Heading into the 2020-2021 season, our hope for the Minnesota Timberwolves has reached the guarded optimism level. We have the returning idolatry for Ricky Rubio, sky-high potential in the number one pick Anthony Edwards, and a roster where the pieces are starting to fit together around Karl-Anthony Towns.
Off and running. pic.twitter.com/J686HBjqnR— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) December 6, 2020
But yet, when the projected standings come out for the upcoming season placing the Wolves anywhere between 10th to 14th in the West, the collective response is, “that sounds about right. Sure hope the Wolves can compete for the play-in tournament.”
Looking at the individual pieces of the roster, it is easy to poke holes and find rationales for why the Wolves will be bad. The defense, for one, is likely to be terrible between the sieve at the front in D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley and the paper-thin backline of Juancho Hernangomez and Karl-Anthony Towns. Add a rookie known for his lack of focus and poor off-ball defense in Anthony Edwards and you have a recipe for one of worst defenses in the league. That would fit with recent Timberwolves seasons.
The wings and guards are overloaded with question marks, the power forward position is sub-optimal, and there are real questions about the viability of Russell and Towns as franchise centerpieces.
But stepping back, how often do teams with two non-injured max contract players not make the playoffs? Other than the Timberwolves’ recent experience with Andrew Wiggins and Towns, it does not happen very often. The clearest example is the New Orleans Pelicans teams built around Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, which often finished outside of the playoffs. Davis and Holiday may be better than the Wolves current duo, but the rest of those Pelicans rosters were terrible and Davis and Holiday were often hurt.
There is clearly a residual feeling about the Timberwolves based on the disparate performance of last year. But last year, Towns missed about half of the season and the Wolves trotted out line-up after line-up of below-average NBA players. It’s easy to see simply looking at the minutes leaders for the Wolves last year and seeing where they fit this year.
1) Josh Okogie - Bench player, unclear role
2) Jarrett Culver - Bench player, unclear role, uncertain if he will get minutes
3-5 are Wiggins, Covington, and Towns - At least average NBA players
6) Jeff Teague - Minimum contract with Celtics to be the backup point guard
7) Shabazz Napier - Currently unsigned
8) Gorgui Dieng - 9th or 10th player in Grizzlies rotation
9) Treveon Graham - Minimum deal with Bucks, unlikely to play
10) Keita Bates-Diop - Signed with Spurs on two-way contract
Of these players, Wiggins, Covington, and Towns are the only ones that are clearly average to above average (or even greater). The Wolves were third in three-point attempts last year but 28th in percentage. Covington and Towns were the only players that shot more than 150 attempts at an above-average percentage. There is a very real reason one of the most consistent memories of last year is watching Graham, Okogie, and Culver brick corner threes. It happened all the time!
This year, the Wolves have at least four average to above-average players in Ricky Rubio, Malik Beasley, D’Angelo Russell, and Karl-Anthony Towns. All four of them shoot threes at a high rate and at high percentages, fitting with the Wolves system that prioritizes a high number of three-point attempts.
Last year, the Wolves started Treveon Graham to open the season. This year’s Traveon Graham ancillary is Rondae-Hollis Jefferson, who is fighting for the 15th spot on the roster. Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver led the team in minutes last year. This year, they are both fighting for somewhere between the 7th and 9th role.
The concerns about this Wolves roster remain true, but it also feels like the downgraded expectations for this team have more to do with the scarred Timberwolves fandom and long-term questions about Towns and Russell than the current roster. The Wolves should absolutely be competing for the 8th seed, not the 10th seed. Are Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram better than Towns and Russell? Are Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. better? Are De’Aaron Fox and, um, whoever else is on the Kings better?
If the answer is no, then it begs the question of what happens if the Wolves are bad. The team is fully incentivized to be good as they have already traded away their 2021 first round draft pick (technically top three protected). Towns and Russell are aware of their current reputation in the league.
The Wolves are not all-in this season in the aims of seriously contending in the Western Conference. But, if this team does significantly underperform, we will have an early answer on the viability of building a team around Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell.
What I’m trying to say here is — slam the over.