This offseason marks the third time new Minnesota Timberwolves’ assistant coach Elston Turner will join an existing coaching staff as one of the few newcomers. So, not only does he have to learn the players and the organization, he will have to adapt to a coaching staff that has began gelling through the back half of last season.
“Which I’m used to,” Turner said.
But, at the same time, Turner’s job isn’t really to fit in. As Minnesota’s new “defensive coordinator,” he’s going to have to shake the tree. Because Minnesota’s roster isn’t flush with strong defensive players. Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards and Malik Beasley — major parts of Minnesota’s core — aren’t known for their defensive prowess. That showed on the court again last season when the Timberwolves finished 28th in defensive rating.
To mitigate the issue, head coach Chris Finch is turning to Turner, who has more than two decades of NBA coaching experience. Turner, who also played eight seasons in the League, most recently coached in Houston after stops in Sacramento, Memphis and Portland.
Turner said he’s going to “try to implement and improve some of the things that the team was not in the top half of the league in last year.” He said the Wolves were “pretty good” in some defensive areas, and noted they’re athletic and long enough to move around and get into position and get back in transition.
That just didn’t appear to be a priority at many points throughout the campaign, and it’s what has to change first and foremost.
Turner has some ideas for the types of schemes he’d like to implement. They aren’t definite, but his initial thought is to keep a big like Karl-Anthony Towns close to the rim to aid in the team’s rebounding efforts.
There are benefits and costs to switch-heavy approaches, Turner noted, but the general rules are that the Wolves “want to try to keep our bodies in front of the ball. Contain the dribble, fill in and help each other where it’s needed. But in terms of where we’re going to switch, how we’re going to switch, if we’re going to switch, those are going to be determined.”
Does keeping Towns close to the basket mean more “drop coverage” is on the way, where Towns sits back closer to the paint as the big he’s guarding sets a screen up top? Towns has played versions of that in recent years, first under Tom Thibodeau, then with previous defensive coordinator David Vanterpool. The results were mixed, leaning toward bad.
But, the drop coverage scheme can, when executed correctly, limit the number of 3-point shots an opponent takes. The Bucks just won the NBA title using drop coverage, but Turner noted such a scheme requires an agile big man.
“If your center is the main threat offensively, you’re risking foul trouble with a good ball handler coming right at him, so there’s pros and cons to every coverage,” he said, “and you just have to weigh it out.”
The question at this point is whether it matters what scheme the Wolves run defensively. Is the roster so offensively slanted that they’re bound to struggle to stop other teams under any scheme?
“You try to hide weaknesses and accentuate the things they do well,” Turner said. “That’s not always easy, but that’s the ultimate goal. You want to put them in a position to succeed. No one individual is supposed to stop somebody else; you’re supposed to do everything you can, but everybody is kind of responsible for everything. It’s a five-man coverage.”
Meaning it takes everyone showing a willingness to buy in and execute.
“I don’t care what you drill, what you teach; if players are not willing to get it done, then it’s going to be a long season,” Turner said. “If they’re serious about winning, defense will be very important to them. And that’s a starting point right there. If it’s important to them, you work at it and you get better.”