The man tasked with fixing Timberwolves’ woeful defense: assistant coach Joseph Blair
Blair worked directly with Jaden McDaniels and Jarred Vanderbilt last season, two of the team’s best defenders.
Chris Finch was trying to keep his in-game, on-court coaching huddles relatively small last season when he first took over as Timberwolves head coach.
But he soon realized he needed to make room for one more — assistant coach Joseph Blair.
“He had so much great insight, I was like, ‘You have to be out here with us in the game,’ ” Finch said.
So months later, it’s no surprise that Finch pushed to retain Blair for the 2021-22 season, naming him one of his front-of-the-bench assistant coaches.
“JB is going to basically take over running the defense,” Finch said.
That’s a massive undertaking considering the rough product the Timberwolves’ defense was for much of last season, though there were sporadic signs of improvement toward the end of last season. The Wolves’ roster simply isn’t built to be good on that end of the floor. Blair will be charged with making lemonade out of lemons.
If there is a reason for optimism on that end of the floor, it’s this: Blair worked directly with Jaden McDaniels and Jarred Vanderbilt last season, two of the team’s best defenders.
“These are guys who came on like gangbusters at the end of the season. That speaks to the work he did at the player level, so I’m really excited about him,” Finch said. “I think his no-nonsense approach is exactly what we need from our defense right now, because we’re going to have to squeeze a lot more out of us, out of all of us, at that end of the floor. And I think he’s perfectly suited to do it.”
Defense, Blair noted, comes down to effort. His job is to get the necessary buy-in from Timberwolves players to give the effort needed to provide a “good, competitive advantage.”
“You can put in all the schemes in the world, but if they’re not giving them their all, none of them are going to work,” Blair said. “There is no easy way to play defense. It’s all going to come down to effort.”
Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns are all guys who have had their defensive effort and/or commitment questioned at various points in their careers. Sometimes it’s there, other times it is not. So how do you get that consistent effort out of guys? Blair thinks honesty is key.
“There’s constructive ways to motivate someone and there is negative ways to motivate someone. I think my history as a player, I know what it’s like when someone says something in a way that just angers you, and then trying to find the proper ways in which you can motivate the group as a whole, and then individually,” he said. “Everyone has their own things that push them. Sometimes you (tick) someone off enough and they play harder, sometimes you need to really just be as positive as possible with the things they’ve done well, and then they react even better.
“I think finding that balance is always going to be a thing, but I tell everyone, what has really given me my success with coaching is I’m myself with everyone and I’m honest with everyone. I don’t try to blow smoke up no one’s booty when I’m talking to them, and I try to say, ‘Hey, this is what I see. Tell me if I’m wrong.’ And let’s start a dialogue instead of me preaching at them.”
Finch said Blair has “a strong presence” with players. He connects with them, yet isn’t afraid to coach them and hold them accountable.
“They really respond to him. He’s a modern coach in all of his approaches,” Finch said. “We were lucky to have him on staff from an off-set situation from his time in Philly. It was a priority for us to keep him here. If he hit the open market, I think there would be a ton of interest in JB this year.”
Blair noted there isn’t much of a defensive baseline to work off for the Wolves, given how often the lineups were shuffled last season. He’s hopeful the Wolves can sport a top-15 defense, which would be a massive leap from last season, when they finished 30th.
“I think that’s a great place for us to start. At least a good goal for us to work with. Obviously, you look at the teams that really make those long runs, they’re typically top 10 in both offense and defense,” Blair said. “We want to get there moving forward, but we have to be realistic. We just want to take one big stop forward defensively this year, for sure, and I think a big part of that is just trying to encourage effort and accountability on the defensive end, and understand that we are a very powerful offensive team, but we need to be resilient on our defensive end, as well.”
Blair noted the top-end scorers will still score; it’s what they’re paid to do. But the Wolves will continue to adjust throughout the season, hoping they eventually get where they want to go.
“It’s like a dam with holes in it,” Blair said. “You just constantly try to plug those holes as they expose themselves, and hopefully you can fortify your defense in the correct ways.”