DA's Morning Tip

Struggles on defense a serious Achilles' heel for upstart Wolves

Predicted by many as a playoff contender, Minnesota has to address defensive issues

David Aldridge

Wassup, Wolves?

We start an occasional series this morning on teams that aren’t doing as well as anticipated. In the case of 6-14 Minnesota, the fault is as much the NBA cognoscenti as the Wolves themselves. All us experts figured the combo of great young talent like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, combined with proven successful coaching in Tom Thibodeau, would instantly transform the Wolves into a contender in the west.

That may well ultimately happen. But it will take a little longer than the first quarter of the season.

With its record, and with a defense that currently is hemorrhaging points, Minnesota is a long, long ways away from being a factor in the West. Let’s all find out where the brake pedal is, and pump it.

“For us, the focus is on improvement,” Thibodeau said Friday. “Just keep improving. So as long as we’re doing the right things, and obviously, I’m closer, being there every day, and I see how they are in the meetings, and how they practice, and how they prepare. And as long as we’re doing the right things, we’ll continue to improve. So that’s our challenge. Right now, we’re pretty close. But there has to be a consistency, and their understanding when you have young guys, it’s understanding what goes into winning, and how hard it is to win in this league, and how hard you have to play, all of the time. It’s not some of the time; it’s all the time. This is a hard league. But we have high character, we have good work ethic, and I think we will improve.”

The Wolves have all the offensive talent in the world. They’re fun to watch. Towns is a budding beast. Wiggins lets his rapidly improving skills do most of the talking for him. And Zach LaVine on the wing is must-see TV. But the only issue that matters is defense. Minnesota is, simply, horrible at it at the moment.

Their starting five-man unit — Towns, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng — is currently allowing 110.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/Stats.

Individually, and as a group, the Wolves cannot keep opponents in front of them. Minnesota is third from the bottom in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage allowed (46.9; only the Lakers and Nets are worse). Defending without fouling is a staple of Thibodeau’s philosophy; the Wolves are 25th in opponent free throw attempts per game (25.6). They’re 25th in the league in opponents’ points off of turnovers (18.4 points per game), 24th in opponents’ fast-break points (14.1), 24th in opponents’ second-chance points (14.3).

“It starts with Rubio,” a veteran pro scout said. “LaVine goes for steals…and Towns doesn’t look too interested.”

Everything the Wolves try to do defensively is late. Their rotations are a step late, allowing a single cross-court pass to create a wide-open three look, or a pick and roll to result in an easy dunk. Their transition defense is late. Their contests are late, giving someone who would otherwise have a hand in his face and have to put the ball on the floor or shot fake an unencumbered glance at the basket.

“Derrick Rose looks like Derrick Rose again,” the scout said, watching Rose carve up Minnesota Friday.

“It’s like we see it, but we’re not reacting to it quick enough, or we’re not all the way getting it,” LaVine said. “I see the same thing, myself included. I see a pass in the passing lane and I’m pulled in, and I’m a second late getting to that steal or getting to that contest. It’s frustrating. I can see progress there; we’re getting better at it. But we’ve got some of the most athletic people in the world. We should be doing it. And that’s probably what’s really frustrating to me and probably a lot of other people.”

We all should have given more respect to the challenge both Thibodeau and his players faced entering the season. He is Minnesota’s fourth head coach in four years. The franchise he now leads after the death of Flip Saunders last season is in flux.

Thibodeau’s attention to detail and ceaseless film work are just as thorough as ever. But the basics of what he wants — icing screen and rolls to eliminate the need for a third defender, snuffing out corner 3s, eliminating rim runs from the roller, forcing teams to shoot long twos, high hands at all times — combined with the complex five-man defensive rotations he seeks, are easy to understand, long to master. We all eventually learn how to tie our shoes. But the first hundred or so times you tried when you were a kid, you had to think about what to do. That second of hesitation is killing Minnesota’s young players right now.

“It takes time with Thibs, especially with the effort that he wants on the floor, all the time,” said Rose, a graduate of the Thibodeau School of Never Satisfied. “He’s a hard-nosed coach. But with that group, I heard he’s taking his time with them, giving them space to make mistakes. It’s going to take time. They’re a young group, trying to figure out what their identity is going to be. Just because the coach is a defensive specialist doesn’t mean that they’re going to get it right away.”

