The smartest way to predict a Minnesota Timberwolves season over the past fifteen years was to examine the roster, coaching staff and ownership. After an honest assessment, subtract four to five wins for incompetence, you can then make a prediction.
The strategy was challenged by a surprising outlier last year. The 2021-22 Wolves proved to be better than the hype. They took advantage of the franchise’s poor reputation and attacked their opponents with a defense and offense that scrambled and choked them. A pack mentality and attitude that was snarling with respect for the Timberwolves brand, as well as a defense that made it difficult for their opponents to get past them, and an offense that made smart shots at an alarming rate. The Wolves were third in the NBA’s 30-team NBA in blocks and steals. They also generated more turnovers than any other defense in the league, while scoring the most points at the fastest pace. Vegas had placed the over/under for their win total at 35.5, and they won 46.
Those Wolves are now a fond recollection. They have been replaced by a greater ambition born from a bold, contradictory gambit. These changes have been profound. While minority owners Marc Lore, Alex Rodriguez, and Glen Taylor need to make another payment in 2023, their greed and flair are now enviable. This is evident in the klieg lights when they stole Denver Nuggets top executive Tim Connelly’s salary. Connelly was installed as the Wolves president for basketball operations. He quickly diddled with the culture and raised expectations, executing a blockbuster deal that pointed a strong middle finger to the notion that big men no longer dominate the modern NBA.
Connelly gave up Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley to get the elite pick-and-roll finishing, defensive rebounding, and rim protection of Rudy Gobert. Also, Connelly included Walker Kessler, a highly-hyped backcourt prospect, and Leandro Bolmaro as a draftee.
Connelly’s massive package of future and current assets in return for one player initially drew skepticism from the rest of the league. The Wolves’ perception that they were overpaid is fueled by the still-legitimate concern about Karl-Anthony Towns and Gobert, both of whom have been centers throughout their careers in a league that favors outside shooting and rapid ball movement.
After the shock subsided, people began to see what Connelly hadn’t lost. The Wolves’ maximum-salary Wolves players Towns and D’Angelo Russell, as well as two highly-coveted third-year players on rookie contracts (guard Anthony Edwards, and forward Jaden McDaniels) remained on board. This is the group Gobert will join, to make the Timberwolves’ most talented starting line-up in Timberwolves history.
A sparkling bench is a must
Can these talents be combined? Can the NBA’s top defensive center (Gobert), and the league’s most talented offensive center (reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, Denver) share the floor in an arrangement that enhances the sum of their exceptional skills or does redundancy reduce their value? It is a frustrating fact that, after three weeks of practice, five preseason games and more than five games, this question has not been answered.
The two large men shared the floor last week for one practice and one short shoot-around. Their relationship was interrupted by Gobert’s participation at the EuroBasket tournament for France and then KAT’s illness that temporarily landed him in hospital. He had to lose weight and spend more time with his teammates.
KAT was able to recover and Gobert got his batteries recharged after a long and intense tournament. The rest of the Wolves shined. Fans (and media) were able to take comfort from Connelly’s success, despite not being able to provide any tangible feedback.
All the backup bigs, wings, and guards thrived. Naz Reid, Nathan Knight, and Luka Garza waged a fierce competition to see who would be allowed playing time in the event of injury or foul trouble for KAT and/or Gobert. Luka Garza was also awarded a two-way contract that included his own upstart skills. Taurean Prince and Kyle Anderson, both swing forwards, displayed complementary skills and shared veteran stability. Bryn Forbes and Austin Rivers are protected by Ditto, but it was clear that Jaylen Needell would need to play in the backcourt.
The Wolves defeated a Lakers team featuring future Hall of Famer Lebron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook. Optimism was high after the win. Minnesota was unbeaten in four road matches, and the “Northern Heights” tandem was going to finally test their teamwork in Friday’s home game against Brooklyn.
Both ends of the court were filled with fear. The central problem of the Gobert/KAT pair was how Towns could go out and cover opposing players on the perimeter consistent with his duties as a power forward. This was made more difficult by his uncertainty in his decision-making and his limited foot speed. His teammates were often compromised in defense because he was frequently caught in no man’s land.
The uber-talented starting players mostly forgot the basic principles of Chris Finch’s offense – move the balls and move without them. There was a lot of isolation hero ball from Ant and DLo and a reliance upon Gobert getting involved in pick-and rolls, which are usually his forte, but less when the play-type has been telegraphed.
Finch told the media after the game that he expected the first pair of bigs to be “clunky” and criticised the team for failing to execute the offense with the kind of natural flow that feeds multiple scorers sharing the court. Forbes stated that the main focus of the team’s next practice was sharpening its defense after an off-day on Saturday.
Wake up call
I was one of those who saw the demoralizing loss to Brooklyn as a wake up call. Normal circumstances would not allow me to consider that Gobert has spent very little time with KAT and that KAT is required to make significant defensive adjustments and log time in a position that is not suitable for him. Finch had already predicted that this pair of bigs would be a work-in-progress defense pairing. He said in an interview last month that he would watch and wait to see how opponents attack before tweaking his plan.
Finch did not consider KAT’s health and the resulting near-total absence of practice that the bigs would have to endure. Even the basics of their defense together aren’t up to par.
It was encouraging to see some cooperation during preseason games, when the Wolves played a combination of a drop coverage strategy with Gobert at the center and a high wall scheme with KAT at the center. The rest of the roster is diversifying and will eventually be able to succeed in the hybrid drop/high-wall schemes that Finch hopes Finch will implement once they become more familiar.
However, this does not change the fact that the Wolves are at risk of being beaten by Gobert or KAT on defense and that standings games are expected to arrive in just hours on a three-weekly basis.
