If it still hasn’t sunk in just yet, it bears repeating: the New York Knicks are making their first trip to the NBA Playoffs since 2012-13.
Naturally, it’s understandable that most Knicks-centered articles are examining their ceiling this season. Alas, according to Kanye West, the present is the past – so, like Yeezy, we’re looking ahead.
Currently, the New York roster features seven players that are 23 years old or younger. Given that the franchise will look to grow on its current, unpredicted successes, and possibly bring in help via free agency, all of the team’s up-and-comers will have to improve to maintain a spot in next season’s rotation.
But all prospects aren’t created equally. Rookies have longer leashes and the sample size is still low, so we’ll leave Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley out of this discussion for now – while Jared Harper has appeared in just 16 minutes all season, meaning more information is needed to provide an accurate assessment.
That leaves us with four contributors to assess and we’ll do just that. With the help of well-known skills trainer David Zenon, the following capsules identify areas of improvement, recent growth and what they must accomplish to keep pushing alongside the Knicks’ budding core.
22 years old, 4th season
Entering the 2020-21 season, Ntilikina’s Knicks’ career could be described as consistently inconsistent. Strangely, this season has been worse.
Ntilikina received a career-low 9.8 minutes per game, shooting a career-low 19 percent on two-point field goal attempts and notching a career-low 2.7 points. This all came while playing for head coach Tom Thibodeau, whose penchant for defense led many to believe the veteran leader could get maximum production from the strong-willed guard.
But Ntilikina never received a serious look – Quickley hit the ground running; Austin Rivers, Elfrid Payton and RJ Barrett ate up most of the remaining minutes; and Derrick Rose’s arrival eventually sealed the rotation up.
In that limited action, however, Ntilikina demonstrated an improved jump shot, giving supporters hope that he can still turn a corner. Unfortunately for the Frenchman, his struggles have been about more than just shooting.
Ntilikina’s decision-making has been problematic. Yes, he’s been good in catch-and-shoot opportunities this season, but he’ll have to improve dramatically to secure a spot as a reliable 3-and-D contributor. He must also become a threat off the dribble as, currently, Ntilikina shies away from taking the ball to the hoop at all –shockingly, the guard has attempted just three attempts at the time all season.
Still, Ntilikina’s potential makes him somebody that Zenon wants to begin training with:
“The consistency in terms of his footwork and shot [is lacking]. And his release point, ” Zenon said. “This is year four, so it’s frustrating to see him [continue to struggle].”
The three things I ask people about Frank: is his footwork the same? Is his release point the same? And are his hands the same when he loads up with his shot?” Zenon continued.
Sometimes, he’ll turn his guide hand and at other times it’s not the same motion. It could be that he’s overthinking or it could be how defenses play him.”
Zenon would also like to see Ntilikina become more decisive off the dribble:
“When teams run you off the line, ice you, hedge you, opponents might force you to your off-hand. Are you comfortable going downhill with your left? Because I don’t see it.”
At best, Ntilikina will face stiff competition. Rose could possibly find his way back to the team, a long-time disciple of Thibodeau. Quickley and Barrett will receive serious minutes as assumed franchise cornerstones too. Hell, the Knicks have already signed Argentinian guard Luca Vildoza, a former MVP overseas.
Ntilikina could cement a role in that group too, but it’s fast becoming an uphill battle. If he doesn’t improve soon, he’s probably out of time in New York.
Kevin Knox II
21 years old, 3rd season
Knox will probably return next season since he’ll still be on a rookie deal – unless he’s involved in a trade – but after a disappointing season in which he averaged career-lows in points (3.9), rebounds (1.5), assists (0.5) and minutes (11.0), he’ll have a lot to prove.
Knox frustrated the coaching staff and fans alike with his low motor. Still, Zenon still has hope, all inspired by Knox’s shooting improvements.
“He was turning the ball, so it was sitting in the palm of his shooting hand last season,” Zenon explained. “Then he started turning his hips, developing some other bad habits.”
