Half of every player’s performance, on average, is spent playing defense. Whether they like it or not, realize it or not, or prepare for it or not.
That preparation part often gets overlooked, from a player’s earliest moments in a gym, said David Vanterpool, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ associate head coach.
“If I gave you a basketball and told you, ‘Hey, go work on your game,’ what might you do with it?” Vanterpool asked NBA.com in a recent phone interview. “Chances are you would go shoot some jump shots. You might work on your ball handling, you might work on your passing. But you are not going to do something to improve yourself defensively.”
It’s a built-in tilt to the game, that ability of a lone kid with a ball to spend hours in the driveway or on the playground. It comes naturally and it’s everywhere.
Now imagine seeing somebody practicing defensive slides or shot contests all by themselves. That would probably stop traffic.
Getting better defensively typically requires competition or at least a group. And in the NBA’s pandemic-restricted, scrunched-schedule 2020-21 season, group activities have been a major difficulty. Mention the topic of practice to Vanterpool and he immediately goes Allen Iverson on you.
“Practice? Practice?!” he said, laughing. “Not this year.”
That has made Vanterpool’s job harder than most. For one, he’s the NBA’s only assistant coach with the formal title of “Defensive Coordinator” after his name. Lots of teams have assistants or head coaches who focus first on defense, but Vanterpool has been expressly charged with that duty since joining Minnesota’s staff in 2019.
Then there is the challenge of working with the Timberwolves’ defense. The team’s current rating of 114.7 ranks 27th, and it has been an issue for years both in absolute numbers and relative to the league.
Currently the Wolves rank near the bottom in a variety of defensive categories, from opponents’ 3-point percentage (39%, tied for last) and opponents’ assists (26.5, 29th) to rebounding percentage (47.8, tied for 26th). At 14-40, Minnesota is tied with Houston for the league’s worst record. It allows 117.7 points per game. And it earned a coaching change in February when Ryan Saunders was fired and replaced by Chris Finch.
Vanterpool did not get bumped to the top job, a decision that earned Wolves boss Gersson Rosas criticism. But he was kept around and serves next to Finch for a team that is showing at least some glimmers lately (7-24 under Saunders, 7-16 with Finch).
It’s still a pretty thankless role, but Vanterpool and the Wolves find solace where they can. Such as Minnesota’s 8-5 record on nights the other guys fail to score 110 points. Their 8-9 mark when holding foes below 45% shooting. And 8-10 when limiting the 3-point field goals to 10 or fewer.
“It’s about growth and development mentally,” Vanterpool said. “The level of understanding is going to be really important — we’ve got so many young players.”
The Wolves have the youngest roster in the NBA, by their count, which means plenty of defensive mistakes. “Many players come in with habits that can be very detrimental at this level,” Vanterpool said. “Things that may have worked out for you in the past that have a different effectiveness and consequence now.”
Like reaching around for the ball when your man has blown by you, for instance. “Before you could maybe tip the ball or catch up and block the shot,” Vanterpool said. “Here you do that, you might cost your team three points or get somebody dunked on.
“The curve of them learning that, along with learning the league and the tendencies of the players, that’s so important.”
Vanterpool, 48, didn’t start out planning to specialize on defense. He played four years at St. Bonaventure, and logged time in the CBA, Russia and Italy in addition to getting a 22-game stint with Washington in 2000-01.
The Maryland native has coached with Oklahoma City, Portland and the Canadian men’s national team, as well as participating five times with the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders international program.
“When I played, I had times when I averaged 20 points a game,” he said. “It never seemed that difficult to score. It seemed much more difficult to stop you from scoring. I think that’s what got me interested, trying to figure out those nuances and different ways.”
The Wolves have much work to do, in a league that constantly seems to favor scoring. Vanterpool tries to cite some examples for his team’s young players, players who frequently wind up on this Defensive Player Ladder.
“Chris Paul might not be as fleet of foot as he used to be, but you can actually see him defending with his mind,” Vanterpool said. “I love to see him call the [other teams’] plays, telling his teammates what’s about to happen and who’s going where. I try to get our young players to pay attention to that.
“A guy like Draymond Green, he may roam, but he can mess up everything. Every play, call out things on the fly, he can make decisions that are not necessarily in the Warriors’ schematics but he can communicate it to his teammates and have them react properly. And his effort, and the attitude he plays with, are the best.”
Here are the Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Defensive Player Ladder:
(All stats through Sunday, April 11)
1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Some crowing by opponents who played well while matched up against Gobert individually – like Dallas’ Dorian Finney-Smith, after he scored 23 in a victory over the Jazz – had Utah coach Quin Snyder reminding folks their schemes ask more of the French center. Like checking his man, helping teammates and protecting in the paint. “When we say winning the matchup, it’s that points, rebounds, that kind of stat line,” Snyder said. “I think Rudy’s matchup is usually more complex than that.”
2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Simmons has touted his and the Sixers’ defense in public statements, questioned Gobert’s ranking and now reminds the Brooklyn Nets that they might be deficient on that end of the floor. “Obviously, Brooklyn has a lot of talent,” the Philadelphia guard said. “But at the end of the day, there’s only one ball and you gotta play defense, too.” He, Joel Embiid and Matisse Thybulle make sure the Sixers do.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) April 11, 2021
3. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Turner hasn’t played since April 6 due to a sprained left ankle, missing three games and set to sit again Tuesday vs. the Clippers. The Pacers have given up 122.7 points and 47% field-goal shooting in his three recent absences, but won them all by humming along at 128.0 and 48.3% themselves. He still leads the NBA in total blocks (159) and per-game (3.5).
4. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Defense definitely is a team thing with the Heat, who are 15-4 when holding opponents to fewer than 100 points. They’re guarding teams into 15.3 turnovers this season, including 16.1 during their recent 6-1 stretch. Jimmy Butler has been shining on the perimeter with his pressure and ball-hawking, while Adebayo presides in the paint. But their mobility and skills allow for great interaction. “It definitely makes it easier,” Adebayo said recently, “because all me and Jimmy do is switch the whole game.”
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Antetokounmpo has been out for the longest stretch of his career, all due to left knee soreness. He had missed five consecutive games through Sunday and two of seven prior to that. The Bucks’ defensive efficiency stood at 109.3 when he first showed signs of the injury on March 20, but 114.3 since. They are 3-4 in the seven games the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has missed.
The Next Five
(In no particular order)
Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers
- Only he and Robert Covington have at least 70 rebounds and 40 blocks.
Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
- Reaches games-played minimum, grabs NBA lead in steals (2.1 per game).
Clint Capela, Atlanta Hawks
- League’s leading rebounder (14.1), 18 blocks in last six games.
T.J. McConnell, Indiana Pacers
- Pesky reserve helps Pacers rank top five in steals, points off turnovers.
Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
- Passed Scottie Pippen (2,307) Tuesday for sixth all-time in steals.
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