Wolves Sunday: Adelman switches to defense

MINNEAPOLIS — The coach whose name is synonymous with an offense is shocking everyone with his focus on defense.

Rick Adelman has pioneered his corner offense, which is focused on quick cuts and versatile players. He’s been implementing it in pieces since joining the Timberwolves last season, but this preseason, he paused. Instead, the team spent the first four days of training camp working heavily on defense, and early on, it’s paid off.

The Timberwolves gave up an average of 80.9 points per game to their opponents this preseason. It’s a ridiculous and unsustainable figure; last season, the Bulls’ defense led the NBA by giving up an average of 88.2 points. In fact, since 1970, the best defense of any team belongs to the 1998-99 Atlanta Hawks, who gave up 83.4 points per game in a shortened, 50-game season.

So no, this isn’t going to last. It’s the preseason, after all, where nothing means anything (at least until it’s replicated when games matter). However, sustaining good defense through seven games shouldn’t be a complete fluke, and the Timberwolves are hoping that much of what they’ve built carries over when the season starts on Friday.

“I think we’ve been pushing full board the whole time, and (saying we’re good defensively is) definitely accurate on our end,” Dante Cunningham said. “That’s what our preseason’s been about: defense, defense, and then offense will come along.”

The Timberwolves are hardly known for their defense, especially not after last season, when an utter defensive collapse prevailed in March and April. But what people forget is that for the first half of the season, at least, the team was defending pretty well. Through February, it gave up 95.9 points per game — not great, but significantly better than the staggering 105.2 it allowed from March 1 on.

This season, the Timberwolves’ defense will likely shake out in some sort of middle ground. It won’t be the NBA’s best in decades, nor will it reach the levels of ineptitude it did last year, when, Adelman said, it prevented them from winning games.

“I’d rather start (here) where we have some basis to build on, and we know it’ll be harder in the regular season,” Adelman said. “That’s going to be a part of our identity. We have to win defensively.”

Unlike most teams that are looking to rely on their defensive acumen, the Timberwolves don’t have a lock-down defensive player. There’s no Serge Ibaka, Andre Iguodala or Dwight Howard on this team, not even close. That’s why Adelman and his players have been focusing so much on team defense from the start, and maybe their approach will work.

It could seem like a risky proposition, this notion of having successful team defense with a group so newly assembled. It’s a concept that relies on instincts and communication, which are not so easily established, but according to the Timberwolves, they’ve done it, and this group works.

“There’s not one guy that’s going to necessarily lock down someone, but we have a lot of guys who are going to be able to give help at positions to make sure our team looks great as a defensive team,” Dante Cunningham said.

“That’s number one on the list. You have to be able to talk and communicate across the board.”

Cunningham touted the team’s energy and athleticism as contributors to its defense. He hasn’t been surprised by any one player’s performance, he said, and players who have always held their own defensively are excelling in this scheme.

Going into the regular season, the Timberwolves have two baselines: the solid play of the past few weeks and the mess that was last spring. Barring an onslaught of injuries, it’s hard to imagine it’ll be as bad as it was at the end of last season, but in order for the team to be successful, defense will have to improve more than just a little bit. Keeping some hold on what they did this preseason will be crucial.

No starting lineup yet: Adelman isn’t yet sure what his starting lineup will look like going into the season, but he said he’ll pin it down this week. Right now, the biggest questions remain around Luke Ridnour’s health and Kevin Love’s replacement at power forward.

Ridnour is improving, and he might very well be ready to start on Friday. If not, J.J. Barea would get the nod. The team also held onto point guard Will Conroy after Saturday’s roster cuts, and Adelman said it’s likely that the 15-man roster will remain as is going into the season. Having Conroy around will be especially beneficial in light of Ridnour’s back problems and Malcolm Lee’s general inexperience.

At power forward, it’s basically come down to a competition between Cunningham and Derrick Williams to earn the starting job. Andrei Kirilenko will play there occasionally, but he’s best at small forward, and the decision will likely come later this week.

Right now, my best guess at the starting lineup looks like this:

Point guard: Ridnour if healthy, if not, Barea
Shooting guard: Brandon Roy
Small forward: Andrei Kirilenko
Power forward: Williams or Cunningham
Center: Nikola Pekovic

And though Adelman stressed that whatever he decides upon this week is hardly definitive, he is looking for some measure of consensus as the season begins. He could adjust lineups based on opponents and matchups, but he has never liked doing that, he said.

Adelman on James Harden: Because everyone wants to hear what everyone remotely associated with the NBA has to say about the deal:

“I was surprised about that. I don’t know what the reasons were except the contract. But they broke up a situation that was awfully good. But they must have their reasons. They got a good player in Kevin Martin, but who knows . . . You worry about yourself. It may have reaction, but it doesn’t make any difference to us either way.”

“I don’t know the whole circumstance. I don’t know what they offered him or anything. They’re taking a shot at changing their team a little bit. Time will tell, I guess.”

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