Offensively, Towns is even more diversified than he was during his dominant Kia Rookie of the Year season. He’s expanded his shot well behind 3-point range (38 percent on 3s); among centers, he’s fifth in the league in NBA.com’s Player Impact Estimate (14.5); he still is averaging a double-double. Yet he’s not impacting the game enough at the defensive end.

People thought Towns was being self-deprecating when he took responsibility for several recent losses, including after scoring 47 against New York last Wednesday. But he knows he has a lot of improving to do. All of the starters do.

“I think it’s more being more cautious,” Towns said. “We have to pay attention to detail more than we probably previously have done. So for us, it’s just paying attention to detail at a higher rate. It seems like most of the losses we’ve had haven’t been us playing bad; it’s just us not paying attention to detail at the deepest moments and just giving the game away.”

Minnesota’s starters are impossibly athletic at each position. But the Wolves’ second unit, with grinders like rookie guard Kris Dunn, Nemanja Bjelica, Cole Aldrich and Shabazz Muhammad, looks more cohesive defensively. Dunn’s defensive on-ball chops were obvious in college; Bjelica uses his length well on contests, and with everyone else in the group where they’re supposed to be, LaVine’s gambles defensively aren’t as potentially costly. And Aldrich was a force at both ends, contesting at the rim (without fouling) and making himself available offensively.

We have to pay attention to detail more than we probably previously have done. … It seems like most of the losses we’ve had haven’t been us playing bad; it’s just us not paying attention to detail at the deepest moments and just giving the game away.

Karl-Anthony towns

Thibodeau uses that group often with LaVine, and they twice were able to reduce big deficits against the Knicks in the second and fourth quarters. He wanted to keep that group on the floor in crunch time, but opted to give the starters another shot down the stretch. They didn’t get it done.

“It’s time to realize that we’re behind, and we need to catch up,” Dieng said. “Just play better defense. I don’t think we have a problem scoring the ball. Our main problem is just like stopping people. If you do that, with the guys we have on this team, even Zach, all these guys can play good defense. Just make the commitment. If you say we can do this, I think we can do this as a group.”

Though Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti loved Aldrich and tried to get him on the floor for two-plus seasons with the Thunder (his Per 36 minutes his second season in OKC translated to a double-double), the sixth-year center from Kansas didn’t get regular burn until his second season in New York in 2014. Last season, Aldrich was very productive with the Clippers’ second unit; they played him with three guards and used him as a diver, finishing at the rim when defenses overloaded to either Jamal Crawford or Austin Rivers.

This summer, Aldrich was one of the best and most cost-efficient (three years, $21 million) free agent pickups during last summer’s orgy of spending around the league. He wanted to go home — he grew up about 20 minutes from Minneapolis, in nearby Burnsville. And he knows what building from the ground up looks and feels like.

“I was here a few years ago (in New York) and we won 17 games. We went five weeks without winning a game,” Aldrich said. “When you go through it, it’s a son of a bitch. But when you get through it, you just kind of learn, you just keep on going and you find ways to get better. Because our group of guys are talented as hell.”

Aldrich says the Wolves need to not resist the grind that Thibodeau demands.

“Personally, as a guy on a young team, I love it,” Aldrich said. “Because I think you have to embrace it as a young group. And you have to learn. When I was in Oklahoma City, I just missed that, maybe these are the years (to learn to win). I got there the year after they lost to the Lakers (in the playoffs). We lost to Dallas in the conference finals. And you could just see it click. And even though I wasn’t there for the early times, I see this group having the potential of doing it. ‘Cause we’ve got three guys that can kind of compare to KD, Russ and James. It’s a scary thing, but it’s a cool thing.”

Patience is the only thing that will improve the Wolves’ defense. It’s easy to forget: LaVine is 21; Dunn is 22; Rubio, the old head among the starters, is a grizzled 26. Towns would be a junior at Kentucky; Wiggins would be a senior at Kansas.

Down the road, you can envision a team that could be very difficult to attack. You could see Dunn keeping the ball out of the paint on pick and rolls and otherwise harassing opposing points (yes, that would mean moving Rubio; one does not use the fifth pick on someone you expect to be a career backup, does one?). You could see Wiggins using his feet and length to create weakside deflections and run-outs. You could see Dieng being able to trap if necessary but still recover with his 7-foot-4 wingspan to contest late. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that these starters could come into their own at the defensive end under Thibodeau and assistant Andy Greer’s tutelage. With their collective length, becoming an all-switching frontcourt like Charlotte someday should be a realistic goal.

