Over the past 15 years or so, the smartest way to prognosticate a Minnesota Timberwolves season was to survey the roster, coaching staff, front office and ownership, make an honest assessment and then deduct four or five wins for the inevitable incompetence.
Last year was a remarkable outlier that rebutted the strategy. The 2021-22 Wolves were better than advertised, taking advantage of the franchise’s shoddy reputation to ambush opponents with a defense that scrambled and suffocated their foes, an offense that jacked up smart shots at a dizzying clip, and an attitude and unity that snarled with a pack mentality that put honor and respect back on the Timberwolves brand. Those Wolves ranked third in the 30-team NBA in both blocks and steals, generating more turnovers than any defense in the league while scoring the most points via the fastest pace in the game. Vegas had set the over/under on their supposed win total at 35.5 – they won 46.
Those Wolves are now a fond memory, replaced by a grander ambition borne from a bold, contrary gambit. The changes have been seismic. Although minority owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez need another payment in 2023 to seize shareholder control from Glen Taylor, their thirst and flair is now ascendant, a fact reflected in klieg lights with their pilfering of Denver Nuggets top executive Tim Connelly by offering him a salary too exorbitant to deny. Once installed as the Wolves president of basketball operations, Connelly wasted no time simultaneously diddling with the culture and raising expectations by executing a blockbuster trade that thrust a staunch middle finger at the trendy notion that big men are no longer the prevailing force in the modern NBA.
To obtain the elite rim protection, defensive rebounding and pick-and-roll finishing capabilities of center Rudy Gobert, Connelly sacrificed Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt, the predominant heart and hamstrings of last year’s pack-attack defensive style, along with three-point marksman Malik Beasley, overhyped backcourt prospect Leandro Bolmaro, and a full assortment of first-round draft picks when you include this year’s draftee Walker Kessler.
The rest of the league initially blanched at the gigantic package of current and future assets Connelly assembled in exchange for a single player. Fueling the sense that the Wolves overpaid is the still-legitimate concern and skepticism about the pairing of two big men, Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, who have performed as centers their entire careers, in a league trending toward rapid ball movement and outside shooting.
But after the shock began to subside, folks began to realize what Connelly had not forfeited. Still on board were the Wolves holdover maximum-salary players, Towns and point guard D’Angelo Russell; and two coveted third-year players still on their rookie contracts, guard Anthony Edwards and forward Jaden McDaniels. This is the quartet Gobert will join to comprise the most talented starting lineup in Timberwolves history.
A sparkling bench, at least
But can that talent be synergized? More specifically, can the NBA’s best defensive center (Gobert) and one of the league’s two best offensive centers (reigning MVP Nikola Jokic in Denver is KAT’s only rival) share the floor in a manner that adds to the sum of their extraordinary skills, or does their positional redundancy siphon away value? The frustrating reality is that after more than three weeks of practice and five preseason games, that question has barely begun to be addressed, let alone developed into a learning curve that will eventually yield a solid answer.
As of late last week, the two big men had shared the floor for one full practice and one abbreviated shoot-around. Their pairing has been short-circuited first by Gobert’s participation in the international EuroBasket tournament on behalf of his native France, and then by an illness KAT contracted that briefly landed him in the hospital and compelled him to lose weight, precious conditioning and time with his teammates.
While KAT recuperated and Gobert recharged his batteries after an intense and lengthy tournament, the rest of the Wolves sparkled. Lacking tangible feedback on Connelly’s blockbuster, fans (and media) rightly took solace from how capably he replenished the bench personnel made threadbare by the Gobert deal.
Backup bigs, wings and guards all flourished. Not only did Naz Reid and Nathan Knight wage a surprisingly robust competition for who might be granted playing time in case of injury or foul trouble to KAT and/or Gobert, but a fifth center, Luka Garza, bagged a two-way contract with his own upstart competence. Meanwhile, swing forwards Kyle Anderson and Taurean Prince showcased complementary skills and shared veteran stability. Ditto guards Bryn Forbes and Austin Rivers, who let it be known that Jaylen Nowell would have to earn his backcourt minutes.
After the Wolves bested a Lakers team that featured future Hall of Famers Lebron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook who played copious minutes while both KAT and Gobert rode the pine, optimism was at a preseason peak. Minnesota was unbeaten in four road games, and the “Northern Heights” tandem was finally going to test-drive their teamwork in the lone home game and preseason finale against Brooklyn last Friday night.
