The second half of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2020-21 season officially kicks off tonight against the New Orleans Pelicans. As many of you know, the first 36 games were
bad less than ideal a complete train wreck, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still have some fun over the second half of the season, right? Hello? Is this thing on?!
To get the second half of the season kicked off, our own Mike O’Hagan threw together a couple big-picture questions to gauge what expectations should be over the next 36 games, including Chris Finch’s offense, Gersson Rosas’s activity level, and thoughts on the upcoming 2021 NBA Lottery.
Without further ado...
Question 1: What improvements are you expecting to see from the Timberwolves under Chris Finch after the All-Star Break?
Mike O’Hagan: Well, I suppose I’d expect to see the team play with a greater understanding of Finch’s system. The situation around Ryan Saunders’ firing and Finch’s hiring was obviously not ideal, and it left Finch without any real opportunity to install much of anything before his first game. To put it lightly, that showed up in the final scores. Hopefully, the time off gave the team some time to get a better understanding of what Finch is asking of them, although I am skeptical that that’s how most players spent the break.
Jack Borman: I expect the Timberwolves to begin moving away from a steady diet of drop coverage on defense, which does not suit Karl-Anthony Towns very well. It has been reported by multiple outlets that Minnesota is pursuing an upgrade at power forward — namely, Atlanta’s John Collins and Orlando’s Aaron Gordon — that could help Towns in the front court on both ends. Both options are uber athletic, can guard one through five without getting exposed in isolation, and would enable the Wolves to play more aggressive, at the level pick-and-roll coverage. Minnesota is 27th in defensive rating and their classic second half meltdowns have been largely fueled a complete ineptitude to competently defend elite players in close games. Something has to change, and playing more to KAT’s comfortability playing more aggressive defense is a great place to start, even if neither Collins nor Gordon land in Minnesota at the deadline.
Kyle Theige: Realistically? My expectations are still fairly low — not because I’m trying to be an apologist or make excuses, I just think the lack of practice time (along with the expected roster turnover near the Trade Deadline) will make the remaining 36 games as chaotic as the first 36 games. As Mike and Jack said, it would be nice to see a little more of Finch’s “magic” sprinkled into the offense, and maybe some slight changes to the defensive philosophy, but overall I don’t see significant changes coming until this summer (when the team can, you know, practice two days in a row).
Question 2: On the flip side, what pieces of the “bad” that we saw in the first half of the season do you expect to continue through the end of the season?
Mike: Uh, the losing, barring a massive roster overhaul. I think I’m quite a bit lower on this roster than some. It is why I begrudgingly took the under on their preseason win total of 30 in our preseason predictions post. The young players are nice and fun, but I think the reality is that more of them are simply back-end rotation guys than foundational building blocks. This problem is only amplified with Malik Beasley and D’Angelo Russell missing a good chunk of time. I hate to be the Debbie Downer of the group, but I’m low on this roster until/if Anthony Edwards breaks out.
Jack: A lack of 3-point shooting. Simply put, there just aren’t enough shooters on the roster to cash in on the open 3-point looks that Finch’s offense and Towns’ scoring gravity will continue to create. Bench shooters are becoming more and more of a premium in the NBA and, as a result, teams are (correctly) becoming far less inclined to trade them at the deadline.
Jaylen Nowell was thought to be a guy who could fill that role this year — as he shot 44.1 percent on nearly seven 3s per game in the G-League last season — but he is shooting just 34.7 percent on just over three triggers a night in the NBA this season. Jake Layman shot 40 percent on 2.5 attempts over the last 15 games of the first half, but is a career 31 percent 3-point shooter and is likely in for some regression to the mean. With Jaden McDaniels hitting a rookie wall offensively and Anthony Edwards continuing to sandbag the offense with his insistence upon shooting out-of-rhythm, non-catch-and-shoot 3s, the Timberwolves offense will struggle mightily if D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley struggle from distance upon their expected returns near the end of this month.
If you can’t shoot, you can’t win in the NBA. It’s that simple. The Wolves are 26th in 3-point FG percentage and 30th in winning percentage. That’s not a coincidence.
Kyle: To piggyback on what Mike said: losing. I don’t expect the second half of the season to be as ugly as the first half (i.e. double-digit blowouts every other night), but I still don’t think this front office is that worried about winning right now, which is a topic for another day. My “bold prediction” is that the team definitely wins more than 7 games in the second half of the season (which would be an improvement from the first half), but no level of success at this point should put their 40.1% chance of retaining their pick at that much risk.
Question 3: Do you expect Gersson Rosas and his team to take one more big swing at a trade before the deadline? Who do you think could be on the move?
Mike: I would be shocked if the team did nothing. I think Gersson Rosas is smart enough to realize that this current iteration of the roster is not good enough to compete without a major infusion of talent. The John Collins idea is really, really intriguing. Whether it’s a big move like that or a series of smaller moves, I’d once again expect Rosas to be very active. I think an important point to make about this roster is that there’s a lot of “stuff” that can be useful, it just probably isn’t all useful here.
