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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.

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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.

Strengths

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.

Weaknesses

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

With Russell:
On the floor: 116.8
Off the floor: 111.9

With Edwards:
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.

Oh right…

Opportunities

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.

Threats

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.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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