Both the Minnesota Timberwolves and Chicago Bulls' defenses have been better than advertised to start the season. Both teams have rim protectors who are a bit questionable, but have surrounded them with the pieces to make up for their weaknesses. These two teams reach their goals on defense in similar yet contrasting ways and are equally an interesting case study on protecting the rim through perimeter play. The Bulls rank 5th in defensive rating through their first 6 games with a 99.7, and the Timberwolves rank 6th in through their first 6 games with a 99.9. Why has each been so good, and is this success sustainable across an 82 game season?
Before we discuss the long-term proposition of the Timberwolves, or the Bulls defense being this smoldering, we have to determine just how sustainable league-wide results are. I think it's fair to question the long-term possibility of defensive results being this good in general. The best defenses have strung together short-term results better than the best early 70's defenses (pre 3 point line). No matter what fouls are being called, the long-term results for defense are dependent on offense, and I'm struggling to believe that with the league's current offensive tendencies that there will continue to be 6 defenses that are sub-100 defensive rating. Last season there wasn't a single team sub-105, and there has only been 1 to reach that mark within the previous 3 years. You'd have to date back to 2016 for the last sub-100 defensive rating team, and you'd have to go to 2012 to find a season with multiple teams in that arena. To add even more context, from 2005-2021 there were 5 teams to have sub-100 defensive ratings, meaning that there have been better defensive results this season than in the last 16 years of basketball. The 6 sub-100 defensive rating teams we have so far this season would be good for the most in league history (non-estimate) since 1983.
Looking at the league-wide offensive results, you'll spot one glaring difference.
2020-21 League average :
77.8%FT% 13.8 TOV
2021-22 League averages ( 2 1/2 weeks in ):
The single biggest change isn't the FTA that everyone has been clamoring about the most, but 3 point percentage. Long-distance shooting accuracy has taken a pretty big dip, going from the highest it's ever been in 2021 to the lowest since the turn of the century. League-wide 3 point efficiency since 2000 has hovered around 35%, only dropping below that mark 3 times. Even among those 3 shooting seasons, 2022 so far has been an outlier with it being almost a full point (-.7%) less than the second-worst shooting season of the 21st century. Small little increments in shooting, at the volume it's attempted in today's game, can completely shift offensive production; the difference in shooting currently is costing league average offenses 2.9 points per 100 possessions. That difference would be about the difference between an average and a top 5 defense in the league. The Golden State Warriors last season had a -2.2 relative defensive rating, which means on average, shooting variance alone has cost teams more points so far this season than the Golden State Warriors featuring Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins did. What does this mean for the Bulls and the Timberwolves?
Regression to the Mean:
To start, I like what the Timberwolves do on that end, I think they've been able to transform their defense with Karl Anthony-Towns often blitzing the pick and roll ball handler. Towns' ball containment in these spots looks pretty good, his footwork isn't extremely choppy, and he's used his length extremely well at the rim.
The Timberwolves have been switch-heavy since Finch became the coach, and while their switch usage has seen a slight dip, it's still very much a strength they have. Their are multiple players on the roster who can switch on multiple possessions, and Towns' added mobility makes this attack even more potent because you can't matchup hunt.
Vanderbilt and McDaniels each cover so much ground for this team, helping on drives, closing out to shooters, and adding a presence at the rim. The role each plays as a helper was why I thought the Timberwolves would be a solid defense, and the range they have often destroys offensive possessions. They often have "sinking and fill" on big man isolations with wings or smalls effectively closing driving gaps.
The Timberwolves have 3 players within in the top 40 in distance run on defense. As a team they rank 7th in distance run, 4th in 3 point shots contested, and 6th in deflections. They're a young and active defense, and while I think their point of attack could use some help, they have looked like a pretty nice defense. The thing is, I don't think they're a sub-100 defensive rating team, and I don't know if they finish as a top 10 defense by the end of the year. Which *spoiler alert* is perfectly fine, I also don't think they're the 23rd best offense in the league (just another example of why early-season per possession stuff is wonky). The Timberwolves could realistically finish anywhere from the 9th-17th best defense.
When it comes to the Bulls on the other hand, I'm not as optimistic about their success being stable. A lot of the things I mentioned about Minnesota can also be applied to Chicago; the Bulls are young, active, and all those other colorful adjectives I used to describe the Timberwolves. They currently rank 6th in defensive miles ran and are tied for 2nd in loose balls recovered on defense. The difference between the two teams is the quality of rim protection and team defense. Despite what their numerical success has looked like, the Bulls just haven't impressed me much on that end of the floor.
The Bulls allow opposing teams to get 2 feet into the paint anytime they want, and their ability to stop the bleeding when opponents want to get there is what worries me most. They rank #1 in shots 0-5 feet from the basket allowed with a whopping 36.7 attempts, but what has been the team's saving grace is what they've allowed at the rim (56.8%). That doesn't feel like a sustainable number, Vucevic is an average rim protector and the Bulls don't have the bevy of help defenders that Minnesota has. Let's say hypothetically the Bulls are allowing the league average FG% from 0-5, they'd be giving up 3.9 more points per 100 possessions. Combine that with the unimpressive long-distance shooting from opponents (33%), and we are looking at a start that seems very skewed. I see them being around a 15th-21st ranked defensive team as opposed to top 10.
So far seasonal results aren't very important, we don't really have many matchup combinations nor a big enough sample size to really dictate the quality of defense through numbers. Early season results so far seem relatively fluky, and that's perfectly fine; it's been 6 games (less than that for some teams), and a little early season luck hasn't hurt anyone (other than the pelicans)!