Minnesota is 5-2 since they traded away Jimmy Butler, and the main reason is the defense is better. Much better. Over those seven games, the Timberwolves are allowing 100.9 points per 100 possessions, the third-best defense in the NBA over that stretch.
(For comparison, Philadelphia, the team that got Butler, has allowed 113.2 per 100 in those same seven games, but they are 5-2 because Butler has hit some big shots.)
What changed? It’s not just one thing, as Dane Moore breaks down well at Zone Coverage (with a lot of video evidence), but the key thing is Robert Covington — who came West in the trade along with Dario Saric — has been playing lockdown defense, flying all over that end of the court, and is in Karl-Anthony Towns‘ ear about defense.
Covington, who clearly has a budding bromance with Towns, says that it is now Towns’ job to be the head of the snake with him. He says he needs Towns to “be the guy communicating with him.” And he believes that will happen with time because he is going to hold his friend and teammate accountable.
“You have to tell ’em,” Covington said in the locker room after the Wolves Saturday night win. “You can’t sugar coat things. That’s one thing we had back in Philly and the same thing I’m bringing here. Tell guys if they f****** up that they f****** up.”
Every team needs a defensive leader who communicates. Ideally that is a big on the back line directing traffic, but it doesn’t have to be. Covington has taken on that role.
Minnesota is among the teams that generally drops its bigs against pick-and-rolls to protect the rim (they are not alone, the Bucks, Lakers, Jazz, and others do this as a primary defense). That works well, at least until they face a team with a center who can stretch the floor (Nikola Jokic in Denver, Nikola Vucevic in Orlando, Marc Gasol in Memphis) and then they can get burned. However, even in those situations you can see the improved communication on the Timberwolves defense and the steps they are making.
They also added depth. Dario Saric is not an elite defender but he’s better than Anthony Tolliver and Saric is getting those minutes now.
Minnesota is just playing freer and unburdened since the trade. The questions now are can they sustain a very good defense (there will be some regression, but how much), and can they climb out of that deep early-season hole and make the postseason.