The October trash bin is stuffed with smug assumptions.
It was to be a month of mostly delightful intrigue, unsettling by the very nature of this new Minnesota Timberwolves roster, but ultimately a jolly good show, a well-teased preamble to a boffo 2022-23 NBA season.
As the temps chilled to regular-season basketball weather, the tall trees of Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert would flaunt their foliage, and even if and when their colors clashed, it would create a resplendent tableau. Better yet, their bloom would be complemented by a rich supporting cast. What were once surrounding saplings had their own expanding circumference and lengthy tentacles, their own variety of irrefutable maturations. Be it the deep freeze of winter or the heat of competition for playoff spots through the spring, the sound roots and sturdy fiber of this majestic forestry experiment in hoops management would not be deterred.
Or so it was assumed.
The assumption was that the Wolves would struggle a bit to align skill sets, coordinate rhythms and essentially crystallize teamwork, but inevitably show signs of figuring it out. The assumption was that, even during this feeling-out period, their seven October opponents were sufficiently flawed and fallible to fall victim almost every time.
But the Wolves are not figuring it out. During Sunday night’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs they engaged in less-preferred, survival-oriented fallback strategies at both ends of the court.
On offense, they rarely invoked, let alone succeeded at, the ball movement and movement without the ball that are the first principles preached by Coach Chris Finch. Instead, the majority of points mustered by the starters came from first Towns and then Anthony Edwards utilizing their superior individual skills to score in isolation.
On defense, the plan to utilize drop coverage when KAT and Gobert share the court and concentrate on “high-wall” coverage when Gobert sits and KAT slides over to center – and eventually execute a hybrid of the two schemes – has become increasingly untenable.
When I asked Finch in September what would happen if Gobert and KAT couldn’t synch well on defense, he replied with a rueful laugh, “A lot of zone and a lot of switching.” Well, lately the Wolves have been playing a lot of zone and a lot of switching.
In a Zoom press conference after Sunday’s game, beat writer Dane Moore asked Finch if he wanted to retain this level of zone and switching or eventually peel it back.
“Right now we are doing what I think the game needs,” Finch responded. “We wanted to play zone: They have certain lineups where they don’t give you a lot of shooting (and we) had to slow down their offense a little bit. Same with the switching. We don’t bring enough physicality to the defense on the floor right now.”
Despite these early compromises (and stubborn player departures) from their preferred template, the Wolves still limped to a 4-3 October record (0-1 thus far in November) while being favored by no fewer than 5.5 points in every game of what was regarded as an extraordinarily forgiving early schedule. Even when they did manage to overcome their less-talented foes, they often did not match the dogged effort and crisp execution of their opponents.
Granted, there is room for rationalization. Six of those games were against San Antonio (three times), Oklahoma City (twice) and Utah, teams that were not expected to even make the 10-team “play-in” games in the 15-team Western Conference. Yet the Spurs are 2-1 against the Wolves and 3-1 against everyone else; OKC lost twice to Minnesota and have won three out of four otherwise; and the win over the Wolves was just one of Utah’s five victories against two losses.
There have also been grounds for optimism. Balancing the booms and busts of immaturity, four players aged 23 or younger have improved, including starters Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, and guard Jaylen Nowell and forward-center Naz Reid off the bench. Gobert has demonstrated why he is an elite defensive rebounder and rim protector. KAT is working hard and in good faith trying to adapt to a very different context for him at both ends of the court. Taurean Prince is reprising his sparkplug second half of the 2021-22 season and Jordan McLaughlin remains the Wolves gold standard of value and efficiency.
Yet overall, this talented roster has not lived up to the sum of its individual parts, let alone synergized them. Sure, some of that is trying to integrate a pair of centers into a complementary frontcourt at a time when the NBA is effectively honing the benefits of space (three-pointers and drive-and-kick plays) and pace (small quick lineups pushing transition). Some of that is immaturity from the aforementioned consequential youth on the roster. And some of that is due to the sporadic absence of two vital “glue guys” – J-Mac and forward Kyle Anderson – because of injury.
But the problems cut deeper than that. Thus far these Wolves are neither quick nor rugged, and lacking both at the same time makes each vice exponentially worse. Finch has harped on the need for more physicality after almost every game, especially when it comes to fighting through picks and otherwise containing the ball handler, arguably the coach’s first principle on defense. The two players who were best at it last season, Jarred Vanderbilt and Patrick Beverley, were sent to Utah as part of the Gobert trade. Neither member of the starting backcourt, Ant and point guard D’Angelo Russell, have expended enough grit and initiative to address the problem. McDaniels does it well but frequently flirts with foul trouble. KAT is a woefully slow power forward and Gobert belongs to rim protection.
During his first season-and-a-half at the helm, Finch frequently disparaged switching on defense, saying is sapped accountability for guarding your man. He wouldn’t be using it unless ineptitude at other methods made it necessary.
