Reasons for hope in the new Timberwolves year

The Timberwolves just lost their fifth straight game. At 16 wins and 20 losses, they stand alone in 11th place in the Western Conference. If the season ended right now, they would not even make the 7-through-10 Seed Play-In Tournament. No, they’d be firmly in the draft lottery. Oh, and about that: the Wolves’ 2023 1st Round Pick belongs to the Utah Jazz. So does their 2025 1st Round Pick. And their 2027 1st Round Pick. And, unless it falls in the Top 5, so does their 2029 1st Round Pick. The gamble that new President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly made in trading so much future draft equity for Rudy Gobert is being mocked by national NBA pundits. The local fan base and Timberwolves Twitter community have the pitchforks out.

This constellation of badness arrives right as the year turns over from 2022 to 2023. What better time than New Year’s Eve than to spin this around and consider what reasons remain for hope and maybe even a degree of optimism. In certain respects, the prevailing view is difficult or even impossible to rebut. Some things are truly bad with the Timberwolves and might be unfixable. But some other things are or might become quite good, in both the short and long term. Let’s consider some of them here.

  • Reason #1 for Timberwolves Hope: The offense is nowhere close to fully formed.

The Wolves are currently ranked 19th out of 30 teams in offensive rating – points scored per 100 possessions. For a team that employs Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert (Yes, Rudy Gobert), and some offense-first bench scorers, this is unacceptable. If you’ve been watching most of these games, it is not hard to detect a lack of cohesiveness that, at its worst moments, looks like a group that simply did not practice any offensive sets. So many possessions take half of the 24 allocated seconds to attempt any type of action, and so many possessions end with a 1-on-at-least-1 isolation scoring attempt. Gobert, a pick-and-roll monster over several All-Star seasons in Utah, has not been a seamless fit; on the contrary, his PnR attempts are more sparse than expected and he holds the worst offensive rating amongst regular rotation players. When Rudy sets a ball screen for Edwards, Ant almost never bothers to use it. That’s a base set that absolutely must become a staple. Thus far, it hasn’t.

The team has a turnovers problem, too. Especially in the backcourt, and especially with the most heavily-involved ballhandlers. Ant’s 3.3 turnovers per game ranks 17th in the NBA. Of the 16 players turning the ball over more times than Ant does, only 2 of them average fewer than Ant’s 4.4 assists. (Joel Embiid and Jordan Poole, each of whom averaged 4.3 assists per.) Most players turning the ball over more than 3 times are also assisting 5 to 10 times. D’Angelo Russell is a perennial “bad turnover guy.” His backcourt turnovers involve a toxic blend of “not doing anything aggressive when the ball is coughed up,” and “oh shit, he just fed an immediate 1 on 0 or 2 on 1 fast break the other direction.” His pick-6 pass to Zion the other night was a classic example.

Okay, somewhere there was supposed to be some hope in all of this. Here it is: the Wolves offensive woes have been much more a product of poor chemistry and poor x’s and o’s than they have been a product of insufficient talent. Edwards, despite the high turnovers, continues to ascend into stardom. (He’s going to be right on the fringe of making this year’s All-Star Team, if he keeps producing like he has been.) If they could sharpen up their halfcourt offense, and collect a few more defensive rebounds (or a lot more defensive rebounds?) to spark some transition offense, he’d take another leap. Gobert, despite the issues with fit, is scoring 13.8 points per game (15.8 per 36 minutes) on 67% shooting. These are not his best career numbers, but this is in the ballpark of his Utah production and efficiency. He has not lost athleticism or suffered a career-altering injury. He’s the same guy. He’s huge and hammers a lot of dunks either on his own or finishing lob passes. Jaden McDaniels, perhaps the biggest question mark offensively, is hitting 53% of his shots including 38% of his threes. He’s had several games where he looks like the budding star that Chris Finch sees in him. Karl-Anthony Towns, a somewhat forgotten man amid the recent losing streak (he’s missed the last 15 games with a calf injury) is nothing if not an offensive force. His offensive fit with Rudy was horrific, but hardly given a chance at development. Karl was always going to be a little bit too ambitious for a pure “floor spacer,” role, but Finch seems to appreciate how badly such players are needed.

