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Wolves seeming to jell, but with tough stretch coming, can they maintain their (recent) winning ways?

As of Tuesday morning, the Wolves improbably found themselves with the sixth-best record in the muddled Western Conference, a slot in the standings that would enable them to avoid the play-in mini-tournament.

Forward Kyle Anderson celebrating with guard Anthony Edwards after Edwards scored against the Sacramento Kings during the fourth quarter at Golden 1 Center on Saturday.
Forward Kyle Anderson celebrating with guard Anthony Edwards after Edwards scored against the Sacramento Kings during the fourth quarter at Golden 1 Center on Saturday.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s begin with the obvious: Nothing has been reliable about the 2022-23 season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, or for the vast majority of the 30 teams in the NBA, for that matter.

A few days before the All-Star break last month, I gushed about a Wolves win over the Dallas Mavericks and their potent backcourt duo of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, declaring that “a glorious synergy was on display for long portions of the game,” and “there are reasons to think it might stick around with more reliable frequency over the remainder of the season.”

The Wolves proceeded to collapse in the fourth quarter and lose their final game before the break to the lowly Washington Wizards. Coming out of the break, they lost at home to the lowlier Charlotte Hornets, whose record was 16-43 at the time. Then they began a four-game road trip in the Bay Area versus the Warriors and showcased some rampant dysfunction whenever the game got close for the third straight contest, sending their record back below .500. The “glorious synergy” back in Dallas felt like the latest hip-sway in a conga line of random teases the team has flashed this season with seemingly shameless glee.

Sure enough, that rumba beat is now beckoning once more, as the Wolves closed out that road trip with three straight wins in variegated fashion. They luxuriated for five days in temperate Los Angeles while their defense held the Clippers and then the Lakers to an effective field-goal percentage below 50%, before moving on to Sacramento to outscore the top-rated offense in the NBA, beating the Kings 138-134.

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As of Tuesday morning, the Wolves improbably found themselves with the sixth-best record in the muddled Western Conference, a slot in the standings that would enable them to avoid the play-in mini-tournament to determine the final two playoff spots and have them match up with those same Kings – who they have now beaten two-out-of-three – in a first-round series. Again, if the standings on Monday held through the regular season, the Wolves would then play either the second-seeded Grizzlies, with whom they split four games this season at two wins apiece, or those seventh-seeded Mavericks, with whom they have won two out of three.

In other words, the Wolves are game to joust with the best in the West. (They also have a season split of their four games with top-seeded Denver.) Just don’t ask them to prevail over bottom feeders in the Eastern Conference, the Hornets and the Pistons, who have a combined record of 35-95 but are 4-0 against Minnesota.

Now that the ever-changeable context has been noted, we can examine some of the reasons why the Wolves are once again on the upswing, and whether those improvements can be durable.

The integration of Mike Conley

The Wolves traded for Conley in large part to make this a more hospitable environment for Rudy Gobert, with whom Conley had played the past three seasons in Utah. The assumption was that the 35-year-old veteran renowned for his low-key, steady leadership would quickly find his place as a voice in the locker room and a gentle catalyst on the court. But this is the first time in his 16 years in the NBA that Conley has ever changed teams in midseason. He was also encountering a ball club that has struggled finding a coherent identity this season, and had to make its own significant adjustment to Conley, who is very different than their previous point guard D’Angelo Russell at both ends of the court.

The Wolves lost four of their first five games after the three-team swap that brought Conley in for D’Lo. He noticed and vocalized the obvious flaws – the tendency to allow debilitating runs by the opponent due to careless turnovers and lackadaisical defense, especially in transition – while at the same time telling the inquiring media that, essentially, talk is cheap without action. Judging by those actions, it hasn’t taken him long to understand that his priority needs to be threading the needle between the fast-paced ball movement that coach Chris Finch prefers, and getting Gobert sufficient touches to stimulate momentum and cater to his particular comfort zones out on the court.

