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The Timberwolves at midseason: young, unfinished — and on the rise

Due to the dearth of quality teams in the Western Conference, the Wolves have a good chance of getting at least minimal postseason action. So enjoy the ride. 

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Patrick Beverley warming up before Tuesday night's game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center.
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Patrick Beverley warming up before Tuesday night's game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-22 Minnesota Timberwolves are not the team we’d thought they’d be at the onset of the season. Back then, in October, the book on the Wolves was that they boasted a troika of scorers who needed to share the ball enough to sustain a top-ten offense and hope that the coaching staff could cobble together a defense that resembled mediocrity on enough nights to make the games at the back end of the season matter. 

These Wolves have bushwhacked those suppositions and cloaked themselves in an identity alien to even the most wizened denizens of the team’s fan base. They are less silk and flow and more electrified barbed wire, amped to run-and-stun as a means to run-and-gun. They generate more turnovers and jack up more three-pointers than any other team in the NBA. 

The signature play of the 2021-22 Wolves is not a poster dunk by Anthony Edwards, or a splashed trey by Karl-Anthony Towns or a zipper-taut dime by D’Angelo Russell. It’s Jarred Vanderbilt ever-circling, like a shark, honing in on a loose or about-to-be-loosened ball off the dribble, the pass, the offensive glass. It’s Patrick Beverley standing up dribblers with unflinching, head-to-toe impunity, or giving just enough ground to execute a sideswipe that is awesome for its simultaneous savagery and precision.

At the season’s midpoint, the Wolves are a game below .500 with a won-lost record of 20-21. That puts them well ahead of the 34.5 wins projection set by the Vegas bookmakers at the beginning of the season, and at the upper end of my own assessment that they’d win between 35 and 41 contests in the 2021-22 campaign. 

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Due to the shallow depth of quality teams in the Western Conference and the allowance of “play-in” games for the ninth and tenth place teams in each conference, the Wolves have an excellent chance of getting at least minimal postseason action. Basketball-reference.com currently sets that likelihood at 69.9%. That’s a pleasant balm for a franchise that has moved beyond the regular season just once since 2004. 

But the more intriguing, and salient, way to examine the Wolves at this midpoint in the season is with a big-picture lens. Are they poised to move on from this stage, where the consolation prize of a play-in game or a first-round playoff rout is greeted with gratitude and enthusiasm? How sustainable is this sudden identity switch? And how patient should the Wolves braintrust be with this relatively encouraging status quo?

An offensive guru hatches a radical defensive scheme

I’ve been covering the Wolves since 1990 and this is my favorite edition of the team since the 2003-04 outfit that went to the Western Conference Finals and Kevin Garnett was named MVP of the NBA. The reason why this current team is so likable is because of the sheer audacity of their improvement. 

Less than three months ago, the Wolves were mired in what felt like an intractable dilemma. The team was led by a pair of max-salary players, KAT and DLo, who, while chronologically in the prime of their careers, had rarely if ever indicated that they could be a positive presence at the defensive end of the court. The alpha in-waiting, Anthony Edwards, likewise seemed to inhabit a spectacular skill set on offense, but required a boatload of maturation to be an overall plus-defender. Add in the fact that the Wolves roster was relatively under-sized and bereft of brawn compared to their NBA brethren, and it was difficult to see how this squad was going to get enough stops at the defensive end to exploit the scoring prowess of their Big 3.

Coach Chris Finch, who was hailed as an offensive guru when he was filched off the Toronto Raptors bench eleven months ago, transformed the course of the 2021-22 season by hatching a radical new defensive scheme in preparation for his first full season on the Wolves sidelines. 

And make no mistake, this was Finch’s handiwork. When Joseph Blair, the person the Wolves had anointed as their new defensive coordinator, suddenly bolted for a coaching position with the Washington Wizards on the day Blair was supposed to be the head coach of the Wolves Summer League team in Las Vegas, Finch was suspiciously unfazed. A few weeks after Blair’s replacement, Elston Turner, was hired, he told me, “I’m going to endorse whatever Chris wants. He has an idea of the way he wants things done and we’re going to follow that.”

