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Greater expectations not met with greater results in entertaining, but disappointing season for Wolves

Bottom line, this was a disappointing season, made more so by a raising of the bar while the actual teamwork performance was lowered. But miraculously, the future isn’t mortgaged.

Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards reacting in the second half against the Denver Nuggets in game five of the 2023 NBA Playoffs at Ball Arena on Tuesday.
Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards reacting in the second half against the Denver Nuggets in game five of the 2023 NBA Playoffs at Ball Arena on Tuesday.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Right to the end, the 2022-23 Minnesota Timberwolves had a knack for tidying up their underachievement.

Losing four out of five games as an eighth seed against the top-seeded Denver Nuggets is a pro-forma outcome in a first-round NBA series. But the Wolves gussied up. The low bar of a putrid 29-point loss in the opener was followed by a pair of more engaging losses and then a stirring overtime victory to avoid the sweep. Meanwhile, a nation of basketball viewers reacquainted themselves with the charismatic abundance of burgeoning star Anthony Edwards.

The clichéd plotline for a feisty underdog story steadily took shape. Kyle Anderson joined other valuable, previously injured contributors Naz Reid and Jaden McDaniels on the sidelines at the close of Game 4. The mutually fitful and ill-fitting big men, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, both fouled out in the waning moments of Game 5. Undermanned and out of their element in the thin Denver air, the Wolves still scrapped and cogitated their way into a chance to tie the score with a last-second, 28-foot jumper by Ant. It clanged off the back rim with a bittersweet resonance.

The final tally was a regular season with 42 wins and 40 losses, a 1-1 record in the play-in, and the 1-4 mark in the playoffs. Given all the injuries, the rhythm-disrupting roster-churn, and the variously random and self-imposed strife, a won-lost record of 44-45 still could give off the glimmer and heft of a glass half-full.

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Until and unless you remember the caliber of the liquid that was supposed to be in the glass. It is a memory that calls for more discerning taste buds, and compels you to “savor” a season that was almost perennially half-empty.

Deliberately raising the stakes – and the standard

The trade for Gobert was purposefully designed to be a blatant signal that these weren’t the old, mundane Timberwolves. Anyone could see that rising minority owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez were looking to make a splash, and that the president of basketball operations they hired via a giant salary bump, Tim Connelly, was bum-rushing the more patient team-building template he created in Denver.

Gobert cost the Wolves two starters and a sixth man from the 2021-22 team that unexpectedly put Minnesota in the 2022 playoffs – plus 2022 first-round draft pick Walker Kessler and the team’s top pick in each odd-numbered year through 2029. It was made despite the fact that the Wolves already had an All-Star center in KAT, and that the NBA was still trending (with some prominent exceptions) toward small, quick lineups that could space the floor on offense and switch easily on defense.

Was it a somewhat risky overpay under the best of circumstances? Absolutely. But the bold, decisive choice to execute the deal anyway was part of the culture-shift, the genesis of a new era in Wolves franchise history. And as much as we like to salute underdog tenacity in the playoffs, the perceived success of the trade, and the Timberwolves, will be framed by how many games and playoff series they win in the four years they have Gobert under contract.

Adjustments and revisions, rinse and repeat

Gobert’s arrival changed the way coach Chris Finch analyzed and tinkered with his roster this season. Back in his first preseason with the team in the fall of 2021, Finch’s devised and implemented a defense that synergized the skills of his top-rotation personnel, a masterstroke created an identity and, after a few weeks, flowed fairly seamlessly offensive production – a win-win-win.

By contrast, in the fall of 2022, Gobert was weary from EuroBasket, KAT was recovering from and injury and the team was going on faith that there was enough talent and experience on the roster to hammer things out. But from the first time KAT and Gobert shared the floor in the final exhibition game last October, it was apparent that the pair would be a difficult fit – both with each other and in the ongoing evolution of the roster and rotation in general. Despite all the treasure it took to acquire him, Gobert’s style and skill-set were idiosyncratic; the team would have to adjust to him as much as he adjusted to the team.

Incredibly, “unlocking Gobert” needed to be one of the first priorities and became somewhat of an abiding project. Along the way the value of being able to further the continuity of four holdovers from last season’s rotation – KAT, Ant, McDaniels and D’Angelo Russell – mostly went missing, or was slow in coming.  The players who meshed best with Rudy were savvy vets new to the Wolves this season – “Slo Mo” Anderson and Mike Conley. Of the holdovers, defensive-oriented glue guy McDaniels had the most natural synergy.

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Obviously, losing KAT to a severe calf strain was one notable reason for the team’s slow learning curve in terms of tandems, rotations, and teamwork in general. But the more Finch explored what did and didn’t work among the personnel he did have available, the more apparent it became that the Wolves had a bifurcated personality. There were a contingent of players who mostly gravitated toward sage fundamentals and built their teamwork out of those experienced components. And there were players that leaned into last year’s template of “fly around” hoops that pressured the ball for turnovers and transition points, sometimes at the expense of remaining alert to the mundane tasks in front of them.