This year, he’s done the opposite,” Zenon said. “Straight up, straight down. The problem is that the rest of the roster has been phenomenal, so it’s hard to break back into the rotation.”
And breaking into the rotation will continue to be a problem, even if Knox improves again this offseason.
Knox solved his Sophomore shooting woes, but he still needs to get to the hoop more decisively, rebound the ball better and become a more engaged and willing defender.
Above all, Knox must have a greater impact while in the game. His impact has been non-existent for too long, something that will not fly with Thibodeau. Yet he possesses important, modern skills – he’s big, long and he shoots it from deep.
Gone are the days of hoping that Knox grows into a star (or even a starter) – perhaps he can still be productive off the bench. Knox might not have the ball in his hands, but there are plenty of other ways to impact the game.
In any case, the onus is on Knox to figure out how best to do so.
20 years old, 2nd season
Of the five Knicks profiled here, Barrett is in the best shape. After playing only a portion of his rookie season due to the COVID-19 play stoppage, he’s made serious improvements.
Barrett’s jump shot is significantly better as he shot 48 percent on three-point attempts through the month of April and 45.5 in May alone. The Canadian also played with more poise this season and helped anchor the league’s fourth-rated defense (108.97) – which featured only one ‘elite’ stopper for most of the year, Nerlens Noel.
In short, his role with the team is pretty set. Barring a star signing, Barrett should come in as the Knicks’ second option next season.
“I know RJ personally, he’s very competitive,” Zenon said. “Since he’s been at Duke, he’s been a perfectionist. He knew he had to work on his jumper before he came into the league. If you don’t see it by now, you won’t see it.”
It speaks to the player development system in New York,” Zenon continued. “From everything I’ve heard from players around the league and with the team, it’s phenomenal.”
But it’s also personality. That’s a locker room full of dogs, and it’s going to help RJ develop year-to-year, adding to his game.”
Barrett’s off-season program is probably locked in as well. The top prospect is a willing driver, but he’ll have to improve his execution. Right now, he lacks an elite leaping ability, resulting in blocks or misses at the rim. Furthermore, Barrett should also look to add a step-back jump shot, which would make him even harder to guard.
“I’ve heard that ‘RJ needs to get stronger or finish better’. Until you see him, you don’t realize how big he is,” Zenon said. “RJ is wide, he’s got a good core, thick legs. And remember, he didn’t play a full season last year.
This season, he’s had to learn a new system. Derrick (Rose) joined, which was an adjustment. He hasn’t had to focus on driving to the rim as much, so he’s done a great job of shooting from the corners [which is what he’s been asked to do].”
Year three will be even better,” Zenon explained. “I always say, year three is when you make the jump. And it’s when you have to show that you’re established offensively and defensively. If he’s going to be the type of player I know he’ll be, he’ll come back better next season, and he’ll finish better at the rim.”
23 years old, 3rd season
Robinson was once seen as the only member of the Knicks worth building around. Oh, how one season can change a narrative.
When he’s played, the center’s impact is undeniable. Over his three-year career, Robinson has averaged 8.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Of course, he also set an NBA record for field goal percentage last season (74.2%).
Historically, Robinson has struggled to stay on the floor, getting in foul trouble through mostly silly plays (e.g., not remaining vertical on shot attempts). Still, he made incredible strides in his defensive decision-making this season.
Through 31 games, Robinson got the tally down to 2.8 fouls per game over 27.5 minutes of action. For context, Robinson averaged 3.3 fouls in 20.6 minutes per game during his rookie season and 3.2 in 23.6 in 2019-20.
Robinson’s impact is profound on the defensive end. Offensively, though, there is room to grow.
The 7-footer is an incredible rim runner and he’s among the best alley-oop targets in the league – beyond that, he’s limited.
Robinson leaked a number of long-range shooting videos last year but he’s yet to demonstrate that ability in games. Granted, he’s been hamstrung by coaching changes throughout his career, now on his third coach in three seasons. The limited timelines with each coach have probably hurt his opportunities to stretch an offensive repertoire.
