Harper: Is it too early for Wolves to worry about shoddy road defense
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As the Minnesota Timberwolves head deep into their December schedule, there seems to be some worries about the way this team has played on the road and against good teams. At 9-10 for the season, the Wolves have looked good but inconsistent. They've impressed us while still leaving us wanting better play.
The majority of the negativity surrounding the Timberwolves has been the defense, especially as of late. Over this latest stretch of futility from the Wolves, we've seen their defensive presence plummet. The Wolves are 2-6 in their previous eight games, which has dropped their season record below .500. For the season, they're still sporting the eighth best defensive rating (points per 100 possessions give up) in the NBA.
Even though they're still one of the top defensive teams in the league for the entire season, it's been bad lately and needs to stop. It should come as no surprise that the majority of these losses have come on the road, where the Wolves have struggled for most of this season. When you look at the season splits between home and away games, it's pretty obvious that defense away from the Target Center has been the biggest obstacle to overcome.
While the offensive rating dips 3.4 points per 100 possessions when they leave the Target Center, the defensive struggle is obscene. The Wolves see a drop-off of 6.8 points per 100 possessions defensively on the road, the ninth biggest drop-off in the league. Where is the defensive drop-off coming from? Are the Wolves not getting the calls on the road as much as they might be at home?
Funny enough, the Wolves actually give up fewer free throw attempts per game (18.9 at home, 15.9 on the road) when they're away while getting called for 2.3 fewer fouls per game. That wouldn't seem to be a problem on its face, but it might help explain their struggles if you dig a layer deeper. For whatever reason, the Wolves might not be as physical on the road as they are at home. Let's take a look at the shooting charts by their opponents both at home and away.
There are two things that stand out to me when looking at these charts.
First, the 3-point shooting from the opposing teams is fascinating. The Wolves give up 50 percent shooting from both corner 3-point spots at home, but manage to give up a significantly lower percentage on the road. And yet their opponents' 3-point percentage is higher on the road because they're getting killed on "above-the-break" 3-point attempts.
Typically, the above-the-break 3-point attempts are the lower percentage long-range shots in basketball. This could be either an outlier or a sign of a defense not generally rotating to cover on the perimeter and running their opponents off the 3-point line. It wouldn't shock me if they were just doing a poor job of rotating because the wing defense has been bad on the road. However, the Wolves are only giving up 0.6 more 3-pointers made each game on 0.5 more attempts than when they're at home. I don't think it's been a significant problem compared to the other thing that stands out from those charts.
The biggest problem has been protecting the paint. This is where most people will cite that the Wolves don't really have shot blockers on the roster or as a part of the main core with Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. This is true. Love and Pek aren't guys that block a lot of shots.
There is a significant difference between protecting the paint and protecting the rim. The Wolves don't have guys (outside of Ronny Turiaf and Gorgui Dieng) that will protect the rim. That doesn't mean Love and Pekovic can't protect the paint, especially when they're on the road.
Minnesota gives up 40.0 points in the paint per game at home, which is good for 15th in the NBA. That number jumps to 49.6 points in the paint give up in road games, which is tied with the Phoenix Suns for worst in the NBA. The Wolves' opponents convert on nearly seven percent more of their shots in the restricted area when comparing home and away splits. What's worse is that higher percentage is coming on 4.4 more attempts in the restricted area each game.
Let's take a look at some of the examples we're seeing in recent road games of where the Wolves could be building a better wall to keep opponents away from the rim.
This was a layup by Jeremy Lin in the Wolves' loss in Houston back on Nov. 23. Lin came around on a dribble hand-off from Omri Casspi and never saw any resistance on his way to the rim. Kevin Martin basically gave him a free path to the basket (which is something he tends to do without a ton of resistance).
Corey Brewer never dropped down off of Chandler Parsons, which is acceptable. JJ Barea doesn't fully commit off of Aaron Brooks, who becomes a strong-side shooter on the drive to the basket. That's fine as a defensive tactic as well. But even with Omer Asik stalking the baseline, Nikola Pekovic has to step up to stop Lin outside of the restricted area. That means Dante Cunningham has to drop down to stop/foul Asik if he gets the ball.
Considering Asik is a career 53.4 percent free throw shooter, I'll take my chances with him at the line. If the pass then goes to Casspi, Martin has to recover to defend him. Instead, you get four defenders surrounding Lin without anybody really defending him. This is not physical interior defense, which is something the Wolves are supposed to have even though they don't have shot blockers.
This layup by Orlando Johnson in the loss to the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 25 was an unacceptable occurrence. Again, Martin allows his man to just drive to the basket without putting on much of a move. Love is battling Ian Mahinmi on the strong side block but in position to step up outside of the restricted area to stop penetration.
The entire time, Barea and Cunningham just watch the action without leaving weak side shooters. This kind of "ball watching" simply can't happen with this team. The defense has to move on a string and react instantly to whatever is happening away from them.
This is another basic drive, this time by Jeremy Lamb against Martin in the Wolves' most recent loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Once Love sees Lamb make his move, he has to jump outside of the restricted area and build a wall against the drive. Pekovic shouldn't be defending Steven Adams all the way out past the free throw line.
Granted, Pek is probably assuming a pick-and-roll is coming with Lamb and Adams but until he's in position to set that screen, you have to provide a roadblock to the basket.
These are three players that shouldn't be scoring with ease against the Wolves defense, let alone at the basket against them. For whatever reason, the Wolves aren't playing position help defense and cutting off the driving lanes before they appear. That's what solid defenses do and Minnesota isn't showing that lately.
When it comes to the schedule, five of their 10 losses have come on the second night of a back-to-back. Four of those five losses on the second night of a back-to-back have been on the road. The schedule has been difficult for the Wolves during the first month of the season but that shouldn't preclude them from being proactive on defense.