Update: This piece has been updated to reflect reporting on the status of the Timberwolves’ interim President of Basketball Operations Sachin Gupta.
Last week’s column closed out one of the more enjoyable seasons in Timberwolves history by spotlighting the four people most responsible for the team’s surprising success. Now, as promised, we turn our attention forward, identifying three proactive measures the Wolves should undertake if they are going to sustain their momentum in what is likely to be a more competitive Western Conference in the years ahead.
First, let’s set the context with some cautionary caveats. It is far easier to plan an agenda than it is to execute it. The NBA has become increasingly dynamic in terms of roster churn and strategic moves and countermoves. Look back just three or four years ago at who was on what team, and consider how many players have moved, or had their value dramatically elevated or reduced, often due to their role drastically changing for myriad reasons.
Players get injured, unhappy, impatient — and, albeit less often, the positive opposite of all of that. They get buffeted by changes in team management, their egos volleyed around by agents, endorsement deals, entourages, social media and family life. There are a steady welter of motivating factors, many hidden from public view, which are colliding, refracting and otherwise influencing the strategic status quo in front offices around the league. A single trade of a superstar inevitably has many ripples.
Consequently, stating specifically what a team should do is a fool’s errand. As much as we all enjoy speculation, especially in the offseason, we have incomplete knowledge and even less control — it is, de facto, idle speculation.
Of course this works both ways. Just as a scenario that seems like a logically good maneuver may in fact be impossible to execute, there are scenarios that currently seem like silly pipe dreams that might be exploited if the right ripples or confluence of circumstances occur. At this point in time — heading into the Conference Finals — a year ago, who had Patrick Beverley coming to the Timberwolves for the 2021-22 season?
What follows then, is a look at three ways the Timberwolves might improve their competitive standing for the 2022-23 season and beyond. When specifics are cited, they are meant as prototypes, and serve as examples of action that don’t seem like ridiculous reaches. For example, taking Chet Holmgren in the NBA draft on June 23 would transform the frontcourt and be a marketing bonanza to boot, but would require a variety of fantastical precursors to become a reality. By contrast, taking EJ Liddell, while still a longshot possibility, serves as a far better prototype for what might be possible to address a certain need.
So let’s get started.
Beef up the frontcourt
As detailed in last week’s column, Wolves head coach Chris Finch did a splendid job of devising an aggressive “high wall” defensive scheme that shielded the weaknesses of the team’s two max-salary players while leaning into the rugged on-ball defensive leadership of Beverley and the wiry athleticism of power forward Jarred Vanderbilt. It became the Wolves calling card the first six weeks of the season.
But inevitably opponents scouted and plotted responses to the scheme, reducing the ambush component that had bolstered its effectiveness. Eventually the Wolves broadened and varied their forms of coverage — they ran a little zone, and switched a little more frequently on pick and rolls. But by default, the “high wall” remained their bread and butter, largely because they didn’t have enough size and brawn on the roster to effectively deploy the classic rim-protecting “drop” scheme that is a staple of a majority of NBA teams.
Vanderbilt’s dogged hustle became a crucial element of the Timberwolves identity and is one of the sweeter stories of the 2021-22 season. But he remains an undersized frontcourt partner for finesse-oriented starting center Karl-Anthony Towns in many defensive situations. And on offense, the Wolves are limited in what they can do because Vando’s shooting range is ridiculously small.
How small? Vando had 361 field-goal attempts in 2021-22. More than 78% of them, 285, were in the restricted area right down near the rim. Another 16% of them, 57, were in the painted area. That means he attempted 19 shots from outside the paint over the entire season. Worse, he made exactly two of those 19 shots (both corner treys), which comes out to 10.6% shooting. Add in the measly 31% of his shots he converted in the paint (but outside the restricted area) and Vando was never a serious threat to score unless he was cutting toward (or already stationed at) the area right beneath the basket.
Opponents utilized this gift in two different ways. Most effectively, they put their more mobile frontcourt player, who would normally be guarding the power forward, on KAT instead. That enabled them to put their classic big man down near the basket, where he could simultaneously keep an eye on Vando and slide over to trap and double-team KAT, reducing the effectiveness of the Wolves best shooter and most efficient scorer. Or they could rest their high-octane playmaker and subpar defender — for Memphis that would be Ja Morant — by having him guard Vando.
