The Minnesota Timberwolves‘ 134-122 loss to the Atlanta Hawks was a departure from the new norm. The recent defeat was just the fourth Minnesota has suffered in the new calendar year. But more importantly, it was a rare instance in which the T-Wolves weren’t on their game defensively.
At 22-23, no one is viewing the Timberwolves as a true title contender yet. But as the seventh seed, they have a good shot to make the playoffs thanks to an underrated defense that was previously dormant over the last 15 years.
Things are starting to look up for the Minnesota Timberwolves
Fans of the T-Wolves need not be reminded of this, but it’s been a long time since there was consistently good basketball in Minnesota.
After winning its first playoff series ever and advancing to the Western Conference Finals in 2003-04, Minnesota has just one playoff appearance. Additionally, the Wolves have only three seasons with 40 or more wins since ’04, including a 47-win team in 2017-18 that bowed out of the playoffs in five games.
That being said, there is legitimate hope on the horizon.
Led by stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, Minnesota has already reached 22 wins. For context, it won 23 games last year and 19 the year prior. So the overall improvements are showing up on the win column, which in the end is all that matters.
Towns, Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell form a talented scoring trio for the seven-seed Timberwolves. KAT, now in his seventh season, leads the way with 24.3 points and a 40.8% clip from three. Edwards, the 20-year-old in his second season, is showing improvements across the board headlined by 22.2 points and 44.2% shooting from the field. And Russell, taken one spot after Towns in the 2015 NBA Draft, is averaging a cool 18.9 and team-high 7.0 assists.
With this 26-and-under trio leading the way, the Timberwolves have managed to pull themselves to a game below .500. While not overly exciting on the surface, it’s impressive when you consider their 4-9 start and two five-game losing streaks.
The T-Wolves are playing defense last seen during the Kevin Garnett era
Few have correlated Timberwolves basketball with strong defense over the last decade-plus. Just last season, they finished the year ranked 28th in defensive rating. In fact, they haven’t finished with a defensive rating better than 20th since 2013-14.
However, even after a poor showing against the Hawks on Wednesday, the 2021-22 Timberwolves boast a defensive rating of 109.1, placing them 10th in the NBA.
To find the last time the T-Wolves were top-10 in defensive rating, you’d have to go all the way back to 2005-06. Despite a 33-49 record, a roster containing the likes of Kevin Garnett, Wally Szczerbiak, and Ricky Davis helped the Wolves finish 10th in DR.
The most notable reason why the T-Wolves defense is relevant again can be summarized with a single word — turnovers. Minnesota’s D has forced 16.9 turnovers per game, the most in the league. After racking up another 11 giveaways against Atlanta, the Wolves now have 41 consecutive games with 10 or more turnovers forced, the longest active streak in the NBA.
While stars like Towns and Edwards receive all the headlines, 22-year-old Jarred Vanderbilt is the de facto leader of Minnesota’s defensive turnaround. The fourth-year forward is an active rebounder averaging 1.5 steals a night. But his 103.7 defensive rating leads the team and places him in a tie for 10th in the NBA. Additionally, Vanderbilt is in the top-20 for both defensive box plus-minus and defensive win shares.
A high-risk, high-reward defense is going to make or break the Timberwolves season
Do you know the saying “Defense wins championships”? Well, that won’t necessarily apply to the T-Wolves this year. But at the very least, their defense should offer them a puncher’s chance to secure a few playoff victories.
Minnesota’s style on the defensive end is high-risk, high-reward. With young and hungry players like Vanderbilt and Edwards, the Wolves force turnovers and create easy transition baskets on the other end. And the numbers back it up, as they lead the league with 19.9 points off turnovers per game.
But the danger of going for steals can lead to a few easy buckets at their own end. That’s especially during fast breaks, where Minnesota allows the second-most points in the league with 14.1. Not to mention the issues with fouling, as Chris Finch’s handsy defense is getting hit with a league-leading 22.2 fouls per game.
Turnovers are a wonderful thing for a defense, but they shouldn’t be the sole focus. Eventually, Minnesota is going to need to find a balance between forcing giveaways and simply pressuring opponents into tough, contested shots. Right now, there’s not enough of the latter for the Wolves to become a real contender yet.
However, the pieces are in place for success. The Timberwolves have true stars in Towns and Edwards, along with a young, athletic team capable of playing strong defense. As they gain more maturity throughout the season and beyond, don’t be shocked if Minnesota begins to make playoff appearances a regular occurrence again.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.