The Minnesota Timberwolves of 2023-24 have reasons for copious optimism and gnawing uncertainty.
Ensconced in the playoffs for two straight seasons, the team has at least temporarily relegated its stumblebum legacy down to the footnotes. In Anthony Edwards it has an ascendant young phenomenon now glistening out of the larvae toward superstardom, showcasing the sort of resplendent skills and charismatic aura that compels NBA Hall of Famers to wager their reputations through gushing endorsements of his game. And in Karl-Anthony Towns (KAT) and Rudy Gobert, the Wolves also have two of the most widely mocked players on social media.
When then-incoming president of basketball operations Tim Connelly engineered the blockbuster trade that brought Gobert to Minnesota to pair with KAT in the Wolves frontcourt at the beginning of last season, the skeptics had a field day with the notion of two relatively slow seven-footers sharing the floor in an NBA that had clearly tilted toward a rapid-fire, space-and-pace style of play. While a calf injury waylaid Towns for more than 50 games and postponed a definitive verdict on the pairing, the skeptics were often validated last season. Nevertheless, the 2022-23 Wolves still won more than they lost (42-40) and racked up another year of playoff experience.
The splendor of Ant and the sophomore-year chemistry exam for the supersized Gobert-KAT frontcourt are the storylines that will carry the Timberwolves brand to casual fans over the course of the 2023-24 NBA season. But for the dedicated NBA watcher and/or diehard Wolves partisan, this roster is deep and capable enough to produce more nuanced subplots.
Minnesota is among the eight to 12 teams in the 15-member Western Conference who have the potential to be very good. Precious few will be great. Aside from the usual x-factors of injuries and unforeseen personal issues, it will be the nuances –framed here as key questions – that will largely determine if the Wolves can avoid the play-in series by finishing among the conference’s top seven teams, or even finish among the top four and secure home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
How effectively can Rudy Gobert alter or reconcile his career-long habits to fit the needs of his new team?
Gobert’s nine-year tenure with the Utah Jazz amounted to a remarkably steady and patient process of a franchise molding its personnel and style around the idiosyncratic virtues of its signature star. Gobert does a specific but limited number of things extremely well. On defense, he excels at protecting the rim, intimidating not only layups, but short midrange floaters off dribble penetration. On offense he became effective and efficient setting screens and rolling to the basket, and putting back shots via offensive rebounds.
By NBA standards, those traits were honed to near perfection during his time in Utah. Gobert averaged at least two blocked shots per game in all but his rookie year with the Jazz, and was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year three times between the 2017-18 and 2021-22 seasons. He led the NBA in field-goal percentage three of his last four seasons there and was named an All-Star his final three years. The year before he was traded to the Wolves, he led the NBA in rebounding.
But the Wolves roster that Gobert joined last fall was not only unfamiliar with the habits of his style of play, but had their own successful style that in many ways was oppositional to the schemes Utah deployed. Where Gobert captained and backstopped a basic “drop” defense, the Wolves operated out of a “high wall” coverage that featured more of a fly-around style. And Coach Chris Finch’s offense generally preferred a “flow,” system that emphasized ball movement over set pick-and-roll actions. Add in the minor injuries and illnesses that prevented Gobert and KAT from meshing in the preseason and the blockbuster trade was destined to get off to a rocky start.
When I spoke to Finch the week before training camp in September, he noted that the team spent much of last season adjusting to the way Gobert operated in Utah, and a “big point of emphasis” would be fostering more flexibility from Gobert so genuine stylistic hybrids could be achieved. Specifically that meant Gobert’s teammates wouldn’t automatically be funneling their defensive assignments to Gobert in the paint on defense, and rather than continually trying to set screens on offense, Gobert would be in the “dunker’s spot” along the baseline more frequently so that KAT and Ant had more space to operate.
Last week Finch raved about Gobert’s selfless adherence to the offensive scheme during a preseason win over the New York Knicks.
“Rudy took one shot the other night and there was never a peep about it. Didn’t grumble, didn’t give anyone the side eye, wasn’t (complaining) when he came to the bench. He generated a ton of open looks off of his rolling and dunker gravity. We got 10 wide open corner threes; seven or eight of them just because he was on the floor,” said Finch.
