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The Wolves and Tactical Rigidity at the Halfway Point

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Some thoughts about the first half season under the new Wolves regime.

2019-20 Minnesota Timberwolves Media Day Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Jake did a great job grading the players the other day, so today we’re going to look at the new front office and organization as a whole, and try to figure out how to define success for this iteration of the Timberwolves.

Summer’s front office and coaching staff overhaul meant we were likely in for another season of requests for patience as the new group got installed and evaluated the organization. And that has indeed been the case, as Gersson Rosas mostly filled the roster with short-term players. That’s understandable given the cap situation he walked into, and despite a miserable record this season that includes 11 and six (active as of this writing) game losing streaks, this front office deserves it’s chance to remake the roster.

Let’s start with the good stuff: Rosas has done an admirable job filling out the basketball staff in the front office. In particular, wooing Sachin Gupta, who by all accounts actually is the smartest guy in the room, was a coup. The Wolves have always been in desperate need of creativity in the front office, and now apparently have a group that thinks and works collaboratively both inside and outside the box.

One of the positive results is the Wolves taking the fringes of their roster more seriously than ever before. A long standing complaint about the franchise is they always pay full freight for everything. In part this has been because of their history, location, and status at the bottom of the NBA food chain, but also in part because of a lack of effort and creativity. In a capped league, it’s imperative that teams find rotation level players inexpensively, whether that be making good use of second round picks or finding undrafted free agents. The Wolves have not worked effectively on this aspect of roster building in the past, but this front office seems much more engaged.

They are making use of their G-League team and bringing players to the main roster when needed, and using those players. Undrafted free agent signing Naz Reid and two-way player Kelan Martin have had their moments, and second rounder Jaylen Nowell has also gotten a few opportunities and awaits more. It’s clear they are focused on developing such players, and if even one of them emerges as a legitimate rotation piece, it’s money and time well spent.

Beyond this positive development, however, the returns over the first half-season have been underwhelming at best. Although there has been an argument among much of the smart Timberwolves fan base and analyst community that wins and losses don’t matter this season, I take issue with that. Wins always matter—the amazing lack of competitive basketball we’ve witnessed over the past 15 years is an insult to fans who have stuck with this team for so long, and none of us are getting any younger.

Still, the results should not come as much of a surprise; For better or worse this is what we were going to get given the hand Rosas was dealt in terms of the roster he inherited and the lack of any immediate cap flexibility.

Instead the main thing we’ve gotten, both in their off-court rhetoric and on court play is a focus on implementing what the Wolves call a “system” or “philosophy,” but is really just a rigid enforcement of a particular brand of tactics. Wolves watchers, including myself, have been braying for a more modern approach that generates more three point shots for years now, so kudos to them for finally moving in that direction.

But both the installation and rigidity of their new tactical approach is problematic.

The NBA is, overwhelmingly, about talent. It’s fine to have a preferred style, but ultimately a team as bereft of talent as the Wolves needs to focus on acquiring better players no matter what their strengths are, and then figuring out ways to deploy them to best effect.

The Wolves have put the cart before the horse. They have implemented a style—small ball, high pace, lots of threes—that does not fit their current personnel. It also limits the universe of potential acquisitions if they are not flexible with their tactics.

They seem to believe that establishing this style of play is of paramount importance and can only be achieved by sticking with it regardless of results and available personnel, but I confess I don’t see why. They aren’t reinventing the wheel here; While much of this style is relatively new to the Wolves, it’s still basketball and it’s a style which has been in vogue across the league for years.

You certainly don’t have to strictly play a certain way for 48 minutes every night in order to establish an identity—especially when many of the current players will not be with the team when it—hopefully—starts winning.

In fact the biggest takeaway from the season so far in my view is their disturbing lack of flexibility. Yes, it’s worth exploring questions like can Karl-Anthony Towns anchor a defense as the only big on the floor? (Not looking good.) Can the Wolves control the defensive glass with only one big? (Almost certainly not.) But it doesn’t take 48 minutes a night every night to gain insight into these questions.

Gorgui Dieng has established himself as one of the Wolves five best players, and yet when Towns is healthy, he is relegated to back up center duty and limited minutes. That’s not innovative, it’s wasteful.

And this is the problem. Perhaps the chops exist both in the front office and among the coaching staff to show flexibility, to change things up when needed, but we certainly have not seen it thus far. It would seem more important that they demonstrate that kind of tactical flexibility than to show they can stick rigidly to a predetermined set of tactics that often don’t work.

Perhaps once they feel their tactics are well enough established, they will begin deviating from them as circumstances require. That’s the hope at any rate, but I remain mystified why it hasn’t happened already. They don’t have to prove to anyone they are going to play small and fast whenever they can—anyone can do that. What is needed is a bit more nuance to their approach, some evidence they can properly evaluate their available talent and use it for the best results.

Everyone involved, from the front office to the coaching staff, deserves more time to get this right, and they will get it. But the clock is ticking and acquiring real NBA talent is hard. They will have to show they are up to the task as we approach the trade deadline and then a pivotal off-season. Tactics are only as good as the players executing them, and more than any system, that’s the biggest task at hand.