The watchword for the 2022-23 NBA season thus far has been unsettled.
The vast majority of the 30 teams are not exactly sure why they aren’t as good or as bad as they were supposed to be, turning the standings into a crabs-in-a-barrel clamber festival while fan bases alternately pump their fists and set their hair on fire. For weeks now, the distance between being in position to host a playoff series and being eliminated from the playoff race altogether has been less than a handful of games in the traditionally superior Western Conference. Wins and losses occurring with the random flippancy of a coin toss. With the rare exception of the Denver Nuggets, the cream is not rising to the top. It’s a milkshake, and the bubbles in the froth are reluctant to burst.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are in the thick of this jam-packed mediocrity. They have spent most of the season visibly trying to figure themselves out, but the goals, conclusions and results have stubbornly resisted the sort of synchronization that points to a coherent path forward. As of Tuesday morning, they were in eighth place in the Western Conference, a game away from fourth place that would earn home court advantage in a first-round playoff series, and a game-and-a-half above 11th place that would spell elimination even from the play-in games that determine the bottom rungs of the playoffs.
But something happened on Monday night in Dallas that felt legitimately, albeit still suspiciously, hopeful. All season long, it has felt like the Wolves have had to pick and choose which virtues to emphasize rather than forging a sustainable, synergistic balance. On Monday, a glorious synergy was on display for long portions of the game against a formidable Mavericks opponent. And there are reasons to think it might stick around with more reliable frequency over the remainder of the season.
Why should we believe now?
As mentioned in my last column, the most vexing problem preventing this team from gaining the traction of a viable identity has been its inability to reconcile its aggressive, “fly around” style and pace of play with the benefits of adhering to a disciplined, fundamental framework. The opportunities generated by aggression are more efficiently realized by discipline.
The most satisfying moments of this inconsistent season have come when the Wolves have found their fly-around groove. Up and down the court they romp, generating opponent turnovers through defensive pressure that results in transition points on offense. Whipping the ball around in space-and-pace heaven in the half-court offense for successful treys and layups that enable them to get back on defense alert with a shot of gleeful adrenaline.
But on the outside of that groove are fly-around damages. The Wolves commit the third-most fouls in the NBA, sending their opponents to the free-throw line more frequently than any other team. Only two teams commit more turnovers, and only three teams allow their opponents to score more points off those turnovers. Only three teams allow a higher percentage of offensive rebounds – often caused by a lack of positioning and boxing out – a large reason why the Wolves rank 18th in the number of second-chance points allowed.
Rudy Gobert was acquired to remedy many of these vices and broaden the stylistic palette of a team that couldn’t execute the common, basic drop-coverage defensive scheme last season that produces more rebounds and better protects the rim. But in the nine years Gobert was in Utah, the Jazz built nearly all of its defensive philosophy, and a decent chunk of its offense, around his strengths and away from his weaknesses. Consequently, Gobert usually performed the opposite of flying around: He deterred what was funneled toward him from the drop coverage on defense and scored at the rim on short pick and rolls and putbacks on offense.
A variety of circumstances led the Wolves’ inspirational versatility in Dallas. Both teams made significant moves at the trading deadline: The Mavs for the perpetually distracting but elite playmaking of Kyrie Irving to pair with their existing superstar Luka Doncic, giving up defensive specialist Dorian Finney-Smith, bench catalyst Spencer Dinwiddie and picks in the deal. The Wolves acquired veteran point guard Mike Conley and young wing Nickeil Alexander-Walker, plus second-round picks, for D’Angelo Russell.
For Minnesota, the real impact stems from swapping out D’Lo in favor of Conley, who in terms of style and temperament is a much better match for Gobert. With the media allowed back into the locker rooms this season, we have been able to see that Gobert is obviously the “adult in the room.” But it hasn’t been hard to glean that he has been treated by the cadre of younger players more like a stepfather than a blood relative; he’s usually getting treatment or quietly scanning his phone as others clown and converse.
Before the Conley trade, Gobert was the oldest member of the 15-player roster (he’ll turn 31 in June). The next two oldest players, Austin Rivers and Kyle “Slo Mo” Anderson, also weren’t on the team during the Wolves surprisingly successful season last year, one that eschewed drop coverage for the high wall scheme on defense. At 35, Conley is nearly five years older than Gobert – and spent the three seasons before this one playing alongside Gobert in Utah.
