When I last wrote anything in this space, the Wolves were almost at their season nadir. They were 16-20, and just a couple hours away from losing to the lowly Detroit Pistons on the Target Center floor. Despite that set of circumstances, which included several key injuries including the significant one to their lone 2021-22 All-NBA’er, I was feeling hopeful that better things were coming. My four listed reasons for Hope in the New Year were: (1) Chris Finch’s offense had not yet taken shape, and improvement with better chemistry seemed more likely than not; (2) Much of their recent struggles before that blog post were attributable to injuries; (3) The Western Conference was unusually weak, especially at the top, such that just getting into the playoffs would make for a real chance at a run; and (4) The youth and untapped potential within the roster — specifically with Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels — is reason to not fret excessively over the draft-pick cost of acquiring Rudy Gobert. The future is bright as long as those two thrive.
Since the Detroit Debacle that followed that post on New Year’s Eve, the Wolves have won 10 times and lost only 4. Several of those wins came against strong opposition, like the Nuggets, Cavaliers, and Grizzlies. In fact, had the Wolves not lost two completely unacceptable games in this stretch — a *second* loss to the Pistons, and another to the even-worse Houston Rockets — they’d have won damn-near every game they played since I wrote that stuff about hope. Their other two losses over these 14 games were back-to-back; a 1-point loss in Utah when Jaden McDaniels missed too many minutes with foul trouble, and a narrow defeat at Denver when then Wolves led most of the game, but Nikola Jokic made just enough plays down the stretch against a KAT-less AND Rudy-less Wolves front line to eek out a win.
Let’s briefly unpack those #FourFactors I last wrote about, and see how each is coming along.
There is statistical and visual evidence that Finch’s offense is finding its way. Over the 14 games since January 1, the Wolves have an offensive rating of 116.2. That number would rank 5th among all teams in the league. In the 37 games before January 1, that number was 111.8. That number would rank 24th among all teams. The improvement is pretty stark. The basic stats over this stretch, with a few red circles to highlight some of the contributing factors to the recent success:
We’ll use that left “games played” column to step ahead to that second reason for hope; that the struggles of December were in large part due to injuries. Ant and Jaden always play, and KAT’s injury has been ongoing/long-term, so those aren’t really what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about is the return of Taurean Prince (who happens to be out again, with an ankle sprain, but his return was clearly a big boost, and hopefully he’ll be back again soon) and also consistent presence of Kyle Anderson, who had missed most of the games in that long losing streak before the new year. This team has decent depth, but it cannot reasonably expect to win many games if it’s missing all of Towns, Prince, and Anderson, as was the case there for a while. Prince brings consistent effort and attention, catch-and-shoot offense, and “I don’t just hand the ball to the other team sometimes” fundamentals that are often a salve for this team’s worse woes. Kyle is becoming one of the team’s top players overall — more on that later. Having better health has begotten better team results. Logical, right?
Third, the shape of the Western Conference. Let’s look under the hood for a minute:
What stands out is the parity. Never – in my memory anyway – has the West been so top-to-(almost)-bottom even. The Nuggets are separating themselves at the top, to be clear. Memphis will get Desmond Bane back, and be very good, too. But, again like I was saying last time, neither of those teams is a multiple superstar heavyweight that ordinarily enters an NBA Playoffs as a clear-cut title favorite. Classic NBA usually has a team or three with two or three clear-cut Hall of Famers in their primes. Your Splash Brothers Warriors, your LeBron-in-Miami Big 3, your LeBron in Cleveland the second time around Big 3, your KG-Celtics Big 3, your Kobe & Shaq, your Kobe & Pau, your Duncan/Parker/Ginobili, etc etc. That team just doesn’t exist in this year’s West; not unless Jamal Murray is going to be That Guy, or the Clippers actually get serious, or the Warriors can find their old gear one more time. Those are all big questions. There’s no reason that a team like the Timberwolves, playing so well with so many high-level talents, cannot beat any Western Conference team in a playoff series. That’s a fun thing to think and type.
Finally, Ant and Jaden as the source of long-term improvement and championship potential, and the benefits of developing each in a winning context. Edwards continues to evolve. His scoring gradually goes up and his defense usually gets a little better each month. This season he’s added a consistent transition drive game to his arsenal, a must-have for athletic freaks of his type. He not only recognizes when it’s there, but has nearly mastered the Euro-step footwork cadence to set up easy scores against a sole back-pedaling defender. In the halfcourt, he makes too many turnovers, but they are increasingly ones of aggression versus pointless carelessness. He attacks tight spaces off the dribble with a better feel for when to secure the ball and burst through, versus trying to keep his dribble alive when there’s no hope for that. He’s become a legitimate NBA star by age 21.