Quickness is equal parts alertness, athleticism and extra effort. When San Antonio ran the Wolves off the floor in their first meeting of the season, all three attributes were missing, with abject laziness naturally standing out. Since that embarrassing fiasco, the effort has improved. The relative lack of athletic quickness when KAT and Gobert share the floor has been assuaged some by the Wolves de-emphasizing offensive rebounds in order to get back earlier in transition defense – they were shut out on the offensive glass in the second meeting with the Spurs, the lone victory of their three matchups thus far. As for alertness, this is a huge weakness for Ant on the defensive end, but everyone, even Gobert, has been prone to lapses.
My emphasis on defensive woes may seem misplaced, especially since the Wolves currently rank fifth in defensive efficiency and 22nd in offensive efficiency. Some of that has to do with the slate of opponents they have faced thus far. The Spurs are the only foe more successful on offense (11th) than defense (21st). Otherwise you have the huge offense/defense splits of the Lakers (30th/2nd), the Thunder (26th/6th) and the Jazz (18th/8th).
What stands out on offense is the shortage of firepower from beyond the three-point arc. The Wolves have dropped from first to 16th in the number of three point attempts, and from 12th (35.8%) to 26th (31.8%) in three-point accuracy compared to a year ago. The biggest factors here are the clanking of KAT, whose percentage is down from 41% to 34.1%, and the inability to replace the volume and accuracy of three-point specialist Malik Beasley. Only Prince and Naz have upped their accuracy compared to last season. Ant has declined slightly to 34.5%, while DLo and Nowell have dropped precipitously, to below 30%.
Other factors retarding offensive prowess and efficiency include a preponderance of hero-ball isolations at the expense of ball movement and the energy spent trying to incorporate Gobert into the flow without siphoning KAT’s versatility and accuracy.
Ugly to watch
It shouldn’t be more important than the Wolves merely mediocre won-lost record, but in addition to underachieving on expectations thus far this season, Minnesota simply isn’t playing an enjoyable brand of hoops, especially compared to last season’s reliable elixir. The Wolves of 2021-22 won with defensive hustle and smart, unselfish offense. They pressured foes into turnovers, then pounced on points in transition, slung the ball around from the arc to the rim for high-efficiency looks in the half-court. Defenders flew around covering for each other and between Ant and KAT the buckets flowed in frequently dazzling fashion.
But if you think you are disheartened by the shoddy aesthetics of the Wolves current operation, consider the ironic plight of Finch.
Nobody has coached a Wolves team better than Finch did in 2021-22, an unexpectedly successful season laden with his fingerprints. He was the one who devised the scrappy high-wall offense that turned KAT from a defensive liability into a decent cog, thus elevating his star’s confidence and the team’s identity. He was the one who preferred rapid ball movement and movement without the ball to the league’s typically numbing diet of pick-and-rolls and predictable isos. You want space and pace? Nobody jacked up more threes or jammed as many possessions into a game than did the Wolves last season.
Now teams that played like last year’s Wolves are potential kryptonite for this year’s Wolves.
One of the most jarring things I heard during this momentous off-season was at Gobert’s introductory press conference after the trade in July, when Finch proclaimed that Gobert was a “perfect” and “seamless” fit for the Wolves. When I asked him about it in September, he talked about how Gobert’s defensive rebounding and rim protection provided the team with something that was sorely missing in 2021-22.
Obviously there is much to appreciate about a player of Gobert’s caliber, and the fact that president of basketball operations Tim Connelly refused to part with Finch favorite McDaniels also surely strengthened his opinion and outlook regarding the trade. But even so, it was hard for me not to think that Finch was being a good soldier within the Wolves organization with his hyperbolic talk about how well and easily Gobert would fit in beside the remaining core on the roster.
That philosophical dissonance is now awkwardly pressing to the fore. One of the virtues of Finch with both players and the media is the clarity of what he wants and what he likes. Specially, he likes to play at a fast pace, with a scrambling defense and an offense that emphasizes rapid ball-and-player movement, often at the expense of the pick-and-roll. Gobert has traditionally played at a slower pace, and having KAT and Gobert on the floor at the same time almost mandates a slower pace than what the Wolves deployed last season. Gobert is elite at finishing on the pick-and-roll; indeed putbacks on offensive rebounds and pick-and-roll finishes have pretty much comprised his entire offensive contribution throughout his career.
Yes, rim protection has always been a huge priority for Finch, and on that count, Gobert delivers. But Finch also prioritizes pressure on the ball handler, and the departure of rugged defenders and the toggling between drop and high-wall schemes have significantly diminished this pressure, to the point where Finch is leaning more into zone and switches – things he dislikes – merely to approximate pressure and positioning, with the added disadvantage of less accountability.
On offense, Finch finally conceded in his postgame Zoom Monday night that, “Right now we run a ton of pick and roll with Rudy on the floor. A ton of it may be too much. Teams are in a drop coverage and it has got us bottled up a little bit. I’d like to see some more ball movement and less pick and roll at times. Opportunities to find some guys and other options in the flow.”
