Are we having fun yet?
Eighty games into an 82-game season, the Minnesota Timberwolves remain an exasperating trip to a dispiriting carnival, where the parade route is littered with potholes, the marching band is overladen with tubas, the Ferris wheel only operates on foggy days, and the roller coaster lopes through tepid peaks and valleys and never seems to stop.
The Wolves are coquettish mediocrities, flashing their skills with the teasing expertise and restraint of a fan dancer. We’ve seen tantalizing extended glimpses of fly-around defensive intensity, gorgeous ball movement, assertive length and strength, and sage veteran leadership, all amid the frequent, quickening bursts of nascent stardom that explode and fade with the haphazard choreography of neighborhood fireworks.
Through it all, the Wolves inevitably find their level by losing and winning the same amount of games. They have not been more than two games above or below .500 for three months now. It is their nesting place, their safe space as all the positive and negative narratives swirl around them. Through health and injury, synergy and dysfunction, pecking-order intrigue and remedial trades, fearsome opponents and supposed patsies, the Wolves win a few and lose a few. If you chart their season-to-date by where they stand after each of their 10-game increments, they have been at .500 six times, diverging only at the 40-game (19-21) and 60-game (31-29) benchmarks. With two games to play, they are 40-40. If you want or need a silver lining, a win on Tuesday night has qualified them for at least a spot in the play-in tournament to determine which two of four teams will match up with the top two seeds in the first round of the conference playoffs.
Stuck in the middle
There was a time when a .500 winning percentage would be a cause for optimism and levity among the Wolves fan base. A just cause, too, given that the franchise has only reached that plateau twice since 2005.
For most of this century, to be a loyal follower of the Wolves often meant extending your perspective toward a mirage on the horizon, where whatever rebuild the Wolves were then undertaking could be imagined as successful. Rather than play the sap and live and die with the ongoing performance of an inept team, the survival-mode method of shrewd Wolves fandom chose instead to debate the future viability of the players then-logging losses at the Wolves’ usual going rate. This process of imagining how the herd should be culled dovetailed right into contemplating which draft pick, trade targets or coaching/front office hire would enhance the speed and altitude of the franchise’s eventual fairy-tale success.
This mode of thinking provided insular comfort and flexibility as the Wolves embarked on a steady series of calamitous rebuilding projects over a 15-year period beginning with the trade of Kevin Garnett in July 2007. But it was rendered obsolete when the soon-to-be majority ownership tandem of Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez decided to pay a king’s ransom to lure the Denver Nuggets’ personnel guru Tim Connelly to Minnesota as the Wolves new president of basketball operations; and after Connelly then traded four players and five first-round draft picks to acquire center Rudy Gobert after six weeks on the job.
Trading for Gobert, who had four years remaining on a maximum contract, was the opposite of rebuilding. It was executed in July 2022, while the ink was still drying on a four-year super-max contract for Karl-Anthony Towns that runs through the 2026-27 season. Given all the resources sacrificed to get Gobert, all the money obligated to Gobert and KAT for the NBA-eternity of four and five years, and the looming contract extensions that would inevitably be sought and granted to young starters Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, the new Wolves regime had essentially superglued itself to an ongoing status quo in which the core personnel is already determined.
This isn’t a rebuild, this is an already “built.” And the 2022-23 season is the first year of its four-year shelf life.
Under those circumstances, a .500 record is not a cause for optimism, let alone rejoicing. What’s more, it is a .500 record that stubbornly shreds the rationalizations of those who prefer to look on the bright side of the Wolves’ current situation.
Those who claim this season isn’t an accurate reflection of the Wolves mettle because they lost KAT for 52 games due to a severe calf injury must contend with the fact that the team was 10-10 when KAT suffered his injury (and 10-11 at the end of that game), and 36-37 when KAT returned four months later. They are 4-3 since then. Okay, but what about the breakout season Ant has compiled this year? Well, the Wolves are 38-39 in the 77 games Ant has played. What about the trading of D’Angelo Russell for Mike Conley, a mature, stabilizing veteran who is a much better fit at point guard for the core personnel of this team? The Wolves were 27-27 when D’Lo started at the point, 10-12 when Conley starts, and 3-1 with neither on the court.
The Wolves are 32-36 when Gobert plays. They are 20-23 when Gobert plays and KAT doesn’t, and 12-13 when both are in the lineup. They are 1-1 when KAT plays and Gobert doesn’t.
