Nearly everyone is looking at the Wolves to make a climb in rankings this season. With an offseason that brought Brandon Roy, Alexey Shved, Greg Stiemsma, Chase Budinger, Andrei Kirilenko and Dante Cunnigham, the expectations for this team will be higher than ever. While nearly every new player signed is a strong improvement from those who've departed, the team is still deficient in several areas, most notably defense.
Last year, the Wolves ranked 25th out of the NBA's 30 teams in Defensive Rating according to basketball-reference.com. Even with a rebounding monster in Kevin Love and the goliath of a man that is Nikolai Pekovic, the Wolves were barely able to hold their own against competition on the defensive end. With a revamped roster and a full training camp, it's worth asking if the Wolves will figure out how to better limit opponent's possesions and make the necessary improvements to propel them to league averages.
Before examining how the new roster additions will affect the Wolves' defenesive woes, let's evaluate who were the biggest contributors this past season. Not suprisingly, the stars of this team were those who provided the most value. Love secured the most defensive rebounds, Pekovic held the best blocking percentage and Rubio became one of the most lovable thiefs to ever grace this fine sport. Yet, none of these players proved themselves to be the complete package defensively. Even Love, the lone All-Star, is still to this day largely criticized for his defensive shortcomings. This season, it's likely the Wolves will rely more on the continued improvement of Pekovic and pray for greater contributions from players like Derrick Williams and Luke Ridnour.
Williams will surely be the prayer most in doubt. Depending on how you view the glass, you either believe Williams needs more time to reach his potential or his play thus far has already proved his ceiling. Although most will look to his offensive game to determine whether he's worth keeping, his defensive value should also be harshly judged. During the 2011-12 season, Williams averaged 3.5 defensive rebounds and finished second behind Love in defensive rebounding percentage. As he tries to shape himself into a small forward this season, it will be interesting to see how greatly these numbers change. It's likely Adelman will look for Williams to be more active on the boards and more importanly play his assignments with a greater focus and agressiveness. If he can be more locked in, Williams could provide the defensive boost that would lead to a better transition game for the Wolves bench unit.
Unlike Williams, Ridnour will not be expected to make any great leaps but instead produce minor advancements to become the defensive guard missing in this roster while Rubio is away. Lest we forget, Ridnour was perhaps the most stable presence on this team following Rubio's injury. He brought energy, desire and control each night as the Wolves' starting point guard- at least offensively. The team will look to Ridnour this year to strive for the tenacity Rubio brought each game. Ridnour's defensive win shares were equal to Pekovic's this past season, proving he was capable of stepping up defenesively when it mattered most; it will be even more important this season that Ridnour continues this trend. It's clear that management still holds Ridnour's professionalism and modest talent in high regards; with all hope he proves once again capable of leading this team during Rubio's absence, this time around with a defensive edge.
Fortunately, Ridnour will have more help than he did last season with newcomers clearly able to bring more dedication than many of his prior teammates. Kirilenko, Roy, Shved, Stiemsma, Budinger and Cunningham should all help get this team off to a better start and provide key support during late-game situations. Right off the bat, fans should notice holes being filled by the team's new talent. Specifically, shot-blocking, an almost non-existent feature of the team, will be aided by Kirilenko and Stiemsma's time on the floor. For two seasons in Utah, Kirilenko averaged 3 blocks per game (BPG) and last year Stiemsma averaged 1.5 BPG in just over 13 minutes per game. Both players will be able to prevent fellow small and power forwards from getting to the rim. Those that may have been invincible against the Wolves last season (Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, etc.) will have a much more difficult time finding open driving lanes.
Perimeter defense is another area requiring major adjustments. Ridnour can occasionally provide a spark for this team but otherwise the Wolves often find themselves turning heads as faster and more athletic guards blow by them. Unfortunately, the additions of Roy and Shved only resolve this issue to a minor degree. Shved showed in the Olympics that he often had trouble sticking to his man and failed to readjust through mismatches. Roy can similarly be quite passive on defense, a quality that may be even more emphasized due to his lingering injuries. With no cartilage in his knees, it's doubtful Roy will easily be able to get around screens or move laterally at all. Unless Shved turns into another player entirely, it's hard to believe either of these guys will be able to handle the speed and athleticism of their peers.
The best cure for this team's guards and overall defensive weaknesses will be Rick Adelman. His experience, extrordinary use of in-game lineups and unrivaled reputation for extracting players' strengths should all point to noticable progressions from the whole roster. Furthermore, a full training camp should be able to show Adelman's coaching staff who signals the most defensive promise. With practice time and strict direction, it's possible even poor defenders like Shved will ratchet up their play a notch or two.
With the evidence presented and predictions drawn, the fairest conclusion is the 2012-13 Wolves will improve defenesively but not dramatically so. There is so much room for this team to grow but their offensive strides are likely to be much more apparent early on than any defensive adjustments. With the excitement surrounding the Wolves offseason moves, it's easy to begin forming fantasies of what this team could be. However, while these Wolves could be a top 10 defensive team in this league, it's more probable they will fall somewhere in the middle of the pack. That kind of jump should not inspire disappointment but rather a more realistic goal to reach for.