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A sincerely hopeful preview of the 2021-22 Minnesota Timberwolves

Give Gersson Rosas his due: The Wolves head into Wednesday’s opening game of the 2021-22 NBA season in better shape, in both the short- and long-term, than they were when Rosas took over less than 30 months ago.

Karl-Anthony Towns
Karl-Anthony Towns excels at every shooting distance. He is a matchup nightmare who can punish large opponents by taking them out to the perimeter and bully smaller defenders down near the hoop.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves are a franchise with an archive of rebuilding schemes that collectively give off the vibe of a broken-field runner at a nursery school football game, jam-packed with tragi-comic plot twists borne of contextual confusion, cartoon collisions and affably earnest dysfunction. Over the years, the front offices and locker rooms alike have been peopled by vain villains, disheartening busts, over-lauded phenoms, wannabe antiheroes, noble mediocrities and plucky pros scrapping for dignity.

Consequently, perhaps the best way to begin this sincerely hopeful preview of the Timberwolves 2021-22 season is with a eulogy for the brief, frenetic, checkered tenure of the Wolves recently deposed president of basketball operations, Gersson Rosas. 

Rosas arrived in May of 2019 as the antidote for the regime of his predecessor, Tom Thibodeau. Thibs was brought in to develop the top players taken in the previous two drafts, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, especially on defense. He was forced out in the middle of his third season because he steadfastly supported his win-now acquisition Jimmy Butler even as Butler demanded a trade and continued to brutally haze Wiggins and Towns … without improving the defense. (In classic Timberwolves fashion, Butler and Thibs both got their I-told-you-so moments of glory in Miami and New York, respectively, as the Wolves continued to languish.) 

Thibs was booed out of Minnesota for being a myopic, alienating curmudgeon who trusted the intel of watching tape more than crunching numbers and regarded “family” as distracting interlopers. Four months after he was canned, his successor Rosas strode into his introductory press conference accompanied by universal gushing among the foot soldiers within the Wolves organization. He pledged fidelity to modern analytics, cooed about the chemistry when he and owner Glen Taylor got together with their wives, and, juggling an adorable twin on each knee while seated on stage, declared that “family” would be as an integral part of Wolves culture. 

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Too much of it became a bill of goods. The talisman for this sunny cultural makeover was a trip to the Bahamas for the entire team. Somehow everyone seemed to have a fabulous time clowning and hooping at an island resort, all expenses paid. And if anyone needed proof of that there was vivid, superbly edited footage available just a click away on the team’s website. The Bahamas sojourn turned out to be as genuine and predictive as any reality show. 

In less than a year’s time on the job, Rosas had taken a blowtorch to the roster, retaining just two of the 15 players he’d inherited from Thibs and spending over the NBA salary cap as the Wolves won just 19 of 64 games. In less than two and a half years, he’d been bounced out of the organization for creating a “toxic environment,” that included a consensual affair with a married co-worker. 

From “family culture” to “sustainable winner,” the broad strokes from the reign of Rosas make for easy snark. Truth is, for a pint-sized guy who never played beyond high school to become the first Latino (born in Colombia) ever to run an NBA franchise required an extra dose of moxie. But Rosas displayed enough arrogance and hypocrisy to merit his demise. As POBO of the Wolves, he consistently sought to demonstrate that he was the smartest guy in the room, behavior which — given the tactical terms of human relations and his unquestioned position of power and leadership — immediately disqualified him as the smartest guy in the room.

Giving Rosas his due

All that said, the Wolves head into Wednesday’s opening game of the 2021-22 NBA season in better shape — in both the short- and long-term — than they were when Rosas took over less than 30 months ago. The man deserves props on a number of fronts.

The player Rosas chose with the top pick in the 2020 draft, Anthony Edwards, is talented enough to have a viable chance of becoming a superstar, with a guileless charisma that plays equally well among teammates in the locker room and fans on social media.

Chris Finch, the coach Rosas went to extraordinary lengths to procure in the middle of the season last winter — snatching him off the bench from the Toronto Raptors, where he was an assistant coach — combines open-minded original thinking and plainspoken honesty in a manner that can simultaneously appeal to a player’s head and his heart, engendering loyalty even as Finch enforces accountability. 

