The Wolves are Loaded

The Timberwolves are loaded.  

Whatever one thinks or believes about how they came to this point, there is no escaping the basic reality. It’s a sentence that has rarely ever in history been able to be said with a straight face. While 2004 was a great team, it did not have major preseason hype – Cassell and Sprewell were getting older, and it was not clear they’d mesh as amazingly-well as they did. The rest of KG’s teams were either in the “super exciting, but still too young” or “My God, Kevin Garnett needs a supporting cast already” buckets.  

Nobody was really saying “The Timberwolves are loaded” – not that I can recall, anyway.  

When Thibs got Jimmy, there was a ton of excitement and big expectations. I certainly had them. That moment might even rival this one for generating preseason hype, but I think this one deserves a slight edge.

The Rudy Gobert Trade was the major NBA event of this past offseason. It is uncommon for a player as good as Gobert to be traded long before his contract is set to expire. It is uncommon for a team as far from title contention as the Wolves have been to send out a whole bunch of unprotected first round draft picks. 

When the news broke, my reaction was probably a common one amongst Wolves fans: Major shock, followed by a brief fear that we sent away Jaden McDaniels, followed by a brief sigh of relief that we didn’t send away Jaden McDaniels, followed by a near-cardiac event caused by the number of future first round picks listed on Woj’s next tweet, followed by a gradual realization that the major, immediate, and probably lasting improvement to this roster is likely to make the Wolves one of the league’s best teams for the foreseeable future.  

With the trade and with their other offseason moves, the Wolves should be solid at every position and elite at two or three of them.

PG – D’Angelo Russell
SG – Anthony Edwards
SF – Jaden McDaniels
PF – Karl-Anthony Towns
C – Rudy Gobert

The bench will have some position battles ahead. However it shakes out, there should be ample veteran competence at Chris Finch’s disposal, between Kyle Anderson, Austin Rivers, Taurean Prince, Bryn Forbes, and the holdovers Jordan McLaughlin, Jaylen Nowell, and Naz Reid.

The Timberwolves are loaded? 

Yeah, they really are. 

While ending it right there with a handful of LFG!!! gifs would be fine and reasonable, that would be bad blogging. There are plenty of questions to ask — after all, nobody will have the Wolves as their 2022-23 preseason championship favorite. What might go wrong? What might go right that people expect might go wrong? What else can be said?

Here’s a few to chew on:

  • Can “Twin Towers” work in the current NBA?

Great question! For most teams, the answer seems to be “No,” at least if you’re talking about a primary frontcourt duo that will spend a great deal of time together, including the closing minutes of close games. There are two main problems with playing two oversized big men, only one of which might apply to the Towns-Gobert tandem.

First is offense, and the need to have at least 4 shooters on the floor at all times to maximize efficiency. With KAT establishing a reputation as one of the greatest shooting big men to ever play (Eds note: let’s let him advance a single round in the playoffs before we take this too far. Put some respect on Dirk Nowitzki’s name!!!) this should not be a problem. Gobert will operate as a screen and roll man, occupying the lane when they share the floor. Karl — ***IF HE KEEPS HIS HEAD ON STRAIGHT AND RIDS HIMSELF OF STRAY VOLTAGE*** — will space the floor, knock down threes, and be back on defense. Finch would do well to stagger the two bigs a great deal in the middle of games, so that Karl can punish backup big men in the post when Rudy’s taking a rest. I expect that to happen quite a lot. From an offensive side of the floor perspective, there shouldn’t be anything but optimism for the Towns & Gobert Twin Towers.

Second is defense, and that’s a little different. When teams go with two big men, the defensive challenge is in contesting perimeter shots; especially against quick ball movement that requires dedicated close-outs. Now, I don’t know exactly what Karl weighs right now. Depending on the article you read, he might’ve gained 30 lbs of muscle or lost 120 pounds to illness. But he usually looks pretty much the same, and that’s a pretty big dude; an NBA center’s body more than a modern NBA four man’s. He’s spent most of his career playing the five spot, and most of that time doing so in a “drop” scheme that kept him closer to the basket than to the three-point line. When he shares the floor with Gobert, he’ll have that inverted. Closing out after that final kick-out pass is thankless work — it doesn’t get rewarded with a statistic — but do it enough times, and it gets rewarded with winning, and that brings about the reputation that Towns so desires. #WhatGoesIntoWinning

Do I sound a little like Thibs? Maybe I should move onto the next question. Offense should be great. Defense could be great (Did I just bury the lede? We just added the best defensive player in the league. There is that. Maybe the Wolves will be incredible on defense?) but it requires a full Towns buy-in to the little things, especially the ones that don’t show up in the stat sheet. If Karl can defend the stretch-4 position at even a slightly below average level, the addition of Gobert and the surrounding athleticism of Ant and Jaden should have the makings of a very good, if not elite, defensive ball-club.

  • Just exactly how good is Ant going to be?

This is a big question, maybe the biggest question. It’s just not a terribly interesting one to think about because we can really only wait and see. Will he keep improving as a shooter? Will he open up his passing field of vision and become a primary playmaker? Will he — as Zach Lowe just predicted on his podcast will eventually happen — become an NBA All-Defense performer?