With Thibodeau returning next year, Robinson can begin making his case. There are plenty of examples of bigs adding a shot later in their career (Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol) and having a center that stretches the floor clearly benefits an offense.
Zenon, who regularly works with Robinson, believes that a jump shot is in his client’s future.
“First of all, he’s a great person,” Zenon said. “He’ll listen to the coach and understand the game plan.”
Thibs is doing a great job,” Zenon explained. “No one wants to step on toes. Eventually, Mitch will break out the jumper, but it’s not his time yet. Ultimately, the team is winning – and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
For the first time in a long time, the Knicks have serious upside. They’ll have options to infuse their current roster with talent this offseason, but much of their improvement will probably come from their relatively young core continuing to mature.
While that’s great news for the team and its fans, some players will be on the outside looking in. Sure, everyone could improve enough to secure a role moving forward – but if history is any indication, a few of the above-mentioned players won’t.
For now, it’s just time to enjoy the long-awaited postseason return in New York.
David Zenon is a skills trainer with a special focus on shooting. His first basketball-related job was with the Westchester Knicks – but he currently works with 14 NBA players including Serge Ibaka, Mitchell Robinson, Mason Plumlee and Ignas Brazdeikis.
Now What? – Washington Wizards
Washington Wizards’ GM Tommy Sheppard acknowledged: “this is not a run-it-back team.” As they work to convince Bradley Beal to stay long-term, Bobby Krivitsky examines their path to being a better-balanced team while assessing the state of the franchise.
After losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in five games in the first round of the playoffs, the Washington Wizards have to get creative to evolve into a more balanced team better equipped to compete in the postseason.
Washington’s offensive attack is potent. Led by Bradley Beal, who ranked second in points per game, producing 31.3 per contest, the Wizards generated 116.6 per game, the third-most in the league.
That stems from Washington leading the NBA in pace, averaging 104.67 possessions per contest. Then, there’s the nature of those possessions, which often resulted in Beal or Russell Westbrook scoring in the paint, where the Wizards manufactured 52.8 points per game from, which was the fifth-most league-wide. Those drives often lead to free throws as well. Washington took 26.2 free throws per contest, converting 20.1 of them, both of which led the NBA.
But as lethal as the Wizards’ offense was this season, moving forward, they should grow into a unit that does more damage from beyond the arc. They averaged 29 three-point attempts per game, marginally better than the league-low launched by the San Antonio Spurs (28.4). Thus, it’s not surprising they ranked 28th in threes made per game (10.2), a few ticks better than the 9.9 produced by the Spurs, who again found themselves at the bottom of a long-range category.
As a result of Washington’s struggles from three-point range, they ranked 20th in effective field goal percentage (53.1 percent) and 18th in true shooting percentage (56.9 percent). That’s where the Wizards felt the impact of Thomas Bryant’s absence. He isn’t a high-volume shooter, but in 2019-20, he took two threes per game and knocked down 40.7 percent of them. In the 10 games he played this season before tearing his ACL, he made 42.9 of his 2.1 long-range attempts. Bryant will be nine months removed from his injury when training camp starts, so he may not be ready for the beginning of the 2021-22 campaign.
Either way, Robin Lopez and Alex Len are free agents this offseason, meaning Washington needs to re-sign at least one of them or acquire another center. However, unlike the Wizards’ search for help on the wings, adding a center who spaces the floor like Bryant isn’t a prerequisite.
One way Washington overcomes its lack of long-range scoring is by forcing and capitalizing on turnovers. The Wizards rank 10th in opponent turnovers per game (14.7), which led to an average of 18 points per contest, the eighth-most in the league.
An area they couldn’t compensate for this season was their defensive shortcomings. Washington gave up the most points per game (118.5), and Opponents made an average of 43.1 field goals per contest, placing the Wizards 28th in that category. They ranked 20th in defensive rating, yielding 112.3 points per 100 possessions. As a result, they had a -1.6 net rating, which was 22nd in the league.