When it comes to NBA-caliber talent, the current Wolves roster is stocked with more depth than the franchise has enjoyed in many years. Part of this is maturation. Half of the top dozen players in the Wolves rotation last season were aged 22 and younger, including Edwards and the steal of last year’s draft, combo forward and defensive stalwart Jaden McDaniels, whom Finch has boldly (foolishly?) compared to a young Scottie Pippen. In the frontcourt, center Naz Reid, power forward Jarred Vanderbilt and even combo guard Jaylen Nowell (who is on the rotation bubble), are reasonably expected to sustain the upward trajectory each of them demonstrated last season. 

Another part of the better depth is related to health. At the top of the pecking order, the two Timberwolves who have been All-Stars and are on maximum salaries, Towns and point guard D’Angelo Russell, played dramatically fewer minutes than their six-year career norms last season. Assuming a more typical playing regimen for both would mean their replacements would go back to strengthening the bench contingent. 

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The third upgrade in depth stems from trades engineered by Rosas during the offseason. When the maneuvering was over, the Wolves had parted with Ricky Rubio, Juancho Hernangomez and Jarrett Culver while adding Patrick Beverley and Taurean Prince. Beverley is a significant upgrade over Rubio at the backup point guard (and tandem playmaker when Finch wants to move Russell off the ball in the backcourt), mostly because of fit and chemistry. He’s a more efficient scorer, especially on catch-and-shoot three-pointers when “DLo” wants to swing the ball or drive-and-kick it in his direction. Rubio is no slouch on defense, but PatBev is better; he is more capable when battling in bigger matchups and a more tone-setting, pertinent communicator. And he is one of the few players as good or better than Rubio at being a respected voice in the locker room. 

The areas where Rubio is superior to Beverley are in the realm of ball movement, court vision and health. But even the fact that PatBev is not a “true point guard” helps his fit, as he will be less competitive with and jealous of DLo as the team’s primary floor general and correspondingly less disheartened running the offense with the second unit.

The other kindred position swap in the Wolves rotation resulting from trades is Taurean Prince assuming the role of combo forward and emergency small ball center from Juancho Hernangomez. On paper, their value is similar. On a team that could use more size and banging, Juancho is two inches taller, rebounds better and posts similarly weak defensive numbers relative to Prince. But ever since the opening of preseason at Media Day, Prince has been hollering about how much better he feels after ankle surgery that he delayed for more than two years. The excuse acquired credibility as Prince’s defensive recognition and movement in the Wolves four preseason games was vastly more effective than Juancho’s inert, scarecrow approach, and his superior accuracy from three-point range and comfort with systems akin to Finch’s pass-happy offensive sets make him a better fit on both sides of the ball. 

Finally, it doesn’t hurt that both PatBev and Prince are on expiring contracts (at $14.3 million and $13 million, respectively) providing Rosas’ replacement, Sachin Gupta, with a pair of intriguing chips (especially Beverley, a valuable defender for a playoff-bound team) at the trade deadline if the Wolves are no longer in the postseason hunt. For all his foibles, Rosas deserves a fist bump for swallowing his considerable pride and including Culver  his first draft pick as POBO who became an absolute bust and would not have made the Wolves rotation this season anyway — along with Juancho in the trade for Beverley. It was a nifty personnel coup before he was banished.

Reasons to be slightly optimistic

So, with the tantalizing promise of Edwards, the innovative guidance of Finch, the improved health of max stars KAT and DLo and a deeper bench, will the Wolves be printing playoff tickets for the second time in 18 years in the spring of 2022? 

Highly unlikely. It is one thing to say that the Wolves should be much better at figuring themselves out and beginning to establish some positive momentum after finishing with a combined record of 42-94 in the two years with Rosas at the helm. It is quite another to put them among the top eight teams in a diminished but still rugged Western Conference. 

Optimists like to point to the 11-11 record after KAT and DLo were finally healthy together in the last seven weeks of the 2020-21 season. But that slate was still only 10th best in the West during that span. Sure, 10th will get you into the “play-in” games, where if you win twice against higher seeds you’re belatedly in the playoffs. But even that final spurt last season was accomplished despite the team ranking 13th among the 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency (points scored per possession) and 26th on defense (points allowed per possession). 

So: highly unlikely. But — for a change — not ridiculous. 

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Wolves fans can hinge their hopes on the dim possibility of the playoffs, but there are more realistic frames by which to be optimistic about the 2021-22 Wolves season. Chief among them is the expectation that we will finally get some clarity on the current, interminable rebuild of the team, coupled with the knowledge that there can be a viable Plan B if it doesn’t pan out. 