If you are looking for positive trends, the Wolves are 26-20 when Kyle “Slo Mo” Anderson is in the starting lineup. They are 7-4 when Naz Reid starts.
The continuation of Jekyll and Hyde play
Bottom line, the most accurate way to have regarded this team during the 2022-23 season has been as a chronically mediocre outfit. As someone who has covered the Wolves since 1990, I can attest that mediocrity is easier to imagine from a roster that isn’t “built.” The bias is that the talent is unfamiliar and needs time to cohere, especially given the disruptions from injuries and trades and what has emerged as a difficult fit from the contrasting styles of play among the core personnel.
When the Wolves were stumbling through the month of December, hitting their nadir with a New Year’s Eve loss to the lowly Pistons that sent their record to 16-21, I counseled that the best attitude to take was appreciating the growth of Ant and McDaniels – a variation of the survival-mode outlook during the barren “rebuilding” years – and accepting that otherwise the Wolves were nothing special. As it turns out, holding to that position would have been the smartest way to appropriately cover this team.
But cynicism about ongoing mediocrity is no fun for the writer or the reader. Approaching this team as being intractably average, and thus underachieving, dulls the imagination and thus saps the inspiration for appropriately covering this team. So I developed a theory that the Wolves were cleaved between the fly-around energy and aggression that propelled last season’s roster into the playoffs and the sage and solid adherence to fundamentals of the game that seems especially prominent among roster newcomers like Gobert, Slo Mo and Conley. And, like everyone, I wondered what the impact of KAT’s return would be, especially at it related the alpha scoring role Ant had assumed in his absence and the diminishment of Slo Mo’s interaction with the other four starters.
On March 20, Taurean Prince erupted for 35 points in a stirring Wolves win over the Knicks in New York that halted a three-game losing streak. Two nights later, KAT returned to the team and the starting lineup. With Ant on the sidelines since spraining his ankle in a double-overtime loss to Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day, head coach Chris Finch elected to go to KAT on the game-deciding possession, resulting in free throws to win the game. KAT also hit the game-winner, a three-pointer off a Slo Mo steal in transition, to beat the Golden State Warriors in the next game. And the very next night the Wolves toppled the Sacramento Kings.
These games effectively combined fly-around aggression with synergistic fundamental hoops. They seemed to remove any awkwardness KAT might feel about a lesser role in the pecking order, secure in the knowledge he would not be forgotten. And they unfurled the best rendition of the team’s early-season vow to “go big” and make opponents adjust, by rotating Gobert, KAT and Naz in rotation so that two bigs were always on the floor, while also giving Slo Mo crucial minutes as the de facto point guard while Conley, and often, KAT, were off the court.
Even after a now-exhausted Wolves team closed out their West Coast road trip with a loss to Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns, I had no doubt that the five games beginning in New York was the most complete and hopeful stretch the Wolves had played this season. And although I didn’t write it, the headline on last week’s column accurately depicted my thinking: “Finally! The Timberwolves team we thought we were getting at the beginning of the season has arrived.”
Nope. What happened instead is what has always happened this season when the Wolves have gone on a particularly noteworthy positive or negative run of games –they found a way to revert to the mediocre mean.
Then punctuated it with a spectacular failure.
KAT must find his role
In a pivotal game to help determine play-in position for the postseason, the Wolves were outscored 68-46 in the second half at home against the Los Angeles Lakers after building a double-digit halftime lead. There were a plethora of issues plaguing the team throughout the half but one of them KAT unilaterally trying to get points off the dribble. He shot 4-12 for the half, including 2-4 when receiving a pass from a teammate and 2-8 when he didn’t. The two unassisted makes were both put-backs off the offensive glass. The other half-dozen were self-generated jumpers or contested drives, usually with more than half of the 24-second shot clock remaining.
After the game, without specifically naming anybody, Finch lamented how the team wasn’t “playing out of any concepts or any flow.” In the locker room, KAT had his own message. “I got a lot of things to say tomorrow at practice. I’m gonna go in there and do what I got to do, speak up for our team. I know the words I say will help us win games. That’s all I’m gonna say. Keep it in the locker room.”
