Expectations are a funny thing. They add weight on the shoulders of whom the expectations are placed upon. They alter the way we view events, often leading two very similar outcomes to be received in wildly different manners.
Just look at our Minnesota Timberwolves. The Timberwolves started the season 7-4. That’s a good start to the season for many teams, an average one for some, and a not-so-great start for the select few championship contenders.
For the Wolves, this was a, “Holy S**t!” kind of start to the season, in a good way. Even though in the back of our minds we knew it was foolish to do so, we bought in to the idea the Wolves could be a surprise playoff team due to their performance over an 11-game stretch, which makes up only 13% of the entire season. This prompted a tweet that has been viciously clowned, and for good reason.
"tHe WoLvEs aRe GoInG tO bE bAd tHiS sEaSoN" pic.twitter.com/siMT9pfe9V— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 14, 2019
Despite the strong start, the Wolves have plummeted to 19-45, including two separate losing streaks that reached double digits, prompting Gersson Rosas to completely re-model the roster at the trade deadline.
In a vacuum, all of the losing has sucked because, well, it always does to lose that much. I think that at least the first long losing streak sucked a little bit extra, though, because of how we allowed ourselves to buy this team as a playoff contender, no matter how foolish that was.
Moving forward, then, the expectations we have for this new core of players matters immensely in terms of how we view the team and it’s success.
There aren’t a lot of great reference points to choose from, mostly due to the uniqueness of this roster construction.
Karl-Anthony Towns is really the only player quite like him in the history of the NBA, for better and for worse.
When you add in D’Angelo Russell, you get a tandem that is owed a lot of money in the future, is going to generate a ton of offense, and needs to prove they can be anything beyond awful defensively.
It also feels dishonest to not include Malik Beasley in these discussions, as he’s proven to be more than capable of handling the uptick in volume that he’s received since coming over from Denver. He’s going to play a big role in the success of this franchise moving forward.
So, the question becomes, what can Minnesota Timberwolves fans realistically expect from a team centered around Towns, Russell, and Beasley, with players like Josh Okogie, Jarrett Culver, Jake Layman, Jordan McLaughlin, etc. around them?
With that core, for them to be anything more than an offensive dynamo who just tries to outscore opponents every night, they probably need to add a minimum of two wing/big-wing defenders to the roster to make it viable. If one or both can shoot, that’s an added bonus, but KAT, Russell, and Beasley sure seem capable of providing enough offense on their own. Without anyone to reliably check the best wing players, though, the team probably tops out as a bottom-tier playoff contender, unless the offense becomes historically elite.
Of course, the team hopes Josh Okogie and/or Jarrett Culver can fill that role to a certain degree, although Okogie is probably too short and Culver not strong enough to realistically battle with the best wing scorers in the league, at least not yet.
As this goes on, a comparison that sticks out to me for the ceiling of this roster is the Portland Trail Blazers. That’s kind of a stereotypical pick because of the David Vanterpool connection, and I realize comparison is the thief of joy, but let me explain.
For one, the Russell/Beasley backcourt is kind of a lite-version of the Damian Lillard/C.J. McCollum tandem. They’re not quite as talented as that group, but the addition of Karl-Anthony Towns probably takes the Wolves over the top of that group offensively, even if you include Jusuf Nurkic as the Blazers third banana.
The question for both of those rosters comes down to the defense, specifically on the wing. Portland has long been a solid playoff contender in large part due to the brilliance of Dame, but they’ve also had some really strong, good wing defenders there during their recent run. Al-Furuq Aminu and Moe Harkless are two of the better big-wing defenders in the league, or they at least provided enough resistance for Dame and C.J. to take care of the rest.
They still obviously would need to prove this in the postseason, but in theory, the Russell/Beasley/KAT trio should be versatile and creative enough to produce a good playoff offense, with the question being whether or not they can stop anyone.
Say the Wolves do add a few solid wing defenders who won’t get played off the floor in the playoffs, what does their ceiling become? It’s not a true championship contender I don’t think, but you don’t have to squint that hard to see a similar outcome like these recent Portland teams who regularly get to the postseason and are then matchup dependent.
The bracket broke their way last year and they ended up in the conference finals. Sure, they were a punching bag that just got run over by Golden State, but that doesn’t discredit the appearance at all. Again, it was about the matchups for them.
Is that a fair “expectation” for the peak of this current roster? I’m not so sure. Like I mentioned, the Wolves still desperately need some players capable of defending bigger wings, and ideally players of that nature that can provide enough offensively to stay on the floor in the playoffs where every weakness is magnified.
The other disclaimer to that need for the Wolves is this — that style of player is one of the hardest archetypes to find in the league, and they just traded one away (miss you, RoCo) at the deadline. Gersson Rosas has his work cut out for him to acquire the pieces they need there.
So, then, what’s a more realistic median outcome, assuming the Wolves aren’t able to put the perfect pieces around their new three-headed monster?
I really think, due to the way the front office has raved about the signings and trades they’ve made, it’s fair for the fan-base to expect a consistent playoff team. If D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Karl-Anthony Towns aren’t good enough to get you to the playoffs, then you’ve failed. Those players obviously weren’t quite as good as we were led to believe IF they can’t deliver regular postseason appearances.
Is it fair for the fan-base to put that kind of pressure on the players? No, but I think the pressure is just as much on Gersson Rosas as it is the players. The front office has made that the reality moving forward in 2020-21 and beyond.
The biggest, and most obvious, caveat to all of this is KAT. He’s the best player on the team, and from a locker room perspective, he seems to be in a good spot now where he may not have to handle most of the leadership responsibilities, with Russell and Beasley seemingly taking care of that aspect. KAT can just go out and play, which is good, because he’s by far the most talented player on the team.
Still just 24, it’s not silly to think there’s another leap in Karl. If he improves (he probably will), especially defensively, enough to move himself up a tier or two in the echelon on NBA stars, the ceiling could rise, but it would certainly raise the floor of this team.
In a weird way, even with the additions of sparkly new toys such as Russell and Beasley, everything still finds its way back to Karl-Anthony Towns. Such is the life of a franchise player, and as they say, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”