Harper: Wolves getting it done on defense. Is sixth-best sustainable?
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Heading into the 2012-13 season, most of us wondered whether or not this team's defense was going to be able to keep up with the performance of the offense.
Once Kevin Love was back from his broken hand and Ricky Rubio was back from his ACL recovery, all of these moving parts within the offense were supposed to be too efficient to fail. It was going to be the defense that left the Wolves' playoff wishes dangling over a balcony, waiting for sweaty palms to release their grip.
That's not how the season turned out.
The Wolves' defense was actually their saving grace as they attempted to survive the injury apocalypse that befell this franchise. The offense was the problem because they didn't have scorers on the court. Minnesota was an average defensive team by league standards, which was better than expected.
Heading into this season, the same concerns cropped up after Flip Saunders loaded the team with Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, and a re-signed Chase Budinger -- wing players that could score in specific situations, who were supposed to complement the passing of Ricky Rubio and the scoring of the Kevin Love-Nikola Pekovic duo. There were a couple of plus-defenders on the roster but mostly the Wolves were going to have to beat teams 120-116 most nights to survive the playoff hunt.
Before the season started, I guessed that the Wolves needed to finish somewhere in the 15-19 range in order to guarantee themselves a playoff spot. In the past decade, only 32 of the 160 playoff teams have finished in the bottom 15 in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions). With such a dynamic offense expected out of the Wolves, the defense's job was to not be terrible.
We're nine games into the season and the team has performed pretty well on defense. How well have they done? The Wolves are currently the sixth best defense in the league in defensive efficiency. Only the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors, and Phoenix Suns have given up fewer points per 100 possessions. The 98.1 points per 100 possessions is significantly down from what they gave up last season (102.9, ranked 14th).
Early on, my thoughts were that if the Wolves could just find a way to not be horribly out of position and could rebound the basketball with Love and Pekovic, they'd be able to have an acceptable defense. What's happening right now, though, is a far different way of defending their opponents. The Wolves' rebounding actually hasn't been anything special.
While rebounds per game is a nice stat to log individual performance for All-Star consideration, you really want to look at rebounding rate to see how a team is rebounding as a collective. Rebounding rate is the percentage of available rebounds grabbed by an individual or team and it eliminates skewed numbers caused by different tempos being played around the league.
The Wolves right now are ranked 15th in both defensive rebounding and total rebounding. They're an average rebounding team and yet they're an elite defense at the moment. How can this be? Are teams just shooting terribly against them?
The Wolves currently give up the 13th lowest effective field goal percentage (accounts for the extra point you get for hitting 3-pointers). This is an improvement from giving up the 24th-lowest eFG last season but what's amazing is they've kept up the practices of fouling less and forcing turnovers while subbing in Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, and Corey Brewer into the lineup.
Brewer has been known as a pretty effective yet erratic defensive player. Love has been inconsistent, although not nearly as bad as his reputation with fans. Martin has been... well, he's been pretty terrible on defense in his career by most metrics. However, Rick Adelman has found a way to get them to fit into the defensive ideals of this team.
Free throw attempts rate is a great way of measuring how many easy scoring opportunities you're giving up. One of the most efficient ways for teams to score is by getting to the free throw line. Free throw attempts rate measure the number of free throw attempts compared to field goal attempts. The higher the rate is the worse your team is.
The Wolves were good at this last season but they weren't combining that performance with offensive players that could score. The Wolves have an opponent free throw rate of .206, which is fantastic. It's dropped from .248 last season. That ranks them third in the league, behind the Spurs and Sixers. They simply don't hurt themselves by putting the other team at the charity stripe.
The Wolves were ranked third in the NBA in opponents' turnover rate last season. This season, they're eighth in the league. However, their rate has actually gone up nearly a full percent. The NBA is turning the ball over a lot more often this season than last season, so while the ranking is worse, the success of forcing turnovers is greater.
These are going to be the keys to judging the Wolves' defense all season long. The points they're giving up are important but the way they're giving them up will be telling to how successful they can continue to be.
If they're ending more possessions by not allowing scoring attempts (shots or free throws), that means they're not fouling and they're taking the ball from the other team. We don't know if this will keep up, but the early signs are a pleasant surprise and quite encouraging.