The Holy Grail for Finch was finding the way to consistently blend the virtues of these two styles into a coherent, synergistic identity. There were a few times when that was achieved for a smattering of games, most notably in March when KAT returned from injury, and Naz forced himself into the regular rotation with the high-level consistency of his play. It created a rotation pattern that emphasized large lineups that punished opponents with their size (the primary inspiration for acquiring Gobert to pair with KAT), yet could be quick and opportunistic without sacrificing disciplined teamwork. It went down the drain after a handful of games when Naz broke his wrist in late March. Naz now heads into unfettered free agency as the Wolves figure out how to use the precious few roster maneuvers they currently retain in relation to the salary cap.

Amid all this roster churn, experimentation and culling of style and tempo, some fairly intractable issues remained. Some were very surprising, such as this team’s inability to rebound, especially on their defensive glass. In the postgame presser on Tuesday, Finch blamed the perimeter players for not boxing out or otherwise making rebounding more of a priority. Point taken, but it still seems troublesome an ongoing pair of punishing bigs can’t mostly control the glass.

Other issues are logical. With more than their quota of bigs on the court, the Wolves are vulnerable to opponent who get out and run in transition, a flaw that exacerbated when turn the ball over. And there is also the fact that Gobert’s limited mobility and scoring range reduces the open spaces his teammates can go on offense. This is most acute in the stunted relationship Gobert and Ant have on the court. Gobert remains a superb screener, yet the two still are in what could charitably be called the rudimentary stage of their pick-and-roll relationship.

Priorities: Ant’s ascendance is greater than Gobert/KAT effectiveness

The best thing about the 2022-23 Timberwolves was the ratification that Anthony Edwards is the goods; a superstar talent who is a natural leader, mood elevator and inspirational performer. He is the best (and next-best, and next-best after that) hope for this team to become a genuine championship contender.

It is not impossible to reliably guide Ant’s ascendance and continue refining the two-bigs philosophy that prompted the Gobert trade; but it isn’t easy or natural either, and if and when the conflict begins to erode the pursuit of Ant’s ceiling, the bigs tandem must take a back seat.

In fact “unlocking Ant” should be the prism through which the 2023-24 season is plotted. That doesn’t mean affording him carte blanche – despite some clever stubbornness, he is eager to be coached, trusts Finch and benefits from tough love. But put it this way; as grateful as I am for the way the deep wisdom of Conley and (to a slightly lesser extent) Slo Mo in greasing Gobert’s tastes and expectations on the court, the greater elation is hearing Ant continually hit Conley up on the finer points of hoops, or go to him to confirm his revelations. And seeing Ant sitting in the locker room between Conley and Slo Mo as they parsed the game in the wake of the Game 2 loss in Denver made me as giddy, albeit in a different way, as watching Josh Minott play some one-on-one with Connelly after trying out a half-dozen stupendous dunks after a practice the day before.

There are optimists out there who think that the Wolves can still husband their considerable, if diverse, resources into an efficient dynamo, keeping the torch lit on the original vision of the Gobert trade. Among them is Finch.

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“They’ve both really incredibly good basketball players,” he said of Gobert and KAT. “The skill level KAT has, there is no reason basketball-wise that it shouldn’t work. There’s a lot of reasons we can talk about (for) why the learning curve was so steep. But the most important thing is we have a big enough body of work, I think we can properly evaluate it. I still remain extremely confident we’re able to maximize those guys.”

Godspeed to him – if he’s wrong he will eventually become the sacrificial lamb for this “grand experiment,” which has now moved through one-quarter of its lifespan with discouraging results.

The future isn’t now, but it should be getting closer

Nobody needs to tell Finch that Ant, McDaniels, Slo Mo and Conley and also “incredibly good basketball players” in various capacities, with Nickeil Alexander-Walker (NAW) and Naz vying for honorable mentions. The key distinctions are breadth and depth of skills and key variables are willingness to accept a lesser role if it benefits the team. This of course is the opposite of “making a splash” – it is sustaining a wave that grows with momentum and the absence of undertows.

I admired the way Gobert broke out of a nine-year comfort zone to expand his defensive patrols and purviews in “high-wall” defensive concepts and greater perimeter on-ball pressure. A willingness to acknowledge that he is likely to do more screening and less shooter in an ideal Wolves would be another admirable adjustment for him.

As for KAT, Ant needs space to cook and the best way for KAT to enable both his teammate and his team is to be a terror-inducing three-point threat from the corner, mixed in with some up-fakes and cuts for baseline drives. For KAT and for Gobert, the word must also be that the kids are coming. The tragic irony of the Gobert splash is that Connelly had a stellar draft – Kessler is already a formidable rim protector in Utah and Minott feels like a future member of a devastating wing cadre that would also include McDaniels and NAW. These are long, lean, live wires who can snake through screens and blow plays up.

Bottom line, this was a disappointing season, made more so by a raising of the bar while the actual teamwork performance was lowered. But miraculously, the future isn’t mortgaged. Wolves fans know that hope springs eternal, dubiously and otherwise.