That’s good! On the other hand they don’t seem, today, like a team that’s having a very good time, fresh off a loss to the Phoenix Suns in which their defense was completely powerless to stop Devin Booker and T.J. Warren. It was a bad, discouraging loss, featuring the kind of defensive helplessness that has thus far defined their efforts on that end.
The Wolves currently rank 27th in defensive rating in the NBA, after finishing last season ranked 26th. After their loss last night, the newest Wolves—not coincidentally the Minnesota players most associated with defensive success—shared their frustrations with Nick Friedell of ESPN:
“Offense will never be the problem all year long,” [Jimmy Butler] said. “All you’re always going to hear about from us, from everybody else, is we’re not playing any defense. That is our biggest letdown right now. And until we fix it, a lot of outcomes are going to be like this one.”
“The fourth quarter is defense,” Timberwolves forward Taj Gibson said. “The offense is going to be there. We have a good offense, but we got to buckle down on defense.”
“We’re not making guys go to their weaknesses,” Butler said. “We’re too busy letting guys go to their strengths, and that’s on me, man. [Booker] actually whipped my tail tonight. I wasn’t up on shots. He got into where he wanted to get to on the floor. I got to be better on the defensive end. It starts with me.”
But it’s worse than just general defensive effort. The Wolves are mired in the same shit that sank them in 2016-17: they attempt the second-fewest threes per game (22.8) in the NBA; they attempt the third-most shots per game from both five to nine feet (12.7) and 10 to 14 feet (9.8), without being especially good at making those shots; and they allow the fourth-most shots per game from point blank (31.6) while also allowing the second-highest field goal percentage on those shots (65.7). That’s a completely upside down formula for success—most teams want to take lots of threes and layups, to the exclusion of mid-range shots, while walling off the paint at the other end. The Wolves are allowing a parade to the rim, while generating too many shots from the dreaded mid-range. That’s bad!
The result of all this inefficiency is a point differential that paints a far less rosy picture than their 7-5 record: the fifth-worst mark in the NBA, at minus-3.0 points per game. They haven’t performed like a team winning more than half their games. In fact, they’ve performed worse in that regard than they did during their 31-win season last year.
There was always the potential for this season to take this specific shape. Karl-Anthony Towns is a really bad, mostly indifferent defensive player, and for all his athletic gifts, Andrew Wiggins isn’t much better. And, for that matter, Thibodeau’s system has always been about loading the strong side with defenders, a strategy that made a ton of sense when the NBA was still largely ruled by prolific isolation scorers, and featured offenses less geared towards ball and player movement, and pace, and three-pointers. Jimmy Butler is really good, but his offensive skills aren’t suited to speeding up or spreading out Minnesota’s offense. And world-class perimeter defenders can’t have the same kind of across-the-board impact that world-class rim protectors can. Jimmy Butler can lock up an apex wing, but he can’t stone a ball-handler who blows past Wiggins and goes right over Towns, not until he can learn how to literally fly.
The Wolves don’t seem to be panicking, and neither should their fans. They’ve thus far mostly overcome their lousy defense and ugly, grinding offensive shape. But a team with a bottom five defense and an offense that generates a greater than advised share of its offense from the midrange is not one that is pointed towards great success in the modern NBA. They’ve certainly got the talent to do better, but whether they have any chance of shaping that talent into the proper alignment is still anyone’s guess.