What generated so much preseason hype and anticipation remains just as true today, after 36 disappointing games: The Timberwolves are loaded with talent. They just need to make it work as a team. If Finch is the offensive guru that he’s often made out to be, he’ll get this on track with more time. Which brings us to the next source of hope…

  • Reason #2 for Timberwolves Hope: Much of their recent struggles are attributable to injuries.

First off, every team is missing guys. That’s just the league now – the best veteran players all but plan to play fewer than 82 games; sometimes way less. With that said, however, this Wolves team has been torn apart by injuries over the last month-plus. While the KAT injury relieved some of the horrible-chemistry tension that was plaguing the starting five, he’s too good of a player for his absence to be felt not at all. They might have been able to withstand that injury, however, due to the unique depth at the center position, where they not only have Gobert, but also Naz Reid eager to find more minutes. But with the Towns injury came other ones that really hurt. Jordan McLaughlin for a while there seemed like the only player capable of busting up the offensive stasis to actually shift opposing defenses and get the basketball moving around. Well, he’s missed 16 of their last 19 games, most recently out with the same calf injury that KAT has. J-Mac’s offensive rating is best amongst rotation players. His defensive rating is cartoonishly good – an unsustainable 100.9. (For context, the Cavs lead the league in D-Rtg at 108.6.) In Finch’s free-flowing system so dependent on improvisational initiation of movement, J-Mac is more important than he might seem to an outsider looking at the roster. So is Taurean Prince, one of the team’s precious true “3 & D” wings. Prince’s catch-and-shoot competence is missed most acutely when opponents shift into zone defense; a trend of late that has been more effective than it should be in professional basketball. Kyle Anderson is the team’s best bench player and one of it’s 5 best players overall. He’s one of the few capable initiators of team offense on the whole roster. Of the fives consecutive games the Wolves just lost, he was absent with back spasms for the first four of them. And, most recently last night, the Wolves lost a sneaky-winnable game at Milwaukee — while the Bucks are a top team in the league, they were without both Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, and were riding a 4-game losing streak of their own. The game was lost the moment the injury report listed Gobert out with an illness. Without a strong and capable defensive center, Giannis proceeded to drop a 43 & 20 on their heads, mostly via vicious dunk after vicious dunk. The game went almost all the way down to the wire, but Giannis couldn’t be contained. Simply put: if Rudy plays, that game might have gone differently.

None of these players have severe or season-threatening injuries. They will all presumably return to action with a great deal of the season left remaining. Yes, there will be new injuries, but hopefully not the harmful mix they’ve managed recently – missing one of their three star players, their best bench player in Anderson, their best 3 & D guy in Prince, and their best all-around point guard in McLaughlin. If the Wolves get healthy, and if with better health comes improved offensive cohesion, they should improve significantly in the second half of this season.

  • Reason #3 for Timberwolves Hope: The Shape of the West

If the Wolves can just get into the 8-team playoff tree, they will probably find themselves in an intriguing and not-predetermined-outcome type of matchup. Right now, the West is led by the Pelicans, then the Nuggets, and then the Grizzlies. These are all very good teams. None of these, however, are “great” teams of the variety that typically have an easy time advancing past their first one or two playoff opponents. There are no dynasties here, and there are probably not any budding dynasties here either. None have multiple superstar players in the way most traditional title teams do. The Wolves showed just last year how beatable Memphis is. We’ve had enough Nuggets matchups to have some unscared familiarity. The Zion situation with New Orleans is potentially a little bit different, but his health history always leaves some degree of doubt. Also, he and Brandon Ingram have not formed a natural chemistry even as their team succeeds right now, with BI on the shelf. Golden State LAC, and Phoenix have the on-paper potential to be a cut above the field, and possibly unbeatable by the Wolves in a playoff series. But right now the Warriors are 9th and the Suns are 7th, and both are missing their best players with significant injuries. The Clips are doing a science experiment on how many games the best players can rest before the playoffs, and they will probably end up with a middle seed.

If the Wolves cannot secure home-court advantage — and, let’s be real, it sure seems like they cannot — then landing a 7 or 8 seed might potentially be preferable to the 5 or 6, if it means facing a team like the Nuggets instead of a healthier and geared-up version of the Warriors or Clippers.

