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The Timberwolves try to navigate the omicron blues

Welcome to the portion of the 2021-22 NBA season during which team rosters are strafed by a virus-variant sniper practicing guerrilla warfare on competent basketball. 

Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson defending against Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels during Tuesday's game at the American Airlines Center.
Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson defending against Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels during Tuesday's game at the American Airlines Center.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the omicron portion of the 2021-22 NBA season, the part where team rosters are strafed by a virus-variant sniper practicing guerrilla warfare on competent basketball. 

Imagine a lineup with Luka Doncic and Patrick Beverley in the backcourt, Anthony Edwards on the wing, Jarred Vanderbilt and Kristaps Porzingis in the frontcourt and Tim Hardaway Jr. as the sharpshooter off the bench. That potent sextet — three from each side — were among the crowd relegated to the sidelines Tuesday night as the Minnesota Timberwolves and Dallas Mavericks competed against each other with the leftovers. 

When the Mavs proceeded to halt the Wolves’ four-game winning streak with a 114-102 victory, Minnesota fans howled at the ignominy of being bested by an opponent stripped of its three best players (Luka, Porzingis and Hardaway Jr.) even as their squad retained max-salary foundational players Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. But those truly paying attention to how the Wolves had managed to win as many games as they’d lost — they were 15-15 coming into Tuesday’s contest — shouldn’t have been too surprised. 

KAT and DLo top the payroll and hold considerable value for their offensive leadership and — when properly motivated and contextually enabled — crucial contributions on defense. But they are not emblematic of the winning identity of this ballclub. 

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The Wolves win via tenacity and disruption. Although undersized and lacking brawn relative to the vast majority of their foes, they thrive on chaos and scrap to make it happen. Their signature successes on the stat sheet are borne from that mettle. The Wolves generate the highest turnover percentage in the NBA, 14.9, and score the most points per game in the league off of those turnovers, 19.9, powered by ranking fourth in steals per game. 

On offense, they are collectively lousy shooters — 25th in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage — but claw some of that clanking back by successfully competing for their misses: They are fourth in offensive rebounding percentage and third in second-chance points. 

The arrival of Beverley changed the culture in this direction, and the insertion of Vanderbilt into the starting lineup galvanized its practical application. Three others whose skill sets help activate aggressive Wolves defense include Josh Okogie, Jaden McDaniels, and Edwards, the latter of whom still struggles with sustaining his focus but remains among the team leaders in deflection and steals. Four of those five players are currently in the Covid protocols, with McDaniels being the one still eligible for duty on Tuesday. 

Making sense of the loss to the Mavs

With Vando out, McDaniels was bumped up to the starting power forward position. And with two other starters, Beverley and Edwards, also under omicron’s sequestering, head coach Chris Finch went with Malik Beasley and Leandro Bolmaro alongside KAT and DLo. McDaniels is listed at 185 pounds, and you can knock off about 5 pounds of that. (He reportedly lost twice that much three weeks ago when a nasty case of the flu knocked him out for three games.) Beasley weighs in at 187 pounds. DLo is listed at 193 pounds, which made Bolmaro, an obliging 200-pound rookie who hustles around like a chicken with its head cut off, the second-heaviest Wolves starter on the floor besides KAT.

Dallas countered with a pair of forwards who go 220 and 219 pounds, and a 190-pound point guard, Jalen Brunson, who is built like a fire hydrant and enjoys contact. Bottom line, the Wolves lacked the blend of wiry, brawny and savvy personnel that catalyzes their disruption. The Mavericks enjoyed an 11-point lead after the first half because Minnesota had just two points off four Dallas turnovers (the Mavs turned the Wolves over ten times for 11 points) and the Wolves had zero second-chance points (compared to 10 for Dallas). 

In the second half, Bolmaro did not leave the bench, as Finch opted to go large with twin centers KAT and Naz Reid bumping McDaniels back down to small forward and Beasley and DLo in the backcourt. But halfway through the third period, the Mavs had missed only two shots and the Wolves had grabbed only one offensive rebounds and had not forced a single turnover. 

