Two years ago at the NBA trading deadline, the Minnesota Timberwolves staged a show of hubris worthy of the Wizard of Oz. Then-president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas had wadded up the Wolves roster like a sheath of damp paper towels and tossed it toward the trash can. Like so many Wolves missives that season, it would bounce off the rim and fall to the floor. But pay no attention to events happening behind the curtain.
Out on a crowded stage of newly acquired players at an elaborate but hastily convened showcase at City Center, Rosas was slam-dunking on his own past inaction. “‘Why didn’t they sign a point guard on July 1?!’” he chortled, echoing the lament of Wolves fans over these long months. “Because we wanted that point guard!” he answered, referring to the dreadlocked and bespectacled D’Angelo Russell, the big-game trophy of the moment. “Why didn’t we make trades for other guys? Because we wanted these guys!” he said, motioning to the seven new Wolves seated in a row.
Fans who had packed the floor at the event raucously cheered, joined by those hanging over the railings on levels reaching up to the ceiling. It suddenly didn’t matter on that February afternoon that the Wolves were in the midst of the 13-game losing streak, or that the franchise hadn’t won with its lone remnant star, Karl-Anthony Towns, in the lineup, since Thanksgiving eve. The new group of players donning those Timberwolves jerseys would evince the brains, heart, and courage required for successful hoops.
Then, a year ago at the NBA trading deadline, the Timberwolves ate some crow, drowned in woe, and passively-aggressively pleaded for patience. Pestilence had engulfed the usual incompetence and left the franchise reeling. Even with DLo and the rest of the new crew on board, the team had failed to rally enough to qualify for the COVID-induced “bubble” that completed the 2019-20 campaign. Meanwhile, the virus took KAT’s mother and made him the NBA’s face of COVID-related grief. We all hunkered down and watched from a distance as the Wolves flailed in front of empty seats.
At the time, the trading frenzy of a year earlier seemed like a mockable disaster. The one new acquisition not on stage at City Center, Evan Turner, never played for the team but had a salary that tipped them over the league’s cap, setting up expensive penalties if soon repeated, thus limiting roster flexibility in the near future. The trade of DLo for Andrew Wiggins had also included the Wolves first-round draft pick, and with alternating injuries to KAT and DLo conspiring to keep Minnesota mired down in the standings, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Wolves had ceded a premium lottery pick.
At the nadir of it all, Rosas abruptly fired coach Ryan Saunders and raided Toronto’s bench for Chris Finch as his replacement. A month later, with the team still spinning its wheels, Rosas announced that with injuries, grief, missing out on the bubble, and then more injuries, there had been too much disruption and the Wolves would stand pat for the sake of continuity.
On Thursday, the Wolves again let the trade deadline pass without any changes to the roster. But this time, the inaction was instituted from a position of relative strength — a rarity for this franchise under most any circumstances. While large-market fan bases in Los Angeles and New York were shrieking in disbelief at the failure of their front offices to address disappointing campaigns, and Brooklyn and Philadelphia pulled off the day’s blockbuster by swapping max-salary headaches in need of a change of scenery, most Wolves fans nodded their heads or exercised their armchair GM jones by proposing deals that included roster flotsam and second-round picks in exchange for a third center or power forward.
The fact is that the Wolves organization and the due-diligence element of its fan base deserve this precious moment of trade-deadline contentment. Does that mean this team is a finished product that couldn’t be upgraded? Far from it. But it does mean that this team is quickening, and that coalescing developments are generating unpredictable synergies — and surprising fallouts — that are best sorted and addressed over time, after more definitive information has been rendered.
My long retelling of the previous two trading deadlines are meant to set the context for the current status quo. Two years ago, the Wolves razed their roster with an orgiastic fanfare, with a team heading toward rock bottom triumphantly staging a party to proclaim an immediate pivot toward a new era. A year ago, a team even closer to rock bottom adopted the fetal position while dressing up the (appropriate but demeaning) notion that wait-and-see was the best next stage.