Conley immediately confronted a disorienting situation upon joining the Wolves – with precious little prep and knowledge of his new team, he was thrown into the lineup in a game in Memphis, where he is widely revered for his performance during his dozen years with the Grizzlies at the beginning of his career. Not surprisingly, his play on Friday was underwhelming, and the Wolves were soundly beaten.
But the NBA schedule-makers gifted the Wolves a fortuitous circumstance after that game. Minnesota next played on Monday, enabling them to travel to Dallas and spend two straight days practicing, their first legitimate practices since mid-December. And after Monday night, the Wolves next play on Thursday, at home against the Wizards, the final game before the weeklong break surrounding the All Star game.
It was the ideal time to assess how best to deploy this altered roster, and then spend rare, dedicated, extended time turning those strategic decisions into teamwork.
That the opponent was Dallas was another stroke of good coincidence. Of all the players in the NBA, Doncic may be the most difficult to defend with drop coverage, with Kyrie Irving close behind. When the Wolves faced the Mavs for two straight games in mid-December – once with Naz Reid starting at center in place of the injured Gobert, the other with Gobert in the lineup – they played mostly high-wall instead of drop defensive coverage.
During the course of this season, Wolves coach Chris Finch has occasionally stressed that Gobert has to adjust to what the Wolves have traditionally done as well as vice-versa. The two practices before Monday, with Gobert’s experienced ally Conley also needing to be integrated, was a perfect time to really purposefully try to fly around with disciplined structure, by putting a veteran-oriented lineup into the high-wall scheme.
This is the Gobert the Wolves thought they were getting
I’m willing to bet Gobert has never in his career played the high-wall defensive scheme – which involves meeting the pick-and-roll at the leverage point sometimes beyond the paint and returning to paint coverage and rim protection after the “low man” teammate covers for him – better than he did in the first half on Monday night. I’m even more assured of the fact that Gobert has never made as much collective impact at both ends of the court in his now 49-game tenure with the Wolves.
Finch started Taurean Prince (instead of Slo Mo) for just the second time this season, giving the Wolves four quick players, three with extensive high-wall experience, and a third savvy vet alongside Gobert and Conley.
Not long into the game we were reminded that Dallas doesn’t have a big man who can effectively contain Gobert. In that previous December appearance against the Mavs, he shot 9-for-11 in over 38 minutes. There would not be even one miss on Monday.
His first bucket was an offensive rebound spun into a left-handed floater that got him an “and-one.” The second was a high pick-and-roll with Conley, who dribbled toward the corner and cut down the baseline, feeding Gobert with a bounce pass –anathema to Gobert when coming from D’Lo – angling toward the hoop for a monster slam. The third was a dainty drop-in put back off an Anthony Edwards miss. The fourth, began with a casual feed from Slo Mo, received at the top of the key. Without breaking stride, Gobert put the ball on the deck and euro-stepped his way past JaVale McGee for another and-one opportunity. With less than eight minutes elapsed in the game, he had nine points and four rebounds.
Who is this guy?
Someone determined to pay back the organization’s supportive move of bringing in a kindred spirit like Conley by busting his ass flummoxing Doncic and company in high-wall coverages out on the perimeter. Someone who could count on his teammates adhering to the schemes with disciplined fundamentals, be it the low man coverage or the other aggressive pressure rotations. Someone both getting his own touches by grinding on the boards and getting feeds from a point guard with whom he has an abiding familiarity. Someone who has had something to prove to the Wolves and the NBA all season; now belatedly proving it. Proving that Gobert and the Timberwolves don’t have to be oil and water, unable to mix their elemental virtues.
The Wolves led by 26 points, 89-63, midway through the third quarter, and held an 18-point cushion going into the final stanza. Then Kyrie Irving went insane, pouring in 26 points on 11-for-12 shooting, the highest fourth-quarter point-total of his illustrious career. Much of it came while both Doncic and Gobert were on the bench – Doncic for rest, Gobert in part because the Mavs were playing “five out,” the space-and-pace offensive scheme that notoriously curtailed Gobert’s effectiveness during the first round of the playoffs last season when Gobert and Conley were in Utah.