Since 2015, the Wolves have hitched their future to the performance of, first, Towns and Wiggins, and, for the past 20 months, Towns and DLo. It has been a period pock-marked by tragedy: the death of Flip Saunders right after he drafted KAT; the passing of KAT’s mother and other friends and relatives from Covid; all beset by the frantic churn in surrounding personnel throughout the organization. 

This hurry-up-and-wait dynamic has generated the worst of both worlds: stasis and instability. Bottom line, in terms of both chronological age and NBA service time, KAT and DLo are now entering the supposed prime of their careers. It is time for them to demonstrate that there can be real traction from their leadership before team and players alike are compelled to conclude it just isn’t going to work out. 

One can make a strong argument that KAT is the most accurate shooting big man in NBA history. He currently ranks 6th all-time in true shooting percentage, which properly weights three-pointers, two-pointers and free throws. Towns excels at every shooting distance. He is a matchup nightmare who can punish large opponents by taking them out to the perimeter and bully smaller defenders down near the hoop. He is an above-average passer and handles the ball well for a big man. 

But after six years in the pro game, KAT has never been a reliably competent defender. He is a poor decision-maker when called upon to make rapid-fire adjustments. He can be bullied by more physical opponents, resulting in him accumulating retaliatory fouls and breaking his focus to bark at the referees, sometimes at the expense of not hustling back up the court in time. 

KAT has been forthright about his trials and tribulations, for better and for worse. His honesty and pinpoint descriptions of his piquant grief over losing his mother, and others, to COVID, was therapeutic to him and profoundly illuminating to those who heard him. His calling out of the disrespect he received at the hands of Thibs and his proxy Butler was overdue. His mention of the revolving door of players, coaches, and executives that have come and gone from this franchise during his career is as accurate as his shooting.

But with the notable exceptions of Thibs and Butler, he has not been treated shabbily. On the contrary, from Taylor on down, the franchise has catered to his desires. The hiring of coach Ryan Saunders was widely viewed as a KAT-pleasing maneuver. The steadfast pursuit and significant bounty required to obtain KAT’s avowed buddy DLo was about high-end chemistry and morale as much as pure talent value. And various coaches have tried various defensive schemes in an attempt to mitigate his defensive shortcomings. 

DLo likewise offers up a complicated blend of beguiling offensive virtues and acute defensive flaws. He is remarkably clever with the ball in his hands, superb at dribbling and at varying the speed of his movements and the pattern of his gambits. He’ll whip a deftly timed pass to the weakside corner without a hint of prior acknowledgment, or feign a drive and pull up for a jumper, or maintain his dribble in traffic in a cat-and-mouse game to draw the foul, rising up with his long wingspan to bury a jumper if the defender doesn’t bite. But on defense he lags, sometimes for the entire play, sometimes just long enough for his man to blow past him, or for an opponent to get in shooting rhythm because his close-out is late. Last season, he allowed his disrespect for Saunders to hinder his performance, demonstrating an indifference long before being slowed by injury. 

If KAT and DLo can become even average NBA defenders, the Wolves’ chances to make the playoffs rise considerably. (DLo also faces the challenge of getting enough quality touches for the other two potent scorers in the starting lineup, KAT and Ant Edwards, without sacrificing too much of his own scoring prowess — a very fine, tricky balance to achieve.) But if a roster led by KAT and DLo don’t, for whatever reason, generate enough positive momentum this season the prevailing circumstances portend a major shakeup. 

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The younger, more aggressive ownership tandem of Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez are slowly but surely taking over for Taylor. At the POBO level, Gupta is more circumspect and less ego-driven than Rosas, and is much less personally invested in the need for KAT and DLo to flourish. As head coach, Finch is less rigid than Thibs and less of a pushover than Ryan Saunders, able to take a dispassionate approach toward accountability. When he called KAT a “top 5 talent” in the entire NBA recently, it felt like a standard as much as a compliment. 

The good news is that perhaps for the first time in the desultory history of the franchise, a failed rebuild would not leave the Wolves bereft back at square one. On the contrary, they could pivot to the career timelines of Ant and McDaniels (ages 20 and 21) and reap a significant haul for the likes of KAT and (to a lesser extent) DLo.

Can Finch’s system shore up the Wolves’ defense?