“That’s what we’re striving for,” Thibodeau said. “When you begin, you begin with the end in mind, the things that you’re gonna need to be successful and be a good team. So you try to work on those concepts. For us, it’s building a foundation. So we start with the individual fundamentals, and then obviously the team schemes we’re adding into that. And hopefully, through repetition and trial and error, and them seeing, okay, when we do it like that, this is how it works, this is how it should look like. And that’s part of learning.”

It’s the time between then and now that’s dangerous for Minnesota. The preseason expectations were, obviously, way too rosy. But the present and immediate future doesn’t have to remain grim, either.

“Regardless, when you step on the court, you’ve got to have those high expectations in your own head, as confidence,” LaVine said. “We know we’re a good team. We know we’re capable of winning. We’ve just been letting them slip, man. At the end of the day, it results in losses. But we know we’re still good. We’ve got to keep our confidence high. We can’t let the locker room break apart. We’ve got to stay together.”

…AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

She is, decidedly, not entertained. From Julie Smith:

Why are the Wizards so bad?

I didn’t renew my season ticket this yr, but my game ticket this week was $6. The free chicken sandwich, which I don’t eat, cost more than some tickets.

1. They have a successful coach, so why hasn’t that translated over to the team?

2. Why can’t they close out games? Beal is a knock down shooter, when healthy, while Wall is a good point guard. As the leaders of Wizards, why can’t they make their team around them better, like Bron and others?

3. Not as important: Why are there more opposing fans at Wiz games? That’s not happening at the TD Garden.

This will be addressed in greater detail in next week’s column, Julie. But the Reader’s Digest version: 1) You’re right; Scott Brooks is a good coach. But it takes time for any new coach’s system/philosophy to carry over, even successful ones, and no coach can overcome a disparity in talent and mental toughness; 2) See the end of answer one; mental toughness is what gets you over the hump, night in and out, in the NBA. The Wiz just don’t have much of it; 3) If lots of people like yourself didn’t renew their season tickets, someone else bought them — and that may well have been people who weren’t Wizards fans.

Can you spell “Brooklyn” without “Brook?” From Sean Mondello:

Afternoon, I’m a struggling Nets fan Dave but I keep watching to look at the young fellas of Whitehead, Hollis-Jefferson, and awaiting for Caris Levert. However, I can’t stand to keep watching my 7 foot center not play like a 7 foot center. Is it time for the Nets to really consider trading or listen to calls for Brook Lopez. All experts are saying his value is at an all time high, what do you think? Should I keep an eye on this team for the deadline and Dec 15 when new contracts can be traded??

Probably a good notion, Sean. I’d be surprised if Lopez is still on the roster by season’s end; the Nets desperately need to recoup at least one or two of the Draft picks they gave to Boston in the KG/Pierce/etc. deal, and Brook is Brooklyn’s most likely asset to bring something or someone of quality back in return. He’s controllable (through ’18) and affordable ($43.7 total this season and next). (How on earth could, say, Portland, not think of unloading a couple of its bigger contracts for a quality center like Lopez? If that happened, though, the Blazers couldn’t include Allen Crabbe, who Brooklyn signed to s $75 million offer sheet that the Blazers matched last summer, in any package for Lopez; under existing CBA rules, Portland couldn’t trade Crabbe to the Nets until next July—a full year to the date Portland matched the sheet.). As for Lopez shooting a ton of threes, it’s not Brook’s fault the game has changed, and to stay relevant—and get another big-time contract when his expires—he, like all big men, have had to expand their games out past the three-point line. We’ve seen it with Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMarcus Cousins (see below) and Marc Gasol, too. It’s just good career development/maintenance for big men.

RDub from OKC=MVP? From Gino Evangelista:

It’s early, but if OKC ends up as the 7th or 8th seed, does Russell Westbrook win the MVP Award with close to his current averages?

