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Wolves Loss to Magic Provides Clarity

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Last night was revealing in a lot of ways

NBA: Orlando Magic at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

So, this is a bit unusual. Normally, we’d just cover the game takeaways in the recap, but truth be told, that was such a demoralizing finish that I truly just didn’t have it in me last night to get into the nitty gritty.

On top of that, in another epic collapse the likes of which only the Minnesota Timberwolves can provide, there was a lot that became very clear last night. A lot of bad, yes, but there were a few bright spots to take note of as well. Let’s get to it.

Jaden McDaniels and Jarred Vanderbilt are the PF’s on this team

Let’s start with the positive, shall we? Coming into the season, this was seen as the glaring weakness on this roster. I think we all would agree that this problem isn’t “solved” by any means, but it is apparent that the guys who should be getting the bulk of the minutes at the 4 are McDaniels and Vanderbilt.

We’d wanted to see what Vanderbilt looked like for awhile, but I think it’s fair to say he has surpassed expectations. He still fouls a ton, which is to be expected of a young player who’s still largely finding his footing on the court, but he feels and looks like a player who will positively impact winning. He isn’t a good shooter from literally anywhere yet, but he plays his ass off, which lends itself to impactful defense and hellacious rebounding. It’s a small sample to be sure, but Vando’s per-36 averages of 11.3 rebounds and 4 stocks (steals + blocks) shows just how active he is.

To illustrate just how impactful his defense is, opponents score 9.0 less points per 100 possessions when Vando is on the court vs off, good for 87th percentile. Opponents eFG% drops by 5% when he is on the floor, good for 91st percentile, and the Wolves force turnovers on 3.4% more of opponents possessions with Vando on the floor, good for 93rd percentile (all data via Cleaning The Glass). He may not continue to have the impact of prime Draymond Green on that end of the floor, but the point is he’s remarkably disruptive and impactful.

As for McDaniels, he finally got extended run last night and made the most of it. In his 26 minutes, McDaniels contributed 12 points (5-9, 2-4 from three) 8 rebounds and 3 blocks, while being a +19 in a one point loss.

He is still a skinny rookie who will ultimately be overmatched some nights, but McDaniels looks the part of a real player moving forward. He was legitimately marvelous last night.

Contracts be damned, these two should get as many of the 48 minutes at the 4 as they possibly can until they both foul out. While neither guy is a superstar, and Minnesota should still be looking for an upgrade if they’re serious about winning this year, these guys can play.

Without KAT, Minnesota goes as D’Angelo Russell goes

First things first, I think it’s entirely unfair to put the bulk of the blame on D’Angelo Russell for the blown lead last night. His hot shooting in the first half was the main reason the Timberwolves were in the lead in the first place.

The problem, though, is that without the calming presence of Karl-Anthony Towns, this team needs Russell to shoot well all of the time to have a shot, and that’s just not going to happen.

Russell cooled off, and ultimately his inability to keep cooking was part of what stalled Minnesota’s offense in the fourth quarter, where they scored just 5 points in the last 6:32 of the game.

This is the reality the Timberwolves will find themselves in. They’re going to go as D’Lo goes, until KAT comes back, and that’s just always going to be a mixed bag given his jump shot heavy style of play. There’s going to be moderate swings in efficiency, and the Timberwolves overall success will mirror those swings.

The two point guard lineups do not work

I’ll admit that this is something I was looking forward to this year. The idea of Russell playing with Ricky Rubio or Jordan McLaughlin seemed like a good idea considering the success Russell has had in the past in those two-PG situations, but they aren’t working here. Minnesota has been intent on closing games with two point guards (usually Rubio), and it really just hasn’t worked out. It was a fun experiment (not really), but it’s probably time to cut bait on that lineup configuration.

The Timberwolves struggle at the rim

Aside from the super obvious warts, the most painful thing for me throughout this 1-9 stretch has been the Timberwolves ineptitude at the rim offensively. It is really painful to watch the Wolves guards get into the paint and have their efforts be so futile. It was something that had stuck out on the film, but I hadn’t seen any numbers on it yet, until Jace Frederick of the Pioneer Press tweeted out the numbers this morning.

It goes without saying, but that’s terrible efficiency at the rim. I’d expect (hope) that those numbers rise a bit as the season rolls on, but you never now. For Beasley’s career, he shoots 65% from within 3-feet of the rim, so you’d hope there’s some positive regression coming there. On the other hand, Beas is operating in a larger role than he’s previously operated in, so the types of looks he’s getting at the rim are probably a bit more difficult.

Even if it’s reasonable to expect these numbers to improve, the fact of the matter is that they are this bad right now, and that, combined with KAT’s absence and D-Lo’s general apprehension towards getting to the rim forces the Wolves offense to rely to heavily on jump shooting. Minnesota has good shooters, but they need more balance, and more than anything right now they need to finish better at the rim.

Something has to give

I’m not comfortable calling for another person’s job, but it’s hard to imagine that the writing isn’t on the wall for Ryan Saunders soon. I’ve had my complaints about Saunders rotations, offensive schemes, and the general incompetence of the team, but I don’t think his own failures are necessarily solely to blame for his time likely coming up soon.

The failure to call the timeout after Jarred Vanderbilt grabbed a rebound with roughly 5 seconds left last night was bad, really bad. The Wolves took two timeouts home with them last night, when calling one of them to get better free-throw shooters into the game likely results in a win so long as they get the ball in-bounds. And still, I don’t think it’s JUST because of the coaching issues that Saunders tenure is probably coming to an end soon.

Ultimately, something just HAS to happen. There needs to be some sort of a shake-up. Gersson Rosas may point to next season (already) for when he really wants the team to be in the playoffs, but the reality is there’s no way he expected this team to be the second-worst team in the NBA (only Sacramento has a worse net-rating), which they currently are.

In the end, Rosas isn’t going to fire himself, and unless he’s going to start re-tooling the roster after just 13 games, Saunders is the likely scapegoat. It wouldn’t be a popular move in the locker room, which is undoubtedly playing into Rosas’ calculus, but at the end of the day all that really matters is the product on the floor, and the Wolves have been worse than expected.

I obviously have no intel, so I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if this isn’t the route Rosas goes, but they can’t continue on like this. Maybe this stretch just speeds up the timeline on making an aggressive offer to Houston for P.J. Tucker. Adding a player like Tucker and Karl-Anthony Towns would help a lot, but again, until a move like that is made it’s just best to assume nothing’s going to happen on that front.

Ultimately, something just has to give. The losses are piling up in embarrassing fashion, and there are only so many people in Mayo Center who can reasonably be made the scapegoat.