Following an ugly six-game losing streak where things were teetering, the Minnesota Timberwolves appeared to have righted the ship -- dispatching the Lakers at Staples Center, and taking three out of four during last week's homestand. The team currently sits at 8-9, with somehow the fifth-fattest point differential in the conference (+2.1). Meanwhile, Sacramento just fired its coach. San Antonio looks totally out of contention. The happenings in New Orleans is currently one of the more depressing tales in the association. Given the state of the competition, the Timberwolves should be expected to solidify themselves firmly in the play-in picture as the 2021-22 season progresses. Or should they?
Here's the schedule. Now ask yourself this: how many of the Timberwolves' eight victories would you describe as "good wins?" Blowing out Memphis (without Dillon Brooks and De'Anthony Melton) is one, and perhaps the Kings game on November 17 is another. The six other wins: the aforementioned Pelicans (twice), two dregs (Houston and San Antonio), Milwaukee missing three starters, and the Lakers without LeBron. Not exactly a quality resume.
The team's performance on the court hasn't particularly inspired me, either. Here's why:
One of the major qualms during the Tom Thibodeau reign — and what Ryan Saunders mostly addressed — was how he'd often saddle Karl-Anthony Towns with another center in Gorgui Dieng or Taj Gibson. Suddenly, one of the league's most powerful match-up nightmares became much more palatable to scheme against. So far in 2021-22, that trend has reversed back to old times.
Percent of possessions that Karl Anthony Towns played with another big, by season:
Nearly half of Towns' possessions are spent next to a center (Naz Reid), or a non-shooter (Jarred Vanderbilt). That number doesn't even include Jaden McDaniels, who has attempted just 41 threes in over 400 minutes. Per Cleaning the Glass, Minnesota is currently 24th in half-court offense (86.6 Offensive Rating), and this alignment is a big reason why.
Opposing teams often place a wing on Towns, while hiding their center on Reid/Vanderbilt/McDaniels -- nuking his perimeter skillset. At the same time, KAT is posting up far less frequently than before (just 2.7 post-ups per game in 2021-22, averaged nearly 6 per game from 2019 through 2021) and doing so less efficiently (0.65 points per possession sits in the 14th percentile). Much of this can be attributed to all of the bodies that Towns has to sift through on the low-block.
It's easier to shade help in these shots. Sometimes the spacing is so crammed that it's an ordeal to get him the rock.
As a result, Minnesota is ultra-dependent on offensive rebounding to scrounge up enough points. The team is currently grabbing 31.0% of its misses, second only to Toronto.
They've come up with a few creative counters. Watch here as Vanderbilt finds Towns in the dunker's spot with a nifty feed as the roll-man.
That said, relegating your most lethal weapon to the short corner is surely not an optimal use of resources. Chris Finch is a intelligent basketball mind. So why does the team play like this?
Some of it can be traced back to the failure of previous regimes. At the 2020 trade deadline, Gersson Rosas acquired Juancho Hernangomez as a potential stretch-four — parting with a combo forward in Robert Covington is doing so — and his growth stagnated in the Twin Cities. Jarrett Culver, one of the bigger draft busts of the past decade, was supposed to be a bridge piece on the wing. The underrated Nemanja Bjelica was let go for nothing. Jake Layman isn't the answer to anyone's problems. While McDaniels is an intriguing prospect, he's currently a one-way guy -- as are Josh Okogie and Taurean Prince.
But the cold truth about the Timberwolves is that they need these one-way players. The franchise's three highest-paid players — Towns, D'Angelo Russell, and Malik Beasley — range from "bad" to "abject disaster" on defense. It begins with Karl-Anthony Towns, who has never been capable of anchoring a respectable unit on that end.
Minnesota Timberwolves, defense with Karl-Anthony Towns on the floor, by season:
This year, his effort has been scattershot game-to-game -- often depending on the frustration level. This sense of urgency recovering during crunch time is unacceptable from the face of the franchise.
Russell is one of the worst defensive players in the league, who has to be hidden at all times; while Beasley has regressed to a disappointing level since leaving Denver. Even trusting them to not royally screw up off-ball can be dicey.
