The Minnesota Timberwolves like to toy with the Houston Rockets. The superiority complex is understandable, insofar as the Rockets are the NBA’s worst, most shambolic basketball team by a fairly wide margin. Their offense sneers at teamwork — they are next-to-last in assists, commit the most turnovers, get their shots blocked the most and score the fewest points per possession of any of the 30 NBA clubs. Their defense allows the third-most points per possession.
If the opponent is focused and unified on the fundamentals of the game, the Rockets will beat themselves.
That’s what the Wolves discovered in their first meeting back on Nov. 5. Minnesota had entered the 2022-23 season with sky-high hopes that the blockbuster trade for Rudy Gobert would power them to championship contention. But a three-game losing streak had set them below .500 for the first time in the young season, at 4-5, and Gobert was missing his first game due to injury.
Fortunately, the Rockets had already lost eight of their first nine games and were ready to roll over. After playing on even terms for the first eight minutes of the game (Houston’s largest lead was two points), the Wolves stepped on the gas, were up by 19 at the half, and the lead was never less than double-digits the rest of the way.
The schedule-makers gifted the Wolves with a cluster of matchups with the Rockets this month: A game in Houston Jan. 8 and then a home-and-away pairing this past Saturday and Monday. In their first matchup of the new year, the Wolves were overconfident. They’d won four in a row, the Rockets had dropped six in a row, and they allowed Houston to surge to a 20-point lead midway through the second quarter. But that was erased shortly after halftime, and the team escaped with an eight-point win.
On Saturday, Minnesota teased it out a little longer. A 10-point Rockets run coming out of halftime boosted Houston’s lead to a dozen four minutes into the second half. It required a season-high 44 points from Anthony Edwards and energetic physicality from backup center Nathan Knight to post a nine-point win. It was an ugly win by a team that frankly seemed disinterested in long-term development.
A lazy opponent
All season long, the Wolves have had a problem sustaining focus. Almost all of their weaknesses — poor rebounding, difficulty competing effectively in transition basketball on both offense and defense, a proclivity for turnovers, and bouts of selfish offense manifested through wretched shot selection — stem from an inattention to detail and effort. In other words, mental and physical laziness.
By Monday night in Houston, the Wolves were overripe for a major comeuppance. They had pissed away two fourth-quarter leads in otherwise decently competitive losses to Utah and Denver and allowed Toronto to dictate the terms of play for most of the game before surging back for a fourth-quarter comeback of their own at home against the Raptors. But win or lose, the common theme was they took their grooves for granted, got too giddy to sustain the flow, wanted the endorphin more than the nourishment.
Then came the closest thing you can get to an embarrassing win on Saturday over the hapless Rockets — Houston’s 13th straight loss.
By Monday the Timberwolves had lulled themselves into ineptitude, believing they were again toying with the Rockets, when in fact they were reminding this terrible young team desperate for a win that they had a real chance against a lazy opponent willing to squander their superior skills.
On the game’s first possession, Ant ignored a wide-open DLo perched just behind the top of the three-point arc and missed a contested turnaround midrange jumper. At the other end of the floor, Houston tracked a loose offensive rebound to extend their first possession. Then both Ant and Gobert (playing for the first time in four games after a minor groin injury) both went after the ball-handler, DLo didn’t pick up the leftover man cutting to the basket, and Kyle Anderson was forced to foul him going up for a layup after receiving the pass.
The Rockets scored again after Tari Eason wrested a “50-50” loose ball away from Ant and dunked it in after the other eight players had headed up the court thinking Ant would win the battle. Then DLo took the inbounds, ignored his teammates and clanked a contested midrange jumper along the baseline. Twenty seconds later, Ant drove the ball into the top of the paint in transition, ignored Jaden McDaniels available for a lob or dish near the rim, and got stripped going up for a layup.
With all 10 players in the half court with Houston on offense, Jalen Green sped right past McDaniels off the dribble and successfully challenged the oncoming Gobert for a layup at the rim. On the Wolves next possession, Gobert ignored two open teammates on the perimeter and attempted an awkward spin move to his left that resulted in a left-handed underhanded shot that bounced off the backboard without hitting the rim. Houston then ran a half-court play where Eason received a bounce pass for a layup after beating DLo on a cut to the hoop.
With three minutes and six seconds gone in the game, the Rockets led 9-0.
From there the game see-sawed back and forth, and the Wolves trailed by just one point with exactly five minutes to play. But as Wolves radio announcer Alan Horton noted on his Twitter feed, the Wolves missed their next nine shots over the four-minute span, resulting in a 9-1 Rockets run that sealed the game. The final was 119-114, snapping a 13-game losing streak for Houston and preventing the Wolves from going over .500 for the first time since Dec. 19.