Jaden is not yet a star, but likewise continues to improve. His defense is next to Rudy’s for best on the team. He sometimes puts the best scorers in the league in absolute jail with his length and lateral quickness. When he can avoid fouls, he’s incredibly valuable. He’s not afraid of big moments, evidenced by those dagger jumpers he hit over the Pelicans the other night. He’s a hair behind Kyle Anderson for the best net rating among regular rotation players. He’s a wonderful long-term sidekick to Edwards, who is more comfortable dominating offensive possessions than defensive ones. They also seem to get along as teammates pretty well:
Five (5) Wolves miscellaneous thoughts while I’m at the wheel here:
(1) Luka Garza is currently out of the rotation, mostly because Rudy Gobert exists, but also because Naz Reid and Nathan Knight exist, and all three are playing good basketball. As that graphic above shows, however, Garza has played in several of these recent Wolves games, including some of the better ones. I’m new to the Garza Experience, since I don’t watch college ball anymore and never saw him at Iowa. (Apparently he was like the best player in the country for one and maybe even two seasons.) From the little I’ve been able to see, I feel like this guy is legit good and might have the potential to be an impact starter for a long time. He’s reasonably big, plays his ass off, has a great feel for making quick and sensible ball decisions (shoots if open, always, otherwise finds a dribble hand-off or safe pass), and has a ridiculously pure jumper that extends out to NBA three-point range. He’s logged just 131 minutes this season, but per 36 he’s scoring 25.0 points on 52% shooting. He’s a restricted free agent this summer as long as Connelly extends him the qualifying offer. Naz is unrestricted and will be departing — hard to see that going any other way, given the salaries being paid for centers. Garza’s ability to defend without fouling will be what dictates his future more than anything else (6.6 fouls per 36, this season), but that’s learned behavior. He can figure that out, to some extent. I really hope they keep this guy, because I think he might already been quite good and he’s barely gotten a chance to show it in real NBA action.
(2) It’s hard to measure most NBA coaching jobs for the simple fact that it’s a player’s league; not a coach’s. It’s sometimes clear when a coach is great or terrible, but it’s usually shades of medium grey. Last season, Finch was pretty clearly doing a good job. That team outkicked its talent-level coverage. Early this season, when everybody was healthy, Finch was pretty clearly not going such a great job. They failed to even eclipse .500 in the 21 games they had Towns. In this last month, it’s starting to seem that Finch is getting through to this team again, and the performance follows. As mentioned above, the offense is hitting its stride. There is better offensive chemistry. D’Angelo Russell is playing his best basketball of late, and that comes amid non-stop trade rumors. Managing off-court noise and the motivations of uber-wealthy stars is a big part of the NBA coach’s job, and this Wolves team has survived a lot of national pundit ridicule while figuring out how these pieces fit together. All of this is to say that Finch seems like a good coach again. Maybe this paragraph is more for me than for readers, as I’ve taken to snap kneejerk reactions to the worst losses, and find myself blaming the coach more than is reasonable. Onto the next thought…
(3) Another one about Finch, but specifically the feelings that one Anthony Edwards expresses about their relationship.
(4) Kyle Anderson is better than I ever could’ve imagined. His long-armed thievery of the basketball is unlike anything I’ve witnessed of a Wolves defender. He had a great one last night to close out the Grizzlies:
Offensively, he functions as a glue between Ant’s dynamic stuff and Rudy’s dunk-everything stuff. Apparently he’s assisting more than ever, with this Wolves team:
Among regular rotation players, Anderson has the best net rating. Group together a bunch of iterations of “Wolves Starter X + Kyle Anderson” in nba.com/stats lineups and you’ll typically find significantly positive numbers.
I’m not sure what else to say, other than that he’s been this teams second most valuable player for the season as a whole, behind Edwards. If they didn’t have Kyle Anderson, I’m comfortable saying this would not be a playoff team.
(5) This one is just re-posting a tweet that got people up in their feelings, when it shouldn’t have. If Towns comes back, they can’t afford to mess up the Kyle Anderson-at-the-4 chemistry that’s basically unlocked everything good about this year’s team. Since it got people tweeting I guess I should at least share it for the WordPress-only audience out there. Enjoy the tweet, and Go Wolves!