It will be hard not to strongly consider Westbrook if he indeed averages a triple double for the season, and especially if the Thunder, as in your scenario, makes the playoffs. My guess is he still won’t win because either Cleveland or Golden State or maybe the Clippers will have a vastly superior record, and each of those teams has obvious MVP candidates (James, Durant, Curry, Paul, Griffin, etc.). But I suspect Russell will get a ton of second-place votes that way, and thus could sneak in and win even if he got just a handful of first-place votes.

Send your questions, comments, and other ideas to jazz up your next booking photo to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is funny, thought-provoking or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(Last week’s averages in parenthesis)

1) LeBron James (21.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 7.3 apg, .500 FG, .500 FT): He kept his word.

2) James Harden (25 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 9 apg, .355 FG, .813 FT): Not the best shooting week, but Beard performed on the big stage when it counted: a triple-double in Oakland to beat the Warriors in double overtime Thursday.

3) Russell Westbrook (30 ppg, 16.3 rpg, 12.3 apg, .383 FG, .885 FT): Posted fifth straight triple-double Sunday night, the first time that’s been done since a fellow named Michael Jeffrey Jordan accomplished the feat in 1989.

4) Kevin Durant (28 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 4.3 apg, .490 FG, 1.000 FT): On a streak of 36 consecutive free throws made over his last four-plus games.

5) Kawhi Leonard (21.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.3 apg, .400 FG, 833 FT): With great talent comes great responsibility, sayeth Coach Popovich.

BY THE NUMBERS

93.7 — Orlando’s defensive rating the last 10 games, best in the league during that stretch.

17 — Consecutive wins by the Spurs in San Antonio over the Wizards, a streak that dates back to 1999, after Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning basket Friday night for a 107-105 victory over Washington. Per Elias Sports Bureau, it’s the second-longest current home win streak by one team over another; the longest is also San Antonio’s — 18 in a row over the Hawks.

24 — Years, per the NBA, since a team has averaged 115 points per game in a season. The Warriors, roughly a quarter of the way through the regular season, are on pace to go well past that mark, averaging 119.1 per game. The Dubs already have busted 120 or more 12 times. The highest single-season team scoring average was set by Denver in 1981-82, when the Nuggets averaged 126.5 points per game.

I’M FEELIN’…

1) Steve Kerr, as ever, has started a discussion worth having with his disclosure that he used medicinal marijuana to try and alleviate the searing pain he’s experienced since back surgeries in 2015. To my shame, I had been thinking about addressing this topic with Steve for weeks, but didn’t know how to bring it up; you never want to see people you like and care about suffering. But the larger issue is whether the NBA should reconsider its total ban on marijuana use. If it can help other people — even though Kerr says it didn’t help him — why wouldn’t you take a long, educated look at that? Have honest conversations with law enforcement and Attorneys General around the country. There are obviously things that I’m not considering that need to be part of the discussion, and it may well be that it’s not worth it in the long run to change the league’s stance. But isn’t it worth at least discussing?

2) So happy for Isaiah Austin. Hoping his life is as fulfilling and stress-free going forward as he dreams it will be.

3) Sixteen dollars is a couple of those non-fat mocha latte goat’s milk drip things y’all like so much. Skip ‘em for two days and send a kid to his or her first NBA game in Phoenix instead.

4) Why Esquire’s Charlie Pierce, slumming by dipping a toe back into the sports sphere, is a better writer than you or I could ever aspire to be, Vol. MCMLXXXVII.

NOT FEELIN’…

1) Draymond Green has to stop kicking people. Period. He is a world-class athlete. He has had to remake his body and remake his game in order to become one of the best players in the league. He is capable of mastering the art of drawing a foul without going all Rockettes on opponents. (Kids! Ask your great-grandparents who the Rockettes are.) This isn’t beyond his skill set.

2) Al Horford shouldn’t have to explain to anyone why he missed a game to be with his wife for the birth of their second child. Any one who thinks there’s any discussion to be had has their priorities so far out of whack a search party led by Jack Bauer couldn’t find them.

3) Of course the Diggler wants to come back and will do everything he can to return to the Mavs. But this has an old and familiar and melancholy feel. Father Time, the curmudgeon, is merciless.

4) Godspeed to the inventor of General Tso’s chicken. I’ve consumed much more of it than my arteries probably appreciate. Looks like more garlic and fermented cabbage for dinner tonight, boys.

More Morning Tip: Clippers still searcing for consistency | DA’s Top 15 Rankings | Q&A with DeMarcus Cousins

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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