This week, the wheat has been culled from the chaff on both of those previous deadlines. Along with DLo on that City Center stage was Jarred Vanderbilt, a glorious glue guy who’s equal parts sweat and sinew, recently signed to a bargain long-term contract; Malik Beasley, a flame-thrower from long range who belatedly found his stroke to help fuel the team’s most recent surge; and Juancho Hernangomez and James Johnson, utilized as trade chips in the eventual acquisition of defensive culture warrior Patrick Beverley and increasingly reliable back-up swingman Taurean Prince. And pressing pause on trades at the deadline last season gave Finch a chance to better evaluate his talent — from the Big 3 on down — in terms of cohesion and skill-set amenability to different styles. He has subsequently claimed that his first half-season on the job provided him with invaluable preparation for how he wanted this team to play, beginning right off the bat in preseason.
Put it together and you have a roster that has produced 29 wins and 26 losses thus far this season. The Vegas bookmakers — the smart guys who make a living out of accurately predicting performance expectations — had set the plus-or-minus betting line on the Wolves at 34.5 wins for the season. If the team wins just six of its remaining 27 contests, those optimistic about the club back in October can begin cashing in. The bottom line: you want to give this group further time to marinate, so they can continue to reveal where they are reliably staunch and where there are fissures as we move into the crucible of the playoff race and then playoff competition.
In that sense, it is fitting that the Wolves point-person for this season’s trading deadline negotiations and feelers was interim-President of Basketball Operations Sachin Gupta. As opposed to the impetuous Rosas, who was hoisted on his “Wolves are a family” petard via arrogance and scandal that cost him his job just before this season started, Gupta’s mien is cautious, quiet and thorough. He is known as a listener who naturally takes a long-term view and regards Finch as a significant collaborator on personnel decisions. He’s also intelligent enough to understand that not “making a splash” on deadline day could diminish his prospects of holding on to the job with the ascendant ownership tandem of Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez.
As he addressed the media on Friday morning, Gupta noted that he spoke with every other NBA team, that the phones were constantly ringing and his group had a “whiteboard full of trade concepts,” but emphasized, “I certainly wasn’t coming at this wanting to do something for the sake of doing it … that’s just not how I operate.” It was a plainspoken breath of fresh air. This time around, there was no ownership meddling on his watch.
Having just explained how predicting the future course of this (or any) team is something of a fool’s errand, I’ll take a stab at it anyway. Buy into this line of thinking at your own risk.
More efficient offense will continue to erode the Wolves’ defensive identity.
Thirty games into the season, the Wolves ranked 8th in the NBA in defensive efficiency (fewest points allowed per possession) and 22nd in offensive efficiency (points scored per possession) while compiling a 15-15 record. In the 25 games since then, the team has had the third-most efficient offense and the 20th most efficient defense while posting a record of 14-11. It is foolhardy to think they can simultaneously reach those peak performances and be a top ten team on both sides of the ball — that’s a performance that will get you deep into the playoffs, and the Wolves simply aren’t talented nor experienced enough for that yet.
Investing your identity in defense is the more reliable path toward winning, but it is not the way this roster can sustain itself. First off, every member of the Big 3 has a much higher ceiling on offense than defense. The fact that each of them has performed above expectations on defense is a significant factor in the team’s success, but the same investment is unlikely to yield the same rewards moving forward, a situation exacerbated by the fact that the fun of simply outscoring opponents is now more viable than it was at the beginning of the season.
Back in October and November and into December, the Wolves were ambushing opponents with a distinctive, high-energy style of play that Minnesota had never really played before and that is an alien experience for most of their foes. The first principles for this defense are to pressure the ball and protect the rim by flying around, causing disruptions through steals, blocks and claustrophobia. Finch had devoted the entire preseason to its implementation, and with incoming veteran Beverley setting the tone and a raw and hungry Vando setting the breakneck pace, the Wolves ranked 4th in defensive efficiency in October, 10th in November and 21st in a December wracked by omicron-related absences.
The experience of this defense being immediately effective helped the entire roster buy in, and the fact that the team’s offense had been ignored in the preseason made the commitment to defense crucial to winning until the scorers could get untracked. Minnesota’s offensive ranking in the months from October through December were 24th, 18th, and 24th, respectively. The performance of the half-court sets was actually even worse than that, as a significant chunk of the team’s points were being scored via turnovers and transition created by the defense, and by second-chance points due to offensive rebounding.