Searching for a solution, Finch subbed in Nathan Knight, who had logged just 46 minutes of mop-up time this season and is on a two-way contract obligating him to mostly minor-league action. But Knight is also mature beyond his years, weighs 253 pounds, and is collision-friendly. Except for the final ten seconds of the third quarter, Finch left him in for the next twelve and a half minutes, until slightly more than halfway through the fourth quarter. Over that span, Knight grabbed three offensive rebounds, blocked a shot, and was on the floor for five of the Mavs’ eleven turnovers as the Wolves outscored Dallas by eight points. 

This is not to say that Nate Knight is an elixir, or that the presence of Vando and PatBev guarantee signature wins — both played against these same Mavs last Sunday and Minnesota triumphed despite an absence of offensive rebounding. But it is pretty clear what the blueprint for success has generally been for this team this season, and with the onset of omicron, we are learning how much the absence of some players can affect the roles and overall effectiveness of others. 

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For example, I have raved about the enormous strides DLo has made on the defensive end this season. It was always acknowledged that he benefited from having Beverley as his cohort in the backcourt, a player who is able to assume the primary role of defending the opponent’s best perimeter scorer. The scrambling flow that Finch has choreographed into the team’s scheme this season also takes advantage of DLo’s film-study scholarship sussing the opponent’s playbook and ability to communicate counter-attacks with split-second authority, even as he is better able to fill passing lanes and ambush with off-ball double-teams when Vando, Beverley and other disruptors get after it. Unfortunately, the roster losses due to omicron have siphoned away some of that effectiveness and compelled DLo to engage in more straight-up, on-ball situations, where he is less proficient.

Watching McDaniels again struggle to contain larger forwards — an issue that removed him from the starting lineup in favor of Vando earlier this season — was a reminder that among all the Timberwolves whose status has required re-evaluation this season, his (hopefully temporary) downgrade has been the most sobering. 

The rise and fall of Jaden McDaniels

McDaniels was the feel-good bonus of the 2020-21 season, a stringbean rookie taken at the end of the first round of the draft who made an impression in garbage time and eventually barged his way into the rotation. All of a sudden, the Wolves had a tantalizing “3 and D” talent, a player who could spot up in the corner and successfully launch three-pointers, then become a wing-stopper at the other end, a lithe, precocious competitor just 20 years old.

When Finch took over for Ryan Saunders last February, he ignored McDaniels for a while as he got the lay of the land. But it wouldn’t be too long before the coach had fallen in love with the kid’s game and competitive spirit. By late March, McDaniels was assigned to defend a wide variety of the opponent’s top scorers. When he more than held his own against a murderer’s row of Luka Doncic, James Harden and Julius Randle, Finch reached for sky with his superlatives. 

“What he’s doing at the defensive end of the floor is special. It’s as special as what we’re seeing Ant can do on offense,” Finch said, at a time when Edwards had the entire NBA in thrall with his thunder-dunks and scoring sprees. “I can’t remember a defender, rookie, coming in and having this type of impact.”

Finch had his sights trained on developing McDaniels’ entire skill set. He made no secret that he was structuring the Wolves Summer League roster in Las Vegas around exploring McDaniels’ capability as a playmaker, as someone who could do more than sink 36.4% of his three-pointers. When I interviewed the coach in Vegas, he finally came up with a compliment gaudy enough to get people’s attention: “I think — and this is obviously a stretch-goal for anybody — but he can be Scottie Pippen-esque.” 

For his part, McDaniels maintained his outwardly shy disposition and just kept working. He spent practically the entire offseason away from his native Washington state, working out either at Target Center, Vegas, or wherever members of the Wolves roster and coaching staff happened to congregate. On Media Day, he looked buff from his constant workouts and talked confidently of the ten or so pounds he’d gained. 