What Finch wanted was a way to avoid putting the Big 3 in schemes and circumstances for which they had already demonstrated incompetence and enervation. The most important decision was how to utilize KAT, who had consistently been beleaguered in “drop coverage” that required his role be almost exclusively concentrated on staunch, decisive rim protection. KAT is neither exceptionally quick nor a great leaper. He also regards himself as an above-average defender away from the rim. Finch decided to challenge that perception by putting him more often out at the leverage point of the pick and roll, where the switching option might take him all the way out to the perimeter.

Rim protection suddenly became a group responsibility, with a special emphasis on whoever was the “low man” in coverage off the side near the hoop. If a roller on the pick and roll or a cutter from the weak side broke open toward the basket, it was up to the low man to scramble in and for his teammates to rotate their coverage in kind. In terms of both tone and philosophy, this was the opposite of what former Wolves defensive coordinator David Vanterpool had instituted, which was a “solid is enough” scheme that positioned players to regulate and guide the flow of the opposing offense while KAT protected the rim. 

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Finch obviously felt Vanterpool’s system was too reactive and didn’t utilize the athleticism and enthusiasm of the Wolves young roster. On that basis, his more proactive, scrambling schemes made sense. But Finch was also making a hell of a gamble. The lone genuine big man in his starting lineup was being turned loose away from the rim, and among the plethora of power forward options there didn’t seem to be any especially imposing candidates for paint duty. Meanwhile, how would the need for antic rotations fare with the chronologically indifferent DLo, the inexperienced Ant, and KAT on the roam? And even if everybody bought in to the scheme, there figured to be a painful, relatively lengthy learning curve. 

Except that there wasn’t. The Wolves were gifted a rebuilding Houston Rockets team on opening night, but the whopping 38 points they generated off 24 turnovers was still impressive. The next night, against the Pelicans, they forced 28 more turnovers leading to 25 points. The learning curve occurred in early December, when a trio of gifted offenses who combined size, outside shooting and great facility on the pick and roll — Atlanta, Cleveland and Utah — carved up the Wolves D. In response, Finch became even more aggressive with his rotations, leaning harder into means of disruption, extending it out to three-point territory. By then, the players were capable of expanding their synergy, and the defense again tightened.

Along with Finch, the people most responsible for this remarkable ascension of the Wolves defense are Beverley and Vanderbilt. Beverley is the veteran tone-setter who leads by bark and bite, word and deed. Thanks to Ant’s loose lips during press conferences, we know that Beverley had every Wolves player stand up before the coaches and teammates at the beginning of the season and state what they thought their role was on the team. We also know that Beverley has told his teammates to think of offense as a girlfriend: swoon-worthy and deservedly capable of inspiring infatuation, but not always reliable. And to think of defense like your mom: always there to have your back, especially when you act the way you were raised. Both anecdotes comprise a few pages in the encyclopedia of cultural uplift that PatBev has minted over the course of his career. 

Vando provides the juice in the squeeze of Finch’s gamble. His energy is doubly contagious — teammates simultaneously want to revel in and abet the glorious carnage he is generating and fear being exposed as slackers by comparison. Although he is the spiritual leader of sweat equity, he is not alone. PatBev is obviously a sage occupant of the shotgun seat. And while woefully underweight and thus dreadfully foul-prone, Jaden McDaniels has a spider’s wingspan and killer instinct, while Josh Okogie still deserves the moniker “Nonstop.” 

