How Rudy Gobert and Chet Holmgren revitalized their teams' defense

Only a season after finishing eighth and 10th in the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Minnesota Timberwolves sit atop the conference. At the center of their swift ascent from play-in participants to contenders is a center. 

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves
Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves / David Berding/GettyImages

Analytics may have rendered offensive production down to a science, but defense still remains more alchemy. There is plenty of available defensive data to play with and ponder, but assigning credit remains a mystery. Does point-of-attack defense render rim protection moot? Or does rim elite protection make perimeter defense a luxury?

In the case of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves, they’re proving the worth of an all-world defensive center walling off the rim.

The re-emergence of Rudy Gobert

For much of basketball history, elite rim-protecting centers anchored the league’s best defenses. Simply stationing a 7-footer with bad intentions next to the basket makes defending a whole lot easier. And over the past decade, Rudy Gobert was atop that list, until all of a sudden, he wasn’t. 

Rudy Gobert’s first season in Minnesota was an utter and complete mess. Acquired from the Utah Jazz for a massive haul, Gobert arrived in Minnesota with enormous expectations and legions of critics waiting for the Timberwolves’ experiment to fail. The plan of pairing Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, two All-NBA centers, on the court in 2022 was laughed off by the masses as out of touch, and after one season, they were proved right. 

The Timberwolves won fewer games in 2022-23 than they did the season prior, and worst of all, Gobert’s defense went from All-Time good to just above average. Heading into his age 31 season, it was fair to wonder if Gobert was a declining player. After 23 games, he has silenced the critics and is the lynchpin of the league’s best defense. 

Chet Holmgren has unlocked the Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder always wanted Chet Holmgren. Before the 2022 NBA Draft, Holmgren withheld medical information from teams to help ensure the Thunder would select him second. An unfortunate foot injury over his draft summer pushed back his debut by a year, but he has been everything the Thunder had hoped for. 

Holmgren is an exceptional rim protector and incredibly mobile for a center. The Thunder, even after his injury, spent most of last season playing without a true center to maintain excellent offensive spacing. While the combination of mobility and skill Holmgren possesses fits into the Thunders’ offense, it’s his defense that has been the game-changer. 

From day one, the Thunder showed their confidence in his defensive ability, surrounding him with four guard-sized players and relying on his shot-blocking to anchor their defense. The results haven’t been the best defense in the league, but posting the seventh-best defensive efficiency is more than adequate to make a deep playoff run. 

Defensive geography matters

NBA teams’ strict adherence to on-court shot geography has been one of the most transformative developments in league history. Coaches always barked about shot selection, but finally, the nerds showed them what shots were actually good, and it turned out 3-pointers were far more valuable than mid-range jumpers. 

Armed with the advanced mathematical concept that hitting 33 percent of your 3s was more valuable than 47 percent of your mid-range jumpers, NBA teams began ramping up their 3-point volume to unseen heights. However, the best shot in basketball has always been, and will probably always be, in the restricted area. 

This season, the average points per shot in the restricted area is 1.32, making it by far the most valuable shot in the sport. If getting to the rim is still the most valuable offense, then preventing those attempts remains a defense’s top priority. 

Rim-protecting centers, by virtue of their defensive geography, guard the most valuable real estate on the court, and the quality of a team’s rim defender can have a massive cascading effect on the rest of the defense. The revitalization of Rudy Gobert and the debut of Chet Holmgren have turned two mediocre defenses into elite units by forcing the restricted area to live up to its name.  

What a difference a season and a center make

Last season, the Timberwolves produced a defensive rating of 113.8 against the league average of 114.8. With Rudy Gobert simply being a good defensive center, the Timberwolves were a solid but hardly intimidating defense. However, this season, they’ve gone to a whole new level. 

The Timberwolves boast the best defense in the league at 106.6 points per 100 possessions; the league average defensive rating is 114.9. Their massive plus-7.5 in net rating is construed almost entirely by their plus-7.2 improvement in defensive rating. 

The Thunder have seen a similar, yet not as pronounced, defensive turnaround as well. Their defensive rating has gone from 114.2 to 111.7. A truly incredible figure for a team that has opted for lineups that favor perimeter offense and skill over sheer size. If the Thunder prioritized defensive rebounding at all (they’re dead last in defensive rebounding percentage), they’d easily be a top-5 defensive unit. 

How Rudy Gobert and Chet Holmgren are changing geography

Gobert and Holmgren’s influence starts in the restricted area. Teams are shooting 1.7 percentage points worse in the restricted area against the Thunder this season compared to last season and 1.8 percentage points worse against the Timberwolves. While these are small percentages, it’s not the field goal percentage that matters. It’s the field goal attempts. 

30.3 percent of all the field goal attempts the Thunder allowed came in the restricted area last season, but that figure is now down to 27.5 percent. The Timberwolves, unsurprisingly, have seen an even larger decrease in restricted area attempts, going from 31.5 percent in 2022-23 to 25.9 percent this season. 

The average restricted area attempt nets a team 1.32 points. Even with Gobert and Holmgren patrolling the paint 30 minutes a night, the Thunder are surrendering 1.27 points per shot, and the Timberwolves are at 1.28. The silly adage, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” actually rings true on defense. It’s better to prevent a shot in the first place than have to contest it.

The effect Gobert and Holmgren have had for their defenses starts in the paint and extends outwards. It has allowed the rest of the defense to contest shots on the 3-point line and in the mid-range with more fervor, as both teams have allowed teams to score at below-average efficiency in those regions. Every restricted area shot is efficient, but the same isn’t true for all shots. 

Last season, based on league-average shooting efficiency in each region of the court, the Timberwolves and Thunder’s expected points per field goal attempt (xPTS/FGA) allowed were nearly identical to their actual points allowed per field goal attempt (PTS/FGA). They both allow 1.10 xPTS/FGA, while their actual PTS/FGA came in at 1.09 and 1.10. 

This season, they’ve completely flipped the script. The Timberwolves xPTS/FGA clocks in at 1.07, but their PTS/FGA is a sensational 0.99. Meanwhile, the Thunder have an xPTS/FGA of 1.09 and a PTS/FGA of 1.04. 

The Timberwolves and Thunder have orchestrated sizable defensive turnarounds by anchoring their defense to elite rim protectors. With Gobert and Holmgren restricting the restricted area, it forces opponents to take less efficient and more contested shots, creating a double dose of inefficiency. Whether or not the Thunder or Timberwolves can make deep playoff runs remains to be seen, but if they fall short, chances are it won’t be because of their defenses. 

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