Some thoughts on the vacant head-coaching positions in Detroit and Minnesota:
• David Kahn, Minnesota’s top decision-maker, said during Tuesday’s news conference that he’d like to hire a coach more comfortable running an up-tempo offense. This would seem to make sense. Rambis is a triangle-offense devotee, and while you can work at a decent pace running the triangle (the Lakers did before Kobe started aging), it’s a half-court offense at its core.
Plus, the Wolves are bringing in a dynamic point guard in Ricky Rubio, and they now have some very young, athletic wings and bigs who can run the floor. There is something to the notion that you can win regular-season games by running hard against older teams on the second end of a back-to-back. The Timberwolves also have perhaps the league’s best outlet passer in Kevin Love, a guy who could trail the break as a potential three-point threat.
But, as Beckley Mason pointed out earlier this week, Minnesota averaged more possessions per game than any other team in the league, meaning it was already playing at the league’s fastest pace by one measure. Though that measure may seem a bit misleading (high-turnover teams will naturally pile up more possessions, and the Wolves turned the ball over more often last season than anyone, per Basketball-Reference), that’s not so in this case. Around the halfway point of the season, Rohan Cruyff used shot-clock data from 82games.com to measure how quickly teams tend to shoot within a given possession. His findings: Only the Suns played faster than Minnesota on offense.
In other words, the Wolves are already playing at an unusually fast pace, and they ranked 24th in points scored per possession while doing so. This doesn’t mean Minnesota’s transition game is tapped out, since it would look different with new personnel and a new coach. Delayed transition is an important part of any fast-break game, and the pieces might be in different places during those precious seconds if the team no longer runs the triangle.
But perhaps Kahn should listen to Anthony Tolliver, who told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the Wolves should hire a defense-first coach:
“I never really thought the offense was a problem, the defensive side was,” Tolliver said. “We scored enough points to win games. We struggled with the ability to get easy buckets in crunch time, but our main problem was the defensive end. Whoever they bring in next, it’s really important that they be a defensive coach.”
The Wolves have been miserable on defense for two straight seasons; they ranked 27th in points allowed per possession last season and 28th the year before. They struggled to contain pick-and-rolls, got hurt badly in transition (only six teams allowed a greater points per possession number on fast-break chances, per Synergy Sports) and allowed the fourth-highest opponents’ three-point percentage–on more opponent attempts than any team.
This was a broken defense, and the fastest way for a so-so team to become decent is to become good at defense. We saw it with the Bucks two seasons ago and the Pacers last season, and the 2010-11 Bulls are a more talented version of this same phenomenon. You need scoring to win, obviously, but if you want to take a young and unproven roster and win 35-40 games, the best way to do it fast is probably to play intense defense. Out-running and out-gunning opponents might work, too, but it’s a less reliable method.
Of course, some of the league’s best defensive coaches got scooped up while the Wolves were deciding what to do with Rambis …
• Defense will also be the problem in Detroit, where the Pistons ranked 28th in points allowed per possession while quietly cobbling together an offense that ranked a tick above the league average. The Pistons will get better naturally, as Austin Daye, Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko (a feisty dude) develop, but size will continue to be a problem here, even if Ben Wallace comes back for one final year. None of Detroit’s core perimeter holdovers, minus free agent Tayshaun Prince, are known as plus defenders.
For this reason, Lawrence Frank might make be a better hire for this particular group than Mike Woodson. (ESPN’s Marc Stein reported Wednesday night that Frank and Woodson are the two lead candidates, with Bill Laimbeer and Patrick Ewing in the mix.) Frank is a defense-first guy filling Tom Thibodeau’s old role in Boston, and he’d bring that mentality — and a set of clear principles — to the Pistons.
Then again, this team was a mess of competing agendas last season, and Woodson is known around the league (by some, at least) as a strong voice capable of controlling difficult locker rooms. He had the Hawks playing borderline top-10 defense during his final two years with the team, and that was with Mike Bibby playing point guard and Al Horford working mostly as the team’s nominal center. Jamal Crawford wasn’t helping either. Woodson famously used a lot of switches to defend pick-and-rolls, a strategy that worked decently because his shooting guard (Joe Johnson) is a strong guy, and his two primary bigs (Josh Smith and Horford) are capable of sliding along with guards.
Could that work in Detroit, with Ben Gordon as Bibby, Rodney Stuckey as Johnson and Daye/Jerebko/Wallace/Monroe/Jason Maxiell switching onto smaller guys? Probably not as the team’s de facto strategy, but Woodson could mix and match philosophies. The Pistons face an interesting choice here.