Despite the Wizards’ ability to generate turnovers, it failed to mask the reality that they provide little resistance defensively. Opponents produced 13.7 second-chance points per game against them, the seventh-most in the league. The Wizards ranked 18th in points allowed in the paint, surrendering 48.2 per game. And their efforts to create turnovers tended to result in them racking up fouls and sending their opposition to the free-throw line. Teams took 25.4 foul shots per contest against Washington, which ranked a tick below the league-high opponents averaged against the Golden State Warriors (25.4).
Speaking of turnovers, the Wizards coughed up the ball an average of 14.4 times per game, which ranked 20th and led to opponents scoring 17.6 points off those mistakes, the fourth-most in the NBA this season.
Those defensive struggles and the Wizards’ imbalance are why they can’t simply run it back next season, relying on internal improvement to turn them into a more formidable playoff opponent than the one that recently got bounced after five games in the first round.
“This is not a run-it-back team,” Wizards’ general manager Tommy Sheppard acknowledged following the conclusion of their season. “We have to get better. So, to do that, you have to run it better. You have to build. You have to improve. And we’re going to do everything possible, look at every option that we can to make that happen.”
However, that won’t be easy. Washington will enter free agency over the cap. The Wizards will have the mid-level and biannual exceptions to help them fortify their roster. The former could be the key to them adding a stout perimeter defender, ideally, one who fits the description of a three-and-D wing. The latter of those exceptions might be how Washington acquires a center to pair with Bryant and Daniel Gafford.
As for the draft, the Wizards have the 15th pick in the first round, which isn’t ideal, but it’s the price for making the playoffs. Still, at the 2015 draft, they acquired Kelly Oubre Jr., who was the 15th selection that year. Opting to take the best player available is a strategy that should never get knocked, but with Washington prioritizing the present, gravitating towards an NBA-ready wing or at least the prospect they consider the best remaining at that position would align with what’s taking precedence.
The Wizards also have to decide whether to bring back head coach Scott Brooks, who is no longer under contract. During Sheppard’s exit interview, he said Brooks “did a hell of a job keeping this team together through some of the most difficult, dark moments probably in franchise history.” In January, the Wizards dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak that suspended their season for two weeks.
Westbrook strongly expressed support for bringing Brooks back, which isn’t surprising, considering how well the two of them get along, dating back to their time together with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Me personally, I don’t see why Scottie should go anywhere. And not just because we’re close, but he’s done a hell of a job with our team, our program since I’ve been here. …“He’s still the same coach Brooks, and he brings intensity. He brings the effort like he was playing, but he’s a coach. That’s something you can’t teach. That’s something you can’t have. So, if it was up to me, I don’t think he should go anywhere.”
Lastly, there’s the threat Beal asks out this summer; don’t mistake that for a prediction, but he has one year left on his contract plus a player option worth $37.3 million for the 2022-23 season. As loyal as he is, and as enjoyable a season as it was for the Wizards, they got easily dispatched by the Sixers in the first round of the playoffs, and their path to improvement is difficult, especially when it comes to vaulting themselves into title contention. Perhaps Beal, a three-time All-Star, decides it’s in his best interest to join a team better-suited to compete for the Larry O’Brien trophy next season, especially after adding him to its roster. Making that decision now would also allow Washington to get a package of players and picks in return for obliging with his request, rather than risking losing him for nothing next offseason.
Beal loves where he is, and his first choice is to win with the Wizards. But like Shepard said: “this is not a run-it-back team;” they have to improve the roster to help convince Beal there’s no need for him to take his talents elsewhere.
Now What? – Indiana Pacers
Following a disappointing season, the Indiana Pacers have more questions than answers as of right now. Chad Smith details what changes may be on the horizon for the team this summer as they figure out which direction they are heading.
Basketball Insiders continues the “Now What” series with a look at the Indiana Pacers. A disappointing 34-38 record earned them a spot in the Play-In Tournament, where they crushed the Charlotte Hornets but were then destroyed by the Washington Wizards. They limped across the finish line, and now face an uncertain offseason that could be filled with changes.
