Perhaps the most surprising and frustrating part about the first year of the Tom Thibodeau coaching era with the Timberwolves and the early part of this, the second year, was that the Wolves didn’t seem to be getting any better on defense despite Thibodeau’s reputation for being an astute coach on that side of the ball.
The Wolves were 26th in the NBA last year in defensive rating (per NBA.com), allowing 109.1 points per 100 possessions. Along with woeful bench production, the defense was a main culprit that kept the Wolves from making any significant progress in the standings last year, going from 29 wins two years ago to just 31 in Thibodeau’s first season even though outside expectations were much higher.
A look at the overall numbers this year don’t suggest much improvement. Minnesota is 24th in defensive rating, allowing 107.2 points per 100 possessions. An offense that’s been plenty good — 110.1 rating, fifth in the league) — has continued to carry the load as the team has jumped to a 24-14 record so far.
But as we start to break down the numbers, we do see signs of progress. The Wolves, for instance, were dead last in defensive rating in October. But in November, the Wolves were 13th in the NBA in the same statistic. In their last 10 games, they’re still 13th. Last five? They’re seventh. Last two? Number one.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Wolves are 8-2 in their last 10 games, 4-1 in their last five and have a pair of blowout wins in their last two.
Their overall defensive numbers have coincided with improvement from big man Karl-Anthony Towns, and vice-versa.
Per a tweet from Aaron Gleeman, the Timberwolves gave up 115.6 points per 100 possessions when Towns was on the court. In November, that number went down to 106.4, and in December it was even better at 104.5. Not all of the blame for October goes to Towns, while not all of the credit can go to him for the improved months.
But if Towns continues to emerge as a two-way force while Jimmy Butler keeps doing his thing, the Wolves will be legitimately dangerous as the season goes along.