“We needed to start with a businesslike approach and we were down nine-nothing, which pretty much told me what I knew was going to be in for the rest of the game,” Timberwolves Coach Chris Finch said afterward. Two other, “big picture” quotes regarding the season to-date further reflected his frustration. “You are what you repeatedly do. We repeatedly struggle with these types of games. Focus certainly has to be part of the problem,” he said, and later added, “We have the ability to beat anybody and the ability to lose to anybody. That has been on display all season and that’s an immature trait.”
Outlook vs. success
As someone who has covered the Timberwolves since 1990, I am struck by the discrepancy between the attitude and outlook toward this current Wolves group and the level of success they have achieved on the court. It is common knowledge that the pinnacle of this Wolves franchise, the lone season in their 34-year history where they moved beyond the first round of the playoffs, was in 2003-04, when Kevin Garnett was MVP and the team lost in the Western Conference Finals. In the 19 seasons since then, only one team — the 2017-18 squad featuring Jimmy Butler alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, with Tom Thibodeau on the sidelines — has posted a better won-lost record after 49 games than the Wolves current mark of 24-25. (Three other teams matched that 2022-23 record.)
Got that? After 49 games, the record of the current Wolves is tied for the second-best posted by this franchise in the last 19 years.
The individual components are even more impressive. This Wolves outfit is blessed with a 21-year old guard (Edwards) and a 22-year old forward (McDaniels) who reasonably can be regarded as potentially crucial cogs on a legitimate NBA championship contender. It contains a historically accurate volume-shooting big man (KAT) and a historically effective rim protector (Gobert), locked up for the next three years after this one. It has a head coach (Finch) who recently had his contract extended after turning in one of the best performances — I would regard it as the best — guiding a ballclub in franchise history. And they have a president of basketball operations (Tim Connelly) widely regarded as one of the best personnel men in the game, lured from Denver via a monster long-term contract.
So why has my coverage — and the general tenor of fan sentiment — been much more negative than the existing personnel and performances suggest it should be?
An awkward fit
The answer to that comes in concentric circles that inevitably lap into each other. In the most immediate, inner circle is the fact that this team lacks character. They have not demonstrated the type of focus and commitment necessary to discover and sustain the elements of teamwork that create synergy and produce an identity. That’s what the first half of this column was about, right down to Finch’s postgame comments.
A primary reason why the team lacks character is because everyone knows, or least strongly suspects, that the main components comprise an awkward fit, creating fundamental obstacles to the synergy necessary for a happy, productive, environment.
I have written extensively about elements of this already. Gobert is an elite defender and rim protector in drop coverage defense, but the vast majority of the Wolves players perform better and more in sync via a scrappier, more free-wheeling, high-wall coverage defense. On offense, Finch prefers to run a fast-paced scheme with a lot of ball movement and player movement away from the ball. But that is at odds with the skills and instincts of his primary floor general (DLo). There is also the issue of accommodating the elite but extremely specific skills of Gobert as a scorer at the rim — especially given how much usage is required to get the most out of Ant and KAT.
Another “fit” issue is that the leadership among the players on this roster is too diffuse. There is nobody whose personality in the locker room, performance on the court and experience in the NBA combine to make him a broad-based alpha figure. Austin Rivers is feisty, Taurean Prince is sage, Kyle Anderson is a top-notch lieutenant, but none of them fill the void. With a little more seasoning Ant is the obvious choice, and he is being rushed into the role by default this season, with predictably mixed results.
The concentric circle beyond those of character and fit involves uncertainties in the direction forward. The trade for Gobert was the boldest personnel move in franchise history, a championship-contender-or-bust gambit that both significantly raised the stakes and dramatically reduced the contingencies possible under the existing blueprint.
This has an impact on issues such as the point guard position. DLo may be a poor fit in some ways, but his overvalued contract provides financial flexibility under the byzantine terms of the salary cap. If you let him walk, it will be difficult to obtain a more synergistic replacement.
That said, the DLo situation is dwarfed by other roster reckonings. My biggest doubt about the ultimate success of the Gobert trade involved having to play KAT and his size-20 shoes as a defender out on the perimeter in the space-and-pace style of the modern NBA game. Although the analytics indicated that the pairing marred his offensive efficiency more than his defense, the optics indicated that KAT was sacrificing a lot of comfort at both ends of the court for precious little team gain.