The offense was bogging down because KAT was being stymied by double teams, especially when posting up, because opponents were ignoring Vando in the half court sets. Key outside shooters like DLo and Beasley were setting career lows for shot accuracy, and Ant wasn’t yet fully untracked. Most of all, instead of synergizing their talents by better sharing the ball, the Big 3 were too frequently “getting sticky” with the ball, as Finch would put it.
Much has happened since the omicron wave subsided in early January. A series of bench performers — in order: Jaylen Nowell, Taurean Prince, Malik Beasley, Jaden McDaniels and Jordan McLaughlin — have had multiple-game stretches where they are performing at star level on offense. At the same time, the Big 3 have begun to collaborate instead of coexist in the half court, and Vando’s role as a cutter and a clean-up artist in the dunker’s spot has expanded. The Wolves had the second-best offensive rating in January and are third thus far in February.
Meanwhile, the defense ranked 17th in January and 15th thus far in February despite playing four of the month’s five games against the 29th (Detroit) and 20th (Sacramento) ranked offenses. Of potentially greater concern, after ranking in the top three every month is creating points off turnovers, the Wolves are 12th in February — which, at five games, is an admittedly small sample size.
Finch has used his considerable skills and leverage as a communicator and rotation-setter to emphasize the importance of remaining a sweat-equity, opportunistic defense. But lately his complaints about ball pressure have become redundant — not a good sign. Worse, the players crucial to the defensive identity — PatBev and Vando — are inevitably showing signs of wear. The Big 3 all have their defensive attributes — especially KAT and DLo — but need solid support to make them shine. Off the bench, guys like McDaniels and Prince likewise can be effective, but both are more effective guarding wings than bigs. J-Mac is game but can be bullied on defense, and Beasley’s recent uptick in acumen is an unexpected bonus too new to rely upon, especially against his extensive history as a subpar defender.
Put it all together and, in my humble opinion, the most likely scenario is what was hoped for at the beginning of the season: that the Wolves would be a top ten team on offense while scrapping to be average on defense. Given that the defensive rating could still be average while the team generates points off turnovers, the outlook actually exceeds preseason hopes.
Where things go from here
What would this type of performance deliver at season’s end in mid-April?
The Wolves will make the playoffs by getting through the play-in.
The Wolves currently sit in 7th place in the West, a game and a half behind 6th place Denver and three games ahead of the 8th place Los Angeles Clippers. Fifteen of their remaining 27 games are at home, eight of them against teams with winning records (and Charlotte, which is .500). Of the dozen road games, eight are against opponents with winning records.
Becoming one of the ten teams eligible for the “play in” tournament is a near-lock. The team currently in 10th, Portland, just conducted a fire sale to create salary cap room to build around injured star Dame Lillard next season. Behind Portland is Sacramento, who at 21-36 is ten games behind the Wolves in the loss column with less than 30 to play.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is a chance the Wolves could move up to the top six and avoid the play in; the 6th place Nuggets need to hope that reigning MVP Nikola Jokic doesn’t break under the strain of carrying this injury-riddled roster to the finish line.
But the trading deadline help a couple of teams right behind the Wolves. The Clippers picked up Norman Powell for their rotation, the 10th place Pelicans landed sharpshooter CJ McCollum from Portland, and few expect the star-studded by dysfunctional 9th place Lakers to go down without a fight, not with the legacy of Lebron James and the reputation of Anthony Davis on the line.
I think the Wolves will play approximately .500 ball the rest of the way and land in either 7th or 8th place in the West. The way the play-in works, the 7th and 8th place teams meet and the loser of that game has to play the winner of the game between the 9th and 10th place teams. Put simply, if you finish 7th or 8th, you have to lose twice in a row to not make it to the first round of a playoff series. It says here that the Wolves earn the right to be beaten soundly by either Phoenix or Golden State in that first round.
Along the way there will be the unexpected dividends and demerits, enriched by some valuable games that mean something late in the season. It is a crucial, necessary first step. By next year’s trading deadline, this franchise will have a better sense of what it needs, and more incentive to go out and get it.