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Can the Wolves wake up from the nightmare start to the season?

The Wolves have dropped five of their past six contests and never held a lead beyond the first quarter in any of those defeats.

Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards drives to the basket while Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges, left, defends during the second quarter at Target Center on Wednesday night.
Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards drives to the basket while Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges, left, defends during the second quarter at Target Center on Wednesday night.
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The nightmare continues for the 2022-23 Minnesota Timberwolves.

It’s a terrible yet very mundane bad dream, a fugue state with the stock imagery of a freefall that lasts seemingly forever, without a thud. The Wolves would love to wake up from it, fling themselves bolt upright in bed and let a more soothing reality gradually take hold. But their eyes are already open. They are on a basketball court and people are booing. And in this awake nightmare, pressure and embarrassment, not pride and exertion, is causing this sweat.

The final count on Wednesday night was Phoenix 129, Minnesota 117, but the digits stopped determining this team’s margin of failure many games ago in this still-young season. The Wolves have dropped five of their past six contests and never held a lead beyond the first quarter in any of those defeats. They self-sabotage themselves with dispatch. They don’t come to compete – not coincidentally, that minimal standard slipped from their grasp when the freefall was initiated. By now their competitive rigor mortis and daft sense of entitlement is such that they’d pop champagne corks over a participation trophy.

The dominos tumble into each other from the top down and nobody should escape the blame. Hotshot minority owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez wanted to make a splash and lavished new president of basketball operations Tim Connelly with a contract lucrative enough for him to leave Denver.

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Connelly understood the splash directive and assembled a gleaming bouquet of current and future assets to obtain defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert to pair with offensive stalwart Karl-Anthony Towns despite the fact that both have played the same position throughout their NBA careers.

Head Coach Chris Finch operates with the belief that it is best to enable players as they forge their own path. But this roster lacks the inherent coherence necessary to create a path without continual reliance on a compass – their latent chemistry has been bushwhacked by chaos. You know the phrase, “f-around and find out?” Finch didn’t f-around enough with the internal dynamics of his core personnel during the preseason, especially as it related to the always dicey fit between KAT and Gobert. So now he is having trouble finding out how to fix this mess, made all the more complicated by the fact that the way Finch prefers to play basketball doesn’t mesh well with the skills bruited by his best players. Nor do those disparate skills necessarily mesh well with each other.

Consequently, this is a roster with a lot of fancy spangles and precious little glue to keep them from falling off the page. It is a roster with too many players who have difficulty both leading and following, who lack the will and gravitas to pivot and pilot a way through adversity, who are listening, hopefully, hopelessly, for an alarm clock that will simply signal that the nightmare is over.

Ant-Man needs to put on his superhero uniform

So why are we about to dwell on Anthony Edwards?

Because Ant has always been the linchpin of the plan, regardless of the way it evolves. If the significant and already-proven talents of KAT and Gobert find a way to complement instead of clash, the much-anticipated “leap” by Ant into perennial All Star consideration would elevate this team from playoff-worthy to legitimate championship contender sometime over the next four years.

On the other hand, if this bold experiment becomes the latest chapter in the Wolves fat scrapbook of pratfalls, the raw talent and elevated promise of 21-year-old Ant assures that yet another rebuild doesn’t have to start from scratch.

But there has been no leap from Ant thus far this season. On the contrary, in the aspects of his game that most need to be boosted – his scoring efficiency and his off-ball defense – there has been a disheartening stasis. Of perhaps even greater concern, the infectious, charismatic joy that suffuses his play and approach to the game – to life, for that matter – is rarely in evidence.

Through the first 12 games of the season, Ant’s 21 points scored per 36 minutes is a career low. His true shooting percentage of 54.0% is higher than his rookie season (52.3%) but well below last year’s career high of 56.0%. The stat that really jumps out is that, per, only 30.3% of his two-pointers and 53.3% of his treys have been the result of a teammate’s assist this season, compared to 39.2%/69.2% assisted from two-/three-point range his rookie season and 36.5%/55.3% last season.

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Some of this diminished teamwork stems from the stagnant overall offense the Wolves have been playing and some from what Finch described in his postgame presser on Wednesday as “the urge for a one-pass shot, a home-run play.” But whatever the cause, Ant’s has not been able to improve upon the high-volume, low-efficiency offense that marked his first two NBA seasons.

As of Thursday morning, he engaged in the 8th most “isolation” possessions among NBA players while producing a meager .92 points per play (PPP). Among the top 15 players in frequency of isolation plays, only Devin Booker had a lower PPP. Among all NBA players, Ant’s .92 PPP in isolation is below average, in the 45th percentile. It is not a new phenomenon; he was among the league leaders in frequency of isolation plays last year as well, and posted a .91 PPP that ranked in the 58th percentile. (In his rookie season the isos were less frequent but more productive, .97 PPP.)

To be sure, the sample-size remains very small with less than one-seventh of a season in the books, and there are also some positives in the numbers. The one area where Ant has improved his efficiency (albeit slightly), is on drives to the rim. According to, a career-high 32.7% of his field goal attempts have been taken within three feet of the basket, with an accuracy of 65.7% that is nearly identical to last season’s 65.8%. This facet of his game looks even better when you compare him only to other wing players, the way he is grouped on the Cleaning the Glass website. By their measure, Ant ranks in the 84th percentile among NBA wings in terms of shot-frequency at the rim, and in the 67th percentile in terms of shot-accuracy.