Of course KAT has been out with a severe calf strain since Nov. 28, with an open timetable on his return that is probably not likely until after the All-Star break in mid-February. During his absence, Ant has established himself as the alpha playmaker on offense, one of the few heartening developments of the 2022-23 season but one that is again likely to restrict the role and influence of KAT. Finch has already stated that he will likely be used more as a floor-spacing, catch-and-shoot threat from the corners and above the break.
Are Tim Connelly and the other architects in the front office anticipating how to assuage KAT, who they signed just this summer to a four-year, $214 million supermax extension that goes through the 2027-28 season? Because of the personnel amassed on this roster, he will be paid in excess of $50 million each year to play a defensive position that doesn’t suit him and occupy a more complementary role on offense. In terms of “straw-that-stirs-the-drink” impact, that is a double demotion.
The abiding question here is whether Connelly and company conclude the Gobert trade was a mistake and cut their losses to mitigate it. The logic of human nature says they will not. This was a career-defining trade for Connelly, and he has a very sturdy excuse for seeing it through: KAT and Gobert have played a mere total of 401 minutes together thus far, hardly a sufficient sample size to overturn such a seismic roster maneuver. In fact, if Connelly bailed now, he would forever be kicking himself for not holding fast to his original convictions about the deal.
He may be right. He had the support of Finch and the new ownership. He had me convinced enough to call for a 50-win season.
But from the time they finally took the floor together in the final preseason game against Brooklyn, the plain truth is that Gobert and KAT have not been synergistic; if anything they have diminished each other out on the court. Even worse, neither one has performed up to past standards when they have played without the other.
Sure, the easy retort is that this is a large adjustment for two extremely gifted players who have spent their entire careers before this season playing the same position and flourishing under very different, time-tested schemes and responsibilities. And they have not had nearly enough time to work out the kinks of that adjustment.
But when that feeling-out process resumes, how much of the past 6 weeks without KAT, and occasionally Gobert too, will remain usable and relevant? How will maximizing KAT and Gobert take precedence over the habits and progressions that have taken place without them? How much of this season will have been placeholder time?
Time will tell. But how long will it take before time delivers convincing answers for the front office and coaching staff?
Toward a mature approach
Are there better days ahead for a roster that has already produced the second-best won-lost record through 49 games of any Wolves team since 2004? If so, this team will need to mature in their approach to the game beyond endorphin highs, into the type of nourishment that fosters muscle-memory in the brain and in willpower as well as the hamstrings.
It will need to reconcile the drop coverage and high-wall coverage defensive schemes in a way that ratifies the faithful use of both, supplemented by switch partners and zone coverages and favorable player tandems at that end of the court.
It will need to sort out roster rotations that create more reliable backcourt scoring off the bench and ways for Ant to bear enough of the offensive load to foster his court vision without either stinting or over-relying on his miraculous skills and athleticism. (Hint: Ant thrives with a faster pace.)
It will need to further develop player combinations that provide mutual sustenance, the way Slo Mo has been able to crystallize the strengths of Gobert’s game and make himself even more indispensable. A priority here is finding a KAT whisperer to magnify both his on-court talents and his locker-room narrative regarding his place in the team’s pecking order.
At the coaching level, it will need Finch and his staff to get tougher on chronic mental and physical miscues, wielding the cudgel of playing time, and mix in more deliberate play calls and purposeful defensive schemes. Finch likes to give his players a lot of leeway. But he has also said that in the absence of needed leadership, it is up to the coaches to step in. Right now he looms as the first scapegoat in line if this team continues to play below the level of its perceived collective talent.
Easy schedule, disappointing results
According to the metrics at basketball-reference.com, the Wolves have played the second-easiest schedule in the NBA thus far. They have lost six times to the teams with the four worst records, winning only four, with two games remaining.
Staying with the data at basketball-reference.com, the Wolves rank 19th in margin of victory, 23rd in “simple rating system” (a blend of strength of schedule and margin of victory), 20th in offensive rating and 14th in defensive rating.
Over at nba.com, the Wolves are 16th in offensive efficiency and 13th in defensive efficiency. They are 19th in net rating (offense minus defense). They are ninth in the Western Conference standings, a game and a half out of 12th and a game and a half out of 5th.
After tonight’s road game in New Orleans, the team returns for its longest homestand of the season — six games, four of them against opponents with winning records, plus the underachieving Golden State Warriors. Then it is four road games, three against opponents with winning records plus a Utah Jazz team that has beaten them two out of three thus far.
But as Finch noted after Monday night’s game, the outcome of the game has less to do with the opponent than the Wolves themselves, who are capable of beating or losing to anybody. That statement sounds more dynamic and exciting than the reality of the 2022-23 Timberwolves thus far, which has been a season of promises put on hold.