Two seasons ago, the Timberwolves had one of the league's best offenses in the second half of the season. Their defense ranked 13th in efficiency for the year, and that combination of an elite offense and a passable defense was enough to get them in the playoffs.
With the acquisition of Rudy Gobert and a major injury to Karl-Anthony Towns, that dynamic flipped last season. The Wolves were 23rd in offensive efficiency, 10th in defense.
Coach Chris Finch made his reputation in the NBA primarily on the offensive end of the floor, but when asked last week if he thought the Wolves should be a defense-first team, if that should be the team's identity, Finch was unflinching in his answer.
"It has to be. It absolutely has to be," Finch said. "I say that just because we have the personnel to do that and be that on and off the ball and at the rim."
With Gobert, the three-time defensive player of the year, and Jaden McDaniels, who has a growing reputation as one of the best perimeter defenders, the Wolves already have two elite players on that end of the floor. Anthony Edwards has shown an ability to be a dogged on-ball defender, even if his off-ball defense still needs work. Mike Conley is an upgrade for the Wolves defensive over D'Angelo Russell, and the coaching staff was not afraid to put him on some skilled scorers at times last season. While coming off the bench both Kyle Anderson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker can guard multiple positions at a high level.
Add all that up, and that's six rotation players who can take some of the other team's biggest scoring threats.
"The most important thing is to really build our identity, understand each other's strengths and be able to magnify that and be able to minimize the opposing team's strength," Gobert said. "That's how you become a really great defensive team."
The Wolves, in Abu Dhabi for preseason games against the Mavericks on Thursday and Saturday, will be employing more switching concepts in their defensive strategy this year, whereas they were in drop coverage a lot with Gobert, while mixing in high wall strategies when he was off floor. The latter was the kind of defense the Wolves played well when Towns was at center two seasons ago. But aside from the X's and O's part of the defense, Finch said the Wolves have to increase their intensity in the hustle categories.
"We have a lot of individual defenders," Finch said. " … We need to be kind of a little bit tougher, more 50-50 balls — I don't think we got enough of those last year. Just get a little bit grittier, and play a little bit bigger like a big team should — pound the glass on both ends and be a little bit more physical in the paint."
Finch said that the Wolves were the worst team in the league last season in securing long rebounds, and while the data available on NBA.com doesn't track long rebounds, it does show overall rebounding statistics. The Wolves were 26th in defensive rebounding percentage (.703).
Specifically, Finch has repeated for two seasons that the Wolves need to get better rebounding from their guards.
"It starts right there," Finch said. "It's not like these rebounds aren't coming our way. We're just not getting them. Staying in the play and being ready to scoop up more long rebounds."
The Wolves seem to have the talent to excel on that end of the floor. Can they find the right synergy on that end of the floor, and will they alleviate their rebounding issues? That could be the difference between being a good defensive team, as they were for most of last season, and a great one.
"You've got to be top 10 in defense to win a championship," President Tim Connelly said. "That's pretty consistent."