In the 41 assists Conley has doled out in his eight games with the Wolves, the nine to Gobert are his most to anybody on the team. But perhaps it is more pertinent how much he has spread it around. He has dimed up Anthony Edwards eight times, Jaden McDaniels seven, Naz Reid six (probably the most per minute together of any Conley pairing) and Kyle Anderson five.

Eight games remains a puny sample size, but Conley has also spread out the assists on the team. Slo Mo (Anderson) actually has more dimes, 42, than Conley in the past eight games, and Ant is not far behind with 35. Although D’Lo averaged more assists per game when he was here (6.2) than Conley’s 5.1, the team overall has edged up a hair from 25.5 with D’Lo to 25.9 over the last eight, with the number trending – they have 26.6 in the five games since the All Star break and 27.3 during the three-game winning streak.

The turnovers show a similar trend – just a tick lower (15.6) in the past eight than before (15.7), but steadily going down. Conley began his Wolves tenure with five turnovers in his first two games but since then has committed just four in six games, while racking up 29 assists. He is thus averaging 1.1 turnovers per game, way below D’Lo’s 2.7 average.

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My guess is that Conley’s ability to better share the playmaking while helping to limit the turnovers will continue, and perhaps improve with time. His presence should also quiet Gobert’s occasional impatience due to the trust level they share.

The real return of J-Mac

Jordan McLaughlin rejoined the Wolves on Feb. 5 after missing nearly two months with a calf injury. As usual, he immediately made all of his teammates better the moment he stepped out on the court – the Wolves were a plus-16 during his mere 11:31 minutes of playing time.

But subsequent games revealed that the charms were rusty. Finch pulled J-Mac after a single rotation in which the Wolves were minus seven in 7:41 minutes his second game back. His teammates boosted his 15:44 minutes to a plus-four during a 25-point rout of Utah the next game, but in the final three games before the All-Star break and the two games afterward, his presence damaged the performance of the second unit.

Yes, it was not a typical stint – in addition to the week-long break, the Wolves were adjusting to the acquisition of Conley, and key bench player Taurean Prince missed three games due to personal reasons. But J-Mac’s nonpareil court vision seemed to bear cataracts, the snap on his passes was a half-beat lagged, and you could tell he was in search of his classic feel for the tenor of the game.

That five-day stay in LA did wonders for J-Mac, who was born and raised in California. He burned the Clippers with a rare display of accurate shooting, going for nine points along with a pair of steals, a dime and a block to boost the second unit to a plus four in his 18:46 minutes – the most he played since early December. Then he reverted to conventional means – six dimes and zero turnovers in 17:16 minutes as the Wolves were plus 11 with him on the court. For the Sacramento game, the record shows the team at minus one in his 14:05 minutes, but you can blame that on Ant, whose horrid shot selection gifted the Kings ample transition opportunities and crowd momentum, triggering a 17-3 run in a four-minute span late in the third quarter. J-Mac absorbed some of that fallout; without it the Wolves were plus six during his other 10:35 minutes on the court.

So, is J-Mac good to go moving forward? At the very least, Finch should let him play through any residue of rust. For the past two seasons, he has been an analytics darling when his impact on the team is measured. His net rating – the amount of points the team scores per 100 possessions minus the amount it gives up over the same period – is plus-9.8, way beyond the plus-3.0 posted by the second-best player, Kyle Anderson, among the ten most frequently deployed Timberwolves.

When it comes to style of play among point guards, J-Mac is much closer to Conley than he is to D’Lo – a pass-first floor general who benefits from high-usage players around him. If and when J-Mac is firmly back in his groove, there will be better continuity of play among the first and second units, allowing for more cross-pollination. With Slo Mo justifiably bragging that he is a point guard in a combo forward’s body, and with Ant drawing so much attention from opposing defenders that simple ball movement will garner him dimes, the Wolves have a quartet of players who can help implement Finch’s first principles of offense – move the ball and move without the ball.

