When you hire Tom Thibodeau and give him the freedom to build a roster that features some of his favorite players, like Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, it’s fair to expect that he can develop a pretty solid defensive team. However, despite having a talented roster, along with Butler and Gibson, the Timberwolves are ranked dead last in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
More specifically, the Timberwolves are giving up 114 points per 100 possessions to their opponents, which is almost four points worse than the 29th worst defensive team in the league, the Indiana Pacers.
There are a few possible explanations for this. First, Minnesota has played the Golden State Warriors twice and the San Antonio Spurs once so far this season, which means they’ve played against top-10 offenses in three of their first five games. Secondly, Jimmy Butler missed the team’s last two games as he’s been dealing with an upper respiratory issue. Butler is the team’s best perimeter defender and likely the team’s best overall defender as well.
The problem is that the Timberwolves are a complete disaster defensively when Butler isn’t on the floor and the team’s core players seem to keep making the same mistakes they made when in their rookie and sophomore seasons.
“This is not the tendency of a Coach Thibs team,” Pierce said. “So it’s a little concerning. I have to get on my young players, they have to really step up. Karl-Anthony Towns, this was the year everybody said he’s going to be an all-star, maybe Andrew Wiggins can be an all-star. You don’t have to have great defensive talent to be a great defensive team. Thibs usually implements a great defensive system where (if) you follow the system, you’ll be fine. And I don’t know that they’re following it.”
“(Minnesota’s struggles are) solely on those (players),” McGrady said, “and they’ve got to be committed.”
Karl-Anthony Towns is already an incredible offensive player but has been alarmingly ineffective on defense this season. Whether it is confusion in executing Thibodeau’s defensive schemes, miscommunication on the court with teammates or simply not giving full effort, Towns has consistently given up easy points to opponents and has not been the defensive anchor Minnesota is in desperate need of.
For his part, Towns is aware that his performance so far this season has fallen short of expectations.
“I’ve just got to be better all around, everywhere,” Towns said. “I’m not my best right now. I’m not, and it hurts. So I’ve got to go back to the drawing board and find a way to play better. I’ve got to be more of a factor, and I’ve got to find ways. The team looks at me for a lot and right now in my opinion, I’m not delivering. I’ve got to find ways.”
What is a bit concerning is that Towns has not zoned in as directly on addressing his defensive effort as one might expect given how ineffective he has been on that side of the court this season. After Minnesota’s loss to the Detroit Pistons earlier this week, Towns again mentioned that he needs to improve in all areas, not just on defense.
“I ain’t no quitter, I’m a competitor,” Towns said after the game in the Pistons’ new Little Caesars Arena. “I compete at the highest level every single night, regardless what the outcome is. I’ve got to be better. I’m motivated. I’ve got to take that next step, not only as an offensive-defensive player but as a leader.”
Towns is too physically gifted to not at least be a passable defensive player. His size and mobility at the center position should allow him to effectively guard opposing big men in the post, rotate to defend the rim from the weak side and guard players away from the basket well enough to deter opposing guards and wings from attacking the rim off the dribble. So far this season, Towns has been unable to do each of those things consistently.
Similarly, Wiggins has struggled to play disciplined defense as well. While his one-on-one defense has been solid at times, his execution within the team’s defensive schemes and rotations has been inconsistent. The hope was that playing with Butler would help improve Wiggins’ defensive skill set, but it appears that process may take longer than many had hoped.
In response to a question about Shabazz Muhammad’s early season struggles, Thibodeau gave a response that he has been giving regularly so far this season when asked about his team’s inconsistent play.
“We have to have an understanding if you’re not shooting well, you can still play well,” Thibodeau said. “There are other ways to contribute, and so that’s what he has to do. He has proved he’s more than capable offensively. Right now, the ball is not going in for him. But there are other things he can do that can help us and that’s what we need him to do.”
To be fair to the players, there have been times through the first few games where Thibodeau failed to adjust his game plan even when it was clear it wasn’t working. For example, against the Pistons, Thibodeau was sending three to four of his players to hit the offensive glass, leaving his team exposed in transition any time they failed to secure the rebound. The Pistons were outrebounding Minnesota and routinely took advantage of the lack of defenders in the open court. Thibodeau never addressed this, which hurt the team throughout the night.
The season is still very young and there’s plenty of time for Minnesota to turn things around. But there’s no sugarcoating how bad their defense has been so far this season. From poor execution, inconsistent effort and a refusal to make in game adjustments, the Timberwolves are failing to put together a competent defense. If Thibodeau can’t figure out how to address this issue, it won’t matter how much offensive talent his team has assembled over the last few seasons.
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