If you told me a month ago that the Minnesota Timberwolves would start off 3-2 and split the games against the Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets, I would have been thrilled. Somehow, though, this result feels disappointing, which at the same time is oddly encouraging.
The Timberwolves have gotten off to similar starts before, but this season feels different. It feels legitimate. I know hard-hitting analysis with “it feels different,” but it does. Teams of the past would have blown that Milwaukee game and got blown out by 20 by Denver. In a pleasant turn of events, things went differently than they usually do, mainly because…
This Defense May be Legitimate
The Timberwolves having one of the best defenses in the league was far from the expectation a few weeks ago. After five games, though, they have the fourth-best defensive rating, fourth-most steals per game, and the second-most blocks per game. To say that the new defensive philosophies are working would be an understatement.
The Timberwolves have gotten full defensive buy-in from everyone on the roster. Even historically poor defenders are working their asses off and fulfilling their roles. D’Angelo Russell currently has the highest block percentage of his career, and Malik Beasley is tagging rollers, scrambling to cover for teammates, and running shooters off the three-point line.
Historically good defenders, like Patrick Beverley and Josh Okogie, are making an incredible impact as point-of-attack defenders. Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels are critical team defenders and significantly improve the team’s rebounding capabilities. Both can switch on the ball, protect the rim, and play perfect low-man defense. McDaniels defending the entire weak side of the floor on his own has become nearly a nightly treat.
Just put Jaden McDaniels on an All-Defensive team now. Absurdly special solo weak side defense. pic.twitter.com/wsABxTKWpI— Tyler Metcalf (@tmetcalf11) October 28, 2021
Has Malik Beasley Turned the Corner?
Beasley’s start to the season has been far from ideal. The off-ball sharpshooter has failed to find his groove. That is until the game against the Nuggets, where Beasley was scorching from three and one of the lone offensive bright spots.
Until Saturday night, Beasley was being used purely as a spot-up shooter. The results weren’t good, as Beasley is at his best when he’s able to get in a rhythm. Beasley couldn’t find that rhythm when asked to be an escape hatch and a “pull in case of emergency” option. He failed to hit shots but still kept his end of the bargain on defense.
Malik Beasley off-screen 3 pic.twitter.com/VM4AtMD3OD— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) October 31, 2021
Against the Nuggets, though, the Timberwolves finally ran sets specifically for Beasley. The results were fantastic. Beasley has some of the best shot preparation footwork in the league (almost no one organizes themselves in the corner better than Beasley), and he has a great motor when running off screens. In the past, Beasley has thrown up every shot he could. His feel for the game appears to have improved or at least changed this season. Beasley still isn’t shy about launching from three, but he is showing more discipline. He’s making the extra pass, attacking closeouts, and even passing out of shots when it’ll get blocked.
Beasley buying into his new role off the bench and being a positive contributor on defense is immense for this team going forward. The game against Denver could be a turning point for Beasley, but the Timberwolves have to ensure that they keep running sets for him to cement his commitment to his new role and impact on both ends of the floor.
Have the Timberwolves Solved Their Rebounding Woes?
Well, not exactly. However, there have been revelations that should help this massive weakness trend towards at least acceptable. On the season, the Timberwolves are allowing opponents to get an offensive rebound 33.5% of the time (30th percentile), per Cleaning the Glass. We saw the Timberwolves get abused on the boards by the Zion-less Pelicans, and it will likely be a gigantic pain in the ass all season.
Thankfully, the pairing of Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels is proving to be highly successful at rebounding. When these two share the floor, the Timberwolves rebound 38.5% of their own misses (100th percentile) and only allow opponents to rebound their misses 22.9% of the time (76th percentile). It turns out playing someone with Vanderbilt’s motor is a positive when it comes to rebounding.
There is more to it than that, though. The Timberwolves have the additional size to cover for Towns when he gets pulled out to the perimeter in their new defensive scheme by playing Vanderbilt with McDaniels. Additionally, it allows the Timberwolves to play McDaniels at his and their preferred small forward position. This pairing gives the Timberwolves an extraordinary amount of defensive versatility and outstanding length and rebounding instincts on both ends of the floor. The Timberwolves will still need to figure out more reliable options when those two aren’t together, but it is a promising step in the right direction.
What in the World is Wrong with the Offense?
The Timberwolves’ offensive and defensive ratings ranking is almost the direct inverse of expectations entering the season. The Timberwolves currently have the 24th ranked offensive rating of 102. In no world does that make any sense when you look at this roster.
Maybe this is the “1 in 14,000,605” outcome, but I believe that things will start to turn around for this team soon. As we saw against the Nuggets, this team won’t win when their big three fail to score more than 14 points. They were paired together as insurance against each other’s off-nights, but when the stars align, the Timberwolves essentially have no chance of winning.
The most frustrating aspect of the Timberwolves offense is that they are still running really quality actions. Most of the time, they get good looks but fail to execute like we saw against the Nuggets, where they missed a ton of layups. Besides missing shots, some trends should be addressed.
First, D’Angelo Russell has yet to find his groove. Russell has had results that land on all ends of the spectrum, but the consistently positive impact hasn’t been there. Early on, the issue feels like he is over-passing which is generating a lot of his turnovers. I love that Russell is actively looking to be a playmaker because he is an excellent passer. However, sometimes he just needs to take the floater instead of trying to thread the needle to the opposite corner. As the Timberwolves get more experience together, stop hesitating, and stop being afraid of stepping on each other’s toes, I expect Russell’s play to trend more consistently positive.
Second, Anthony Edwards is falling into some bad habits with his shot selection again. I know Edwards has said he worked a ton on his jumper and knows he needs to shoot to create driving lanes. Unfortunately, I think he has the order of that reversed. Instead, I’d prefer to see Edwards use his driving to create outside shots. Edwards doesn’t need extra advantages when it comes to driving. He is on the Mt Olympus of athletes, a realm the vast majority of human history never has and will never experience. He doesn’t need to shoot from outside to drive. By attacking early and often, Edwards has a better chance of getting opponents in foul trouble, getting himself in a rhythm, and staying engaged in the game. When he starts settling for early jumpers, his impact gets watered down, and his intensity lessens. Attack the rim, get a few easy ones, and then punish them from outside.
Finally, Karl-Anthony Towns needs to be more assertive. Not in terms of throwing his body around in the post, because that has not gone well, but in terms of just taking shots. Against Denver, Towns took only 11 shots on the night. There was also a 21 minute and seven-second stretch of game time between the first and third quarter where Towns didn’t take a shot. That is inexcusable. The Nuggets defended Towns well, but every team will throw unique defensive coverages at him all season. That is what happens when you’re one of the most dynamic scoring centers in the league’s history. Towns can’t keep having nights of that passivity for this team to turn the offense around, especially when his other two musketeers are struggling to score.