By contrast, however, Ant’s 28% shooting from midrange puts him in the 22nd percentile among wings (his midrange frequency is in the 33rd percentile), and his 35% shooting from three-point range is in the 37th percentile among wings (but about average in the NBA average overall). And there are other troubling signs: His assist-to-turnover ratio is the worst of his career thus far. He has a mere three dunks in a dozen games, compared to 70 and 58 dunks in his first two NBA seasons. And according to Cleaning the Glass, no NBA wing player is less accurate from the free throw line than Ant’s 66% at the charity stripe.

On defense, the numbers don’t match the eye test. Watching Ant, he works hard to be a diligent on-ball defender but struggles with his alertness and anticipation it comes to more team-oriented, off-ball schemes and duties. But the “defensive dashboard” metric at marks him as the least-effective on-ball defender in the Wolves 10-man rotation, allowing his man to shoot 3.5 percentage points better than the norm. (Treat that with a grain of salt, as the same metric ranks Naz Reid, D’Angelo Russell and KAT, in that order, as the most-effective on-ball defenders.)

Overall, the Wolves have allowed 109.5 points per 100 possessions in the 436 minutes Ant has been on the court this season and 110.3 points per 100 possessions in the 145 minutes he has sat. Dig a little deeper into lineup combinations and you see that much of this edge occurs when Ant plays with the more active subs. The Wolves allow fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions when Ant is paired with Jaylen Nowell or Jordan McLaughlin on the court, and 100.6 points per 100 possessions when he shares time with Naz. The lone fellow member of the Wolves starting lineup that boosts his defensive efficiency is Gobert – opponents score 104 points per 100 possessions when they are paired. The other three starters, KAT, DLo and Jaden McDaniels can’t keep opponents from scoring at least 110 points per 100 possessions when sharing the floor with Ant.

Fans and players agree: Nobody’s having fun

You don’t need any fancy figuring to realize that the guileless joy and inimitable gusto that characterized Ant’s first two NBA seasons has gone MIA here in year three of his career.

Obviously, no one connected with this diseased season is having fun on the Timberwolves right now. But, fair or not, Ant’s attitude may be the most consequential. His youthful mien, and honest, plainspoken perspective combined with his off-the-chart athleticism is the most obvious elixir to the doldrums.

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Then again, the Wolves are not currently built for maximum joy from Ant. DLo is the primary playmaker in the backcourt, and pick-and-roll plays between him and Gobert are as a necessary addition to the offense. At the other end of the court, the drop coverage defensive scheme forsakes the aggressive, scrambling style that produces turnovers and transition buckets. One of the ways Ant used to ignite himself and his teammates was by jumping the lane for steals and the court length drive-and-slams that came with them. But the scheme this season is a significant reason why he has the fewest steals per game of his career thus far.

After committing an appropriate foul when mismatched with Phoenix big man Deandre Ayton in the paint on Wednesday night, Ant drew a second whistle in the first period by foolishly pushing a player setting an innocuous screen that wasn’t even used as he guarded the un-athletic Landry Shamut out on the perimeter. That started him chirping with the refs, an ongoing joust that reached its nadir when Ant stopped to complain about a call in the third quarter while the Suns raced down the court with the man-advantage to score in transition.

Poor shot selection is another ongoing sign of Ant’s inability to rise up and seize the moment, becoming the catalyst that lifts the crowd out of its seats and galvanizes his teammates. After the Wolves looked disorganized and inert while allowing 39 points in the opening period on Wednesday, Ant began the second quarter with a ridiculous shot – a step-back three-pointer while being closely contested by 6’11” rookie Jock Lansdale.

At the other end of the spectrum, after trailing by more than 20 points with less than nine minutes left to play, the Wolves doggedly whittled the lead down to 11 with 3:09 to play. It was a moment tailor-made for a jolt of Ant, and when he took a deft feed from DLo in perfect shot rhythm coming down the court behind the three-point arc, everyone waited for the trey to fly or an up-fake leading to a thunderous slam.

Instead, Ant dribbled left into a double-team inside the arc, put on the brakes and awkwardly dribbled back out, squared himself for the three-pointer that the Suns were now much more prepared to defend, and wing-stopper Mikal Bridges did indeed offer an effective shot-contest and the jumper banged off the front iron. The Wolves never got closer the rest of the way.

After the game, I asked Finch about Ant’s malaise, first stressing that the question wasn’t meant to single him out among the team-wide ineptitude we had all just witnessed.

“Finishing. He’s got to go quicker,” Finch began. “He is not particularly seeing the floor as well as he can. I don’t know if he is confused about some of the reads out there, but he doesn’t seem to have that kind of pop in his eyes right now. He is also exerting a ton of energy on the defensive end and maybe that is taking some of its toll.”

Ten minutes later, as Ant sat wrapped in a towel in the locker room graciously taking questions. Asked if he could compare the current situation to the Wolves poor start last season, he replied, “Last year, when we came around we started going at (the opponent). I think we got to a point where, I mean. ‘We done losing.’ And we started going at everybody.”

I noted that he had always played the game with an infectious passion and that it looked like his fun was gone. “Yeah, for sure. It is not fun right now. Because we’re losing and I’m not playing at my best. I’ll find it,” he said with stubborn resolve. “I’ll find my joy, get it back. For sure.”