When a team digs itself into a hole, it’s not easy to climb out of it.
It’s especially difficult when that team is in the Western Conference, where 14th place and first place in the standings are separated by only five games. There’s a high parity level and competition coming from every way, with little room for error even this early.
The Minnesota Timberwolves started the season in a chaotic fashion. Jimmy Butler wanted out from the onset of training camp and didn’t show up for preseason. When he came back to practice, it caused a distraction that lasted for a month.
It led to a blockbuster trade that brought Robert Covington and Dario Saric into the fold—a deal that has truly refreshed a locker room that needed a fresh beginning. Since Nov. 10—the day the move was made—the Wolves are 7-2 and back to an even record.
“We’ve been coming together as a unit,” Wolves forward Taj Gibson told Basketball Insiders after a win in Cleveland. “We’ve been trying to just make up ground on all the losses that we had early in the season. But we’re slowly gaining ground.”
During that span, Minnesota has the NBA’s lowest defensive rating at 99.6 while holding opponents to a 48.2 percent effective field goal percentage and turning the opposition’s possessions over 16.6 percent of the time—per Cleaning The Glass. The team also recorded its first road wins of the season over the last week.
But can two changes really be that significant? Let’s look at the best two-man defensive lineups (min. 50 minutes) the Wolves have had this season and pick out the common denominator.
According to NBA.com, Covington is in seven of those pairings and Saric is in three. There is only one combined that involves neither, and that is the Gorgui Dieng-Tyus Jones duo, two of the most reliable defenders Tom Thibodeau has off the bench.
Coincidentally, the Wolves’ top five-man unit in defensive rating (80.5) and net rating (35.5) features all four of these players plus Derrick Rose. Thibodeau has seen plenty of results with Covington running with the second unit, which includes Saric.
ESPN 1500’s Danny Cunningham asked Thibodeau why there’s been such a dramatic turnaround with their addition. Minnesota’s head coach points to the toughness and size allowing him to implement more switching. The physicality and versatility that both guys have give other teams a unique look and matchup issues.
Covington’s allowed to be a gambler because he has help behind him. He’s been playing at a high level for a number of years now, but his stealing acumen has always come naturally with quick hands and a knack for causing havoc.
“It’s just a skill,” Gibson said of Covington’s abilities. “We rely on him to get those steals, whatever it takes. We’re being real aggressive with defense. And we kinda get even more aggressive the more that they get comfortable.”
As for what Saric brings to the table, Gibson sees the Croatian forward as a “multiple-task” player who is still young and moldable.
“Dario still hasn’t really got hot the way he normally can,” Gibson said. “It’s only a matter of time before he gets really hot and starts to put it at work.”
The former Philadelphia 76ers have fit in seamlessly, but Gibson thinks there’s still a long way to go.
“The guys haven’t really settled in just yet,” Gibson said. “I feel that they still have a lot more to show…Just gotta keep finding these guys, keep working with them. But I’m ecstatic that they’re here. I’m ecstatic that they’re working hard with us. And they’re team-first kinda guys.”
Perhaps the biggest impact that Covington has made, though, is instilling confidence into All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns. Judging off the interactions that both have had with each other in the same locker room, it is apparent their relationship is developing fast—and it’s shown on the floor.
Though numbers can be skewed by who players are on the floor with, Towns is one of six centers in the league allowing less than 100 points per 100 possessions since the date of the trade. With Covington and the Dominican seven-footer playing together, the Wolves’ DRTG is 96.2, so clearly the former is in the latter’s ear.
“He’s one of the best defenders in the world for a reason,” Towns said of Covington. “There’s a reason why he’s [All-NBA First Team Defense]. He comes in, he brings that energy. But with him doing that, it makes all of us raise our standards on defense and try to match him.
“It’s more about getting yourself going. You gotta energize yourself.”
Gibson is noticing a ramped up physicality in Towns, as well as a better understanding of how to defend certain sets.
“We’re pushing our big man to be more aggressive with the pick-and-roll, to come out more instead of just sitting back and letting our guards go through all the ups and downs,” Gibson said.
“But I felt in the last couple games, I think Karl’s been doing a good job of just attacking the one-on-one matchup as far as with the pick-and-roll, the guards.”
And on the other side of the ball, the Wolves are actively looking to feed him the ball when it counts late in games. Towns creates mismatches often and the team recognizes that, so the goal is to make sure he gets the chance to take advantage.
While KAT’s production is certainly worth talking about, Minnesota’s collective effort is truly stealing the show. The environment is healthy and the players are enjoying themselves.
And if it sustains, the rest of the NBA should be on high alert.
“We still got a lot of the stuff to improve and a lot of things that we can do better – but the defense is one thing that I see us pushing forward,” Gibson said. “We’re trying to be a top 10 defense and if you do that, you’ve got a chance to win each and every night.
“We’re just trying to play as a unit. You never know whose night’s gonna come. But right now, one game at a time. We’re just slowly making up ground, trying to get above .500 in a talented West. But one game at a time.”
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