Of course, a better option is getting the most out of the significant talent and depth that currently exists on the roster. Schematically, Finch has overhauled the defensive philosophy in a manner that requires near-constant hustle and alert teamwork. Instead of automatically dropping back to protect the rim in the half-court defense, KAT and other bigs will confront the pick and roll at its leverage point, relying on the “low man” to slide down from the wing or weak side if and when the roll man commits to the hoop. 

It’s a sound strategy because the Wolves don’t really have any bruising rim protectors to control the paint. But the new system can’t totally address that fundamental weakness either. Speed, grit and coordination exercising the scheme can provide unpredictable resistance, but adept passing generally trumps active defenders in the modern NBA. And the Wolves will be especially vulnerable to opponents with a bevy of accurate three-point shooters, as Finch philosophically opts for rim protection over challenging above-the-break treys (deterring corner threes remains a priority), especially from secondary scorers. 

The realistic goal here is not an elite defense, or perhaps even an average one. Last season the Wolves finished 28th in defensive efficiency. Improving that ranking up to the high-to-mid teens would allow what should be a prolific offense (near the top ten in efficiency) to win a decent percentage of the shootouts that will characterize Wolves games this season. 

But that will require rapid acclimation to achieve cohesion in the new system — and some trial-by-fire torching by smart, quality opponents as the Wolves get up to speed. Speaking of speed, although the Wolves were horrible in transition defense last season, Finch is still demanding that they contest for offensive rebounds before scrambling back down the court in time to forestall fast-break buckets. In other words, constant effort on defense, always a key component of a strong defense, will be especially important. And by limiting the amount of switching on defense and demanding extended offensive possessions before heading back in transition, Finch is making conditions more obvious for when players aren’t hustling or diligent to the scheme. At least the Wolves’ small but athletic and deep roster suits this approach.

Roster depth and the need for some balance between offensive and defensive acumen makes player rotations, and even the composition of the starting lineup, up in the air just a couple of days before the opener. The “Big 3” of KAT, DLo and Ant are all locks to start, and it is difficult to imagine McDaniels not joining them. 

But that fifth spot dramatically changes the dynamic and could become situational. One option is pairing Beverley and DLo in the backcourt of a smaller lineup, where Ant and McDaniels are the forwards and KAT is the center. More importantly, this is currently the odds-on favorite to be the closing lineup, addressing the trend of teams going smaller in crunchtime. 

If the Wolves find that KAT is being overwhelmed on defense, Ant and McDaniels can be bumped back to shooting guard and small forward, respectively, and a more rugged power forward — Jarred Vanderbilt, Taurean Prince, even Josh Okogie — is inserted while Beverley sits out. Last, and probably least often, if the Wolves want to go for ultimate fireworks right from the opening tip, Malik Beasley would join the shooting gallery alongside the Big 3 and a token defender at power forward.

For better balance and opportunity and less redundancy, Finch will stagger the substitutions so that one of the Big 3 is on the floor at all times. Expect DLo or Ant to sit early and then rejoin the fray to beef up the offense on the second unit. As for the second unit, Finch is being coy about how deep his rotations will go each game and whether it will be further extended by a different cast from game to game. He has spoken about using as many as eleven players under normal circumstances (not prompted by foul trouble), and can reach even further down without creating a farce on the court.

Specifically, there are 10 locks for regular playing time: KAT, Ant, DLo, McDaniels, Beverley, Beasley, Prince, Vanderbilt, Naz Reid, and Okogie. Strong cases can be made for both Nowell and third point guard Jordan McLaughlin being in the mix, and situational time made for Jake Layman, rookie Leandro Bolmaro and power forward Nate Knight. Injuries will inevitably make this depth a luxury. 

A prediction: 38 wins … and other fungible rewards

Relatively speaking, I’m optimistic about the Wolves this season. I do not predict them making the playoffs for only the second time since 2004, or boasting a winning record for only the second time since 2005. But what Rosas has wrought and Finch will execute will feel less like a nursery school gambol than the makings of a basketball team that can generate fungible rewards, has room to evolve in different ways, and can keep your investment and enthusiasm without you feeling like a sap. 

Assuming a league-average burden of injuries and disruptions, I’ll predict between 35 and 41 wins, both over the Vegas consensus projection of 33.5-34.5. Split the difference and call it 38-44.  

After four seasons writing for The Athletic, it is nice writing about hoops for MinnPost readers again. If you recall, I enjoy fostering a vigorous comments section, so if you have any feedback please engage.