: Great talent does not translate into on-court success
The October trash can is full of smug assumptions.
It was to be a month filled with mostly charming intrigue. Unsettling by the very nature Minnesota Timberwolves’ roster, it was nevertheless a fun show that served as a prelude to a boffo 2022/23 NBA season.
The temperatures dropped to normal-season basketball temperature, so the tall trees of Karl Anthony Towns or Rudy Gobert would display their leaves. Even if their colors clashed it would make a beautiful scene. Their blooms would be complemented with a rich supporting cast. The once-sibling saplings now have their own growing circumferences and long tentacles. This gives them their own unique maturations. The sound roots and strong fiber of this magnificent forestry experiment in hoops management will not be affected by the cold of winter or the heat from the competition for the playoff spots through spring.
Or so it was presumed.
It was assumed that the Wolves would have some difficulty coordinating their skills and rhythms, and thus figuring out how to work together. It was assumed that their October foes were sufficiently flawed and fallible to be able to fall prey almost every time, even during the feeling-out period.
The Wolves have not yet figured it out. They used less-preferred and survival-oriented fallback strategies on both ends of court during Sunday’s loss against the San Antonio Spurs.
They rarely used, and failed to use, the principles of ball movement and movement with the ball, which Coach Chris Finch first preached to them on offense. The majority of the points scored by the starters came first from Anthony Edwards and then Towns, who used their individual strengths to score in isolation.
Defense: The plan to use drop coverage when KAT, Gobert and Gobert share the court but focus on “high-wall coverage” when Gobert is sitting and KAT slides to the center – and ultimately execute a combination of both the two schemes – has become increasingly unworkable.
In September, Finch answered my question with a rueful laugh. “A lot zone and lots of switching.” Recently, the Wolves have been doing a lot more switching and a lot more zone.
After Sunday’s game, Dane Moore, beat writer for Zoom, asked Finch whether he would like to keep this level of switching and zone or peel it back.
Finch replied, “Right now, we are doing the game’s needs.” We wanted to play zone. They have certain lineups that don’t allow for a lot of shooting, so we had to slow down their offense. The switching was the same. Right now, we don’t have enough physicality for the defense on the ground.”
Despite making compromises and stubborn player departures from their preferred template, they managed a 4-3 October record (-1 so far in November), while being favored by no less than 5.5 points every game in what was considered a very forgiving schedule. Even though they were able to defeat their less-talented opponents, their efforts and execution often fell short of what their opponents displayed.
There is still room for rationalization. Six of those six games were against San Antonio (three time), Oklahoma City (twice), and Utah. These were teams that were not expected even to make it to the 10-team “play in” games in the Western Conference’s 15-team division. The Spurs are now 2-1 against the Wolves, and 3-1 against all other teams; OKC lost twice against Minnesota and has won three of the four other games; the win over the Wolves was only one of five wins for Utah against two losses.
There are also reasons to be optimistic. There have been some positive signs, despite the booms, busts, and crashes of immaturity. Four players younger than 23 have shown improvement, including Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, as well as Jaylen Nowell, forward-center Naz Reid, and Edwards. Gobert has proven why he is a top defensive rebounder as well as a rim protector. KAT is hard at work and trying to adapt to a completely different court. Taurean Prince will be reviving his sparkplug second season in 2021-22, while Jordan McLaughlin is the Wolves’ gold standard for value and efficiency.
This talented roster hasn’t lived up to its parts. Some of it is trying to combine two centers into a frontcourt that complements each other at a time when there is a lot of emphasis on space (three-pointers, drive-and-kick plays and drive-and-kick plays) as well as pace (small quick lineups pushing for transition). Some of it is due to the immaturity of the above-mentioned consequential youth on the roster. Due to injury, J-Mac and forward Kyle Anderson are sometimes absent.
The problems go deeper than that. These Wolves have not proven to be both quick and rugged. Each vice is made worse by a lack of both. Finch insists on the need to be more physically active after every game. This is especially true when it comes down to fighting through picks or otherwise controlling the ball handler. In the Gobert deal, Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt, who were both best at it last year, were sent to Utah. Ant and D’Angelo Russell (point guard) have not shown enough initiative and grit to solve the problem. McDaniels is a good player, but McDaniels can be prone to foul trouble. KAT is a woefully slow forward, and Gobert belongs in rim protection.
Finch was critical of switching to defense during his first season and a half at the helm. He said it saps accountability for protecting your man. Finch wouldn’t use it unless ineptitude made other methods more effective.
Quickness can be described as equal parts alertness and athleticism, but also as a willingness to put in extra effort. All three of these attributes were absent when San Antonio ran the Wolves off their floor in the first meeting. Abject laziness was the obvious exception. The effort has improved since that embarrassing incident. KAT and Gobert’s relative lack of athletic speed when they share the floor has been somewhat mitigated by the Wolves de-emphasizing offensive rebound to get back sooner in transition defense. They were also shut out on offensive glass in their second meeting with Spurs, their only victory in all three matchups. Ant’s defensive weakness is this. However, Gobert has also been known to have lapses.
It may be a misplaced emphasis on defensive woes, considering that the Wolves are currently ranked fifth in defensive efficiency and 22 2nd for offensive efficiency. The list of opponents they have faced so far may be partly to blame. The Spurs are the only team that is more successful in offense (11 th) and defense (21 st). You also have the massive offense/defense splits for the Thunder (26th/6th), the Lakers (30th/2nd), and the Jazz (18th/8th).
On offense, the lack of firepower beyond the three point arc is what stands out. Comparing to last year, the Wolves are now in second place in terms of number of attempts at three points. They also have a drop in accuracy from three-point accuracy from last year to 26 th (31.8%) and 12 th (38.5%) respectively. KAT’s clanking is the biggest factor here, with a decrease in percentage from 41% to 34% and inability to replace three-point specialist Malik Beasley’s volume and accuracy. Only Prince and Naz have improved their accuracy over last season. Ant is now at 34.5%. DLo and Nowell are down to below 30%.
Other factors that hinder offensive prowess, efficiency, and effectiveness include a preponderance in hero-ball isolations at cost of ball movement and energy spent trying to integrate Gobert into the flow while not siphoning KAT’s versatility and accuracy.
Unpleasing to Watch
This should not be less important than the Wolves’ mediocre win-lost record. However, Minnesota isn’t playing a fun brand of hoops this season. The Wolves of 2021-22 won through their defensive hustle and unselfish offense. They forced foes to turnovers and then scored on transition points. The Wolves then tossed the ball from the arc to reach the rim for high efficiency looks in the half court. Ant and KAT were constantly dazzling with buckets as they flew around protecting each other.
If you feel discouraged by the Wolves’ current operations, you might consider Finch’s ironic situation.
Finch was the best Wolves coach, a season that was unexpectedly successful and showcasing his unique coaching skills. He is the one who invented the high-wall, scrappy offense that made KAT a solid cog and elevated his star’s confidence. He preferred quick ball movement to slow ball movement, in contrast to the league’s numbing diet consisting of pick-and rolls and predictable isos. You need space and speed? The Wolves were the last to pack as many possessions and made more threes than anyone else.
Teams that play like last year’s Wolves could be a potential problem for this year’s Wolves.
Finch declared that Gobert was a “perfect and seamless” fit for the Wolves at the introductory press conference following the July trade. This was one of the most shocking things I heard in this momentous offseason. He spoke about how Gobert’s defensive rebounding skills and rim protection gave the Wolves something they desperately needed in 2021-22.
There is much to admire about a player like Gobert. The fact that Tim Connelly, president of basketball operations refused to trade McDaniels to Finch’s favorite McDaniels only strengthened Connelly’s opinion and outlook on the trade. It was difficult to believe that Finch was being a soldier in the Wolves organization, with his exaggerated talk about how Gobert would fit in alongside the rest of the roster.
This philosophical dissonance is now awkwardly pressing into the forefront. Finch’s ability to communicate clearly with players and media is one of his greatest strengths. Finch likes to play fast, with a scrambling defense, and an offense that emphasizes quick ball-and player movement, often at cost of the pick-and roll. KAT and Gobert are both used to playing at a slower speed, so Gobert’s game pace is almost slower than the Wolves played last season. Gobert excels at picking-and-roll finishing; putbacks on offensive rebound and pick-and roll finishes have made up his entire offensive contribution over his career.
Finch has always placed a high priority on rim protection, and Gobert is able to deliver. Finch places a high value on pressure on the ball-handler. The departure of rugged defenders, as well as the shifting between drop and high wall schemes, have greatly reduced this pressure. Finch is now leaning more towards zone and switches, which he doesn’t like, but it is a way to approximate pressure and positioning with less accountability.
Finch, on offense, finally admitted in his postgame Zoom Monday evening that “Right now, we run a lot of pick and roll avec Rudy on the court.” It may be excessive. Drop coverage is a common practice among teams and has caused us to get a bit agitated. I would like to see more ball movement and less pick-and-roll at times. There are many opportunities to meet guys and have other options.
