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Timberwolves Film Room: Turnover Creating Turnovers

The Timberwolves are feeling the aftermath of a long layoff.

NBA: Preseason-Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s just the preseason. Don’t mash that panic button yet.

At least for now, that’s what we’re going to keep telling ourselves. That’s the mantra that’s going to get us to the regular season without completely losing all the excitement that nine months without Minnesota Timberwolves basketball had built up. A Wolves fan has to find ways to keep sane, and this seems as good a reason as any.

It’s just the preseason. Don’t mash that panic button yet.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be concerned. Hell, back-to-back lifeless losses against a Memphis Grizzlies team that the Wolves should theoretically be battling for a playoff position at season’s end doesn’t inspire much hope. But, the sky hasn’t fallen yet. Sure, it could, and knowing this franchise, it probably will, but it hasn’t happened yet.

When the regular season starts and some of the glaringly obvious cobwebs get shaken off, there are some things that you can bet your house on getting better. Ricky Rubio — whose teams have been an average of 6.4 points better per 100 possessions when he was on the floor throughout his career — likely won’t be averaging as many turnovers as assists or hold a net rating of -19.2 when the real games get underway.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

We can bet that Karl-Anthony Towns, the same one that has connected on over 40 percent of his 3-pointers for the last three seasons, isn’t going to shoot 16.7 percent from deep and 28 percent from the field. The list goes on. Whether you came into the season with your hopes high or with the pessimistic view that is afforded to all Timberwolves fans, it’s evident that this team is still working off nine months of rust.

It’s just the preseason. Don’t mash that panic button yet.

Of course, the Wolves aren’t the only team coming off a long layoff. They were one of eight teams that missed out on the NBA’s Orlando Bubble, and, for the most part, those seven other teams have looked considerably better. However, none of those rosters have experienced the turnover that Minnesota has. This time last year, only Towns, Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver were suiting up in the Twin Cities, and through 96 preseason minutes, it’s been blatant that this team is enduring the growing pains that accompany an overhauled roster and an unprecedented offseason.

There is an entire thesis to be written and examined on the Timberwolves’ shoddy defense that nobody has the time to do, but, perhaps surprisingly, it’s been their offense that has been looked impaired over the Memphis back-to-back. In particular, turnovers have been a major bugaboo. Stunningly, the team has registered 48 turnovers compared to 37 assists during the first two exhibition outings and currently holds the worst assist-turnover ratio (0.77) in the league. There is more to some of these mistakes than just rust, but as you parse through the film, it’s very apparent that these guys just don’t know each other well enough yet to run the offense we assume they are capable of running.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

It’s understandable, like most of us, this team has been working from home during a global pandemic and looks out of practice, unmotivated and a little flummoxed being back in the office. Most of the team can’t differentiate their new coworkers from a cardboard fan in an empty arena, so you can see why the chemistry of the Wolves looks a bit out of sorts.

Even Rubio, the passing savant we have come to love and cherish, is having problems early on. Usually, this is a cut and dry assist. Rubio hits the perfect lob and Anthony Edwards celebrates his maiden highlight, but a season of playing with an under-the-rim specialist like Devin Booker has conditioned The Spanish Unicorn to throw this to the chest of Edwards —rather than the clouds where Ant Man likes to live.

It won’t take long for Rubio to realize Edwards is more Donovan Mitchell than he is Booker. Despite Edwards’ best Peter Parker impersonation, he is unable to reel the ball in and this one turns into a transition opportunity going the other way.

Even with the ball away from his mitts, Rubio has looked a bit disjointed and unfamiliar with what he needs to do and where he needs to be within Ryan Saunders’ offense. As fans, we have seen Towns execute this nifty overhead sling pass to a diving teammate half a hundred times, but Rubio hasn’t been overanalyzing Timberwolves games like us. He has been letting his flowing locks flap in the winds of the Utah Rocky Mountains and throwing lobs to DeAndre Ayton in The Valley, probably.

So, instead of continuing on with the basket cut, Rubio checks his run mid-way through, likely unsure if he should be clogging the lane for a posted-up Towns. Unknowing, Towns whips the pass over his shoulder to fresh air, and another live-ball turnover ensues. According to Synergy Sports, the Timberwolves allowed 1.12 points per possession (PPP) in transition last season, which ranked 20th leaguewide. That means live-ball giveaways like this are usually automatic buckets up the other end of the floor.