‘NAW’ on this

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Speaking of Finch, he’s come in for ample criticism (some of it mine) thus far this season. But his ability to spot and exploit latent talent needs to be highlighted. He was an early booster of the now-blossoming McDaniels. He pushed for the Wolves to acquire Slo Mo, who has been even better than Finch’s carnival pitchman hype of his value during the preseason. And most recently, he argued on behalf of the Wolves getting young wingman Nickeil Alexander-Walker, or “NAW”, to complete the trade involving D’Lo and Conley.

Finch was an assistant coach for the New Orleans Pelicans when they drafted and played NAW as a rookie during the 2019-2020 season. The Pels eventually dealt him to Utah, where he was spending time at the end of their bench at the time of the trade. After a couple of games learning the system in Minnesota, Finch put him in the rotation, where his faith has been rewarded by some stellar activity at both ends of the court.

Put simply, NAW is filling a void that has plagued the Wolves all season. At 6’6”, he is tall enough to switch on to forwards yet diligent and quick enough to stay with guards. He was a backup point guard to Conley in Utah, which has kept his playmaking chops limber, and he isn’t afraid to launch a three-pointer when the situation warrants. In just 112 minutes spread over seven games, he has leapt ahead of both Austin Rivers and Jaylen Nowell in the Wolves rotation and allowed for the waiving of Bryn Forbes.

Like Rivers, NAW prides himself on pressure defense, and has a bit of an edge to him. Like Nowell, he doesn’t shirk from shooting both from outside the arc and on the drive off the bounce. The fact that he is two inches taller than both, has more offensive versatility than Rivers, plays more rugged defense than Nowell, and is still just 24 years old, he has created a nice dividend on the return for D’Lo.

Compared to Conley and J-Mac, NAW is the least likely to sustain his current upside performance. Certainly his 50% accuracy (12-for-24) from three-point territory figures to come down. His inability to make his mark with either the Pels or the Jazz, and his wretched 7-for-20 shooting from inside the three-point arc, are both concerning, although his short-range accuracy is likewise apt to revert more to the mean.

On the plus side, NAW is hungry – his rookie deal is ending, leaving the Wolves the ability to match another team’s terms in free agency, sign him to an extension, or let him go. He and Finch obviously have a good relationship, and mutual interest in him becoming a wiry, switchable defender who can both pass and score. Right now he is demonstrating that profile. Both sides will tease it out for legitimacy. And if it holds, the Wolves have firmed up their second unit in dandy fashion.

A rugged, uncertain road ahead

So much for the good news. As we said at the top, nothing about the 2022-23 season has been particularly reliable for this Wolves team. The three pathways to improvement just detailed could help remedy that, or take the team three hip-sways into oblivion as their effectiveness wanes.

Meanwhile, the schedule is bearish. The Wolves play Joel Embiid and the Sixers, owners of the fourth-best record in the NBA, on Tuesday night, followed by a game versus a Brooklyn Nets team that is finding its footing – two straight wins –after trading both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

After that, a nine-game stretch from March 13 through March 29 includes just two contests at home, one of them against the reigning Eastern Conference Champion Celtics, who have the NBA’s second-best record. That nine-game stint will conclude with three West Coast games against the Warrior, Kings and Suns. It’s a grim slate.

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No one knows if any of those games will see the return of Karl-Anthony Towns, who came into this season regarded as the Wolves best player, but who has been out since late November with a severe calf strain. There is time enough to debate whether a significantly rusty KAT would be a net good or bad for the team’s playoff push. For now, all we know is that the largest question facing this franchise coming into this season is how well can KAT and Gobert co-exist and synergize? Thus far that has been graded an incomplete.

Or has it? Nothing is reliable.

Editor’s note: In the original version we mistakenly said Conley, when we meant J-Mac in the sentence, “J-Mac’s nonpareil court vision seemed to bear cataracts …