To be clear, Vando is not a total liability on offense. The turnovers he generates on defense often turn into highly-efficient scoring opportunities for the Wolves in transition, and he is the best on the team at extending possessions by getting offensive rebounds, followed by rapid, usually smart passes to teammates for open looks at second-chance points. And that’s why, despite his non-existent shooting range, the Wolves scored more points per 100 possessions, 115.5, with Vando on the court than with any other player except KAT.
To sum up, Vando remains an important member of the Wolves rotation, with a significant role to play at both ends of the court. But his lack of size and brawn on defense and inability to space the floor with any credible shooting range on offense both make the game more difficult for KAT, the team’s best player.
Those limits are glaring because the Wolves don’t have good counter-measures elsewhere on the roster, which bears the legacy of former president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, who never prioritized the power forward position aside from a slight fetish for “stretch fours” — relatively scrawny outside shooters, the “light trucks” of the NBA.
To accommodate Finch’s defensive scheme — which had him guarding at the leverage point of the pick and roll, in or adjacent to the painted area but further away from the hoop — KAT lost 15 pounds and picked up quickness and core strength. He remains a mediocre-at-best rim protector. Backup center Naz Reid is a better shot-blocker but is likewise a finesse player, with a flimsy low-center of gravity that invites being bullied close to the hoop. Third-string center Nate Knight is more rugged but not very large, and is extremely foul-prone.
At power forward, the primary backup and occasional starter is Jaden McDaniels, who has acceptable length at 6-foot, 9-inches, and is a skilled, tenacious defender who plays with a competitive chip on his shoulder. But he is also 185 pounds soaking wet, a 21-year old kid who hasn’t fully filled out his lithe body, and has the spidery appendages that indicate he may never possess a brutish physique. Although he adapted some over time, McDaniels was in constant foul trouble early in the season as opponents learned that the best way to negate his many defensive virtues was to go right at him, especially when he was guarding power forwards. By default, he played two-thirds of his 1,800 minutes at the four last season (per the stats at basketball-reference.com), but everyone knows he is ideally suited to be a wing-stopper — even Finch, who thinks he can do anything and sorely needs players who match up with brawny opponents.
A player who is a hybrid center and power forward and can also shoot from outside would go a long way toward solving the trifecta of frontcourt issues confronting the Wolves, which is why Indiana’s Myles Turner has been the most popular subject of trade chatter among the team’s fan base for more than a year now.
Good luck with that. By dealing Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento in midseason, the Pacers eliminated the redundancy problem they had in the frontcourt with Turner and Sabonis, and Turner still has another year left on what is a bargain $18-million contract for this season. Players who can flexibly perform both frontcourt positions at either end of the floor are coveted around the league, and that just begins to describe Turner, who has led the NBA in blocks per game twice in his career, has made more than a third of his three-pointers on over four attempts per game the past three seasons, and is in his prime at age 26.
More likely, the Wolves can only afford less perfect remedies, such as more than one player to address their different frontcourt needs, or a hybrid vastly inferior to Turner. I’d prioritize those needs as having a staunch power forward who could double as a small ball center and shoot enough from distance to compel at least minor attention. Within those parameters, there are modest to moderate options on the free agent market that include Nicholas Batum (most recently with the Clippers), Bobby Portis (Milwaukee), Kyle Anderson (Memphis) and, less ambitiously, Mike Muscala (Oklahoma City).
Remember, all the caveats apply, and some of these names could be scratched off for various reasons. But that is the type of player I think the Wolves need. The aforementioned EJ Liddell of Ohio State is the potential draft pick that currently seems like the most viable match between availability and affordability. But even Liddell may be out of reach. He hangs a rugged 240 pounds on a 6-foot, 7-inch frame and has been optimistically likened to Boston’s recent playoff hero Grant Williams and Golden State’s perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green, so there is a good chance the Wolves would have to trade up some from their 19th draft slot, even if it is a couple of places to get ahead of Chicago.
As for centers, the best free-agent fit is Isaiah Hartenstein (again of the Clippers), with Dwayne Dedmon (Miami) also worth a look. Thomas Bryant (Washington) has skills but doesn’t measure up well on defense and might be simply a rich man’s Naz.
Prepare for a transition in the backcourt
This recommended precautionary move is premised on a few things happening, which may reflect my biases more than those of the front office and ownership of the Wolves. That said, I think there is a fair chance we are in alignment.