On the defensive end, where Gobert has proudly made his reputation, flexing may require even more willpower. After a recent practice over the weekend I asked him about the adjustments he has had to make to develop a system on defense that is a hybrid of Utah and Minnesota.
“For me it is the same,” Gobert replied. “There are different (teammates) but I’m the same Rudy and my legs are strong this year. Obviously the game has evolved; over the last couple years I have had to switch on the ball (more often). But at the end of the day I’m still Rudy Gobert and I want my teammates to force guys to the paint to me and for me to be physical and force them into tough twos.”
Make no mistake, Gobert is still good at what he does, especially on defense. But as Finch pointed out, you need to be able to counter with different schemes, especially in the playoffs, where Utah chronically came up short. Also, as Finch said he told Gobert, “We have good defenders at a multitude of positions. You don’t have to do it all yourself.” How well that message penetrates will be important versus different opponents over the course of the season.
Will Ant’s next leap include upgrading some of the subtle but damaging flaws in his game?
It is difficult to stop raving about Anthony Edwards. Be it the branding-iron dunks he rains down from the stratosphere or the press conference bon mots he delivers with the profoundly silly simplicity of Buddhist kōans, Ant seems to exist for the purpose of injecting endorphins into our imagination.
If you had to sum up the vast glory of Ant in a single word, it would be leadership, a virtue that is at once precocious and wizened the mixture of a person young at heart yet with an old soul. We follow his lead because he is fun-loving and because he is reliable, because he brings heat to the competition on the court and warmth to his interactions with the public. That’s why Team USA Coach Steve Kerr christened him the leader and “go-to guy” of this country’s World Cup squad this summer; and why television spots hyping the Wolves currently feature Ant proclaiming that Gobert will be Defensive Player of the Year and KAT in the MVP conversation this upcoming season.
Now that the love affair for Ant has taken on global dimensions, it has become chic to lionize him as inevitable superstar and future face of the NBA. Indeed, he is the number one reason to harbor outsized dreams for the Wolves prospects this season. And there is cause to dream: Ant has taken a leap in each of his NBA campaigns, improving his points, rebounds and assists each year since his rookie season.
And yet, obscured by the supernova of his leadership, there are areas of his game that remain not only unpolished but inadequate. Most of them have to do with sustaining his focus. It isn’t that Ant is lazy, it is that he is 22 years old, young and crafty enough to still be immune to the damage of shortcuts.
Yes, he is already the heart and soul of this Timberwolves team. But how can he boost them further? Let us count the ways.
First and most importantly, he needs to sensitize his attention span. Tell him to go defend a man and he will engage. If the man if the opponent’s star scorer, the challenge will deepen his engagement. But tell him he needs to master the subtleties of off-ball defense – activating his peripheral vision in sync with knowing his role in the overall defensive scheme and retaining that focus as the action evolves around the court – and he’ll often let go of the rope.
Ant is a below-average off-ball defender. Given his athleticism, he is a below-average rebounder, especially on the long caroms that become “50-50” balls to be snared out in the open. He is below-average in getting back in transition on defense. More understandably, his shot-selection can be sketchy, a matter of adhering to his instinct instead of his intelligence.
Ant can raise himself to dizzying heights on the basketball court. But for the Wolves this coming season, it may be just as important for him to raise some elements of his game up to mediocrity.
Can Chris Finch wring optimal value out of a suddenly overcrowded frontcourt?
The Wolves head coach is fond of reminding people that the franchise is “all in” on utilizing large lineups that feature skilled big men. If you didn’t believe him before, the signing of center-forward Naz Reid to a three-year, $42-million contract this offseason tattoos the concept upon the team’s DNA.
Last season, in the event that the “two bigs” lineup was a belly-flop, there was always the option of staggering the minutes of Gobert and KAT at center. When KAT went down with his calf injury, the adjustment was to play Kyle Anderson at power forward and use Naz as the backup center. But now KAT is healthy and a long term commitment to Naz is on the books. Finch said Naz will play 90% of his minutes at power forward, bumping Anderson over to the backup small forward position.
