The Minnesota Timberwolves are the least successful franchise in major team sports, with a historical winning percentage of .394. On Monday night they played like an outfit jealously determined to maintain that miserable standard, coaxing enough competence out of a callow Orlando Magic team to merit a decisive loss, 115-97.
The Magic came into the game with the worst defense in the NBA, putting the onus on an already underperforming Wolves offense to seek the least advantageous open looks they could muster. They scored 32 points on 46.4% shooting in the first period, 26 points on 42.3% marksmanship in the second, 20 points on 36.4% in the third — and that still wasn’t bad enough. Carrying a 6-point lead into the final stanza, the Wolves decided it was time to seal the dysfunctional deal: They launched 20 shots — and made four of them. Bingo. Ballgame.
Ballgame because the Wolves defense — a source of apparently sound hope for diehard fans through the first five games of the season — decided it was time to feel entitled to fail. The Magic are a team adrift in the early phase of a rebuilding process. They dumped all their bedrock veterans at the trading deadline last season and currently trot out five starters aged 20 to 23, a group that has no idea how good or bad they really are. The Wolves defense proceeded to summon forth their faith like a tent-show traveling preacher thwacking a Bible toward their dimly comprehending skulls.
The Magic shooters couldn’t hit the proverbial broad side of a barn in the first quarter. So the Wolves forced them to practice in an unhurried setting where they could gather their composure: the free-throw line. Minnesota committed nine fouls in that first twelve minutes, gifting Orlando 15 free throws. By the fourth quarter, the once-forlorn faith of the Magic had been baptized into swagger, as the kids cavorted their way into vicious dunks and improbable three-pointers splashed with gleeful impunity, administering a 43-point noogie that the Wolves accepted and deserved.
Holding on to a morsel of optimism
A 43-19 deficit in the final quarter against a dreadful opponent who’d won just once in their previous seven games is the latest sortie aimed to demoralize the remaining 337 or renegades who stubbornly hold forth for the possibility of decent pro hoops here on the frozen tundra. Yes, cynicism remains the default position for followers of the Wolves, a trusty sheath of tempered steel in the fallout shelter of our emotions. And ridicule has proven to be an effective, albeit short-lived, balm for our wounds.
Yet I’m in the unenviable position of retaining most of the modest optimism I felt toward the 2021-22 edition of the Wolves at the start of the season. Despite the pratfall versus the Magic and the ongoing fact that a roster overwhelmingly populated by one-way players leaves little margin for error, the Wolves have earned their current ranking as the NBA’s 7th best defense by dint of tenacious hustle. Watching this team scrap and dig in to get stops during the first two weeks of the season has been a rare and rewarding experience that pleases the eye and warms the soul.
Meanwhile, a team headed by Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell ranks 24th in offensive efficiency. After the game on Monday, Wolves head coach Chris Finch was more matter-of-fact than mournful about the struggle to score. Noting that the Wolves sank just 14 of 51 three-point attempts against Orlando, Finch estimated that 30 of those 37 misses were “good shots”— open, make-able attempts.
The law of averages portends more points in Wolves games at both ends of the court. The Wolves defense is a high-risk, high-reward operation that prioritizes wanton banditry over starch and bulk. The gamble is that nimble banshees like Jarred Vanderbilt, Josh Okogie, Jaden McDaniels and OG Patrick Beverley can generate more bonus points via disruptive turnovers than the undersized roster allows via offensive rebounds and other bully-boy dominance by their opponents. And they have succeeded at this better than anyone could have reasonably expected, which doesn’t bode well for sustaining the gamble with such generous dividends.
But the offense will improve, or add a neon footnote to the ways this franchise is hexed. DLo can’t continue to simultaneously rack up the lowest shooting percentages and highest turnover ratios of his seven-year career. Ant shouldn’t continue to bail out grateful defenses by jacking up more than nine treys a game in a clank-fest that has brought his career accuracy from behind the arc down to 32.7% (it’s 30.9% thus far this season). That one of the most ferocious dunkers and burgeoning hang-time magicians currently ranks seventh in the NBA in three-point attempts is an insult to common sense. And, oh yeah, a historically efficient scorer like KAT shouldn’t continue to rank third in shot-frequency-per-minute while the offense languishes. KAT’s true shooting percentage is 65.6%, a titch above his phenomenal career average of 62.1%. Ant’s TS% this season is 49.7%; DLo’s is 45.5%. As of Tuesday morning, the NBA average was 54.6%.
The bet here is that improved offense and a less effective (but still relatively satisfying) defense, coupled with a more demanding schedule will keep the Wolves at-best on the periphery of the playoff chase in the Western Conference, but still markedly better to the eye test and won-lost record than other squads in the post-Thibs era.
Let us now praise Chris Finch’s 11-man rotation
Let’s close with a somewhat lengthy examination of a how rare phenomenon in the NBA — the use of an 11-man player rotation — has become a part of the Wolves’ early system.
Lengthy player rotations are almost never a part of a team’s overall strategy. The primary reason for that is behind the scenes — meaning off the court or the playing field — a swirling cesspool of political intrigue is taking place as moneyed interests jockey for position. Owners, agents, executives, stars, entourages, sneaker companies, social media brands and other proxy gossips are all in the fray, and aside from the almighty dollar, control over playing time is the most coveted and contested leverage.