Anthony Edwards is a prodigious talent. But he's still learning, and locking in on that side of the ball has never been his forte. It's going to take more time and experience to iron out all of these mistakes.
Towns just doesn't possess the bandwidth to plug up all of these holes -- he's no Rudy Gobert.
Once you look at it from Finch's point of view, leaning more towards defensive-oriented role players in the lineup seems logical. These dudes are getting their money's worth in, that's for sure.
This formula has worked thus far. Through October 22, the Timberwolves are somehow the stingiest half-court defense in the NBA, allowing just 85.2 points per 100 plays. At the same time, I just can't shake the feeling that it's a quick fix to a larger structural problem -- a band-aid over a serious wound. Opponents are shooting a league-low 30.3% on open/wide-open threes (at least 4 feet of space) against them, per Second Spectrum (They are ice-cold from the mid-range, too). Minnesota is forcing the most turnovers in the league — as Towns is often guarding the pick-and-roll aggressively above the level of the screen — yet also fouling the most and conceding the most offensive rebounds. Truly an odd mix.
Does this seem sustainable? I'd say no. Credit Finch and the coaching staff for crafting a (currently) functional system, but I don't see it holding up over the course of the season -- gone are the Houstons and New Orleans' of the world to feast on for the next six weeks. The actualized version of this roster was always supposed to be an offensive dynamo, with Karl-Anthony Towns leading the charge to the play...in. Unfortunately, the 2021-22 version is a far cry from that.
The personnel choices have done a number of the Timberwolves' spacing. Aside from Towns, nobody on the roster is shooting 36% or higher from beyond the arc (combining to go 196 for 623, or 31.5%). But the former number-one pick has uplifted a weak supporting cast of characters to decent offense in the past. Has Karl-Anthony Towns plateaued?
While Towns continues to establish himself as one of the greatest shooting bigs we've ever seen, the individual creation has somewhat abandoned him. A rate of 16.8 field goal attempts per 36 minutes would be his lowest since 2017-18, and his free-throw rate is under 0.3 for the first time since 2016-17. Does the lack of spacing play a role? The thirstiness of Russell and Edwards? Trying to integrate himself into Chris Finch's system, and regaining his sea legs after undergoing a time of tragedy? Yes, all of the above.
It might be time to admit that KAT has regressed as an all-around offensive force, though. As previously mentioned, he is no longer the dominant post-up player that he once was. Not only is Towns shooting far less often during these situations, but the turnovers have gotten out of control.
Among players with at least 10 post-ups in 2021-22, only JaVale McGee has coughed it up on a greater share of his possessions out of the post. The bouts of casual passing began to fester last year, and have become more rampant seemingly game by game; he loves throwing the no-look hook pass. It's a major culprit for Minnesota ranking 26th in turnover rate.
The rest of the core has struggled with inefficiency to varying degrees. D'Angelo Russell moves like a calcified old guy at your local YMCA. The hope is that Malik Beasley will snap out of this shooting funk.
Seriously? You that's all you can muster against Marvin Bagley?
Much like on the defensive end, Ant-Man is not ready for winning basketball -- maddening moments of lapses in concentration or shot-selection are still a commonplace.
When watching the Minnesota Timberwolves, one of the themes that pops off the screen is the lack of collective IQ. Take the loss to Phoenix for example, where the Suns had no answers for Karl-Anthony Towns, yet D'Angelo decided to commandeer the offense down the stretch. Mismatches go to die as Minnesota doesn't own the foresight to capitalize. Watch the reactions of Towns and the coaching staff as a potential 2-for-1 evaporates into thin air.
Here Towns doubles JaVale McGee for no reason, which ignites the Phoenix machine.
These infuriating sequences manifest in transition defense, as well -- Minnesota allows the highest frequency of run-outs off live rebounds (32.5%), according to Cleaning the Glass. It's how Orlando can steal a win by playing zone for an entire half.
Chris Finch may be an offensive guru, but between the limited personnel and shaky IQ, there's only so much you can do. Minnesota has been winning games on the back of its defense -- this brief run of solid play does not pass the sniff test to me. Barring something unforeseen, I don't view this team as a threat to make it out of the play-in tournament.