Following a wild roller-coaster season, the Pacers find themselves at a crossroads. Expectations were high for the team coming into this season, with a new head coach and a rejuvenated roster. Early in the season things were rolling along nicely, but the Pacers were ultimately victims of the injury bug amid the condensed season. For just the second time in the last decade, they will be a lottery team heading into the 2021 NBA Draft.
The primary focus for the front office, like last year, will be finding their next coach. The team announced on Wednesday that Nate Bjorkgren would not be returning next season. After taking a chance on the first-year head coach, the tumultuous season ultimately led the organization to look for a coach with more experience.
There are plenty of other riddles to solve, both in the draft and in free agency. There are decisions to be made regarding this roster, and none of them can be considered minor at this point. Indiana is swimming in the river of mediocrity, and that must change.
The future for this team has been cloudy but getting answers to several questions this offseason will help clear things up.
For all of the uncertainty surrounding the Pacers, they do have some good things going for them. After jumping at the opportunity to land a young talented player like Caris LeVert, they had to wait on his recovery following treatment for the mass that was found on his kidney. His return to the floor in March was a wonderful sight to see, and the fit alongside his new teammates has been harmonious.
LeVert was thriving as a member of the Pacers, but it was cut short just before the Play-In Tournament began when he was forced to sit out due to health and safety protocols. Despite his absence, LeVert has solidified himself as the guy on this team that can create for others, as well as get his own shot whenever they need it.
When they don’t need to take that route, the Pacers are perfectly fine with running their offense through Domantas Sabonis. The big man had a career year, serving as the engine of the team’s offense. Sabonis averaged career highs in points (20.3), assists (6.7), steals (1.2) and blocks (0.5) this season. He also pulled down 12 rebounds per game and got to the free-throw line more than he ever has during his five-year career.
Just getting their full complement of players back healthy is something this organization can feel good about. With TJ Warren essentially missing the entire season and Myles Turner having his impressive season cut short due to injuries, the Pacers will only improve with them back in the fold. Jeremy Lamb missed half the season, Malcolm Brogdon missed 16 games and Sabonis missed ten due to injuries as well.
Indiana’s offense should be one of the most dynamic in the league next year, with LeVert, Sabonis, and Brogdon leading the way. The other players on this roster will need to play their roles, hit open shots, and defend. If those needs can be addressed this offseason, the Pacers should be back in the playoffs next year.
The injuries may have done them in towards the end of the season, but what really killed the Pacers was their inability to defend, rebound and close out games. They had the fourth-worst rebounding differential (-4.1) during the season and blew 17 fourth-quarter leads. Those two ingredients are a recipe for disaster.
The biggest question surrounding Indiana’s offseason was answered earlier this week. Kevin Pritchard met with Bjorkgren on Tuesday and decided that it was time to move on. He acknowledged that they took a chance last season and it just didn’t pan out. He also addressed what he is looking for in their next leader.
Pacers president Kevin Pritchard spoke for 23 minutes, mostly looking forward.
– Wanted to take a risk last hire. This can’t be that. Have to get it right
– Need a vocal leader in the locker room
– Must re-establish defensive identity
– Added emphasis on hiring the right staff
— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) June 9, 2021
The real question is how much of the blame for this turbulent season should be on Bjorkgren’s shoulders? He didn’t have Warren, Turner, LeVert, Oladipo, or Lamb for most of the season. He was reluctant to play Aaron Holiday for whatever reason and relied heavily on the defense and availability of Justin Holiday and TJ McConnell. Despite all of this, he still had this team one win away from the playoffs.
Brogdon and Sabonis both thrived in Bjorkgren’s offense. Brogdon averaged a career-high in scoring while the team averaged a franchise record 115.3 points per game. It was a massive leap from the old, slow-tempo offense that they ran under former coach Nate McMillan. In the end, the disconnect between the players and others within the organization was too much to ignore.
Indiana will have several candidates to choose from, including some they met with last summer. The front office will be looking at former player and current Los Angeles Clippers assistant Chauncey Billups, former Portland Trail Blazers coach and Indiana native Terry Stotts, as well as Mike D’Antoni, who was the favorite to get the job last season before joining Steve Nash’s staff in Brooklyn.
