The Wolves have had their problems so far this season: the sometimes anemic bench, the inconsistent rotations and below-average perimeter shooting. There are systemic complications on this team, but probably none bigger than the ones on the defensive end.
The Wolves don't have a bad defense, just a flawed one.
And what's problematic for them is that their faults are the easiest for a good team to exploit. Mainly, the Wolves are flawed at the base. It all comes back to the frontcourt pairing of Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic.
It's not that a Love-Pekovic frontcourt is a bad frontcourt to have. It's far from that. It's one of the best in the league.
Just recently, we saw what Love and Pek can do together.
Remember that game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 22? Wasn't that the best-case scenario of what Minnesota can get out of Pekovic and Love?
On that night, Love went for 45 points and 19 rebounds. Pekovic went for 34 points and 14 rebounds. But the Wolves lost. And the way that they lost was telling of the greater issue.
Blake Griffin went for 32 points on 20 shots in that Sunday night contest in the Target Center.
Of course, Griffin is a great player and one who's been on an absolute tear over the past couple of weeks, so there's no shame in allowing an All-Star to put up All-Star numbers. But the problem wasn't so much that Griffin played well; it was that there was no chance that he wasn't going to play well with the types of shots he was taking.
Double negative, I know. It's awful. But it's appropriate.
As great as Love and Pek were on the offensive end and on the boards, they just couldn't keep Griffin away from the rim.
Ten of his 11 field-goal makes came in the paint that night. No one could stop him from going where he wanted to go. And therein lies the problem.
Opponents are shooting 67.4 percent in the restricted area against Minnesota this season, by far the highest field-goal percentage from that area in the NBA. Love and Pek don't really stop anyone from getting shots at the rim, and that's an issue in the modern NBA.
Look at some of the best NBA teams of recent years.
We're not talking about solid No. 6 seeds who might be able to pull off a first-round playoff upset. We're talking about championship-contending teams. They all have a rim protector anchoring their defense—and a rim protector Nikola Pekovic is not.
Pek is burly. He's strong. He's a rebounder and a scorer. But he's not a rim protector—or even a pick-and-roll defender—and at age 27 (he'll be 28 on Jan. 3), he likely never will turn into that.
Here's the thing about Kevin Love's defense: it's overly criticized. He's not an all-world defender, and he probably never will be, but he's better than people say.
Love has an obscenely strong lower body and is a brick wall as a post defender.
You can't really back him up, and because of that, he tends to hold strong and bully bigs who try to get physical with him on the block. He's not incredibly quick, mobile or high-flying, but he's strong and that's a trait which can be hard to find around the league.
Think of Love as a Zach Randolph-type of defender.
No one thought Randolph was any good defensively until Marc Gasol sprouted up as one of the league's best defenders in Memphis. Part of that was because Z-Bo didn't really start to try on defense until a few years ago. And another part of it—the main part—was that Gasol became the perfect complementary defender to Randolph.
Z-Bo used to beat up guys in the post similarly to how Love does, but he was too slow to stick with quicker, more athletic bigs.
Now, though, with the best help defender in the NBA playing behind him (barring injury, of course), Z-Bo has stayed true to his bullish defense, become even more aggressive down low and knows that if anyone gets by him, it's no issue. Gasol is just there to clean up his mess.
The Wolves couldn't bank on pairing Love with a Gasol-type.
That would be setting your goals unrealistically high considering the Spaniard might be the best defensive player in the entire league. But Love does need a complement whose primary skill is help defense and rim protection. Unfortunately for Nikola Pekovic, he doesn't fit that description.
Pek is often too slow to come over and help, even when he doesn't have his man about which to worry.
Often he'll simply drift, not guarding anyone, and still won't come over to help Love.
