The Minnesota Timberwolves have had an incredibly challenging season. They've been outscoring opponents by an average of 2.3 points per 100 possessions, a mark that is usually consistent with teams that win about .600 of their games, according to Pythagorean numbers at Basketball-Reference.com. But inconsistent play and late-game struggles have kept the Timberwolves hovering around .500 and out of the Western Conference playoff picture for most of the season.
This inconsistency has shown up at both ends of the floor. While the blame on the offensive end is usually shared among a variety of players, star power forward Kevin Love is usually the target-in-chief for defensive criticism.
So how much of the Timberwolves' defensive problems can we really attribute to Love?
The quick answer is: not as much as you might think.
Love is a phenomenal defensive rebounder but that's about the end of his highly visible defensive contributions. He's neither a physical enforcer nor an athletic shot-blocker, the typical boxes in which we categorize interior defenders. Incredibly, his defensive rebounding has even been twisted into a weakness, as he's often accused of hunting rebounds to pad his own numbers instead of playing within the team's defensive framework.
The Timberwolves have actually been about 1.7 points better per 100 possessions defensively when Love is on the floor. However, the areas where Love seems to struggle overlap significantly with the team's defensive weaknesses, which can't help but emphasize a possible connection.
The biggest hole in the Timberwolves' defense is right at the rim, where they allow opponents to shoot 64.9 percent, the highest mark in the league. They also allow the third-highest opponent field-goal percentage overall, 46.9 percent. Love's inability to effectively challenge shots inside and out appears to be a huge part of this.
In the photo below you can see an example of how the Timberwolves usually play the pick-and-roll with Love and Nikola Pekovic. Since neither big man is particularly agile on the perimeter they generally use a conservative style, having either drop back and contain the ball-handler instead of hedging out to deter penetration:
This has become the league's defensive style du jour over the past few seasons, and it's the backbone of how the Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies and many other successful defenses defend the pick-and-roll. Love appears to have a good understanding of the philosophy and generally positions himself well.
The breakdown comes in his response to being attacked.
You can see in the video below that as Kyle Lowry comes off the screen, Love retreats into position. But as Lowry rises for the pull-up jumper, Love makes almost no attempt to contest the shot:
There is an argument to be made that Love is making an intelligent choice here. By not contesting the shot he's goading Lowry into a mid-range pull-up, one of the least efficient offensive options on average. But by not contesting the shot he's also removing a significant portion of the difficulty for Lowry.
One of the reasons the Pacers and Grizzlies have been so successful playing this style of pick-and-roll defense is not just that it encourages mid-range jumpers, it's that their big men are able to drop back and deny penetration while still contesting hard on those mid-range shots.
The defense the Timberwolves play creates a certain advantage here. But by declining to contest the shots this defense forces, Love is undermining that advantage.
It would also be easy to defend Love and say that he is guarding against a blow-by, keeping his feet on the floor to prevent ball-handlers from getting past him to the rim. The problem is that we see this lack of shot-contesting even when he's the last line of defense.
Here, Raymond Felton comes off a pick-and-roll, entering the lane without a defender. Love comes out to meet him, but again his hands are at his sides:
Love appears to be a step late because he's hesitant to leave Tyson Chandler alone at the rim for a lob, an entirely legitimate concern. But once he's committed to Felton there is no reason he shouldn't be in the air, either with hands or body, actively contesting the shot.
This kind of play, where Love appears loath to leave his man near the basket, is probably one of the reasons he's developed a reputation for hunting rebounds at the expense of defensive rotations.
On this Isaiah Thomas drive, Love again stays in box-out position on his man instead of cutting off penetration or contesting the shot at the rim:
Here are two other examples of him coming out on a shooter only to leave his feet on the floor and his hands at his sides:
This tendency to defend shooters without a hand in the air shows up strongly in Love's numbers. According to the NBA's player-tracking statistics Love defends nine shots at the rim per game, 12th-highest in the league. However, that number only represents how many shots are taken at the rim while Love is within five feet of the shooter.
Opponents are shooting 57.1 percent on those shots at the rim defended by Love, the highest mark in the league by any defender who defends at least six shots at the rim per game. Basically Love is getting into position to defend shots as often as anyone in the league; he's just generating extremely poor results.
With the help of Krishna Narsu, a researcher at Vantage Sports, we can pinpoint how much of those poor results may be coming from not actively contesting shots. Vantage Sports is a company that collects and analyzes basketball statistics through a blend of computer and human tracking.
Vantage splits shot defense into several categories, but the two that matter to us here are pressured and contested shots. Pressured shots are ones where the defender is simply close to the shooter, while contested shots are ones where the defender also has a hand raised.
According to the numbers from Vantage, of the shots Love defends at the rim that he doesn't directly block or alter, his ratio of pressured shots to contested shots is about 2.4-to-1. That means he's about twice as likely to defend a shooter in the paint with his hands down than with his hands in the air.
In the grand scheme of things, not getting a hand up on defense may seem like a small thing. But the research by Narsu has shown the difference to be huge:
Moreover, we also find that shots near the basket are contested or altered on only 37.6% of the attempts. From here, we can start to calculate the value of a contested shot vs. pressured shot. Given that difference in FG% of about 20%, we can expect the value of a contested shot vs. pressured shot to be 0.4 points per possession near the basket or about 40 points per 100 possessions. Forty points may seem like a lot, but it’s like shooting bunnies near the basket while being wide open.
With this additional context, Love's passive shot-contesting looks like a much bigger chink in the Timberwolves' armor.
But assigning blame completely to Love is complicated. This passive pattern of shot-defending stretches beyond just Love to many of the other Timberwolves' frontcourt players, implying that it may be intentionally systematic. In a piece at Grantland a few weeks ago, Zach Lowe explored this issue:
Minnesota, it turns out, is the league’s most foul-averse team, and it is on pace to be one of the half-dozen most foul-averse teams in NBA history, per Basketball-Reference and NBA.com. The Wolves allow the fewest free throws per opponent field goal attempt in the league, just ahead of the Spurs — the most consistently foul-averse team of the last decade.
However, while Lowe comes to the conclusion that some of this passivity is part of an intentionally conservative philosophy meant to avoid fouls, his piece also includes this quote from head coach Rick Adelman:
“It almost takes an act of Congress for us to go out and foul somebody. You have to get after people in this league.”
It's hard to read that quote and not see a huge disconnect between the style of defense the Timberwolves are using and the way the coach would like them to be playing.
Clearly Adelman would like Love to be playing a somewhat more aggressive brand of defense in many situations. In that regard, Love's continued passivity contesting shots is undoubtedly harming the Timberwolves' defense; that harm can be pinned squarely on Love. But when it's a systemic issue and the entire frontcourt seems to be going out of their way to avoid fouls, you have to parse some of that blame out to the coach for either a poorly implemented system or poorly communicated goals.
The bottom line is that the way Love has been playing defense this year has hampered the Timberwolves' defense. But by simply raising his hands and being a little more aggressive with shooters he could dramatically change the equation.
Saying Kevin Love is playing ineffective defense is much more accurate than saying Kevin Love is an ineffective defender.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats