The Minnesota Timberwolves’ performance in the first four games this season of the NBA 2022-23 season has been unlikable. They have displayed an unsavory mixture of arrogance and indolence, disrespecting the game that provides them with their livelihood.
This is the franchise’s most talented roster. They are assuming supremacy without having to put in the effort, mental focus, physical exertion or generosity of spirit necessary to do so. They have created an identity similar to an Ivy League graduate who was just elected executive vice president of their daddy’s business.
This team’s malaise is so widespread that their inevitable victory was Monday night’s fourth game at Target Center. A San Antonio opponent with half the Wolves’ skill and pedigree made them look like they were a lot more competent than them. They played a simple mix of fundamentals and sweat equity. The final score of 115-106 was a fake face-saving worthy to be mastered by a mortician. After the Spurs increased their double-digit halftime lead to 34 points, the game was over. The boos of the disgruntled hometown crowd poured in with more passion than the players.
Chris Finch, head coach, said that “They (emasculated] us in every possible” during the post-game press conference. They out-ran, out-competed, and out-physicalized us in every possible way. It was unacceptable and ugly.”
Finch later said that Finch had kicked his ass and felt it. The first four words were undeniably true. However, the third and fourth sentences could be wishful thinking. This would mean that the Wolves have to be able to absorb something that was obvious since the beginning.
It takes a lot of resolve and endurance to “feel” a butt-kicking. This is not a guarantee for the 2022-23 Timberwolves team that has been physically and mentally obstinately soft.
The “soft” schedule is not as soft as it seems
The Wolves were blessed with a very compliant slate of games this season by the NBA. Six of the seven first contests are against rebuilding team that won’t be expected to reach the “play in game” required for finishing ninth or tenth in a fifteen-team conference. The other is against the dysfunctional, winless Lakers. Nine of the first twelve games will be played at home. It was a great opportunity for the Wolves to get familiar with new faces without too many losses. They also acquired Rudy Gobert, an elite defender, and up-styling their style of play.
As with many aspects of this season, the Wolves took their scheduling privilege as a given. They raced to a 13 point halftime lead against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but lost it when they suffered a third quarter lapse. OKC scored 19-2 in the third quarter. This put them in serious doubt until the end. Finch commented that they had “gotten outcompeted on glass (going after rebounds)” after the game. We need to be more physically active.
A pattern was established over the three first games: The Wolves start out strong, then get too comfortable and fall apart in the third quarter. Finally, they find themselves in a tight game against an inferior team who has outworked their team. In the press conference after the game, Finch discusses the flaws of the Wolves, which are most likely related to their inability to focus and work hard.
The Wolves managed to win the season opener with 41 points in the first quarter, but they lost the lead in the second half and were defeated at home by the rebuilding Utah Jazz team in overtime. Finch again lamented Finch’s soft play style. When Finch was asked how the Jazz allowed themselves to make so many three-pointers, he replied, “I think we could have been tighter on them.” We were unable to get enough separation on screens. We are not physically strong enough. We have to get to know guys, and they have to feel us more when they handle (the ball) or are trying to navigate a screen.
Finch has also been critical of the “sticky” ball on offense, specifically the fact that players “not trust in their ball movement.” This is especially evident when the game gets tighter and the stakes get higher in the second half. The Wolves have a lot of talented and prolific scorers so a “hero ball mentality” takes root.
Finch stated that trust is essential to making the right play after the Utah loss. After the Utah loss, Finch stated that when someone calls their number or runs a set (play), they feel they need to make the game, not the play that leads to the play. Many guys desire to be closers, but talent is what makes it so you must let the game dictate how the play will unfold.
Finch used the term “sticky” quite a bit in last season’s game, and even more in the first few of this season. It is polite and patient way to say “selfish”. Even if it is true that you believe you are the best person to take control of the game – and even though you do succeed – it can be a selfish approach which can lead to poor teamwork and poor connectivity among star scorers.
The Wolves’ first trip to Oklahoma City on Sunday was not without its “sticky” moments. Another victory was marked by red flags. The Wolves arrived in town during an off-day and OKC arrived after a difficult game at high altitude Denver. Shai Gilgeous Alexander, the Thunder’s top offensive player and who scored 32 points in their season opener, was unable to play due to injury. Josh Giddey was their second-best offensive player and he left the game midway through the third period with a sprained ankle.
The Wolves managed to hold onto their nine-point lead at the halftime, despite a slow start to the second period. Finch had to change his lineup in the fourth quarter due to foul trouble on Karl-Anthony Towns, a back spasm that has kept forward Kyle Anderson off the bench, and Finch’s decision to use a smaller line-up of guard Anthony Edwards, four reserves, and a stark difference in energy, teamwork, and ball movement. The lead ballooned and the pace was sped up.
Finch didn’t want to impede his team’s progress and mess with their player rotations so early in the season. The first unit is still in development, but it’s improving. He said that he thought it was great tonight. “It is all a learning curve right now as we go through these different units, and the guys playing with Rudy,” he said.
It is far from “great”
However, the Wolves’ farcical performance against the Spurs on the next night was not conducive to such romanticizations. The stakes are now different.
Tim Connelly, the new president of basketball operations, went all in to make the Wolves a contender for the title. He made a bold, against-the trends trade for Gobert. This gave the Wolves two All Star big men in a league that emphasizes outside shooting and fast ball movement. This gamble has obvious drawbacks. It will take time to find out how, where and in some cases, if this vast talent base can be combined. The players have responded with an infuriating lassitude, which could complicate, and even sabotage this discovery process. It is at the most being delayed.
Let’s get specific.
Karl-Anthony Towns, a multi-all star who recently signed a super-max contract, is now a Super-Max. He will be entering his eighth NBA season, and next month will mark his 28 th birthday. This is the chronology of his prime. He spoke out in front of media on the opening day of the NBA season. It’s not the time to be average, it’s the time to be great.
He then goes out and indulges himself in the same immature histrionics he has been guilty of throughout his career.
KAT’s plan to “unlock” Gobert’s offensive potential can be a positive thing. He then goes out of the way to give Gobert a bunch of nifty dimes, mixed in with some missed connections. KAT is a great marksman and it can be a positive thing to try and score. However, the 17 shots he took during the overtime against Utah and the emphasis on feeding Gobert, along with the 17 shots that he took in the fourth quarter, get in the way Finch’s belief in trusting ball movement and increasing offensive efficiency through the simple pass to an open man.
KAT’s confusion and late defense rotations will be forgiven. He is being asked to play a position that he is not suited for and for which the team is overall ill-prepared. It is not possible to give the same flexibility to D’Angelo Russell and Edwards in the backcourt.
Finch criticized Ant and DLo after the San Antonio match for not instigating more offense.
“Our backcourt needs to open up to the offense. Too much “come down and fight the teeth of defense,” not enough movement in the offense, not enough thrust. It is just a matter of waiting, and it becomes very one-dimensional.
Ant and DLo have distinct flaws that hinder their effectiveness as defense. DLo’s weaknesses are his inability to move his feet and refusal to do physical tasks. He is a skilled student of the game, and a good detective of play-calls for opposing offenses. His communication skills are better than his body’s in deterring the events that are about to happen. He is often a matador on straight drives and a casualty in pick-and-roll defense.
Ant is a determined on-ball defender who can take on high-profile scorers, particularly when they present a formidable challenge. He is charismatic and honest, admitting that he is less involved when his man is less-respected or when the offball reaction is more important in the possession. He is 21 years old. He is being hailed as the face and inevitable All Star of the franchise. His immature faults can be a problem for his team’s half court defense. Ant’s buckets are not attuned to defensive gaps near him, or by not retaining his concentration during a defensive possession. Those points count the exact same way as Ant’s sparkling buckets when he dances his way through the lane for the layup. He still has a poor understanding of the context and requirements for team defense in year 3. He must be capable of more than just being sporadically competent if he wants to be great and “make the leap”.
After a great first game, Jaden McDaniels is back to his old habits of picking up fouls, despite not having to guard much larger and more powerful players in the frontcourt. McDaniels was matched with Devin Vassell, a wing player who is, in many ways, his doppelganger, against San Antonio. Vassell won the match – he was faster, stronger and more confident than McDaniels, as well as Laurie Markkanen, the smaller forward, against McDaniels in the Wolves’ loss to Utah. Many Wolves observers, including myself, have repeatedly praised McDaniels for being an underrated player with incredible upside. This argument is losing some starch.
Finch should also be held accountable for the early woes.
Chris Finch must examine whether his approach to the revamped roster is working. Finch believes in “letting the guys figure it out.” His communication skills and those of his staff have helped to build great relationships with his players. There is no Patrick Beverly who has both the moxie to guide teammates and the gravitas, nor Jarred Vanderbilt who inspires with his relentless hustle. Finch may need to be more effective in motivating a team with toxic levels of self-assurance.
It is a delicate balance between when to stick to the course and when you need to let go of a roster in constant flux. A team with enormous talent needs to learn how to work together. The lack of effort, which Finch has described as “want to” a few times, has made it difficult to distinguish between when the schemes are not right for the team and when players are undermining them.
Finch was also a bit sloppy about Gobert’s progress. He knew he would rest Gobert in preseason, and stated that he wanted to see the opposition’s attack on the “two bigs.” lineup before he plotted his responses.
The bottom line is that the Wolves defense has not made the expected progress due to insufficient player effort, insufficient preparation time, and insufficient practice time. Finch has been very positive about the zone defense during the last two games. In an interview with me last month, Finch stated that more switching and zone would be the backup position in case a defensive line featuring Rudy and KAT was not able to mesh well.
This is not a time to panic, but it is a time when team members may be susceptible to overreaction. We are now four regular season games into what was supposed to be a minimum of a four-year experiment.
It is interesting that Finch, when asked Monday night by me to describe the personality and team members of his team, responded with “Timid.” We are still trying to find our way, but it isn’t working for us right now.
This timidity can have a perverse side. It was evident in Monday night’s haughty, disinterested and offensive performance by the Wolves. While we don’t need to overreact, this should be a turning point. This team must understand the level of disrespect they are creating. It’s not the time to be great or good. It’s time to be honest, both to the game as well as to those who watch it. We can then get a better understanding of the pros and con of this grand experiment, which has been largely ignored.