For those of us who have little use for those agendas beyond their fictionalized appearance on premium television shows, the way the Wolves mess up all of this in their current state of flux is quietly enjoyable.
Right now, an argument can be made that the most powerful person in the organization is head coach Chris Finch. Majority owner Glen Taylor is a lame-duck octogenarian. Minority owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez are charismatically on the come, but by the standard of their would-be peers in major sports franchise ownership, they are inexperienced paupers. Sachin Gupta is officially just the interim president of basketball operations. Meanwhile, all four of those people — along with just about everybody within the many branches of the Wolves operation, including the players — love and/or respect Finch.
The jury is out on how long Finch can stretch out the honeymoon while retaining his plainspoken, feisty disdain for extraneous bullshit. But his jiu-jitsu reversal of the power dynamic former POBO Gersson Rosas had with his predecessor Ryan Saunders — within weeks of his hiring, Finch’s imprint on the Wolves was directly rebutting key elements of what Rosas and Saunders had implemented individually and collectively — enabled him to avoid the stain of Rosas’ transgressions and ultimate departure. And his ability to think “outside the box” with a logic that blended chess and checkers and gave more on-court decision-making to players helped convince an overwhelming majority of the roster and the media (me included) that he deserved the leeway to execute his vision even as it necessarily developed on the fly.
It also helped that the power vacuum that exists in the front office is somewhat mirrored on the roster. The team’s two max stars, KAT and DLo, need to foster winning to mend the tattering of their once-lofty reputations. The heir to alpha status in the pecking order, Ant, remains a more flavorful sizzle than a nutritious steak at 20 years old.
Finally, the rest of the roster is tailor-made for the audacity of trying to jumble lineup combinations into meaningful playing time for eleven folks. It is riven with bifurcated skill sets, be it the top-heavy contingent of explosive scorers who struggle to defend (all of the “Big 3,” plus Malik Beasley) or the grit-and-grind stoppers who tend to be overly cautious or belabored when called upon for a bucket (the trio of Vando, Okogie and McDaniels). The best-balanced skill set belongs to Patrick Beverley, who is six years older than any of his teammates, injury-prone, and with enough hard mileage to be deployed judiciously. The remaining three players of the eleven in the mix — Jordan McLaughlin, Taurean Prince, Naz Reid — can rightfully be regarded as high as seventh and as low as 11th in terms of value, depending on the circumstances. Which is how and why Finch has been utilizing this strategy.
Extending the rotation promotes competition and accountability. It has provided Finch with the timing and resources to showcase a defensive scheme predicated on hustle and disruption. At its most spectacular, it enabled Finch to call on then-11th man McLaughlin to play the entire fourth quarter to secure a win over the Pelicans.
It is also a luxury that most coaches can’t afford to exercise. Last week, Finch described the process in a way that reveals how much freedom it provides him. “Generally we have a structure based on our opponent, based on how we want to try and match up a little bit, but we also go by feel. Which, you know, we’re not always going to get right. But yeah, it’s a challenge and there might be a time when we have to make a tough decision and drop somebody from the rotation. But right now we are still committed to trying to make it happen.”
Sooner or later, players aren’t going to appreciate the way Finch “feels” about how the game is going. In the loss to Denver on Saturday, J-Mac and Prince both couldn’t get untracked in abbreviated stints, inevitably leading to the question of whether they should have been allowed to play longer or not at all. Josh Okogie started the first three games of the season, was benched for the entire Milwaukee game, had 18 productive minutes versus Denver and a dozen more against Orlando. Like Vando, whose time has also yo-yoed, it isn’t unreliability — the opposite, in fact — but the known commodity of the matchup and ongoing game circumstances that alters his effectiveness and subsequent playing time. Okogie’s good-soldier demeanor betrayed just a wisp of irritation when he was compelled to admit that Finch doesn’t communicate the anticipated length of his role in advance.
There is a solid argument to be made for a shorter rotation that allows fewer players to have a clearer sense of what will be expected from them heading into each game, and to develop more chemistry and familiarity in two-and-three-player units. But the truth is, it will soon be a moot point if DLo’s sprained ankle hasn’t made it one already.
Of course, giving some prior burn to J-Mac has made him readier to step into the lineup when first PatBev and now DLo go down. And it has been good, and appropriate, to get solid looks at players in a revamped defense that has kept the Wolves viable as the offense underachieves.
An early inflection point in the season
Regardless of whether eight, nine, ten or eleven players check into the next two games, Wednesday and Friday, both against the Clippers, the Wolves are at an early, perhaps crucial, inflection point in their season. It was shocking how quickly the seemingly reliable dividend of solid defense was dissolved by the corrosive doubts of a Wolves team whose paper-thin confidence was exposed the first time they encountered the old ghost of abject embarrassment. Finch described the disastrous fourth quarter against Orlando as a situation where “our lack of shot-making was bleeding over into our defensive intensity…we kind of let go of the rope a little bit there.”
The minimum goal for this franchise this season is to staunch the carnage; to let a glimmer of viable hope continue to seep through for most if not all of an entire schedule. It would be a meaningful step away from historic ineptitude. For a change.