Despite a franchise history full of disappointment and disaster, it felt like the Minnesota Timberwolves hit a new low last Sunday night. After building a 27-point lead, one that was still at 17 with 3 minutes left and 9 with a single minute remaining, they collapsed historically, losing 133-129 in overtime to the Sacramento Kings. That debacle saw them drop their 10th straight and fall to 15-32 on the season.
The night was already painted in a somber light with the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant, but there are no excuses for the crumbling effort that the entire team produced in the final term. From the top to the bottom, it was calamitous.
The next day in media availability, franchise cornerstone and leader Karl-Anthony Towns was as visibly upset and annoyed as he has ever been.
“It’s just frustrating all around. No one wants to be part history but we put ourselves in the history books for the wrong reasons ... I hope we all learn from it,” he said.
The problem is this team’s core has had a multitude of chances to learn from their mistakes and make amends. They just can’t seem to find the right recipe. Even before finding a way to snatch a loss from the jaws of victory against the Kings, this season had been filled to the brim with unfathomable failures. Think back to losses against the struggling New Orleans Pelicans, Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Or the untucked jersey, missed free throws and full-court game-winner from Dennis Schroder that saw the Oklahoma City Thunder dispose of the Wolves.
With the losses now piling up to 10 in a row, there are serious questions about this team’s future flying around. Even with two max contracts on their books, they still seem light years away from contending for a playoff spot, much less a championship. The coaching of Ryan Saunders looks to be failing at every turn, leaving his seat hot and more than a few fans calling for his head. Every time the team and coaching staff put out a fire, another one starts to burn.
So where does a franchise that has been mired in blunders on and off the court go from here? When you parse through the options, there are complications and obstacles littered on every route.
The D’Angelo Russell Route
Of course, they can and probably will continue to hound the Golden State Warriors until they can finally pry D’Angelo Russell away from them, but there is a real chance he doesn’t single-handedly pull this sinking ship out of the ocean.
Firstly, Russell’s close-knit relationship with Towns provides a huge incentive for the big man to hang around, especially considering the Warriors point guard is signed on another three seasons after this one. Combine that with the fact that Russell brings the shooting stroke, ability to create his own shot and passing prowess that the Timberwolves’ offense desperately craves and he seems like a hand-in-glove fit.
On that end of the ball, he really is a special talent. Despite playing on a Golden State squad devoid of any game-changing talent, he is one of just nine players in the league who scores over 20 points per game on at least 55 percent true shooting while posting a 30 percent assist percentage. The others, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Devin Booker, Trae Young and Kyrie Irving, are all certified superstars.
All it takes is a glimpse, like this second half bonanza against an elite Philadelphia defense, to see how seamlessly Russell would slide into Minnesota’s offense. He makes a bunch of pinpoint passes to rolling bigs and open shooters, nails tough 3-point bombs and creates his own bucket in the in-between range.
Even with all of his offensive expertise, his defensive struggles might puncture more holes in the Wolves than they can fill on the other end. Especially if Robert Covington is included in any deal. Russell is a lackadaisical screen-breaker and falls asleep off the ball far too often. With such a shortage of offensive weapons around him, perhaps he is saving his energy for his offensive output. Either way, it’s not ideal.
As it stands, there are only 10 players who hold a worse defensive player impact plus/minus (PIPM). Furthermore, he joins Bradley Beal as the only players whose top-25 offensive PIPM play is offset so badly by their defensive work that they are still a minus overall, per Basketball Index.
After a stretch of solid defense, the Timberwolves have slunk back into their comfort zone lately. They rank 27th in defensive rating (115.5) over the last 10 games. That’s with the ungodly defensive talent of Covington. It’s hard to imagine it becoming any better if they replace him with another poor point-of-attack defender.
So, if Russell isn’t going to turn the tables, perhaps tanking for a high pick (again) is the right way to go about it?
The Tanking Route
With Minnesota’s win-loss record officially ranking them as one of the basement dwellers in the league, garnering a high pick seems like an option whether the front office brass wants it or not. Usually, this would be a good thing and most fans would be willing to sacrifice meaningless wins for better draft position. Unfortunately, the quality and lack of standout talent in this year’s draft class put a dampener on the whole losing thing.
Of course, there will be players that end up stars after they get drafted in June, but the waters are a lot murkier than other years. Assuming the Wolves whiff on D’Angelo Russell and land in the top tier of the draft lottery, they will likely be trying to procure a point guard to fill the glaring hole they currently have at that position.
Luckily, there is a ton of one-guards on offer at the top of the class. Unluckily, they all have inescapable issues which makes the choosing which one to pick a whole lot harder. If you’re Gersson Rosas do you take LaMelo Ball? In that case, you are staking your reputation on his woeful shooting percentages, defensive disinterest and dramatic father being outweighed by his 6-foot-6 size, innate passing ability and sky-high potential.
Then there is a guy like Tyrese Haliburton. His 6.9 assists per game rank him seventh in the country and he has the feel of a special passer who is also nailing 40 percent of his 5.9 3-point attempts per game. But, his inability to sufficiently create for himself is a huge red flag for a team that craves creators. Similar issues with inefficiency have plagued other high profile point guards like Nico Mannion and Cole Anthony.
One intriguing name is Killian Hayes. The French-born 18-year-old has excelled this season playing in Germany and consistently flashes the self-creation and defensive chops that would have Rosas licking his lips. Like every prospect this year, there is a caveat. His outside shooting stroke (33.3% on 4.4 attempts per game) isn’t ideal.
With the Timberwolves’ history of making poor draft decisions, having such minuscule room for error is enough to make any fan chew their fingernails.
Developing the Young Talent Route
This route goes hand in hand with tanking, but it doesn’t make it seem any more palatable. When you bottom out and try to acquire and develop young talent, you need to find the right players. Thus far, the former and current front office hasn’t shown enough signs of life to give the fans tremendous hope.
Looking over the roster, there is plenty of youth, but not a lot of star-potential talent. While Towns and Wiggins have both had great years statistically, we know what they’re about and how they impact a team. As for the others, there is still plenty of question marks.
This season’s first-round pick Jarrett Culver has been wildly inconsistent and hard to read so far. He has an intriguing ability to get to the rim and he is rock solid defensively, but his shooting woes from long-range and the free throw line don’t inspire much confidence that he can ever becoming above-average from behind either line. Culver is still undoubtedly a part of the future in the Twin Cities and it’s far too early to give up on him, but the jury is still very much out on whether he will be a foundation piece of the next winning Wolves team.
Then there is Josh Okogie. The sophomore made fans swoon last season with his high-energy defensive chops and his ability to breathe life into a team at any moment. While he still brings those qualities, he has failed to improve in any capacity on the offensive end. He still brings back memories of Corey ‘The Drunken Dribbler’ Brewer when he is handling the rock, his jump shot is a mess and his finishing at the rim is like a bull in a China shop.
In Naz Reid, Jaylen Nowell, Keita Bates-Diop and Kelan Martin the Wolves have a plethora of players who have the potential to be successful rotational pieces, but not the kinds of game-changing forces the Wolves need so critically.
If they can’t swing for a star player to partner Karl-Anthony Towns, this team needs an upgrade on their current stock of youngsters. It seems like a pipe dream now, but they need to somehow find something that replicates the current Memphis Grizzlies supercharged rebuild. If they cant the current dreary scene could last a lot longer than fans want.
It’s a gloomy 2020 in Wolves World so far, folks. Let’s hope that Gersson Rosas and his front office cohorts can pull a rabbit out of the hat.
We’ll know more about their direction in less than a week, with the trade deadline looming on Thursday.