The first premise is that accelerating the development of Anthony Edwards is the best avenue by which the Wolves make a leap that keeps them playoff eligible, perhaps even at a higher seed, in a Western Conference that figures to be much stronger in the next few years. The star-player comp I believe best blends aspiration and reality with respect to Ant is Paul George. There are obvious discrepancies: Ant is four inches shorter than PG13 (although at age 20 he is still growing) and doesn’t necessarily project to be his equal on defense. But he is reminiscent of George in that he is already a force to be reckoned with at both the rim and from beyond the three-point arc. There is also the tantalizing possibility that Ant can get to PG13’s level as a comprehensive playmaker — a high-usage ballhandler who can average 4-5 assists per game.
The second premise is that there is a decent chance that D’Angelo Russell will be dealt either during the offseason or, more likely, at the February trading deadline, when his expiring contract makes him a more flexible potential asset on the market. Until or unless that happens, I think there will be an awkward short-term fit between DLo and the Wolves, based on their divergent opinions as to his proper role on the team and his compensation for those services.
There was a lot to like about DLo during the 2021-22 season. He bought into his role as an effective off-ball defender and shrewd, vocal communicator after Finch instituted his high-wall scheme. Although he experienced shooting slumps at the beginning and the end of the season, the greater volume of treys in his shot mix put his true shooting percentage above his career average. His passing was never better — he set career bests for both assists per game and assist-to-turnover ratio. Last but not least, for much of the season he was a pretty successful go-to guy in crunchtime.
DLo let it be known just before the onset of the 2021-22 season that he was gunning for a contract extension, and the details just cited give him ammunition to reiterate that desire into request, if not a demand. But it isn’t that simple.
First off, as the surprise factor on the high-wall scheme wore off and opponents were able to reduce the chaos it caused, DLo’s off-ball role diminished in effectiveness. After the All-Star break, the Wolves allowed more points per 100 possessions with DLo on the court than with any other player — 119.1 points, with Ant being a distant next-worst at 116.2.
Second, after an inspired performance in the play-in game that helped the Wolves topple the Clippers and become the seventh seed, DLo had a wretched first-round playoff series as a playmaker against the Grizzlies. (Ironically, his on-ball defense in those six games was a pleasant surprise.) Aware that he had averaged 31 points in the four games against them during the regular season, Memphis deployed perhaps their best perimeter defender, Dillion Brooks on DLo, and the results weren’t pretty. By the deciding sixth game of the series, the difference in the team’s offensive rhythm and proficiency when backup Jordan McLaughlin was on the court compared to DLo was so pronounced that Finch benched his max-salary starter and went with J-Mac in crunchtime.
DLo was understandably peeved about it during his exit interviews with the coach and then the media the next morning. But it is difficult to see how some fundamental issues between player and team get resolved amicably over the long haul.
The “first principles” of Finch’s offensive style are ball movement and player movement off the ball. Those are both stimulated by a rapid pace and Finch cherishes players who ignite momentum with a go-go mindset. Nobody fits that criteria better than J-Mac, who ranks alongside McDaniels as a Finch favorite. Now, even Finch wouldn’t choose to start J-Mac over DLo, who is simply a superior player. But DLo likes to vary the pace, play cat-and-mouse with defenses, keep everybody guessing. And even when he was not shooting well early this past season, he got up his share of shots in the first quarter.
Being a player who doesn’t easily fit Finch’s offensive template isn’t that onerous, as Finch believes in letting his best players do what they want for the most part. No, the uneasy fit that is likely to doom DLo’s tenure here regards his diminished role if Ant is assigned more responsibilities as a lead playmaker.
The equation goes like this: DLo wants a contract extension. He is not likely to get it this offseason, as KAT will probably be named All-League and thus be eligible for a “super max” contract he’ll sign before the 2022-23 season opener. So the only way he’ll earn a lucrative extension is proving himself during the 2022-23 campaign. But it is possible, if not probable, that his role will be diminished next season, and even if it isn’t, it is hard to see the Wolves opening their wallets for another DLo max contract given their other future obligations (like non-rookie scale deals for Ant and McDaniels), and, frankly, his performance thus far.