This is a year where the West will be wide open. Get yourself a ticket for admission and see what happens. It would have been nice had the Wolves met preseason hopes of a 50-win campaign, but 44 might be enough to have an exciting playoff opportunity.

  • Reason #4 for Timberwolves Hope: They have plenty of untapped potential over the long-term.

I’ve seen different iterations of this basic doom and gloom sentiment: “They’ve played all of their cards and have no remaining ability or flexibility to improve. If this doesn’t work out, all is lost.”

While Gobert disappointing as an individual would certainly be disappointing and harmful, the notion of total hopelessness misses the bigger picture here.

What’s the worst thing that could happen to this Timberwolves building project?

Easy answer: Anthony Edwards fails to become a superstar.

What’s the second worst thing that could happen to this Timberwolves building project?

Slightly more difficult, but still sort of easy answer: Jaden McDaniels fails to become a high-level player that complements Edwards.

These two items working out in the Wolves favor was the major bet that was made when Connelly traded away so many future draft picks in exchange for Rudy Gobert. If Ant and Jaden pan out as a viable, title-contending 1-2 punch, then the Wolves don’t need first round picks in the same way that rebuilding teams need first round picks. Of course it doesn’t mean the cost was meaningless, negligible, or even reasonable. Future firsts are the chief trade currency in the NBA today. (Note: That Tom Thibodeau traded away precisely zero future firsts as Wolves POBO was seemingly forgotten when Wolves media and social media tried to convince themselves that he ruined the state of the franchise, but I digress.) But Ant just recently turned 21 years old. Last night he dropped 30 & 10 in Milwaukee and it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. He’s starting to improve as a passer. He’s showing increased awareness of transition opportunities in ways he didn’t a year ago, or even a month ago. As already mentioned, he might make this year’s All-Star Team. The Anthony Edwards bet is looking so good, so far. Jaden is not as good as Ant, but we’ve seen him show more than flashes of spectacular defense against the best players in the NBA — players like Luka and Zion — and do so while expanding his own offensive arsenal. Jaden turned 22 in September. His Finchian prototype, Scottie Pippen, also had a late September birthday, and turned 22 right before his rookie season, when he averaged 8 points and 4 assists per game on a decent Bulls team carried on MJ’s back. Jaden came into the league with more immediate ability than anyone expected, but he was a lot rawer then than he is now. His progress continues. So far, he’s remained on a favorable track.

The Gobert trade might have been a mistake. It might have been a small mistake, a medium-sized mistake, or an enormous mistake. In order for it to be that last one, the Ant and Jaden pairing would need to flop as a true core, and they’d come to regret not having a little bit of remaining tanking/developmental seasons where they could bolster the core via the draft, the way teams like Minnesota must. But there is still very much a possibility that the Gobert trade will be proven to be wise. If the team can develop a successful offense — and really, it should — they should start winning more than they’re losing. That it is better for Ant and Jaden to be winners than losers in their third NBA season shouldn’t be too controversial. Both players are learning how to play to win sooner than many other similarly positioned prospects of their age might.

Whatever happens with Ant and Jaden will eventually be analyzed with a lot of 20/20 hindsight. If they disappoint, it will because they were not allowed enough time to grow before expectations were raised unfairly high, too soon. If they thrive, it will be because they were battling in playoff games before they were legally allowed to drink a beer, and the competitive environment taught them what goes into winning. But viewed in the proper lens where these two players are central, there is no reason to worry that the Wolves have prematurely tapped out all of their potential way too soon. If this goes to plan, Ant and Jaden will become the Marbury and Garnett, Love and Rubio, and Wiggins and Towns that never quite was, before them. There’s years of growth ahead for that to happen, and that means there’s a lot of remaining hope for long-term improvement and success.

As we leave 2022 and enter 2023, it’s worth reminding ourselves where we were at this point in the season a year ago, before all the fun that came with making the playoffs and battling the Grizzlies in Round 1.

Before the season I thought the Wolves would win about 50 games. Now, I’d revise that downward to about 45. I do think that getting healthier and developing better team habits offensively will gradually reveal that basic truth that this is a roster loaded with talent.

Perhaps it would benefit the team and all of us fans to heed the advice and approach of an old friend as we enter 2023.

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