The Utah Jazz are looking real good these days: They’ve got the best offense in the NBA by a pretty wide margin, and are eighth in defensive efficiency, and trail only the terrifying Golden State Warriors in net rating. They’ve won five in a row and nine of 11; their average margin in those nine victories is 18 points; their combined margin in those two losses is two (2). Regular-season success has so far not quite translated into deep playoff runs for Quin Snyder’s Jazz, but they’re super good. Certainly we must all concede this point.
You would think this concession would be easiest for members of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who during the second half of Wednesday night’s home game had the absolute hell beaten out of them by the visiting Jazz. It was a one-point game at halftime, and then the Jazz applied the clamps at one end and the gas pedal at the other and soon made a laugher of the contest, winning 136–104. Normally the loser of such a blowout gives due credit to the victor as a matter of professional decorum, to say nothing of the delicate work of saving face. The Timberwolves instead were super grumpy and defiant. Springy and thrilling second-year guy Anthony Edwards, for example, felt compelled to make it clear that Rudy Gobert “don’t put no fear in my heart,” and declared that Gobert is a less intimidating rim-protector, for him, than Kristaps Porzingis.
Edwards is just 20 years old, and has played against Gobert just four times in his life, and to me it’s fine for a young player to be both wrong about the relative shot-blocking prowess of strangers and also confident in his own abilities, especially since Edwards also acknowledged that Gobert “was in people’s heads” and influenced his team’s scoring around the bucket. Minnesota shot just 10-of-24 at the rim Wednesday night, in large part because Gobert is just a very huge and long guy who earned his rent-controlled crash pad in opponents’ heads with lots and lots of blocked shots and many years as a one-man top-10 defense. There’s no shame in losing this way to the Jazz! The Jazz had good players and a good strategy and pushed all the right buttons in the right sequence. Edwards is proud in defeat but essentially fine. Only a pathologically sore loser could carve out space in there to essentially accuse his victorious opponent of cowardice. Unfortunately, professional annoyance Patrick Beverley is just such a loser.
“I mean, I don’t know. It’s a great game plan by the coach and his coaching staff. But if I’m Defensive Player of the Year, I’m always guarding the best player no matter what. I’m not roaming. It’s no discredit to Royce O’Neale or any of the others on their team, but if I’m Defensive Player of the Year, I’m not guarding Royce O’Neale—I’m guarding Mike Conley, I’m guarding Donovan Mitchell, I’m guarding Bogdanovic. You got Rudy Gobert out there guarding Vanderbilt. And every time, I hear he’s Defensive Player of the Year. So, uh, whatever.”Salt Lake Tribune
The issue, as Beverley sees it, is how NBA teams are lately choosing to defend long-suffering Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns is one of the really sublimely skilled men of his size of this era, and the Wolves involve him in the action way out on the floor, in order to exploit his uncommonly high comfort-level around the perimeter and space the floor for cutting and driving lanes for his teammates, most of whom need all the help they can get, because they are bozos. This deployment is never more effective than when it successfully drags an opposing rim-protector out of the defensive paint and out to the perimeter, where he can no longer block or alter or dissuade shots in the restricted area. These poor galoots, operating far outside of their comfort zone, are too slow-footed to run Towns off the three-point line without immediately yielding deadly straight-line blow-by drives to the cup. Treating Towns the way you would treat most other men his size is a lose-lose proposition for all but a tiny handful of opposing big men.
Teams are addressing that problem lately by defending Towns primarily with much smaller men, and rotating their centers onto the least threatening of Towns’s teammates. The theory goes that Towns (also one of the league’s smoothest low-post operators) will probably feast down in the paint, but by yielding this mismatch and baiting the Wolves into playing inside-out, your defense will keep its shape and your best rim protector will be available to help out around the basket. The Wizards recently made this work by defending Towns primarily with Kyle Kuzma, who despite wearing the clothing of the literal BFG is in all other ways and under most other circumstances a perimeter guy. This strategy will be a loser just as soon as the Wolves cobble together enough shooters and ball-handlers to keep Towns surrounded with dangerous outlets. In the meantime, because the various Jaden McDanielses and Jarred Vanderbilts and Pat Beverleys filling up Minnesota’s rotation aren’t capable of consistently punishing this strategy, it will remain a perfectly viable path to victory for Timberwolves opponents.
That is probably pretty humiliating for certain of Minnesota’s other guys. That you and your teammates stink too much to keep the opponent from successfully running a gimmick defense would for sure be a tough pill to swallow. The thing you want to try to avoid, in your frustration, is scolding your victorious opponent for their refusal to shift away from what works for them and toward something that would work much better for you. You may have won the battle, but I will maintain the moral high ground by pointing out that you won dishonorably, for having deployed your players thoughtfully. Alas, Beverley fails to appreciate the scorching self-own—and the even more destructive stray shot to the sternum of poor Jarred Vanderbilt—implied by his own words.
What’s important to Beverley is that you and Rudy Gobert and everyone listening understand that were he Defensive Player of the Year he would insist upon being deployed stupidly, to the detriment of his team. In what I am sure is a great relief to his teammates, Patrick Beverley has exactly as much firsthand knowledge of how he would act as Defensive Player of the Year as I have of how I would handle living on Mars, so this exercise will remain entirely theoretical.