Gobert frequently made it clear that he wanted to be more involved with the offensive sets while in Utah. Finch tried to placate that sentiment starting with the July press conference. He talked about Gobert being moved around the floor, as well as posting him up more often while he seals his man low. KAT has chosen the mantra and announced that he will “unlock” Gobert’s offensive potential. KAT deserves credit for keeping his promise with a variety of creative dimes for his fellow big.
However, Gobert’s offensive game is difficult when Ant, KAT, and DLo are all on the floor. Ant responded by saying that he would work on his midrange. Instead of focusing on what isn’t important or should not be, focus on what is. Gobert is known for his unreliability in handling the ball and his poor shooting from beyond 18 inches. Gobert is not an efficient scorer, as he cannot receive the ball and try to score when another player is in the way. This should not be considered a priority over the inclusion of dynamic scorers using Finch’s proven offense principles.
It’s too early to “blow up”
The Gobert/KAT experiment is not worth the effort. As I’ve said repeatedly, the Gobert trade was costly and time-consuming. It is imperative that all efforts be made to find a way for the best offensive and defensive centers to coexist. The trade not only locks in the bigs, but also two young emerging talents in Ant McDaniels and McDaniels for the next at least four years. The process is currently eight games in.
The Wolves are now 4-4 against a weak schedule. They have moved up in class with Phoenix (again), Milwaukee and Memphis all on the agenda over the next two week. The clamor for change is loud unless the Wolves make significant improvements or find a way to compete at a higher level.
There are two possible changes that could be made. They would elevate J-Mac or de-emphasise, maybe even scapegoat, DLo. First, we want to simplify the play of the second unit that has been providing the most dynamic and Finch-friendly performances this season. It would be a small ball carnival with Naz at center, Prince as power forward, Ant as small forward, Nowell as shooting guard and J-Mac serving at the point guard. It is also known as the Iowa Ants unit because three of its members were the ones who first learned their teamwork in Iowa’s G-league.
This quintet would have regular minutes, which would cause havoc in the current rotations. Finch would be forced to spend more time with Gobert and KAT together and very little stroking of their play. There could be some tweaks or staggered minutes for Iowa Ants’ quintet depending on matchups and foul trouble. This is all part of a search for synergy. Finch said that he was reluctant to let go of the “fly around mentality” of last year’s team at the beginning of the season. This is exactly what is happening right now. It will take a drastic response to restore it.
Finch could replace DLo by J-Mac in his starting lineup if he doesn’t want the rotations to be completely muddled for the Iowa Ants. This would improve the speed and ball movement of the starters. J-Mac may not be as scoring threat on the pick-and roll as DLo, but he is a skilled passer with excellent timing and Gobert’s elite finishing ability would give the play gravity. KAT might be given more catch-and shoot opportunities by J-Mac if he has more J-Mac.
J-Mac is able to be bullied off the bounce by DLo, but it is difficult for Gobert to stop the opponent’s dribble penetration. J-Mac, despite being small, is the most disruptive defender on the perimeter. Finch was asked Monday night how J-Mac, who had been out with a sore ankle for two of the previous games, was missed. Finch responded, “We missed J-Mac’s spark and competitiveness. He won a lot of 50-50 balls, and the things that we were beating at, at times.
Finch likely thought about the half-dozen long rebound that bounced on to the floor before being cuffed by a Spur. J-Mac is known for his ability to get to these balls. J-Mac’s ability to get to those balls is why he not only has the highest offensive efficiency of any team member, scoring 124.5 points per 100 possessions while he’s on the court but also the Wolves’ best defensive efficiency with only 97.3 points per hundred possessions when he plays. Although it’s a small sample, J-Mac was also a popular net rating darling last season. When he checks in, good things seem to occur. Finch noted that many players wanted to play on the same court as him last season, and the coach was unsure who would take his place.
Time to demote DLo?
It would be difficult to see DLo’s move to the second unit other than a demotion. This would have a ripple effect on the roster. DLo has had to deal with PatBev and Ricky Rubio, who have encroached on his point guard duties or his playing time in the past two seasons. This makes it easy for him to be jealous of his standing. He is also in a contract year.
His best options are better defense, ball movement and shot selection. But, most importantly, he can make quicker decisions that eliminate the cat-and mouse instinct that is his signature style. It’s a big task. It is a difficult task to remove DLo from the starting line-up. This would have a significant impact on the Wolves’ fortunes throughout the season.
The status of the 2022-23 Timberwolves is likely to be bleak unless there is a steady improvement in the status status quo and if they don’t employ at least some of the exciting, successful basketball that was played last season, it will be difficult for them to stay relevant.