MINNEAPOLIS – Winning in the NBA is difficult, in any capacity. It’s difficult to win championships, it’s difficult to win a playoff series, and it’s difficult to win on a Saturday night in December. There are no easy wins in this league. There never have been, and there never will be.
Often times, winning is equated with being able to outscore opponents, and after all, the only thing that matters at the end of a game. Obviously, that’s where the Minnesota Timberwolves have failed lately. They’ve found themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard in 12 of their last 13 games, but the way they’ve been losing games has shifted.
During the first part of this horrid stretch, which started with a Dec. 1 loss to Memphis at home, the Wolves were the worst defensive team in the league. From the Memphis game until the loss at home to the LA Clippers in the middle of the month, the Wolves were the worst defensive team in the NBA. In that stretch of seven games they allowed opponents to score 123.5 points per 100 possessions, the worst in the league by a decent margin (Washington was second with a defensive rating of 121).
During that time the team was playing really well on the offensive end of the floor, ranking seventh in the NBA in offensive rating at 113.4 points scored per 100 possession. That resulted in an 0-7 record.
Since that game against the Clippers where things started to change during a failed fourth quarter comeback attempt, the Wolves have still been losing, but it’s been in different ways. Instead of lighting it up on offense and acting as a glorified turnstile on defense, it’s been the opposite.
In the past six games, beginning with the loss to New Orleans, the Wolves have been the NBA’s fourth-best defensive team, allowing just 101.9 points per 100 possessions. That number trails only New Orleans, Milwaukee, and Chicago. That’s a very stark turnaround from how bad things were to start the month.
“I think mindset, mentality,” head coach Ryan Saunders said of what’s improved on that end of the floor. “I say it before every game: we’ll win this game with defense, not because of our offense. And I say that, where … when KAT went out, you’re losing a big part of your offense. So, you really need to lock in, more so, defensively. That can keep you in games. You count on making shots, too. And you count on executing down the stretch. But defense can always play into it.”
Those things have certainly improved over this stretch as Saunders expressed. During the last six games the Wolves haven’t allowed an opponent to score more than 113 points in a single game. During the first seven games of the month no team scored less than 115 in a single game.
The data also backs up the other part of what Saunders said, too. Offense has been a struggle with Towns out.
In that period of time without Towns, the Wolves flipped from the NBA’s worst defensive unit to its fourth-best, the offense dropped from seventh to dead last. The Wolves have only scored 95.7 points per 100 possessions in their past six games.
The common denominator in this equation is Towns. He played in the first seven games of the month in which the defense was bad and the offense was good, and has been sidelined with a left knee sprain in the six games since that has seen the offense falter and the defense improve.
There’s no questioning that having Towns on the floor makes the Wolves a better team, and it’s tough to say that these numbers tell the entire story, because they don’t. But it has to be said that the Wolves have a defensive rating of 114.5 with Towns on the floor, which is the worst of any rotation player. The only player on the roster with a worse number is Jordan Bell, who has played in just 18 games averaging 10 minutes a night.
On the flip side, the Wolves are better offensively with Towns on the floor than anyone else, as one might imagine. The offensive rating with him on the floor this season is 113.7, a full five points higher than the next closest rotation player (Jeff Teague, 108.7). These numbers are tricky because they’re dependent on more than just the single player, it’s a team concept on both ends of the floor. That said, Towns is vitally important to everything the Wolves do, both offensively and defensively, when he’s on the floor.
The losing has persisted in the month of December. But while the results have mostly stayed the same, the process has remained different. If this type of defense can be continued when Towns ultimately does return from injury, things could turn around quickly, but if Towns returns and the defense regresses to what it previously was with him on the floor, it’s tough to expect different results.