The best answer is: We hope so!

ESPN’s Top 100 was just released, and the local buzz involved the Wolves being the only team with three guys in the Top-25. Ant himself came in at 25th, which was the surprise of story — that’s a high rank for someone yet to really sniff an All-Star appearance. But that’s what people are seeing in him. He’s got the physical tools of a Dwyane Wade or a Kobe Bryant. He’s certainly got charisma and swagger and whatever it is that usually gets summarized as that “it” factor. What’s left now is delivery on that promise, and hopefully a long career of high-level success.

  • What about D’Lo?

The Wolves are coming off of a surprisingly competitive season where all reasonable expectations were exceeded and tons of fun was had along the way. They just made a huge offseason trade that figures to launch them farther up the standings in a competitive Western Conference. Positivity is flowing right now, and it should be.

The D’Angelo Russell situation, however, could be cause for concern. Exactly one year ago, at the 2021-22 Timberwolves Media Day, D’Lo was excited to point out that he was entering a “contract year.” This wasn’t self-evident to me or probably most people listening to him that day, because his contract was not expiring; it just happened to include extension eligibility following the season. Based on his remarks, he was pretty clearly hoping to earn a long-term deal.

That didn’t happen, and that didn’t happen right after Chris Finch benched D’Lo in the final minutes of the final playoff game of the season. While there were aspects of Russell’s season that were somewhat good (in particular, in the early part of the year when he was the team’s plus-minus king over an extended stretch and found a helpful role in a blitzing defense spearheaded by Pat Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt) it was more generally a disappointment. Nobody who analyzes the league objectively is especially high on Russell right now. He’s a poor defender, a streaky shooter, and while his highlight passes are some of the best the world has to offer, he just as often dribbles the air out of the ball and disrupts offensive team chemistry.

For this upcoming season, Russell is as big of a wildcard as the team has. The strategic approach that would maximize Timberwolves success would involve snappy passing decisions that get the ball out of his hands and into KAT’s or Ant’s asap. It would involve sacrificing a little bit of his body on defense for the greater good. These are not the sorts of strategies that got D’Lo his last max contract, however, and they are not the sorts of strategies that would get him another big one. Essentially, he’s facing a complicated incentive structure and it’s anyone’s guess how it plays out.

To put a positive spin on D’Lo’s continued presence on the Timberwolves roster – he adds quite a lot of Regular Season Anthony Edwards Insurance. If Ant sprains an ankle or has a flare-up of knee pain and misses two weeks, D’Lo is more than qualified to effectively sub in as the team’s primary initiator. With Russell grabbing the wheel, they can still compete. That is meaningful. But in the broader question of “just how great can this team be?” there are legitimate reasons to wonder if D’Lo will hold them back.

  • What happens with greater expectations?

This question could be interpreted or answered in any number of ways, but it is maybe the biggest one of all. Last season’s team outperformed expectations and great fun was had. Karl saw the his first reputational bump in years, and made All-NBA. Fans fell even more in love with Ant. Chris Finch’s approval rating was one hundred percent.

Expectations will be higher this year. With Gobert and such a deep lineup overall, pundits are already starting to see the Wolves as a clear-cut playoff team and possibly even a Top 4 seed. This is in a healthier Western Conference that should generate a harder schedule, too.

A concern would be that higher expectations will cause more adversity and the most important people will respond poorly to it. That could be Ant and KAT sharing the spotlight, or KAT and Rudy trying to share the frontcourt, or Chris Finch and a player or two getting tired of each other. It would be the exception to the rule if the Timberwolves entered the ranks of the league’s most competitive teams and did NOT face some sort of personality or locker-room conflict, and it’s impossible to foresee how that shakes out. It is almost too certain a thing to bother worrying about it — like feeling anxiety over the possibility of sub-zero temps in Minneapolis this winter.

With that said, however, the whole premise begins with a positive note; the one at the front of this post. The Timberwolves are loaded. Good basketball is better than bad basketball. If more winning causes more tension at times, we file that away as a “good problem to have.” Additionally, with this Wolves team, I look forward to watching them face the best teams in the league this year. Of course in an 82-game season anything can happen on any night — winning one of those games does not necessarily mean much. But fans of the Wolves understand that when they’ve faced the Sixers or Bucks — teams with physically dominant superstars — they were the underdog, and might even get blown out. With Gobert, that should no longer be the case. As basic a concept as it sounds, a fun part of this season will be watching the biggest matchups in hopes of not only winning the game, but appearing as the better team.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Wolves are Loaded

  1. Andy, ALWAYS love reading your takes. I often share a table with your Dad at the Rochester Quarterbacks Club Monday luncheons. He knows a LOT about basketball and it’s easy to see why you do too.
    I especially agree with your point about KAT punishing 2nd team centers. While I think the first team offense will be VERY good, I think with KAT punishing 2nd team centers they won’t stall out when the first wave of subs come in. I just wonder where this leaves Naz Reid.
    I’m also very impressed with this team’s depth. Boy, did they ever go out and fill the bench with accomplished role players. I can’t ever remember a Wolves team THIS deep.

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