Ryan Saunders actually seemed excited about the Minnesota Timberwolves’ defensive performance in Monday’s loss to Atlanta.
The Wolves tallied 16 steals and forced Atlanta into 26 turnovers. Well, “forced” isn’t always the most accurate term. The Hawks aren’t playing well at the moment, and both teams were guilty of throwing the ball away on numerous occasions in an ugly game.
But Saunders said Atlanta’s turnover number — the most Minnesota has forced on the road since 1996 — was more a product of Minnesota’s defense than the Hawks’ ineptitude.
“Our guys were active in passing lanes. I thought for the most part we stuck to a game plan, too, and we competed,” Saunders said. “That’s the bottom line when it comes to defense.”
Saunders thought the Timberwolves did “a decent job” defending Hawks’ star guard Trae Young in the pick and roll, though Young nearly recorded a triple-double. Minnesota used versatile forward Jarred Vanderbilt to switch pick and rolls versus their usual “drop” coverage that opens up the mid-range game for opposing scoring guards.
Switching puts more pressure on the opposing ball-handler. Perhaps that’s why Young also committed six turnovers. The length of guys like Vanderbilt, D’Angelo Russell and Josh Okogie can pose problems.
“There is a pathway to being disruptive defensively. We were able to do some things with Jarred Vanderbilt that we normally wouldn’t do with other bigs in certain situations, too, that I think he did give us a boost and give us a jolt,” Saunders said. “I have seen some progress on the defensive end there. We just need to convert that defense into offense.”
Forcing 26 turnovers should lead to a number of live-ball transition opportunities and easy points. Yet Minnesota only turned 26 Hawks’ turnovers into 26 points of its own. As a whole, the Wolves’ offense struggled in Atlanta, shooting 40 percent from the field. No one outside of Russell could get anything going.
That’s Saunders’ conundrum. The Wolves’ roster is littered with players who help on one end of the floor but are a detriment on the other. Russell, for instance, is one of the team’s best offensive weapons, but the Wolves are consistently at their worst defensively when the guard is on the floor.
On the other hand, Vanderbilt’s defensive versatility and tenacity is a breath of fresh air. But in the last six games — when the forward started playing meaningful minutes — Minnesota is averaging an abysmal 90 points per 100 possessions when Vanderbilt is on the floor.
Vanderbilt isn’t alone, far from it. Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie are positives defensively but will never be known for their scoring prowess — just like Russell and Juancho Hernangomez are negatives on the defensive end.
Ideally, teams would like their rosters to feature a number of players who shine on both ends, but Karl-Anthony Towns and Ricky Rubio (when he’s playing well) are currently the only two players on the Wolves’ roster who come close to fitting that bill. Both are currently out while they — as well as Hernangomez — work through the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols.
So, Saunders is left to mix and match in pursuit of a winning combination. or determine the end of the floor on which he’s willing to struggle.
It seems simple: Pair a defender like Vanderbilt with offensive standouts such as Russell and Malik Beasley. Problem solved. But in the past five games, those three have shared the floor for a total of 28 minutes and scored just 84.4 points per 100 possessions.
The search for a winning formula continues.