While in Utah, Gobert often let it be known that he would like to be more involved in the offensive sets. Beginning with the July press conference, Finch has sought to appease that sentiment by talking about moving Gobert around the floor and also posting him up more often as he seals his man down low. KAT has picked the mantra, announcing that he is going to “unlock” Gobert’s offensive potential. And give KAT credit for making good on that vow with an assortment of creative dimes to his fellow big.
But working to get Gobert off on offense when KAT, Ant, and DLo are also on the floor begs a retort similar to what Finch told Ant when Ant said he was going to work on his midrange game. No, continue to refine what you do best, honing goodness into greatness, rather than emphasizing something that isn’t, or shouldn’t, be that prominent in the first place. It is not news that Gobert has an unreliable handle and a fairly clumsy shooting touch from beyond 18 inches of the rim. For those reasons he is not an efficient scoring option when receiving the ball and trying to score at any time when another player is between him and the basket. It certainly shouldn’t take precedence over featuring dynamic scorers via the proven method of Finch’s first principles on offense.
Too early to “blow things up”
Those who want to abandon the Gobert/KAT experiment are both shrill and delusional. As I have said many times, the amount of salary treasure and length of timeline invested in the Gobert trade requires that every effort be exhausted discovering a way for the best defensive center and one of the two best offensive centers to coexist. This trade locks in not only the two bigs but two other young emerging talents in Ant and McDaniels for at least the next four years. We are currently eight games into the process.
That said, the Wolves are 4-4 against a weak schedule and now step way up in class, with Phoenix (again), Milwaukee, Memphis and Cleveland all on the docket over the next two weeks. Unless the Wolves dramatically improve, or otherwise figure out a way to ascend to the higher level of competition, the clamor for change will be loud.
Two possible changes come to mind, both elevating J-Mac and de-emphasizing, perhaps even scapegoating, DLo. The first is to routinize the play of a second unit that has provided the most dynamic, Finch-friendly performances of the season thus far. That would be a small ball carnival featuring Naz at center, Prince at power forward, Ant at small forward, Nowell at shooting guard, and J-Mac at point guard. Call it the “Iowa Ants” unit, given that three of its members first honed their remarkable teamwork in the Iowa G-league.
Providing this quintet with regular minutes would wreak havoc on the current rotations and compel Finch to devote much more time to Gobert and KAT together, with very little staggering of their play. Obviously there could be tweaks and staggered minutes for the Iowa Ants quintet too, depending on matchups, foul trouble and a further search for synergy. But at the onset of the season, Finch was loathe to lose what he called the “fly around” mentality of last year’s team, and that is exactly what is happening now. To restore it will likely require a dramatic response.
If Finch doesn’t want to totally scramble the rotations with a higher profile for the Iowa Ants, he could simply replace DLo with J-Mac in the starting lineup. This would reliably enhance the pace and ball movement of the starters. While J-Mac is hardly the scoring threat DLo presents on the pick-and-roll, he is a deft passer with great timing on the play, and Gobert’s elite finishing capability would still give the play gravity. More J-Mac might also take KAT off the ball a little more, giving him more catch-and-shoot opportunities instead.
As for defense, J-Mac can be bullied off the bounce but DLo is often a matador so it becomes a moot point how Gobert is left to clean up on the opponent’s dribble penetration. And out on the perimeter, despite his diminutive size, J-Mac is arguably the more disruptive defender. Asked on Monday night the ways in which J-Mac – out for the past two games with a sore ankle – was missed, Finch replied, “We missed what J-Mac always brings – a spark and a catalyst for that second unit and that competitiveness. He wins a lot of 50-50 balls and the things we were getting beat at, at times out there.”
Finch was likely thinking about the half-dozen long rebounds that bounced on the floor before being corralled by a Spur. Getting to those balls is a J-Mac specialty. It is one of the reasons why J-Mac not only has the best offensive efficiency on the team, which scores 124.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, but also the best defensive efficiency, with the Wolves permitting only 97.3 points per 100 possessions when he plays. Yes it is a small sample size, but J-Mac was a net ratings darling last season as well. Good things seem to happen when he checks in. That’s why, as Finch has noted, so many players wanted to share the court with him in the second unit last season that the coach wondered who would be left in the starting lineup.
Time to demote DLo?
It would be impossible to spin DLo going to the second unit as anything other than a demotion, a move that would reverberate through the roster. DLo has been forced to contend with large personalities such as Ricky Rubio and PatBev encroaching on his point guard duties and/or his playing time the past two seasons and is understandably jealous of his standing. What’s more, he is in a contract year.
But his best recourse is better defense, better ball movement, improved accuracy and shot selection, and, above all, quicker decision-making that removes the cat-and-mouse instinct that defines his style. That’s a huge ask. Removing DLo from the starting lineup is thus fraught; one way or another, it would have a dramatic impact on the Wolves fortunes through the course of this season.
But without steady improvement in the status quo, deploying at least shards of the type of exciting, successful basketball that occurred last season, the status of the 2022-23 Timberwolves will be fraught anyway.