In this early-season play against the Clippers, Pekovic's man, DeAndre Jordan, still isn't down the floor. Yet, Pek waits for him to arrive in the paint, guarding no one as opposed to helping Love with Griffin on the left block. And because of that, Griffin winds up with an easy layup:
Then there are the issues of getting too attached to his own man, which Pau Gasol perfectly illustrated earlier this year.
Gasol steps through and goes to the baby hook in the lane even though spacing is off and Chris Kaman is right under the basket, dragging his defender—in this case Pekovic—with him. But Pek gets too tied up with Kaman and doesn't come over to help:
It's tough to know exactly how Minnesota should go about handling its frontcourt in the future.
Pekovic signed a still-fresh five-year, $60 million deal over the summer. Contractually, he's there for the long-term, but Love may not always be there with him.
Love can become a free agent after next season if he chooses to enter the market.
We keep hearing the rumors that Love hasn't been as happy as he could be in Minnesota, mainly because he was insulted that the Wolves decided to give him a four-year deal instead of a five-year one when he signed his current contract back in January of 2012.
What we don't hear, though, is that Minnesota has a different front office now. David Kahn is out, Milt Newton and Flip Saunders are in, and with that, Love might not have anyone to be so angry with anymore.
Realistically, the Wolves might not be able to make any team-shattering moves in the frontcourt this offseason if they don't think Love will stay.
They'll need to hold onto Pek and the four more years of team control that they have with him. But if they're confident they can build around Love's 26 points and 13 rebounds a night, maybe shopping Pekovic so that you could pair Love with a better complementary defensive piece wouldn't be the worst idea.
In today's NBA, rim protection is as important as it's ever been.
Offenses are more focused on efficiency and shot selection. Because of that, they load up on a heavy diet of layups, dunks, and threes. And that means defenses need someone to deter players from taking those easy shots that are vital to most every offensive scheme.
Look at the most recent conference champions we've seen in the league. They all (except for the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers, who win because of the LeBron Exception) have one thing in common: a high-impact defensive big man to guard the restricted area.
Actually, in the past seven years, no team has made it to the Finals without having a major rim protector—except, of course, for ones led by LeBron James (see graphic).
|NBA Finals, 2007-13|
|Year||Finals Winner (Player)||Finals Loser (Player)|
|2013||Heat (LeBron Exception)||Spurs (Tim Duncan)|
|2012||Heat (LeBron Exception)||Thunder (Serge Ibaka)|
|2011||Mavericks (Tyson Chandler)||Heat (LeBron Exception)|
|2010||Lakers (Pau Gasol & Andrew Bynum)||Celtics (Kevin Garnett)|
|2009||Lakers (Gasol & Bynum)||Magic (Dwight Howard)|
|2008||Celtics (Garnett & Kendrick Perkins)||Lakers (Gasol & Bynum)|
|2007||Spurs (Duncan)||Cavaliers (LeBron Exception)|
Ricky Rubio is one of the better defensive point guards in the league. Hypothetically, a team that employs a Love-Pekovic frontcourt could try to load up on wing defenders to compensate for what it loses down low. But isn't that almost what the Wolves have done with their starting unit?
Corey Brewer is a defense-first wing. Kevin Martin is a sieve, but even if the Wolves used a defense-first shooting guard, their D still wouldn't be upper-echelon.
It would be fine. Average, or maybe a little better than that. Not top seven or eight. Not good enough to win a championship.
The Wolves currently sit at 11th in the NBA in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), which is perfectly respectable. But it's going to be hard for them to have a ceiling much higher than making the second round of the playoffs without finding the necessary defense to back up their wings and guards.
What did those two teams have in common? They were both defending champs who notoriously shifted into cruise control for the regular season only to turn up the intensity in the playoffs.
An NBA champion realistically has to have a top-10 defense, and with the way that we've seen Nikola Pekovic play defense when he's on the floor with Love, the Wolves might not be able to accomplish that goal as long as those two guys are heading up their frontcourt.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36 minutes numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
(All statistics valid as of Dec. 30, 2013.)
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