Jack: Absolutely. Rosas has only sat out two deadlines in his career as an executive and given his performance last year, I have no doubts he’ll be as active as possible in the next two weeks. The only issue for him is that most teams won’t make any deals until the week of the trade deadline, which gives the Wolves less time to evaluate any acquisitions post-trade. I’ll cover this deeper in parts two and three of my trade deadline series, which will drop next week, but I would expect Rosas to try and move Juancho Hernangomez, Jarrett Culver, and Ricky Rubio to try and get more shooting on the roster in addition to swinging for one of Collins/Gordon/Larry Nance Jr.
Kyle: 1000%. We already know Rosas & Co. love making deals, and considering how broken the roster still looks, I’d be flat-out shocked if we don’t see multiple deals take place over the next two weeks. Does that mean another blockbuster? Maybe, although I’m pretty sure Glen Taylor has made it known internally that he would strongly prefer to NOT trade another future first-round pick, so that may put a ceiling on how crazy Sachin Gupta can get.
Either way, (more) change is coming, and after what we watched over the first 36 games, it’s about damn time.
Question 4: Do you believe we will see a concerted effort from the organization to end the season with the best possible odds to keep their 2021 first-round pick that is top-3 protected?
Mike: No, I don’t think it’ll be a concerted tanking effort. I think there’d be more to watch here if Russell and Beasley were available, but without their two most potent perimeter scorers, I think Minnesota can let the young guys play without having to make awkward decisions around the playing time of veterans. Besides that point, the younger players have often outperformed many of the veteran role players on this team anyways, so it makes sense to give those guys minutes.
Jack: It depends on when Russell returns from injury. The sooner D-Lo is back, the less inclined I am to believe this team is full-on tanking. When the core four of Towns, Russell, Edwards and Beasley are all in the lineup, I expect this team to do whatever it can to win games. It’s important to remember that the lottery odds are pretty much the same whether the Timberwolves are the worst, second-worst, or third-worst team in the league at the end of the season. I expect Detroit, Cleveland, and Sacramento to tank very aggressively, with at least two of them finishing with a worse record than the Wolves. Time will tell what happens, but the KAT clock is ticking and losing games in an unproductive manner won’t do this team much good in the short run or long run.
Kyle: I’ll take “What is a guaranteed lock?” for $10,000, [insert new Jeopardy host’s name].
Seriously, we’ve come THIS far, you really think the Rosas-led front office is going to sell their soul(s) for a couple extra wins to hurt their future even more? No chance. As mentioned above, I expect a handful of more wins than what we saw over the first half of the season, but considering the enormous hole the team has already dug for themselves, it shouldn’t really affect their lottery odds that much.
But mark my words — if this team stumbles into too many wins between now and May, we will absolutely see a random “cramping” situation with a guy like KAT, Russell, etc. that leads to multiple games in street clothes.
Question 5: Is there anything else you need to get off your chest before we get back into the swing of things? Now is the time to cleanse before we are fed more Timberwolves basketball.
Mike: I know I come off really negative here, but the reality is that long-term, this team is probably okay if they’re able to keep their pick. That is really the swing moment for this franchise and the Karl-Anthony Towns-era, which is terrifying given the flattened lottery odds. Having the opportunity to select one of Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Jonathan Kuminga, or Jalen Green would not only bolster this franchise in the short-term, but will suffice as a nice insurance policy against a KAT trade request. It would be a bummer to owe the 2022 pick unprotected, but Rosas’ gamble all along was that the Wolves would be good enough in the 2021-22 season for that to be an easier blow to stomach.
On that note, I know it can be interesting to play around in the trade machine, but my only real stance on the Karl-Anthony Towns rumors is that Minnesota would be categorically insane to trade him before he requests one. If KAT wants to be here (which I think he does), he should be here. Simple as that.
Jack: I’m sick and tired of the Timberwolves acting like they know what they’re doing on Zoom and then looking lost as hell on the court and making rudimentary errors consistently. I don’t care who the coach is. If the players continue to fail to band together and execute simple basketball tasks — such as not getting back cut on, boxing out, not getting blown by in isolation, and not making dumb passes — then we’re in for a long 36 games and another rebuild.
Kyle: How much time you got? For real though, I think Mike and Jack summed it up best, so I’m not sure what else I can really add.
I think my last point before we tip off the second half of the season would be this: I still love the Minnesota Timberwolves. In a time when it’s easier than ever to follow and cheer for another team, I take a weird level of pride in sticking with this franchise and hopefully seeing it get turned around in the end. Do things look bleak right now? Hell yeah. But if, and it’s a lake-sized “if” right now, but IF this franchise ever falls forward and puts it all together, I’m not sure there will be anything in sports that brings me more joy than that.
(You’re right, I may need serious help).