Perhaps most significantly, the Big 3 have all lowered their respective oars into the effort. Freed from the onus of matching up with high-scoring guards (PatBev takes those assignments), DLo has utilized his hoop scholarship to become an excellent communicator and off-ball defender: orchestrating coverages, filling passing lanes and acting as pincer on reactive double-teams. Given the room to satisfy his jones for more roving assignments and smart enough to know he is still the lone “Big Fella” in the scheme, KAT has a better and smarter appetite for the dirty work of leviathan jousts, rebounding scrums and the giving-and-receiving of crunching picks. Meanwhile, Ant not only ranks second on the team to Vando in both steals and deflections, but 23rd and 19th, respectively, in the entire NBA in those categories. And while he still frequently spaces out on more team-oriented duties and rotations, he is slowly improving. 

Add it up and you get one of the most pleasurable defenses to watch in Wolves history. They currently generate more points off turnovers than any other team. They are also fifth in steals and sixth in blocks. 

Those are the glitzy stats, but the glaze seeps into the meat of the matter too. Even without KAT as designated rim protector, the Wolves have jumped from 24th last season to eighth this season in fewest points allowed in the paint. This is even more remarkable when you consider that Minnesota’s lack of size and brawn — and their freewheeling scheme — permits the most offensive rebounds of any NBA team, yet they recover quickly enough to rank 19th in second-chance points allowed, even as their own diligent offensive rebounding results in the NBA’s third most second chance points. Hat tip to Vando, whose offensive rebounding first generated a wealth of three-pointers as he fed them off the carom, then, as defenses adjusted, began finishing with his own putbacks.

Bottom line: Over the season’s first 41 games — a sample size large enough to connote sustainability — a defense whose hoped-for ceiling was set at mediocrity currently ranks 11th in points allowed per possession in the 30-team NBA.

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Stubborn shooting woes

By contrast, the offense is rated a disappointing 18th in points scored per possession, and that paltry standing is shored up by the points off turnovers and offensive rebounds that the sweat equity generates. If you are looking for silver linings, over the past 15 games that rating has jumped to 7th, but at least half of that stretch includes the period when the omicron variant of COVID decimated rosters throughout the league and made statistical measures specious as a result. It also includes a sweet stretch of the schedule where the Wolves toyed with the Oklahoma City Thunder twice and then the Rockets, a slate likely to fatten any offense. 

All that said, there is reason to believe the Wolves offense is due to explode more frequently. After two months of the worst shooting in his six-plus seasons in the NBA, DLo has begun to find his shooting touch in moments away from crunchtime, where he was always solid. And after weeks if not months of bemoaning Ant’s shot selection — why does the most feared dunker in the NBA let defenses off the hook by hoisting trey after trey? — Edwards is carpet-bombing opponents from distance to the tune of 41.7% on 9.3 attempts in the seven games since coming off COVID protocols. KAT remains a matchup nightmare from anywhere on the court so long as dogged double-teams don’t steer him into stray voltage. And the omicron blues did deliver the blossoming of Jaylen Nowell as a bona fide playmaker who can get his own shot and fill in at point guard for limited stints. Last but not least, while the Wolves fanbase is currently down on three-point specialist Malik Beasley, his accuracy is trending toward his higher career norms, and his floor-spacing ability should add value in the second half of the season.

By the numbers, the Wolves shooting woes are stubborn, however. The team ranks in the bottom ten in field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. In part because they jack up so many three-pointers, they rank 20th in free throw attempts and compound that woe by ranking 24th in accuracy at the line. If you’re tempted to blame this inefficiency on the tilt toward defense, know that the Wolves are most efficient when Vando is on the court, and that his value should only rise as he becomes more adept leaking out in transition, finishing on the pick and roll, and varying the finish of his offensive rebounds between dimes and putbacks. And although PatBev’s shooting accuracy is below his career norms, only Vando, KAT and DLo have generated a higher team offensive efficiency via their presence on the court. 

Where to go from here?

The February 10 NBA trading deadline is now less than a month away. How active should the Wolves be in trying to upgrade their roster? After all, a losing record with the 11th ranking defense and 18th ranked offense doesn’t exactly scream, “Stand pat!”

