The Minnesota Timberwolves have undergone a retreading in recent weeks and are showing a strong defensive improvement thanks to Robert Covington. In the night from Monday to Tuesday the dress rehearsal against the reigning champion from Golden State is scheduled (4.30 a.m. on DAZN). Will the Wolves pass their school-leaving exams?
It’s been a good month since the Minnesota Timberwolves packed their seven things and headed west on a 5-game road trip, carrying a general sporting frustration and a bunch of private problems. Five games and five defeats later, the Wolves returned to Minneapolis with a 4-9 record, the league’s worst defensive rating (113.9) and a pile of excess baggage.
At that time, it was clear to all involved that something had to change. Without further ado, owner Glen Taylor pushed off Jimmy Butler (finally) to Philadelphia, the biggest burden, but also the best player of the team. In return, “only” Robert Covington and Dario Saric came to Minnesota, for which those responsible in the far north were smiled at in many places.
At that time, no one thought it possible for them to make a 360-degree turn within the team. A certain addition by subtraction seemed possible due to the toxic atmosphere with Butler, but what happened now?
Since the trade, the Wolves have won a strong eight of their twelve games, quietly and secretly turning into a balanced balance (13-13) in the merciless Western Conference. The main factor for this development is the fundamentally renewed Timberwolves defensive, which collectively keeps everything away from the basket that does not carry its own colours.
Defensive and Minnesota? That’s right. The Timberwolves play defense – and really good ones, too. The third best in the league, to be exact (defensive rating of 99.7). The Wolves hold their opponents with a field throw quota of 42.8 percent (number 1 (!) in the Association) and allow even in the zone the least points at all (42.4). In addition, they represent the third best transition defense of the league and grab the fifth most steals. How is that possible?
The reason for this is actually relatively simple and is based on the name Robert Covington. The forward has been one of the league’s best defenders for years, but it’s only now that it’s finally appreciated. This is not only shown by the energy on the course, but is also expressed in numbers. RoCo leads all players in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (+4.42). For comparison, the gap between Covington and the next best Small Forward or Shooting Guard in this ranking (Paul George, +2.30) is equal to the gap between second and 52nd place (Treveon Graham, +0.18).
As if that weren’t enough, Convington is never one of the leagues in the Steals (2.3) and Deflections (3.9) categories (ironically ahead of Jimmy Bulter on the 2) and number 17 in Blocks, leaving players like Antetokounmpo and Ibaka behind. His opponents throw an incredible 9.8 percent worse when defended by him. If he can maintain these numbers, he is definitely one of the main contenders for the Defensive Player of the Year award, even if, as with DRPM, individual defense is not perfectly measurable in numbers.
The 27-year-old has taken the Wolves’ dilapidated defensive under his wing and polished it once completely to a high gloss. And the best thing about it: The rest of the team will join in! Before the trade, the Timberwolves had basically only Jimmy Butler on the defensive, who defended more as he wished. Many of his fellow players lacked energy and commitment, so that the worst defensive rating of the league (113.9) was only the logical consequence.
“It’s a big difference,” Andrew Wiggins happily confirmed, who, like Karl-Anthony Towns and Co., finally seems to have awoken from his defensive lethargy. “It feels like everything’s carved in stone now. We know what we have to do to win, and we play defensively differently. We’re much more active, we talk to each other. Everybody’s getting involved and playing more aggressively.”
Such positive words from Wiggins would have been unthinkable in Butler’s day. Too big was the shadow the four-time All-Star cast over his co-stars. But a lot has changed since the trade. Happiness has returned to Minnesota. “I can see that the boys have a different way of thinking,” even RoCo realized. “Everybody’s happy. Everyone does their job and feels good, and that’s reflected on the court.”
The recent defeat against the Trail Blazers, for example, showed that not all worries in Minny have vanished all of a sudden. The Wolves had to play without the battered Covington and fell back into the defensive moves of the last two seasons, especially towards the end. Switches did not work, close-outs were often too timid and generally lacked the necessary rigor. It seems the Wolves are very dependent on their defensive specialist.
In addition, for the young troops the real test of evidence is yet to come. Eight victories in twelve games is a strong number at first glance, but in this case it is worth taking a look behind the facade. The Wolves played ten times in their home arena, in addition in a period of 23 days, which contained only a single Back-to-Back.
And even the opponents were, to say the least, not the crème de la crème. Apart from the triumph over Portland in mid-November, the Wolves only collected their victories against teams with no positive record, including Tanking greats such as the Cavs and Bulls (although the Rockets, Hornets and Pelicans).
Currently the Wolves are on a small roadtrip through the wild west again. The schedule is reminiscent of the hell ride four weeks ago, but the signs are quite different. In the night on Tuesday the reigning champion from Golden State (4.30 a.m. live on DAZN) waits, before it goes against the stormy Kings. Now we have to show that the positive changes of the last weeks are more than just appearances and that in Minnesota you can actually be happy again – and look ahead.