Indiana will have an opportunity to grab some high-end talent in the draft this summer. This will be just the second time they will have a lottery pick in the draft in the last ten years. The Pacers likely won’t land the cream of the crop with the 13th or 14th pick, but there is plenty of solid talent throughout this draft class.
One name that has come up frequently in mock drafts is Keon Johnson, who is a relentless wing defender. That has been a void ever since Victor Oladipo suffered his quad injury in January of 2019. Should the Pacers not bring back Doug McDermott, they could look at Corey Kispert from Gonzaga, who is an elite perimeter shooter. Other names to monitor are James Bouknight from UConn and Jared Butler from Baylor. The Pacers typically like to take the best talent available, regardless of position need.
In terms of free agency, the Pacers are already over the salary cap. Despite the lack of money to throw around, Pritchard has a solid reputation for finding bargain deals. There are several solid role players available that could potentially help this team next season. Under-the-radar guys like Dewayne Dedmon, Wayne Ellington and Tony Snell would be able to fill some of the weaknesses that the team had this past season.
The roster is in flux so while there isn’t one obvious position that they need to fill, it is safe to say they will be set at the starting center position with either Sabonis or Turner. Even with Warren coming back, there are questions with their wing players, so it would not be a surprise to see them chase someone like Torrey Craig. He could become a hot name when free agency begins, should the Phoenix Suns keep rolling in the playoffs. Regardless, that is the type of player that Indiana would desperately covet.
The silver lining with all of the Pacers’ injuries is what they found in their absence. Oshae Brissett played 21 games for Indiana this season, and he showed some serious potential. After the regular season, Brissett scored 31 points and pulled down ten rebounds against his former team, the Toronto Raptors. His range was on display as well, as he shot 42.3 percent from three-point range during the regular season.
Brissett was 10-14 overall from the floor in their Play-In Tournament victory over the Hornets, scoring 23 points to lead the way for the Pacers. He signed a three-year contract so the Pacers will have some flexibility at the position going forward.
Indiana’s only free agents are McConnell, McDermott and JaKarr Sampson. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much of a threat if they were not able to retain any of these guys. Both McConnell and McDermott had career seasons and showed their value to other potential suitors this summer. McConnell led the league in steals with 128, which is 20 more than Jimmy Butler, who finished second. The 29-year old also averaged career-high numbers across the board.
McDermott also posted the best statistical numbers of his career, improving in many areas of his game. Known mostly for his perimeter shot, the former Creighton star was a nightmare to chase as he weaved his way through screens and split down the lane for layups. After landing on his fifth team, it seemed as though he found the perfect fit in Indiana, but money always talks.
The Pacers can certainly replace their production should they decide to leave, but the most difficult roster decision has been a long time coming. It is the elephant in the room – Turner or Sabonis?
As Tristan Tucker recently pointed out, this frontcourt pairing has run its course. While Pritchard has reiterated that the two big men could stagger their minutes, it simply has not been working. The two-man lineup of Sabonis and Turner yielded a -2.3 net rating, which was the fourth-worst of the team’s top 15 pairings. The on/off ratings also revealed that the best option going forward is to split up the Turbonis experiment.
Both players have excelled on one side of the ball. Sabonis has fueled Indiana’s offense, posting ten triple-doubles this season. He also recorded 48 double-doubles in just 62 games. Turner was on pace to shatter the record for most blocks in a season before his injury derailed that plan. He still led the league in blocks per game (3.4) for the second time in the last three seasons.
For whatever reason, the numbers have not translated to team success. With both players under contract through at least the next two seasons, the time to trade one of them is now. It is a risky proposition, but one that the organization must make. The big question is which player should Indiana move? Sabonis will likely yield more of a return but he is also the more important piece for this roster as currently constructed.
The Indiana #Pacers are expected to listen to trade offers for Myles Turner this offseason, source tells @HoopAnalysisNet. Among teams expected to have interest are the #Hornets, #Lakers, #Knicks, and #Celtics. Plenty of other suitors could pursue as well.