Smaller workloads as a preseason hedge on conditioning and an injury to starting small forward Jaden McDaniels loosened enough time for everybody to perform during the Wolves four preseason games. And Naz has generally looked sharp in those games.
But when signing Naz, the Wolves chose to focus on the handful of games where the constant two-bigs lineups worked well, while discounting the larger (albeit earlier) sample size when Naz didn’t mesh well with either Gobert or KAT on the court. Another complication is that Finch adores – and more importantly trusts –Anderson’s game, especially his decision-making in crunch time. Finch has said more than once that Anderson “saved our season” last year. Finch has also alluded to the possibility of Anderson taking on the backup power forward minutes against certain matchups. Oh, and while Naz has gotten paid, Anderson’s contract expires at the end of this season.
A super-bigs frontcourt with Anderson at small forward beside either KAT and Naz or Gobert and Naz would exacerbate the lack of quickness and probably hurt transition defense. Besides, McDaniels is also a Finch favorite, and a burgeoning (if under-the-radar) star in his own right, who signed a five-year, $136-million contract on Monday.
If you bump McDaniels down to shooting guard, what happens with Ant, let alone backup shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, a valuable wing-stopper on defense?
How will all this play out? The plot has thickened.
Can the Wolves reasonably rely on a full season of health from grizzled point guard Mike Conley?
Any doubts about the personnel judgment and acumen of Connelly after the Gobert deal were dispelled when he obtained Mike Conley (and Alexander-Walker) for D’Angelo Russell at the trade deadline. More than any player I have covered in 32 years on the Wolves beat, Conley’s value to a team escalates under the aegis of day-to-day scrutiny. He is an approachable sage with an unerring instinct for noticing what a team needs while possessing the versatility to address it out on the court.
He is also 36 years old and has logged, counting the playoffs, more than 1,100 games and 35,000 minutes of NBA action. Connelly wisely says he hopes to extend Conley’s contract (which expires this season) so that he ends his career in Minnesota. After being acquired in February, he logged more than 31 minutes per game – his most since his final season in Memphis four years ago.
When Conley does sit this season, a committee of players will fill the void. Finch likes the size and aggressiveness of Shake Milton, a free agent signing from Philadelphia, but basketball-reference.com has him playing point guard just 10% of the time over his five-year career. Jordan McLaughlin (“J-Mac”) has had an excellent preseason and has prior tenure as the primary backup, but an injury to Conley might expose his small size on defense and poor shooting on offense. Alexander-Walker can play some point in a pinch; ditto another free agent signing, Troy Brown, Jr. And Anderson, the combo forward who identifies as a point guard and arguably possesses the best passing instincts on the roster, could easily fill the role, provided someone else brings up the ball and guards the opposing point guard.
Bottom line, Connelly has done yeoman work adding depth to the roster – all the names I just mentioned are a sturdy upgrade from end-of-the-bench backcourt options Austin Rivers, Bryn Forbes and Jaylen Nowell from a year ago. But if the Wolves are going to make some legitimate noise in the competitive depth of the Western Conference this season, Conley needs to keep mainlining his fountain of youth.
Quick hits and a prediction
The terse, almost surly demeanor exhibited by KAT this preseason is a good thing, as it signals that he is working on quitting his jones for validation and caring what people think of him. Expect a big season on offense and greater effort on D.
Now that McDaniels has his money secured, he will continue to mimic the career arc of Mikal Bridges, a defensive specialist who became a two-way, All Star caliber player when given a bigger role in an offense. (McDaniels won’t have a bigger role on this crowded roster. But the skills are there.)
The leviathan plan of towering over opponents with Gobert, KAT, Naz and others will continue to have its glitches and be an ongoing work in progress at both ends of the court. But there is simply too much talent here for that to derail another playoff appearance.
Barring injuries or currently unforeseen major mishaps, I’ll call 46 to 48 wins and a fifth seed in the playoffs.