In a post-Kevin Love world, the Minnesota Timberwolves will likely have a little bit of an identity crisis to sort out. This is a normal process for a team to undergo after a big trade, as they transition from playing with a superstar to their new roster.
Sometimes, the transition is seamless, and teams like the 2011 Denver Nuggets can embrace a stylistic change that fits their roster better, and succeed. In others, as was the case for the Orlando Magic after trading Dwight Howard, it can take years to recover.
The Timberwolves will likely trade Love by the end of August. in return, they will likely receive some combination of Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, and picks from the Cleveland Cavaliers. These pieces will join Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and the other remaining members of the Timberwolves’ roster to help form whatever Minnesota’s new identity will be.
The Timberwolves could go in a lot of different directions with this, but the best direction for the new roster might be as a defense-first squad.
The Timberwolves were the league’s 12th-most efficient defense last year, surrendering a decent 106.2 points/100 possessions. They accomplished this in part because of system and in part because of personnel.
The Timberwolves didn’t want to foul under Rick Adelman, and would surrender the occasional layup or inside shot in order to limit opponents’ free throw attempts and perimeter shots. At the same time, thanks to Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer, they forced the third-most turnovers in the league.
The Timberwolves wanted to play at a high pace to wear teams out, and did this effectively by forcing turnovers, grabbing defensive rebounds, and allowing layups over free throws in order to end opposing possessions as quickly as possible.
The Timberwolves will benefit without Kevin Love by having a majority of the pieces that made this scheme work return. Rubio and Brewer will still be around to force turnovers, and Rubio is still improving as a defensive player.
While both players gamble a little too much and give up easy looks, they combined to average 4.2 steals per game last season, and should continue to cause chaos in opposing backcourts.
The Timberwolves are also getting better in this regard, adding Zach LaVine and potentially Wiggins to their mix of perimeter defenders. Wiggins is a potentially destructive perimeter defender, and while he might not be there this season, he still has the athleticism and size to be an acceptable defensive player right out of the gate.
LaVine, on the other hand, might be ugly defensively as a young player, but the one thing he should be good at immediately is forcing turnovers thanks to his quick hands and speed. With Rubio, Brewer, Wiggins, and LaVine, forcing turnovers should be a strong suit for the Timberwolves once again.
The Timberwolves will also benefit from slightly better rim protection as a result of more seasoning for Gorgui Dieng. Dieng proved to be a capable shot-blocker as last season progressed, but because of his greenness and the T’Wolves’ defensive philosophy of shying away from fouls, he wasn’t nearly as effective as he could be this year.
Dieng allowed 51.5 percent at the rim last season per SportVU data, and this season he should get A) more playing time, and B) more of a leash to contest shots from Flip Saunders. His defensive impact should be much more meaningful this year, and that should mean that the Timberwolves won’t get burned by their perimeter gambling as much at the rim.
Meanwhile, Nikola Pekovic is a fairly poor rim protector, allowing better than 55 percent at the rim. However, he’s a very effective defender in space due to his size, defending post-ups and pick-and-rolls with the best of them.
He’ll still be the starting center, with Dieng coming off the bench, and that could hinder the Timberwolves’ overall team defense. However, this also could have been affected slightly by the Adelman fouling philosophy, and I’d expect Pek to do slightly better at the rim as a result.
With his other strengths defensively, the Timberwolves should still be able to defend the paint fairly well with Pekovic on the floor, even if he isn’t a quality rim protector. Combine his strengths with Dieng’s, and Minnesota has a very threatening center combo.
The one area where the Timberwolves would struggle defensively with their potential new roster would be in off-ball defense. Kevin Martin and Mo Williams are not good defensively, Brewer gambles too much, and LaVine, Wiggins, and Shabazz Muhammad are still quite raw as off-ball perimeter defenders.
This is another area where Dieng will have impact, but the Timberwolves got torched last season on off-ball cuts according to Synergy, and they probably won’t be getting much better adding Williams and LaVine to the mix. They will need to rely on Wiggins being better than anticipated for a rookie and improved defense from Rubio to lessen the negative impact this could have.
Past this season, it should become even easier for the Timberwolves to build a strong defensive identity. They will have a lot of youth this season if this proposed Love deal goes through, and guys like Wiggins, LaVine, and Dieng should be much better defensively two years from now than they will be this year.
They also will have more room to look for talent that would compliment this base in future free agency; after all, they’ll get some breathing room from trading Love, J.J. Barea’s contract is expiring, and the team might find a taker for Martin. In these players’ places, defense-focused players could be a focus for the Timberwolves to add to their core.
The Timberwolves will not be an elite defensive team by any stretch of the imagination this season. They are too young, have lots of questions regarding off-ball defense and rim protection, and don’t have any singular dominant defensive player.
However, focusing on defense would be ideal for the Timberwolves to do now in order to craft a potentially dominant force in the future. Focusing on building a strong defense will hopefully mean that Wiggins, LaVine, Rubio, and Dieng all will have their potential maximized on that side of the ball, and creating a good defensive team could offset some of the larger questions surrounding the team’s future offensively, particularly when it comes to perimeter shooting and rim finishing.
Whatever the final roster ends up looking like on opening night in November 2014, the Timberwolves should focus on the defensive side of the ball to maximize the effectiveness of their new core.