This is one time period. Another reason is that Gobert’s contract is for four years and KAT has a deal that extends one year beyond that. Together, they will receive more than $400 million over that time. This financial commitment requires that they form a partnership that allows them to log significant time together.
We will know more soon. However, it seems likely that Gobert or KAT will be staggered less frequently at the beginning of the season. They will practice together and work on their play, as well as review the film from the first games. Connelly’s abundant off-season picks have given us solid options for both bigs to operate at the center.
It will take some trial and error to learn how KAT or Gobert can be best synchronized. This will most likely lead to Wolves being short-sighted. The early schedule offers some flexibility, with plenty of home games and lesser foes. Sixteen of the seven first games, five of which are at home, are against teams who have lost their stars or are rebuilding. These include three games against San Antonio and two against Oklahoma City. Utah is the other. You could pencil wins for each of these games if you spread them over the course the season. Young squads still have hope, so a few upsets are possible.
The Wolves’ 2022-23 season will focus on the KAT/Gobert storyline. There are many other issues, hopes, and concerns that will be fascinating to see as the team’s march towards the playoffs unfolds. These are the bullet-point versions in order to keep things concise.
An offense-dominated flow
The Wolves can have a top-five offense if they can channel their scoring talent. Players will need to follow Finch’s principles for ball movement and ball movement without the ball, while tailoring their game towards what they are best at.
Gobert is a master at picking up pick-and-rolls. He eats buckets right next to the rim and is therefore more efficient. Nearly 80% (41%) of his shots are made within three feet of a hoop. He has been the leader in effective field goal percentage for the NBA the past two seasons, despite not making one three-pointer. Finch and KAT want to unlock more aspects of Gobert’s offense, but for some reason. Why fix a shot mixture that’s not broken? Rudy’s threat of rolling to the rim attracts defenders. The Wolves also have many other players who are looking for scoring opportunities.
Ant is an example of a similar situation. Ant has been touting his midrange skills lately. Finch is giving proper pushback in this instance. Ant can dominate the most valuable shots in the game, three-pointers and drives to the rim, if he has more focus and experience. Although the drives and treys have been spectacular so far, the results show a low level of efficiency. He will improve his ball movement skills by learning how to move without the ball, especially in transition.
Ant’s half-court sets require DLo to dribble less, and incite more. He is the point guard for the team and has the wonderful option of running pick-and roll with Gobert, serving to KAT for an over-the-break three, feeding Ant for a drive in the weak side slot, passing to McDaniels for corner treys or baseline drives, or burying a jumper. Finch’s offensive style allows him to play faster, but it is counter-productive.
KAT needs to be reminded that his incrediblely precise shot from any position on the court is his meat and potatoes. The gravy is the passing.
Connelly’s controversial gambit blew away all conventional wisdom and generated a lot of controversy. It will be interesting to see how the Wolves do this season, which is something that very few of the core players have ever experienced. KAT and Gobert have been labeled as performers who fail in the playoffs. They are now the focus of an experiment which will be developed through trial and error.
Finch mentioned the importance PatBev played in convincing a young team that it was possible. No one on the current roster has that combination of feistiness, gravitas and hustle – just like Vanderbilt’s relentless passion and hustle.
The bottom line is that the Wolves will face higher expectations and greater scrutiny than ever before. Their primary chemists have left, so their top two players must learn to work together while still knowing that they have much to prove. The lack of chemistry could make it harder for even the best roster depth. Veteran players like Forbes and Rivers who have made their way to the rotations on deep playoff teams will face stiff competition for minutes. Finch’s ability to coach will be tested.
The phrase “wait till next year” is often used to justify failure and keep hope alive when there is not enough evidence. The Wolves’ team continuity is remarkable. Except for DLo’s expiring contract this season, all members of the starting line-up are locked up for at most four years (ant and McDaniels taking lucrative contract extensions).
Even though the Wolves struggle and their resilience falters, there is still a high ceiling on the bottom line performance (barring any injuries or scandal). The Jazz were never below 10 th in defensive efficiency during Gobert’s nine-year tenure in Utah – Gobert’s rebounding and rim protection are so good that they have never been lower than that. Even if the Wolves aren’t able to maximize their scoring prowess, Ant and DLo bogart possessions, and KAT dishes Rudy the trey instead, it’s hard to see this roster finishing below 10sup>th in offensive efficiency – last season, they were 7th due to Vando’s awkward shooting, and PatBev’s clanking jumpers.
Too much money has been spent on Rudy and KAT for the organization to not figure it out. If they don’t succeed, the worst-case trap door is to trade veterans and rebuild around Ant McDaniels. However it turns out, year 2 of the grand experiment is likely to be more successful and will certainly be interesting.
The period of peak preseason optimism, the day between defeating the Lakers and the fiasco with the Nets, was when I predicted on Dane Moore’s podcast that the Wolves win 51 games and finish as the fourth seed in Western Conference. This would give them home court advantage for the first round playoffs.
However, the magnitude of the learning curve that I saw last Friday night has scared me. It’s hard to believe that this team will win below 44 wins, and be involved in the play in series which involves teams who finish 7 th through 11 _th in standings. However, that’s three to four wins less than I expected for them (barring any catastrophic circumstances).
Is it an overreaction? Hopefully. However, 52 wins and a 3rd seed are a lower ceiling than I originally thought. 49 or 50 wins seem like a comfortable zone in which to bump them up to 5th or 6th.
Now, I would describe my feelings about the 2022-23 Timberwolves in “partly cloudy.” This is because a sunny day can be cloudier than a sunny day.
The Wolves’ roster has significant solar power, or talent. This should keep the Wolves faithful happy for most of the season. There will be some shade and maybe even rain during the parade. It won’t last long, as the forecast is cloudy. However, it will clear almost immediately with a new calendar.