On Sunday, everything came undone in a wretched home loss to Portland. KAT was inexplicably passive. He attempted only three field goals – the lowest amount in his eight-year, 520-game career – over 25:04 minutes of playing time limited by foul trouble. It was far from the only – and probably not even the worst – aspect of the Wolves embarrassment, against an opponent that is blatantly tanking, had lost 11 of their past 12 games and came into the game as a whopping 19 ½ point underdog. But at a time when he is re-integrating back into the lineup, KAT’s extreme lassitude – and apparent passive-aggressive petulance – was the most obvious and controversial component of the game.
“Definitely our rhythm is gone,” Finch said of the offense during the postgame presser. After a pregnant pause, he continued. “Our shot distribution is kind of out of whack a little bit. I think guys are maybe in their feelings a little bit, trying to figure it out.”
Understanding the obvious subtext of that comment – almost by default, Ant had 30 field goal attempts while KAT had three – Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic probed what Finch saw in KAT’s lack of involvement during the game. “You know, we talked a lot about KAT trying to fit into the flow of the offense and I think he was a bit too passive tonight. So we needed him to still stay aggressive.”
After capping a three-game losing streak with that dose of senseless dysfunction, the Wolves of course rose to the occasion and again reverted to the mediocre mean, beating a solid Brooklyn Nets team on the road Tuesday night.
KAT matched his shot-total against Portland in the first 3:05 of the game, and doubled it before the end of the first quarter. He finished with 22 points on 8-15 shooting, grabbed a team-high 14 rebounds and registered five assists. After trailing by a point heading into the fourth quarter, the Wolves gutted it out by five, 107-102. KAT shot 3-4 in the final stanza, with none of his shot attempts assisted.
Afterward Finch pointed out that the Nets play small, which is best exploited by more isolation matchup utilizing the Wolves size, which would explain the efficacy of KAT unassisted hoops. But Finch also fell on his sword, saying that KAT only shooting three times against the Blazers was “on me.”
Included in the Brooklyn postgame reporting on the Twitter feed of the Strib’s Chris Hine were KAT’s first comments since the Portland game (he left before the media arrived in the locker room on Sunday). After confirming that he spoke with Finch about his performance, KAT said, “We have a great relationship, so that conversation obviously paid dividends tonight.” KAT also revealed his comments to his teammates at that Saturday practice before the Lakers game. “Doing a better job of utilizing what we have instead of trying to outplay them in a chess game. We could just play checkers.”
Along with KAT’s bounce-back performance, Tuesday’s win was revealing in that Finch chose to sit Gobert for the last four minutes of the game, utilizing the greater offensive versatility of KAT and the playmaking of Slo Mo (who had 10 assists in the game) to pull the game out. It’s the latest facet in the ongoing rotation puzzle.
One of the disturbing through-lines of this 2022-23 season is that the Wolves may not be at their best when the roster is fully healthy and Finch has to find appropriate minutes and roles to keep everyone satisfied. On Tuesday, Gobert was gracious about sitting out, while shrewdly noting that he would expect others to be gracious in turn if it is their rear end on the pine.
Should we rely on hope or retreat to pessimism?
Two games remain in the regular season: On the road Saturday afternoon against a flailing San Antonio Spurs team that has won just 20 of 79 games – but two out of three thus far versus the Wolves – and then back home Sunday for the season finale against the New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans game currently looks like it is shaping up to be the deciding factor in who gets the 8th and 9th seeds in the play-in. The 8th seed only has to win once to gain a full playoff series. The 9th seed has to win two single-elimination games in a row.
At the beginning of the season, Vegas bookies had the betting of the Wolves over/under for wins at 49.5. The best Minnesota can do is 42.
Sure, it is possible that the talent belatedly synergizes; that KAT finds his “2-bigs” rhythm alongside Gobert while KAT and Ant learn to enable each other’s scoring rather than passing the baton back and forth. After weariness from not getting a vacation during the All Star break followed by a sprained ankle and the flu, maybe Ant hits the gear he found in January and carries the offense forward. Maybe Jaden McDaniels continues to find ways to put his efficient points in edgewise while frustrating the opponents’ top scorer.
Maybe the recent switch of Nickeil Alexander-Walker in for Jordan McLaughlin as the backup point guard beefs up the size and speed of the defense, while Slo Mo and Conley continue to play smart, relatively turnover-free hoops as alternate floor generals. Maybe.
Or we finally believe that the Wolves really are who they have shown themselves to be throughout this first season of their “built” roster: A team destined to finish 41-41, then go 1-1 in the play-in.
Update: The Wolves are 38-39 in the 77 games Anthony Edward has played. A previous version was in error.