It was also the scheme used by Sacramento to ambush the Wolves in overtime at Target Center at the end of January. In the wake of that game, it was revealed that some of the players – including D’Lo and Ant – believed Gobert’s lack of mobility was the primary flaw in the system that night. Finch clapped back firmly when addressing the media, saying that the Wolves have a league-leading defense with Gobert on the floor and that the inability of perimeter players (he didn’t specify who) to contain the ball handler was the primary flaw. A little more than a week later, D’Lo was headed to Los Angeles.
On Monday, Finch stated he intended to sub Gobert back in at some point during crunch time, but that the mobile, switchable trio on the front line of Slo Mo, Prince and Jaden McDaniels was playing well enough to sustain his confidence in the status quo.
That wasn’t the only interesting decision from Finch. When the margin became uncomfortably tight down the stretch, the coach handed the keys to the offense to his security blanket, Slo Mo. Why not Conley, with 15-years of being a floor general? Because the five-out scheme put a very small lineup on the floor for the Mavs and the 6’9” Slo Mo could shield the ball and survey the floor more easily than the 6’1” Conley. Because Conley off the ball along with Ant, McDaniels, Prince, could better space the floor. And because Slo Mo currently has a better grasp of the personnel and, by the way, generated a considerable number of good buckets – the Wolves shot 9-for-17 in the final period. Dallas nearly won because a phenomenal player had one of the great stints of his career – and, according to Finch, because the Wolves missed too many free throws and didn’t box out well on the boards.
With the Wolves up three and 15 seconds to play, Dallas was unable to even get up a shot to try and send the game into overtime. Most of the commentary I have heard and read rave about the defensive tenacity and teamwork between Ant and McDaniels as they confronted the phenomenal creative firepower of Luka and Kyrie just inside the half court line. And there is something to be said for that. They deflected the pass into the backcourt, breaking the initial rhythm of the play-call and generating more urgency to execute.
My contrary take is that Luka and Kyrie were being overly deferential to each other – Doncic remains the unquestioned leader of the Mavs and Kyrie was red hot, so both had cause. Yes, both Ant and McDaniels exerted effective energy and deserve credit for making it difficult to even get off a shot. The play and the game ended with a turnover on a bad pass by Kyrie. But I tend to think either Donic or Irving would have at least finagled a shot if operating solo. Both were very quick to dish instead of explore in those seconds, and clearly wanted to underscore the notion that they could play together.
Perhaps my lack of romanticism over how the game ended is because my romanticism is already over the top for what the game, from start to finish, might signify for this franchise.
More than any game this season, the Wolves blended a fly around aggression with disciplined fundamentals and had a team-wide buy-in on both attributes. Under conditions that almost mandated a high-wall defensive scheme, Gobert was diligent and pervasive, blotting vision and passing lanes at the leverage point of the pick and roll and also getting back (or already being back) to deter dribble penetration on numerous occasions. When he was on the court the Wolves allowed a team best 108.6 points per 100 possessions, compared to 127.4 points allowed per 100 possessions for the entire game.
And yet when the Mavs went to a five-out strategy, Finch went smaller and more mobile. When the Wolves offense needed a calm, stable hand on the rudder, Finch went with Slo Mo, without pulling Conley, who, along with Slo Mo and McDaniels, played the entire fourth quarter.
When it was over, the cornerstones of the future, Ant and McDaniels earned their copious minutes, and the others logging more than 20 minutes were trusted veterans Conley, Slo Mo, Gobert, Prince, and Austin Rivers.
Can the Wolves continue finding, let alone refining, this crucial blend of discipline and aggression? In a season of quick teases and disheartening inconsistency, of poor fits and lackluster efforts, it is unwise to bank on optimism … it hasn’t rewarded with enough interest and you find yourself overdrawn on your supposed storehouse of knowledge.
Not to mention that there is a guy named Karl-Anthony Towns on the horizon, due back soon after the All Star break, who is sure to shuffle the mix in ways that are variously beneficial and problematic.
So the watchword remains unsettled. But the Wolves will settle for the sort of growth, effort, and versatile teamwork that bagged a win on Monday night.