Fears were ratified at both ends of the court. The central dilemma of the Gobert/KAT pairing – can Towns go out and cover opponents on the perimeter, consistent with the duties of a power forward – as dramatized by the uncertainty of his decision-making and the limitations of his foot speed. Frequently he was caught in no man’s land, which partially (but not fully) explains why his teammates were likewise compromised on defense.
On offense, the uber-talented starters mostly abandoned the first principles espoused by head coach Chris Finch – move the ball and move without the ball. On the contrary, there was a surfeit of isolation hero ball, especially from typical culprits Ant and DLo, and a reliance on getting Gobert involved in pick-and-rolls, which are normally his forte but less so when the play-type is telegraphed so deliberately.
After the game, Finch reminded the media that he expected this first pairing of bigs to be “clunky,” and chided the team for not executing the offense with the sort of natural flow that feeds the abundant hunger of multiple scorers sharing the floor. But when the team convened for its next practice following an off day on Saturday, Forbes told the media that sharpening the defense was the dominant point of emphasis.
A wake-up call
Count me among those who regarded the desultory loss to Brooklyn as a wake-up call. Under normal circumstances I’d take into account that Gobert and KAT have spent a ridiculously small amount of time together, and that KAT in particular faces significant defensive adjustments while logging time at a power forward position for which he is not physically well-suited. Besides, Finch already anticipated this pairing of bigs to become a work in progress on defense, saying in our interview last month that he would wait and see how opponents attacked before tailoring the tweaks in his scheme.
But Finch didn’t factor in KAT’s illness and the near-total lack of practice as well as game time the two bigs would experience. So even the fundamentals involved in their defending together aren’t up to speed.
It is encouraging that some synergy was being fostered during preseason games when the Wolves were playing a drop coverage scheme with Gobert at center and a high-wall scheme with KAT at center. In other words, the rest of the roster is getting diversified and can thus eventually succeed at some of the drop/high-wall hybrids that Finch hopes to implement as the schemes become more familiar.
But that does not budge the truculent truth that the Wolves are currently vulnerable on defense when Gobert and KAT share the floor, and that games that count in the standings are due to arrive on a thrice-weekly basis in a matter of hours.
That’s one relevant time frame. Another is that Gobert is under contract for the next four years, and KAT’s deal extends a year beyond that. They will collectively receive over $400 million during that span. That commitment of time and money mandates that the pair develop a synergy that enables them to log significant minutes together.
We’ll know soon, of course, but what seems most likely is that Gobert and KAT will be staggered more frequently at the outset of the season while they workshop and refine their play together in practice and go over film from the early games. Thanks to Connelly’s bountiful off-season pickups, there are solid options surrounding both bigs when they operate at center.
But learning the ways KAT and Gobert can best be synergized will be a trial-and-error process that will likely hurt the Wolves in the short term. Fortunately, the early schedule provides some wiggle room, with a plethora of home games and inferior foes on the docket. Six of the first seven games (five of them at home) are against teams that shed their star players and/or are obviously rebuilding. These includes three games against San Antonio, two versus Oklahoma City and one against Utah. If you spread them out over the course of the season, you’d pencil wins for each. But earlier in the season, hope is still frisky for young squads, and an upset or two is reasonable under the circumstances.
The KAT/Gobert experiment will be the dominant storyline of the Wolves 2022-23 season. But there are other issues, hopes and concerns that will be compelling to watch as the team is expected march to the playoffs unfolds. In the interest of concision, here they are in bullet-point form.
A dominant flow on offense
If the scoring talent on this roster can be properly channeled, the Wolves should have a top-five offense. But that will require players following Finch’s principles of ball movement and movement without the ball while tailoring their games toward what they do best.
For example, nobody was more efficient finishing off pick-and-roll plays than Gobert, who feasts on buckets close to the rim. Nearly 80% of his shots are within three feet of the hoop, 41% of them dunks. That’s why he has led the NBA in effective field goal percentage the past two seasons despite never making a single three-pointer. Yet for some reason, both Finch and KAT are intent on unlocking more aspects of Gobert’s offense. Why fix a shot mix that isn’t broken? The threat of Rudy rolling to the rim already magnetizes defenders, and the Wolves have a bevy of others who need scoring opportunities.
