Timberwolves plan to have two defensive schemes: one with Rudy Gobert, one without

Minnesota wants to capitalize on what its new rim protector excels at

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns drives into Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert while heading to the rim. Gobert and Towns are now teammates on the Wolves.
Star Tribune / TNS file photo
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It was the staple of the Timberwolves’ defense from a year ago. A frenetic, in-your-face pick-and-roll scheme that had the big-man defender pick up the ball handler directly off the screen at the top of the arc.

From there, the opposing team would pass around the floor, trying to find the open man as Minnesota used its athleticism to scramble around and take away as many open looks at shots as possible.

Rudy Gobert remembers Utah’s challenges with trying to decipher the defensive scheme.

“I remember one game, we were really struggling with them because they were really aggressive, and … we had to really be patient and move the ball,” Gobert said. “And a lot of teams in the NBA weren’t really willing to do that. It takes patience.”

The best teams were able to crack the code. Phoenix, Golden State and Dallas come to mind as squads with elite guard play that had little issue swinging the ball quickly until it finally found an open shooter.


Still, Minnesota’s “high wall” defensive scheme from a year ago was undoubtedly the best way for last year’s roster to succeed on that end of the floor. Most wouldn’t have picked that group to finish as high as 23rd in the NBA in defense. The Wolves actually finished 13th.

Minnesota is projected to be better than that defensively this season, because it added one of best defenders in basketball — and perhaps the absolutely best — in Gobert. What’s interesting is Gobert reigns supreme in an entirely different defensive pick-and-roll scheme. He anchors a “drop” coverage in which he hangs well below the level of the screen at the start of the play and defends the paint.

That scheme may make Timberwolves fans shudder, because it was a failed approach for the team in previous seasons. The difference is before, it was Karl-Anthony Towns defending the paint, which simply isn’t his strength.

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“When Ryan (Saunders) was here, they played a lot of drop (on defense). The problem was (that while) they did a good job of taking away the three, they just had a hard time protecting the rim,” assistant coach Micah Nori said. “And now, as (Wolves head coach Chris Finch) said (Wednesday) in a film session, ‘We’ve got the best rim protector walking around the planet, so why not use him?’ ”

Gobert’s interior prowess discourages guards from even trying to challenge him. Nori said Minnesota spent the first three days of training camp working specifically on the “drop” defensive coverage.

But that doesn’t mean the Wolves will ditch the “high wall” look entirely. Wolves guard Jaylen Nowell noted when Gobert is off the floor — and Towns is again at the center spot — Minnesota’s defensive “concept is going to be different.”

They’re going to go back to the high-wall defense.

“Either KAT is at the five or Naz (Reid), who are comfortable playing it, or Nate Knight and they kind of go back to what they were taught last year,” Nori said. “Then when Rudy is out there, especially when KAT is at the four, or anybody for that matter, it’s going to be more a shrink and bend don’t break.”


That would make Minnesota one of few teams in the NBA to execute multiple, non-zone defensive schemes within the same game on a regular basis. Wolves forward Kyle Anderson noted it’s something only the elite teams — Golden State, Milwaukee and a few others — can pull off.

“I don’t think a lot of teams do it,” Anderson said. “It’s tough, because you go out and practice one thing and you’re asking your players to do something different in the game. It’s tough for everybody to be on the same page, but I think we’re totally capable of it here. I think coach Finch is going to put us in the right position, and we’ve got guys who are willing to learn and execute. We’re going to go out and do whatever he asks.”

It’s a big ask for the Timberwolves, who struggled to shift looks between games last season. Finch tried to employ a more switch-heavy look for a short period in the second half of last year’s schedule to better prepare the team for the playoffs. It was such a disaster that the approach was trashed almost immediately.

Yet the coaching staff has a belief Minnesota will be able to play the drop around Gobert, then switch back to last year’s status quo at a substitution’s notice.

“The only reason why I think so is because … I think the fact that there are enough guys on the floor that are accustomed to playing that type,” Nori said. “It’s easier to get guys to get back to what they were accustomed to, being aggressive and all that, as opposed to, ‘Hey it’s Rudy, and you’re shrinking,’ and all that.”


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