The new Minnesota Timberwolves are learning each other on the fly and, for the most part, they’re flying throughout the process. This brings new narratives daily. Here are three observations/thoughts that have percolated this past week.
If you’ve been following anything related to the Minnesota Timberwolves over the past few days, it would have been almost impossible for the team’s statistical improvement on the defensive end to not have been brought to your attention. But in case you missed it, yes, any defensive metric would tell you that the Timberwolves stunk at defense before the Jimmy Butler trade and now they apparently rule at it.
Defensive Rating With Jimmy Butler on the Roster: 114.3 (28th in NBA, per NBA.com/stats)
Defensive Rating Since Robert Covington and Dario Saric Arrived: 100.7 (2nd in the NBA, per NBA.com/stats)
If you’ve been watching the games, you also know the catalyst of Timberwolves opponents scoring less: Robert Covington. When Covington is lurking off-ball, there is an imminent chance that he will opt to involve himself in the action and simply take what is he believes is his: the ball.
“I’ve never seen a guy play the way that he plays,” said Derrick Rose of Covington, who he has played 57.7 percent of his post-trade minutes alongside. “I think this is the softest the NBA has ever been but somehow he’s able to get both hands on the ball and he yanks the ball out of peoples’ hands without getting a foul. That’s unbelievable to me.”
For Covington, a huge fan of professional wrestling when he was growing up, this is his equivalent of his favorite wrestler’s (Triple H) finishing move, The Pedigree. He waits until the exact moment the ball-handler loosens his grip — right before the shot — and pounces; finishing him, or at least the possession.
However, as it is with wrestling, defensive effectiveness is not solely determined by one move. To be a greater fighter, you need to land blows throughout the match. Covington’s steals and blocks are deep cuts into opposing offenses, but it is the hundreds of paper cuts he delivers along the way that drive down his foe’s productivity. That’s a long way of saying he does the little things.
A particular favorite of mine is Covington’s ability to wiggle over the tops of screens. His wiggle is controlled and thus really annoying to go up against. The slitherings don’t look like much, but the ability to almost never get caught on a screen adds up. They not only frustrate an opponent striving to find space but also put him in an excellent position to intercept errant passes — because he wiggles with vision.
The most valuable evasions often come when he is seemingly completely removed from the play. Watch Anfernee Simons (#24) here as he clearly is looking to return the ball to Covington’s man, Nik Stauskas (#6). Covington recognizes that this is an action drawn up for Stauskas so he immediately deletes any space between himself and Stauskas. When Simons can’t return the ball to Stauskas, he is forced to go to his second-read — Evan Turner (#1), for a far inferior look.
Juxtapose this upon an almost identical Stauskas action earlier in the season, before Covington was on the team, and you’ll see Portland finding their first read. With Josh Okogie guarding Stauskas, rather than Covington, there is far more anxiety to the action. Okogie can wiggle too, but he has to run a million miles an hour to do so. The comparative lack of control from Okogie to Covington is massive. It’s a win for Portland, even if Stauskas does miss this open look.
It’s not that Okogie isn’t a solid defender, it is that Covington is almost perfect. So much of what has wrecked the Timberwolves infamously atrocious pick-and-roll defense over the course of the Thibodeau era has been the guards getting clobbered by screens. For Covington, who defended both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward at the point-of-attack at various times on Saturday, the clobberings are few and far between.
He and Dario Saric (and Gorgui Dieng), handle this pick-and-roll into drag action flawlessly. It’s great work by Saric and Dieng to react, but it all starts with Covington’s wiggle over the top of the first screen.
“It depends on who I’m guarding,” said Covington when I asked him about the over versus under the screen decision-making process. “Certain guys you can’t go under, some guys you can. It’s just a matter of who you’re guarding. Being cognitive of scouting reports and stuff like that — watching film for guys’ tendencies.”
Watch this play where Covington effectively, first, goes under the screen and then wiggles over the top of the second. The execution is actually so flawless that Jeff Teague, who has become classically conditioned to go help in these situations, costs the Wolves a bucket by being out-of-position.
“It’s like offensively, for a guy to understand when to shoot and when to pass,” said dThibodeau of Covington’s aptitude of navigating screens. “Who are the guys you go over on? Who are the guys you go under on? And having the discipline to do it at the appropriate time.
“That’s what makes him who he is. And then the fact that he’s so long and athletic and tough, it gives you great versatility. You can guard every position on the floor.”
As great as Covington has been, it’s not as if Jimmy Butler was a slouch in any of his defensive duties. If Covington were replacing, say, Zach LaVine, this defensive-rating flip from 28th to 2nd would make more sense. Covington covers up so many gaps in the Wolves defense, but what we will learn as the season unfolds is how gaping the thrust of the defensive problems truly was.
The number I have my eye set on when it comes to defensive rating is 15. Can the Wolves be 15th in defensive rating in the 69 games that followed the first 25 days of the season? That would be a win in my book. Last season, granted there weren’t any sweeping changes made by any of these teams, no team that was in the bottom-five in defensive rating after the first 25 days of the season finished better than 18th in end-of-season defensive rating. (Is it just me, or is it crazy that Butler was only on the team for 25 regular season days?)
2017-18 Defensive Rating
|Team||First 25 Days of Season Rank||End of Season Rank|
Go back another year, no team finished better than 22nd after starting in the cellar.
2016-17 Defensive Rating
|Team||First 25 Days of Season Rank||End of Season Rank|
|New York Knicks||30th||25th|
The one team that sprouts some optimism from those lists is the Portland Trail Blazers. After finishing 22nd in defensive rating in 2016-17, the Blazers were 8th in 2017-18. Last season, when Portland came to town, I remember asking their coach, Terry Stotts, about the boost. He was really blunt about it, saying Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum just decided to dedicate themselves to that side of the ball in the intermediate summer. Portland kept their roster in-tact and Lillard and McCollum took advantage of that. Stotts said the two leaders got the team together numerous times during the offseason to work on defense, specifically. It was really just a commitment to it. In turn, Portland became the three seed in the West that season, fueled by a stoning and scrappy defensive group.
Maybe it’s as simple as that for this Wolves group. Just realizing that defense is a job and “commit” to it.
After knocking down two of three shots from deep on Saturday night against Boston, Derrick Rose has boosted his season-long 3-point percentage to 49.4 percent. That’s a higher hit rate than Andrew Wiggins (47.5 percent), Jeff Teague (47.7 percent) and Jamal Crawford (47.7 percent) shot from two last season.
Rose has been remarkably important to this Timberwolves team. It really is a crazy thought exercise to think about where the team would be right now had Rose bounced in free agency this summer. Fortunately, for the win column and the team’s 3-point numbers, Rose is under contract for a veteran’s minimum that counts as $1.513 million against the Wolves books. Unfortunately, it is only a one-year contract. This opens up an even more fascinating thought exercise: What is Derrick Rose’s market value this summer?
With Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins each making over $27 million next season and the Jeff Teague-Gorgui Dieng-Robert Covington trio scheduled to make a combined $46.5 million, the Wolves will have no cap space this summer. In more typical scenarios, this isn’t a huge deal when it comes to retaining a player currently on the roster. But Rose’s situation is not typical; the team only has what is known as “Early Bird Rights” on Rose. This means one of these four exceptions would need to be used to bring back Rose beyond this season.
Early Bird Exception — up to $8.799 million per season (minimum two years)
This is probably the most likely path the Wolves would take if Rose is in their long-term plans. The deal would need to be for multiple seasons but does not have to be for the full $8.799 million. However, if Rose continues this play, he may ask for the maximum amount and maximum annual raises (eight percent) that he can earn with this exception — $37.305 million over four years.
Non-Taxpayer Midlevel Exception — up to $9.246 million per season
This would technically be the largest annual dollar figure Rose could earn from Minnesota. With the five percent raises allotted using the midlevel exception, Rose could sign for up to $38.370 million over four years.
Ideally, the Wolves front office would convince Rose to take the $1 million discount the early bird exception provides. The midlevel exception is Minnesota’s one real tool to go out and sign a free agent this summer. If they use the midlevel exception on Rose, then that’s it.
(The team will likely not be in the luxury tax entering the summer, so the non-taxpayer number applies rather the cheaper taxpayer midlevel exception.)
Bi-Annual Exception — up to $3.619 million per season
Because the Wolves did not use the bi-annual exception this past summer it is a tool they have to offer to Rose — or anyone — this summer. This is almost assuredly a value Rose could get anywhere. He would be doing the Wolves another favor in accepting this.
Minimum Salary Exception — $2.560 million per season
Signing for the minimum again would be the ultimate favor. Rose would receive $2.560 million on that deal but it would only count as $1.619 million on the Wolves’ books. Rose does have a massive endorsement deal. So, who knows?
“I don’t even think about it. I’m just letting my game speak for itself,” said Rose when asked if being in a contract year has crossed his mind during his resurgence. “The only thing I’ve said is I would like winning Sixth Man of the Year. I don’t think that’s anything bad to say or a bad goal with me coming off the bench. I want to be the best bench player.”
With the way Rose has played, he has to be the Sixth Man favorite at the quarter pole of the season, which brings up an interesting context for his market value. Over the past two seasons, many of the Sixth Man of the Year finalists have gotten paid the following season.
2017-18 Sixth Man of the Year Finalists
|Finish||Player||Contract Year?||Contract Signed|
|1st||Lou Williams||X||3 years, $24M|
|3rd||Fred VanVleet||X||2 years, $18.1M|
|4th||Will Barton||X||4 years, $53M|
|5th||Wayne Ellington||X||1 year, $6.3M|
2016-17 Sixth Man of the Year Finalists
|Finish||Player||Contract Year?||Contract Signed|
|2nd||Andre Iguodala||X||3 years, $48M|
|4th||Zach Randolph||X||2 years, $24M|
|5th||James Johnson||X||3 years, $43.3M|
If Rose is to be a Sixth Man of the Year finalist, you can be sure his agent will come prepared with the above dollar amounts. Not only would these players suggest a productivity parallel, but the majority of them are old, like Rose. The four years and $37.3 million he could earn with his early bird rights snuggle him right into the middle of this group.