But it rapidly became apparent that the league had figured out a way to neutralize what made McDaniels special. Whether squared up in front of his stationary assignment or coasting alongside them as they drove to the hoop, he has the wingspan, foot speed and intuitive instincts that enable him to wait for a definite commitment on the shot before making his own commitment to defend it. Due to that length, agility and competitive focus, he had been extraordinarily adept at reversing the cat-and-mouse relationship many top scorers impose upon folks who guard them. 

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In response, scorers have learned to close the space on McDaniels, negating his length advantage, and turning the lithe agility of his frame into gangly fodder. In a cruel twist, his inimitable manner of wait-and-pounce, fueled by his razors-edge anticipation and competitive fire, increases the likelihood that he will be whistled for the foul when his man starts to take advantage of his willowy physique and initiate the contact. 

In the season opener back in October, McDaniels shined, with four steals and two blocks. The Wolves outscored Houston by 26 points in the 25 minutes he played during an 18-point win. The next five games in the month were also mostly positive. But when the calendar flipped to November, a troubling pattern developed. McDaniels fouled out in just 17 minutes, a huge factor in an ugly loss against Orlando. Two games later, he fouled out in less than 13 minutes against the Clippers; then fouled out in a loss to the Grizzlies, and had 5 fouls that limited him to just 14 minutes in a loss to Golden State. 

In the next game, the Wolves’ 11th of the season, McDaniels came off the bench for first time, replaced by Vando. He has started only twice since then; in an ugly loss to Charlotte when Beverley was out with an injury and in the loss Tuesday night in Dallas. Meanwhile, the starting lineup of Vando, DLo, KAT, Ant and PatBev has become the most effective quintet in the NBA, simultaneously boasting the highest offensive and best defensive rating among starting units with enough minutes to quality. 

Reasons to remain bullish

It didn’t help that McDaniels didn’t have his shooting stroke at the start of this season, and that his subsequent proclivity to foul eroded his confidence and affected his play at both ends of the court. Then he was felled by a severe bout of the flu. Ironically, he has averaged almost exactly the same amount of playing time — about 25 and a half minutes — in his 12 starts and 16 games off the bench. His shooting has improved slightly and his usage has risen playing with the second unit, but his contributions haven’t led to overall better team performance. For the season he is making only 27.6% of his threes compared to 36.4% last season on the same volume of attempts.

It is important to remember that McDaniels turned 21 in September. Aside from the drop in three-point accuracy and the rise in fouls, his numbers are roughly comparable to his rookie season. In both seasons, he has hindered the Wolves in terms of offensive efficiency much more than on defense. The level of the disappointment in his performance this year is directly related to the tease of his extraordinary defense last season and the hype generated by Finch, the fan base and media, including yours truly. 

Not surprisingly, Finch remains outwardly bullish on the future for McDaniels. When I asked him the other day about whether he’d prefer that McDaniels not succumb to the foul when he already has a few on the ledger that game, he replied that he wants him to remain aggressive and alert while working on his foot movement and becoming less handsy so as to reduce the fouling. 

When I followed up asking Finch if McDaniels is guarding the people the Wolves want him to guard, he conceded that he is best suited taking on smaller wings and backcourt personnel. On Tuesday against Dallas, the Wolves made their run not only because of Nate Knight’s entrance, but because Finch had switched the lanky McDaniels on to Brunson. In retrospect, matching him up with point guards, combo guards and small forwards while avoiding power forwards would significantly improve his defensive acumen, at least until he generates more gristle through workouts and physical maturation. 

Of course, this is a Wolves roster that is thin on brawn, most especially at power forward. Omicron has exacerbated the situation and also highlighted a key question confronting Finch, president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta, and the new ownership team of Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez: Do you continue to develop the kinetic chemistry through greater familiarity among the core members of the team, and address some of the current roster imbalances at the risk of damaging that chemistry. 

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That’s an issue I’ll address in more detail in a future column. But either way, as we move through the omicron blues in what has generally been a highly enjoyable Timberwolves season, this franchise still is operating with precious little margin for error.