Let’s not just pile on La Pistola, because the entire team has been mired in the same sloppiness. Towns and Malik Beasley played just 25 minutes alongside each other last season, and the pair are still clearly working out the kinks offensively. In theory, Towns’ well-rounded offensive superstardom and Beasley’s deadeye shooting should mesh like a pig in mud, but the pair needs continuity to make that happen. So far, they just don’t have the reps.

This particular pick-and-roll mishap stood out especially. As you can see, Memphis is defending the screen action in the same ‘drop’ coverage that the Timberwolves employ, meaning Jonas Valančiūnas drops into the paint to protect the rim while Ja Morant is tasked with fighting through the screen and competing at the point of attack. This is music to Towns’ ears, who is a flamethrower from deep and has no problems popping out behind the arc with Valančiūnas so far away.

Right here is where Beasley needs to make that pass for Towns to get a clean 3-point look. He has dragged Morant into the paint with him and Towns is now free. To be fair to Beasley, Towns could make life easier for him by making a sharp cut to his left, getting away from the lurking Dillon Brooks and creating a more open look for himself — another chemistry issue — however, Beasley, isn’t even looking at Towns and takes far too long to process that he has one of the greatest shooting bigs of all time on the floor with him.

By the time he does pivot and look to pass, Morant has smartly switched out to KAT. Rendering his open jumper a distant memory. Cleverly, Towns takes advantage of Morant overplaying him and back cuts him to the front of the rim, using his scoring gravity to suck in both Brooks and Kyle Anderson (who is guarding Jake Layman on the weak side). As you can see below, Morant is beaten badly and that crumbles the defensive shell. Now it’s options galore for Beasley, he still has an opening to feed it to a rumbling Towns, but he now has D’Angelo Russell open for a triple or a good-shot-great-shot pass to Layman.

Alas, Beasley chooses poorly. He tries the worst option possible, whirling under Valančiūnas and trying a bounce pass to Towns from a different angle. This allows De’Anthony Melton, who has been laying in the weeds the entire time waiting for this exact mistake, to swoop in and intercept the pass. And, you guessed it, transition points for the Grizzlies.

Some of this is just pure basketball and playmaking IQ. Beasley has never been known as someone who makes crisp decisions when setting up others. But, a good chunk of it is just unfamiliarity. Beasley will soon learn, be it from watching the film or hearing it from the star pairing himself, that he needs to recognize and execute passes to Towns and Russell as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Moving on to Jarrett Culver, who has been one of the lone bright spots during a preseason filled with dark corners. It’s hard to fault the sophomore product, who has immediately impressed with his point-of-attack defense and his seemingly improved shot mechanics at the charity stripe and from beyond the arc, but he too has been a victim of timing and cohesion issues offensively.

The former Texas Tech Red Raider was able to play 12 games last season with Russell, which is more than most of the roster can boast, but this play reeks of a nine-month layoff. As play-by-play announcer Dave Benz stated on-air at the time, both Russell and Culver had a case to be in the right here (Russell more so than Culver), but being right isn’t as important as being on the same wavelength.

When Russell weaves around his defender, Gorgui Dieng is forced to step up as he touches the paint, leaving Culver behind the defense to collect an easy deuce from the ‘dunker’s spot’ along the baseline or space out to the corner for a wide-open corner trifecta. Instead, Culver gets caught in two minds and doesn’t choose quickly enough. Whether he is unfamiliar with what Russell would prefer he do or he is just unsure what he wants to do himself is unclear. What is clear is that he ends up watching Russell’s dunker’s spot pass sail out of bounds.

Unlike Culver, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson spent an entire season and playoff series with Russell as his point guard, and you could tell when they paired up in Wolves colors that they were used to each other’s offensive tendencies. Hollis-Jefferson checked into the ball game just a few moments before this play, but he instantaneously knew where the lane was and when to fill it. Russell obliged, simultaneously knowing what the 25-year-old was going to do and where to get him the ball. Now that’s more like it.

Unfortunately Culver and his teammates don’t have that sort of connection and, again, it’s the same issue here. This time it’s Edwards doing the passing. Edwards and Culver have barely had time to learn each other’s names let alone form a synergistic pairing on the court, so chemistry and the knowledge of one another’s game is really factoring into this one. Still, it’s not doing the rookie any favors by feinting a backdoor cut only to pull out the moment Edwards feeds a slick bounce pass through the gap in the defense.

Beating that dead horse one more time, this team is simply out of whack and struggling for immediate chemistry. There is nothing crucially wrong with that, and it’s something that should iron itself out as training camp and exhibition games continue. However, the regular season opener is less than a week away, so Minnesota might not have as long as they want to piece together this new and exciting offense.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s all say it one more time:

It’s just the preseason. Don’t mash that panic button yet.