— Evan Massey (@massey_evan) June 3, 2021
All of that being said, many teams would love to get their hands on a floor-spacing center that protects the rim. Turner’s name was floated in several trade discussions before the season. One that nearly came to fruition was with the Boston Celtics, which was centered around Gordon Hayward. Many front offices have already set their sights on putting together a package for the 25-year old, with the Los Angeles Lakers high on the list of interested teams.
The last time Indiana drafted a player in the lottery was in 2015 when they selected Turner with the 11th pick. Oddly enough, he might be the one that is dealt to get this team out of mediocrity.
Now What? – Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves are still a Western Conference bottom feeder, but Matt John explains why they should be more optimistic now than in past years.
What’s up fellow basketball junkies? Have you enjoyed these NBA Playoffs? Well, so have we! Now that there will be fewer playoff games, it’s time for another installment of Basketball Insiders’ Now What? series. Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked over what the future holds for teams like Chicago and New Orleans. Today, we turn our attention to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Coming into this season, the Timberwolves still hadn’t recovered from a previous era of much hype but minimal progress. When it was all over, their present remained mostly helpless. Miraculously, their future on the other hand looked promising. Again. And this time, we may not be left at the altar. With that, let’s begin.
At first, when you see that, according to Basketball-Reference, Minnesota had the sixth-lowest offensive rating in the league this year – scoring 109.5 points per 100 possessions – you would think that it’s a bad thing. If you dig a little deeper, you’d see that the offense came along nicely as the season came down the home stretch.
Starting in March, the Timberwolves’ upped that rating to 112.9 points per 100 possessions, good for 13th overall in the league in that span. So what changed during that time? D’Angelo Russell’s return certainly helped, but that didn’t happen until April 5th. Nope, at the center of it was both the rise of Anthony Edwards and the hiring of Chris Finch.
Edwards exploded from March onward. From there until the end of the season, he averaged 23.6 points on 45/34/77 splits. Those are electrifying numbers for any player. The fact that it was a rookie should give the Timberwolves plenty of hope. Minnesota going 16-21 in that time isn’t good. Seeing how they only had 23 wins total, that shows unexpected promise.
And hey, speaking of Russell, once he came back, Minnesota’s offense vaulted even higher. They scored 114.8 points per 100 possessions once D-Lo returned. That didn’t push them higher than 13th among NBA teams, but going 11-11 in that time demonstrated even more progress.
The fact that this all came right around the time when Edwards began to put the league on notice makes it feel like it wasn’t a coincidence. And don’t you dare believe we’re forgetting about one Karl-Anthony Towns. We could talk about his numbers, but the ones he put up are what we expect from him at this point.
The best way to talk about his impact is to bring one final fun fact to the table: Towns, Russell, and Edwards played in only 24 games together. That three-man lineup posted a net rating of plus-4.9. That’s a solid net rating. Not a great one. Among other three-man lineups that played at least 300 minutes together, they didn’t even have the best one. What should catch your eye is that, when they played together, Minnesota won 13 of those 24 games.
The development was subtle, but the Timberwolves offense progressed enough that fans should be ecstatic for what comes next season.
Unfortunately, Minnesota’s offensive evolution did not make up for their shoddy defense. According to Basketball-Reference, the Timberwolves allowed 115 points per 100 possessions this past season. That made for the third-lowest defensive rating in the league.
Before you ask, no, it did not improve with time. While the Timberwolves’ new-and-improved offense tantalized, their horrific defense remained. They were held back because of it. It started pretty much at the top. It’s not a good sign when your three most prolific players – Towns, Russell, and Edwards – all make you worse defensively when they’re on the floor.
