As the Sixers get ready to face the Minnesota Timberwolves for the first time since the blockbuster Jimmy Butler trade, I chatted with Patrick Fenelon to learn more about the new-look Wolves.
Patrick is a host of the Land of Ten Thousand Takes Podcast.
Question #1: Robert Covington was one of the linchpins of the Sixers defense before he was dealt in the Jimmy Butler trade. Before his injury, what kind of impact was he having on Minnesota, specifically on the defensive end?
Before the trade, the Timberwolves were second to last in the NBA on defense, with a defensive rating of 113.9. This was not simply a product of the team playing poorly during the chaos of the Jimmy Butler trade saga. It was actually par for the course during the Tom Thibodeau era. Last season, they were 25th in defensive rating (110.1), and they were 27th in the season before that (110.9). Then the trade happened. Almost overnight, Minnesota was able to stop opposing teams from scoring at will on them. In fact, they didn’t just stop being bad, they were suddenly good on defense. Great? No, but they had a defensive rating of 107.2, good for 11th in the NBA. That’s well above average. The only thing that changed was Covington’s addition to the roster. If you said, “Covington turned a god awful defense into a good one,” you wouldn’t be in any way incorrect.
How has he done this? By doing what made him 1st Team All-Defense last year: being one of the best off-ball wing defenders I’ve ever seen. He’s 3rd in the league in steals per game, & is averaging more blocks per game than any wing in the NBA not named “Giannis.” His ability to help allows perimeter defenders to be more aggressive (every guard on the team has seen an uptick in steals per 100 possessions since his arrival, for example), and makes life exponentially easier for the team’s big men around the rim; he mitigates the mistakes and deficiencies of his teammates, freeing them up to play to their strengths.
With this freedom, his teammates have been able to do what they were never able to do prior to his arrival: develop into quality defenders themselves. This has been on full display over the past six games, all of which Covington has missed due to a bone bruise. During this time, the team’s defense hasn’t reverted to what it was before his arrival. In terms of defensive rating, there has not been any drop off whatsoever. To me, this is the most impressive impact he’s had by a wide margin. It’s been nothing short of incredible.
Question #2: The Wolves recently fired controversial head coach Tom Thibodeau and selected assistant Ryan Saunders to fill in on an interim basis, with the possibility that his performance could earn him the permanent title. How have the players and fans responded to Saunders so far? Is it realistic to imagine him ultimately taking the reigns eventually?
The fan response to the move has been overwhelmingly positive. “Ryan Saunders” was trending all across social media for days following his debut win over OKC last last Tuesday, and the Target Center had a warm & loud sellout crowd for his first home game in his coaching career on Friday. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. First of all, he’s replacing a coach who was very unpopular here, so much so that he was booed every home game after player introductions —and loudly. Obviously Thibodeau’s bungling of the Jimmy Butler situation was a huge part of this, but that wasn’t the only reason. In a more general sense, he just made watching basketball feel like a joyless chore. The feeling has been the opposite since Ryan Saunders was named interim head coach. For a lot of fans, I think it feels like a giant weight has been lifted. Ryan is young, personable with the media, and, to put it bluntly, doesn’t appear constantly negative on the sideline the way Thibodeau was.
The other obvious reason fans have rallied around Ryan is that he’s carrying on the legacy of his father. Flip Saunders was deeply loved by every sports fan in Minnesota, and for decades was, without a doubt, the most prominent figure in Minnesota basketball. I have yet to meet a fan of the team who doesn’t get at least a little emotional just talking about him. Fans here want Ryan to succeed at this job badly because they know how proud it would have made his dad. It just feels good to root for the kid.
As for the players, they’ve certainly rallied around him too. He had the respect of the entire team from the second he took over; no one is holding his age against him, or viewing this opportunity as an example of nepotism. You could tell the players wanted to get him his first win badly last Tuesday in Oklahoma City by the the energy they put forth that game, and by how genuinely happy everyone seemed when they soaked him in the locker room after accomplishing that goal with a thrilling win. Similar to the fan experience, the whole atmosphere around the team seems to have changed. Basketball finally feels fun again.
Is it realistic that Ryan Saunders keeps this job beyond this season? I think so. I don’t see any reason to not to believe owner Glen Taylor when he says that he’d take the interim tag off of Ryan’s job title, should he do an impressive job coaching for the rest of the season. Furthermore, I think there’s a very good possibility that Ryan pulls it off. He’s very forward-thinking as a coach, who has already stated multiple times that he wants to improve the team’s shot selection (by which he means fewer long twos...I’m looking at you, Andrew Wiggins), and to play at a faster pace. I firmly believe that this team was held back significantly under Thibodeau because he refused to embrace modern basketball. We’re only three games into Ryan’s tenure, but early indications point to him wanting correct that mistake. I think that would be enough convince Taylor, and, since they’re only two games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference, perhaps good enough to make the playoffs.
Question #3: Sixers fans know that Dario Saric has always preferred starting to coming off the bench. But due to the presence of Taj Gibson, he’s been a reserve thus far in Minnesota. What do you see as Saric’s long-term role with the Timberwolves?
Before Thibs was fired, Dario’s future role on the team looked pretty limited, as Thibs liked to play two traditional bigs, and ran an offense that seemed downright hostile toward the idea of utilizing a dynamic big man of the sort Saric is (he did the same thing to Sixers legend Nemanja Bjelica last year, by the way). But now that Thibs is gone, Dario’s future with the team looks a lot sunnier. Saunders has stated that he wants the team to play at a higher tempo, and to shoot more three-pointers than they did under Thibodeau. No one on the roster would benefit more from those changes than Dario. Assuming these changes are permanent, no matter who the head coach is next season, I have a hard time believing that he wouldn’t eventually become the starter at power forward. Whether or not it would happen right away might depend on whether they bring Taj Gibson back next season, and how well Dario plays with various lineups in the remaining games this year. I wish I had more to add to this, but it’s too early in the Ryan Saunders era to make predictions with any sense of certainty.
Big thanks to Patrick for taking the time to get us up to speed on an increasingly enjoyable Minnesota team.