But with the obligatory caveats about being presented with a deal too good to be true (like the Beverley trade for Jarrett Culver and Juancho Hernangomez last summer), or working the edges addressing minor needs, I think the Wolves should be on the spectrum from extremely cautious to inactive over the next four weeks. 

One of the most perceptive articles I’ve ever read about the Wolves from a writer not based in this market was a piece from Rob Mahoney in The Ringer last month. After correctly noting how valuable Vanderbilt and Beverley have been this season, Mahoney writes, “Rebuilds get complicated when the players driving what the team does best are not necessarily its best players.”

Later, citing the max-level salary load of KAT and DLo, Mahoney adds that the “Wolves roster is shallow like that of a superteam, but without the superstars.” Consequently, “Charting a way to gradual improvement might seem as simple as replacing Minnesota’s one-way role players over time…. until you realize that a version of Vanderbilt who could meaningfully contribute on offense would be a top player the Wolves may never be able to entice or even afford with two max players already on the books.”

Those who believe an upgrade is worth the risk will counter that the Ben Simmons situation creates a unique opportunity to add that top player at a discounted rate. And current general manager Sachin Gupta should indeed explore the viability of bringing Simmons aboard. But those who want to make trades generally like to garnish those desires with wishful thinking on the size of the bounty required to secure a player. Simmons would require more than a random platter of leftovers and a slew of picks. 

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My resistance to change is built upon the Wolves’ unique circumstances. First, the team is young, with only Beverley older than 26 among the top ten players on the roster. KAT and DLo are early in what should be their primes. Ant is 20. Jaden McDaniels 21. More to the point, Vanderbilt and Nowell are both currently 22, and have seen their value take quantum leaps under Finch in the past three months. Vanderbilt is steadily expanding his offensive arsenal, and Nowell has enhanced his versatility while ratifying the promise of his shot-making. The Wolves would have gleefully included both in any Simmons deal and still had to make up another $28 million to match the salaries. 

Two things are required to build a successful franchise capable of consistently competing for the playoffs and an occasional championship. One is the purchase and/or development of at least one legacy superstar, or two more typical superstars. The other is finding and/or developing a complementary core of role players who are willing to blend in and have the capacity to slowly but surely expand their games. It has been a long, long time since the Wolves have been able to generate that complementary core. Vanderbilt and perhaps McDaniels and Nowell seem like a wonderful beginning to that core. Edwards seems like a potential superstar. KAT and DLo are at worst players currently capable of blending into what has become the most efficient starting lineup in the NBA, with KAT enjoying the added distinction of being the best-shooting big man in the modern NBA. 

Meanwhile, Chris Finch is that rare coach who enforces accountability yet is extraordinarily popular with his players. That’s because he devises situations by which they can succeed, and then communicates exactly how that should happen. Compare that to Tom Thibodeau running roughshod over his young core while importing Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose. He overhauled the fabric of the team while banking on a mercurial alpha star with a history of belittling his teammates. As Mahoney noted in his Ringer piece, post-Thibs, “The want for any progress in Minnesota is offset by the need for something real and lasting.”

The Timberwolves are a long way from being a finished product. But what they are now is a team undeniably young and on the rise, with an ideal firebrand as a veteran tone-setter in PatBev; a pair of often besieged max-salary players who have broadened their commitment and thus increased their aptitude out on the court; a burgeoning star with a phenomenal ceiling; and a beguiling core of complementary players anxious to contribute within the confines of the program. 

If Gupta wants to bolster that frontcourt brawn by parting with Taurean Prince and his expiring $13 million contract, or something along similar lines of surgical tinkering, more power to him. But the status quo is playing enjoyable, synergistic hoops. The old Wolves way would be figuring out a maneuver that pollutes that environment. 

Instead, stand pat. Re-sign Beverley for another two or three years and hold off on extensions for the higher-salary players until we can glean how high the ceiling on this current group really can be. Let’s enjoy the ride for a change.