Minnesota’s defensive rating with Towns:
On the floor: 114.7
Off the floor: 112.8
On the floor: 116.8
Off the floor: 111.9
On the floor: 115.6
Off the floor: 109.5
In their defense (no pun intended), no one in Minnesota’s rotation made their defense better. Even players typically regarded as apt defenders on this team like Ricky Rubio and Josh Okogie failed to do that. Jarred Vanderbilt was their only player that benefited their defense (that played at least 1000 minutes). Their defense allowed 6.2 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
The Timberwolves have a lot of work to do to pick it up defensively. Since they are made up of defensive liabilities mostly, there won’t be any quick fixes. Hypothetically, maybe a Head Coach like a Tom Thibodeau could use his defensive wizardry to solve their defensive shortcomings.
At this point, we already know what to expect from the duo of Towns and Russell. Towns is a valuable commodity. Russell, not so much. However, both are certified bucket getters. While that’s all well and good, their teams have not fared too well with them at the helm for the most part. We knew this time last year that, for Minnesota to become relevant again, they needed a cornerstone-like player. The early returns say that they have that player in Anthony Edwards
Edwards looks like the answer Minnesota’s craved for well over a decade. His vast improvement as a player over time should make everyone giddy about what his potential could do for him and the team. It already paid dividends on one side of the ball. Maybe the defense will do the same. Only at a slower pace.
Even if the defense will need time, the offensive potential doesn’t stem from Edwards alone. When the Timberwolves went on their late-season scoring surge, Malik Beasley suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in early April. The same Beasley who put up career-high scoring numbers (19.6) on 44/40/85 splits wasn’t present when the team was at their peak.
When you factor his return, Edwards’ development, and Towns’ and Russell’s health, the Timberwolves’ offense could be lethal for years to come.
Six years into his career, Karl-Anthony Towns is already one of the most offensively-skilled bigs in the league. Sadly, all he has to show for it winning-wise is one playoff appearance. Since 2015, it already feels like he’s seen it all. The Tom Thibodeau era failed. The Jimmy Butler trade backfired. Towns’ pairing with Andrew Wiggins amounted to pretty much nothing. Six years after being drafted, we should have seen some modicum of progress from the Timberwolves. The harsh truth is, we haven’t.
Towns has had to take a lot of punches since coming into the league. It’s gotten to the point where you honestly wonder how many more he can stomach as a Timberwolf. Even if Anthony Edwards blossoms into the superstar everyone believes he can be, if positive team results take their sweet time to do the same, how long until Towns justifiably decides he’s fed up with all the losing?
Let’s be real though. Minnesota has done what they can to make him happy. No matter what anyone thinks of D’Angelo Russell as a player, trading for him was smart for Minnesota. It was also concerning. Pairing Towns with his best friend was an effective strategy to appease him for the time being. However, it signified that Minnesota was already worried about Towns’ longevity with the team. It might be for him to play with Russell, but if nothing improves, how long until he asks, “Can’t I play with a winner and my best friend at the same time?”
Edwards’ quick progress and scintillating highlights are what Minnesota desperately needs, but the clock will tick in regards to Towns’ future and by extension, Russell’s if progress either comes slowly or halts entirely.
It’s not perfect, but there’s a lot more optimism (albeit cautious optimism) for Minnesota’s future. That starts and ends with their new golden boy. With Anthony Edwards’ potential, their future might be bright enough to convince Towns and Russell to stay long-term. That would be more certain if they were to take another step forward, which will not be a cakewalk in the Western Conference.
The Timberwolves can rest easy knowing that Edwards might be the franchise player they hoped Andrew Wiggins would be. Even if Towns and Russell leave anyway, Edwards alone looks like a solid foundation. After what the Timberwolves have been through, they couldn’t have asked for anything more.
The headline out of Minneapolis is that there’s hope again for these Timberwolves. We could not say the same last year.
Headlines2 weeks ago
Sources: Danny Ainge to Resign, Celtics to Name Brad Stevens President of Basketball Operations
Headlines2 weeks ago
Sources: Jason Kidd, Lloyd Pierce Expected to Be Candidates for Celtics’ Head Coach
Headlines1 week ago
Sources: Trail Blazers, Terry Stotts Agree to Part Ways
NBA1 week ago
Leading Guards: Simmons, Young Winning in Different Ways