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How do Timberwolves become an elite defensive team? It starts with changes to their ‘personnel’

Minnesota closed the NBA regular season ranking 13th in defensive rating, surrendering 111 points per 100 possessions.

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) fouls Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane (22) on April 29, 2022, in Game 6 of their first-round NBA playoff series in Minneapolis.
Brad Rempel / USA Today Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Timberwolves made an unexpected surge up the defensive ladder this season. Despite a lack of astute defenders, Minnesota closed the NBA regular season ranking 13th in defensive rating, surrendering 111 points per 100 possessions.

That came almost entirely on the back of one pick-and-roll scheme — the “high-wall,” where the defender covering the screener stayed at the level of the screen to defend the ball handler until the primary defender could get back to his man. The scheme took advantage of Karl-Anthony Towns’ ability to play on the perimeter and utilized Minnesota’s general speed and athleticism as it scrambled around to cover everyone up while hiding players less capable of guarding players man to man.

That scheme held up against Memphis in the first round of the playoffs, as using Towns at the level took away many of Ja Morant’s seams to get into the paint. The Grizzlies’ star guard — who scored 47 points in Memphis’ Game 2 second-round win over Golden State — was an inefficient scorer in the first-round series, which the Grizzlies won in six games.

But other opponents rendered Minnesota’s defensive scheme moot. Phoenix, Washington, even Atlanta had no problem dissecting the defense to generate easy shots. Their primary ball handler would extend horizontally off the screen, drawing Towns to the sidelines. From there, they would either hit the rolling big man, who’d catch the ball in the paint with often just an undersized wing defender to beat, or deliver a skip pass to the corner for an open three.

Memphis didn’t really have the personnel for that, because the Grizzlies don’t have a potent scoring roller, nor a plethora of perimeter shooters. So Minnesota got away with repeatedly running its base scheme throughout the series, which was lucky for the Wolves. Because they proved incapable of diversifying defensively throughout the season.

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When they went to drop coverage, they were torched. The same was true when they attempted a switch-heavy approach, which so many of the true contenders are currently executing as the playoffs progress.

So what must Minnesota adjust in order to be able to differ coverages when required?

“Personnel,” veteran guard Patrick Beverley said.

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves
Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (13) drives to the basket amid a trio of Minnesota Timberwolves defenders on April 29, 2022, in Game 6 of the their first-round NBA playoffs series in Minneapolis.
Brad Rempel / USA Today Sports

Currently, the Timberwolves simply don’t have enough defensive players to be able to execute schemes that require everyone on the court to be able to defend.

“Ultimately, you want perfect players at every position. There’s no player that’s perfect. You’re always going to be trading off one thing for something else, so it all depends on what those trade-offs are,” said Sachin Gupta, the Timberwolves’ executive vice president of basketball operations. “Of course, you’d love to have a team full of the most versatile defensive players that can play any defensive scheme, that can shoot, pass, dribble, that can rebound. But no one like that exists. So it’s all a question of trade-offs, but of course, that’s something that you’d love to have.”

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In some ways, it seems early for such proclamations. The Timberwolves haven’t been to the second round of the NBA playoffs since 2004. This spring marked the first playoff experience for a number of key players on the roster, who are still in the infant stages of their careers. Going from that to championship is quite a leap.
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Wolves head coach Chris Finch has noted for a year that Minnesota’s roster slants toward offensive players. It’s hard to consistently defend at a high level when you’ve got sub-par defenders like D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley or Anthony Edwards on the floor. Edwards is a good on-ball defender, but tends to lose track of his man when playing off-ball defense. That can probably be attributed to the fact Edwards is 20 years old and hasn’t been asked to defend at a high level in the past.

But when you look at Minnesota’s roster, particularly its core of Towns, Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, it’s not difficult to see a path to building a roster in which the Wolves at least have the option to trot out a switch-heavy lineup in which every player can guard every one of the opponent’s players, if necessary — much in the same way Boston currently does. Those three players, who are locked into the team’s long-term future, are all physically capable of doing that. Can Minnesota find two more guys who fit that mold?

“That’s a part of what we need to be able to do. When everybody on your team can guard their position and you’re not trying to hide guys defensively or if you do hide them you do it in a way where you’re actually benefiting from it because you’re able to use their strengths in a different way,” Finch said. “You have to be able to guard your position in this league. And in the playoffs there’s a multitude of really good players out there. And it’s just hard when guys aren’t able to do that.”

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Minnesota’s path to continuing to climb the Western Conference ladder seems to be improving on the defensive end. The Wolves likely won’t need more offensive firepower when they already sport the likes of Edwards and Towns. But if they can swap out their current defensive liabilities for players who can more competently defend their position, now Minnesota could reach a level where it could ascend to consistently being a top-10 team — or higher — on both ends of the floor.

And that’s how you enter championship contention.

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