A similar scenario applies to Ant, who has been talking up his midrange game lately. In this case Finch is applying proper pushback. With more focus and experience, Ant can be dominant at the two most value-added shots in the game –drives to the rim and three-pointers. Thus far, the eye test on those drives and treys are spectacular, but the results reveal middling efficiency. Fostering ball movement and moving without the ball – especially in transition – will hone those skills and boost his efficiency.
Like Ant, DLo needs to dribble less and initiate more in the half court sets. As the team’s point guard, he has the glorious choice of running pick-and-roll with Gobert, dishing to KAT for an above-the-break three, feeding Ant in the weak side slot for a drive, hoisting a skip pass to McDaniels for a corner trey or baseline drive, or burying the jumper. Quicker play-making runs counter to his personal rhythm but better fits Finch’s offensive template.
As for KAT, he needs to remember that his phenomenally accurate shot from anywhere on the court is his meat-and-potatoes. The passing is the gravy.
Connelly’s blockbuster gambit upended conventional wisdom, a sure way to generate controversy. The spotlight will be focused on how the Wolves fare this season to a degree that precious few core members of the roster have experienced. Unfairly or not, both Gobert and KAT have been tagged as performers who falter in the playoffs. Now they are the focal points of an experiment that will develop through trial and error.
Finch has mentioned how important PatBev was in getting a young team to believe in itself. Nobody on the current roster has his combination of feistiness and gravitas – just as nobody on the roster epitomizes hustle and sweat equity with the dogged gusto Vanderbilt brought every night.
Bottom line, the Wolves will encounter higher expectations and more intense scrutiny than in recent history. The primary chemists of their old identity have departed, and their top two stars must learn to play with each other while knowing they have a lot to prove. Even the better roster depth could be costly to chemistry, as vets like Forbes and Rivers, who have played their way into the rotations of deep playoff teams, encounter stiff competition for minutes. Finch’s mettle as a coach will be tested.
Usually the phrase “wait until next year” is a way to rationalize failure and prop up hope against scant evidence that it is justified. But the Wolves are in a remarkably enviable position in terms of team continuity. Aside from DLo’s expiring deal this season, every member of the starting lineup is for all practical purposes (like Ant and McDaniels accepting lucrative contract extensions) locked up for at least four years.
Even if the Wolves sputter and their resilience crumbles, there is a high floor (barring injuries or scandal) on the bottom line performance. During Gobert’s nine years in Utah, the Jazz never finished lower than 10th in defensive efficiency – his rebounding and rim protection is that good. And even if the Wolves don’t maximize the abundant scoring prowess, DLo and Ant bogart possessions and KAT dishes to Rudy instead of burying the trey, it is hard to imagine this roster finishing below the top ten teams in offensive efficiency – they were seventh last season with Vando’s awkward shooting and PatBev’s clanking jumpers.
Meanwhile too much has been invested in the KAT and Rudy pairing for the organization not to figure it out. But if they can’t, the worst-case scenario trap door is to trade the veterans and rebuild around Ant and McDaniels. So however it plays out, year two of the grand experiment will likely be better and certainly will be compelling.
At the period of peak preseason optimism – the day between vanquishing the Lakers and the fiasco against the Nets – I predicted on Dane Moore’s podcast that the Wolves would win 51 games and finish with the fourth seed in the Western Conference, which would grant them home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
But the size of the learning curve I witnessed last Friday night has spooked me. It is hard for me to imagine this team going beneath 44 wins and being involved in the play-in series involving teams that finish 7th through 10th in the standings. But that is three or four wins below the floor I had for them (again, barring catastrophic circumstances) before the Nets game.
An overreaction? Hopefully. But 52 wins and a third seed is a slightly lower ceiling than my original feeling, and now 49 or 50 wins seems like a more comfortable middle zone that could bump them down to fifth or sixth.
I would now describe my feeling about the 2022-23 Timberwolves as “partly cloudy.” It is a deceptively grim phrase – a partly cloudy day is actually sunnier than a “partly sunny” day – because of the implied threat of a pleasant day being besmirched by some random shade or precipitation.
The solar power (or talent) on the Wolves roster is significant and exciting, and should warm the hearts of the team’s faithful through much of the season. But there will likely be some shade, maybe even a little rain on the parade. It’s not likely to last too long – remember, the forecast is partly cloudy – and in any event, the skies will almost certainly clear with a new calendar.