DLo will be paid $31 million on the final season of the four-year, $131-million sign-and-trade deal he inked with Brooklyn, who then sent him to Golden State as a way to acquire Kevin Durant in 2019. The feeling around the league is that DLo is currently overpaid, meaning the Wolves are unlikely to get fair value from any off-season deal.
It’s an awkward situation — unless I’m a “DLo hater” and the Wolves seek to maintain or even expand his role next season, either as a “prove it” dare or to enhance his value at trade deadline. But if the front office does address its needs in the frontcourt, we are likely to see more minutes for McDaniels at his natural small forward position, which would move Ant back to shooting guard. Meanwhile, the question lingers — how do you maximize and accelerate Ant’s development and enhance DLo’s role and contribution at the same time?
Give Sachin Gupta a two-year deal
It is a fact of life that new owners of professional sports franchises have a powerful need to meddle. Another fact of life is that their meddling screws things up far more often than it helps.
Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez are charismatic individuals with large egos. It comes with the territory. The twist here is that compared to their peers in the franchise-owning business, Lore and A-Rod are relative paupers, and are likely to be more inclined to compensate in areas where they are relatively wealthy, like charisma and ego.
Chris Finch and his entire coaching staff received raises and salary extensions at the end of this season. Meanwhile, interim president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta remains in an interim limbo, neither fired nor officially rehired for the position. That intrigue doesn’t happen without some resistance to Gupta from within the organization.
Finch, who rightfully exerts enormous influence and has earned great respect throughout the Wolves hierarchy, has loudly touted his support for Gupta, stating that much of his success this season stems from their collaboration. Glen Taylor, who is selling the franchise to Lore and A-Rod in increments but still maintains majority control for this upcoming season, is also believed to be in Gupta’s corner. But six weeks before the NBA draft, the limbo remains.
I’ve voiced my support for Gupta in a previous column and have heard the arguments in debate with those who believe Gupta “hasn’t done anything” to earn the position. But when you are in charge assembling the roster of players, you make decisions but what you don’t do as much as what you do. Gupta could have made a short-term splash at the expense of a long-term asset at the trading deadline, but that likely would have meant saying goodbye to either Taurean Prince or Malik Beasley, the two players most often cited as trade chips back in February. Both went on to have strong second halves, helping boost the Wolves into the seventh seed. But it might have satisfied the “he didn’t do anything” crowd.
In addition to standing pat at the trading deadline, Gupta did make one crucial, albeit low-key move. His re-signing of Beverley for one-year at $13-million was exactly the right mix of time and money to best facilitate the Wolves development arc next season and in years to come.
Since Lore and A-Rod bought their first piece of the franchise, the Wolves organization has brought in former Klutch executive Marquise Watts and given him the vague title Chief Experience Officer (CXO). More significantly, on the organization’s hierarchical chart, the CXO is at a level parallel to Gupta’s interim position as POBO, and to CEO Ethan Casson.
When the hiring was announced, it felt to me like a pathway to meddling by new ownership. But thus far, there has been little public evidence to support my paranoia that Watts would become a disruptive surrogate for Lore and A-Rod. Meanwhile, this past week Gupta was enabled enough to hire former Grizzlies video coordinator Steve Senior as his assistant general manager. Hiring Gupta for a minimum length of two years would be a nice cap on these indications of ongoing harmony over personnel decisions among ownership and the front office.
One of the most enjoyable seasons in the ongoing evolution of a franchise is the one when a team quickens its potential into burgeoning achievement. That was the story of 2021-22 for the Timberwolves and its fans. By contrast, one of the most difficult challenges in the ongoing evolution of a franchise is ratifying that newfound glee and deepening the faith of everyone associated with the franchise by sustaining the progress against much tougher odds. That is the tall order for whatever contingent of people are guiding the decision-making for 2022-23.
With a beefed up frontcourt, the development of future cornerstones Ant and McDaniels accelerated by putting them in the best positions for them to succeed, and a happy, coherent and unified chain of command, the Wolves can put some traction on joy and some credit on new ownership for knowing a light touch is sometimes the right touch.
Update: Since this column was written, reportage by my colleagues on the Wolves beat indicates that new ownership is seeking a “Top 5” president of basketball operations to work alongside Gupta. If that is in fact the “plan,” it is a clumsy attempt to minimize and alienate Gupta, and, to a lesser extent, Finch. It would be exactly the sort of amateurish meddling I feared would occur.