You can’t win without culture. You can’t build culture without continuity. And — health luck aside — you surely can’t establish continuity as an 9-30 basketball team sitting at the bottom of the NBA standings.
While there is plenty of blame to be cast on the Minnesota Timberwolves regime of old under Tom Thibodeau, only two players on this roster remain from Thibs’ team: Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie. After sending out six players (and taking in seven new ones) in less than 24 hours last February, this is Gersson Rosas’s pack of Wolves and, simply put, they haven’t performed.
This time around, the questions Rosas faces at the trade deadline aren’t about how he will improve the team he inherited, but rather about how he will address his transactional mistakes over the last year.
The only way you can improve as an executive is if you look in the mirror and take honest stock of yourself, evaluate the decisions you make, and learn from any mistakes you’ve made. As hard as it is, the best of the best have no problem admitting their mistakes and doing their best to to correct them.
Rosas has that opportunity in front of him; will he double down on poor moves or admit his wrongs in the form of moving them to a different team?
Shaka Smart once said that “appreciation is the currency of success.” Rosas has the opportunity to earn a pretty penny over the next 10 days, but it cannot come without a brutally honest look at his Wolfpack.
Presently, Minnesota has a roster imbalance both positionally and physically.
Three point guards (D’Angelo Russell, Ricky Rubio and Jordan McLaughlin), three undersized 2 guards (Malik Beasley, Jaylen Nowell and Jarrett Culver), three wings (Okogie, Jake Layman and Anthony Edwards), three undersized power forwards (Jarred Vanderbilt, Juancho Hernangomez and Jaden McDaniels), and three centers (Towns, Naz Reid and Ed Davis) comprise the current Timberwolves roster.
Perhaps the biggest theme of this iteration of the Timberwolves is its glaring size deficiency on the wing and inside when compared to other teams around the league and, obviously, its lack of consistent shooting and finishing.
While players like Okogie and Edwards play bigger than they actually are, others such as Vanderbilt, Hernangomez and McDaniels are effectively smaller than their 6-foot-9 heights because of their slender builds.
That’s a huge issue for the Wolves, because they continually take a beating in the paint night-in-and-night-out. Minnesota ranks 29th in the NBA in opponent points in the paint (52.2), opponent rebounds per game (56.9), and defensive rebounding percentage (75.6), which is the percentage of opponent’s missed shots they rebound.
Beyond Towns, three of the team’s next five best rebounders are out of the essentially out of the rotation (Davis, Hernangomez and Culver). Far too many players on the team spend too much time in the no man’s land of rebounding: opting against both crashing the glass and running out/getting back in transition in favor of watching the ball fall from its date with the rim.
And the result? The NBA’s second-worst rebounding team in the NBA in terms of total rebound percentage (47.5). Nine of the 10 best rebounding teams are playoff teams. Can you chalk some of that up to the Timberwolves being the youngest team in the league? Sure. But you can also attribute that to a generally short, slender team built to play small-ball, rather than one built to adjust and play one of multiple styles depending on its matchup.
Whether it is addressed at the deadline or in the offseason, Rosas and company need to address rebounding. It’s basically a requirement at this point that any acquisitions must stretch the floor, too.
Rim protection is a need as well, but some of that need can be mitigated by a more aggressive defensive scheme (with a base is not drop coverage) to better utilize aggressive backside rim defenders in Vanderbilt and McDaniels. We’ve seen more of that in the three games since the All-Star break, but I expect to see even more of it next season after having a full offseason and training camp to plan and implement a new, yet comprehensive defensive scheme.
Offensively, the Timberwolves have a major dearth of shooting and finishing that is holding back its Chris Finch-led attack.
Minnesota has one of the league’s most efficient shot profiles. Under Finch, the Wolves have the third-best expected effective field goal percentage (56.0 percent) thanks a prolific at-rim shot rate and a rid. This is calculated by applying the league average eFG% to its shot frequency profile, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Wolves have the third-highest at-rim shot rate (43.5 percent), but are shooting just 66 percent at the rim, good for 14th in the NBA. Conversely, their 3-point rate is just 34 percent (19th in the NBA) in large part because their lack of shooting talent has converted on a measly 32.8 percent of launches from deep (26th).
It certainly doesn’t help things that just four Timberwolves are shooting above league average (65.3 percent) at the rim and only five Timberwolves are doing so from deep (LA - 36.7 percent) from 3.
When you look at their shot chart — in terms of points per shot (PPS) — there’s a whole ‘lotta red and very little green, which is an indictment not on Finch, but on Rosas’s current roster beyond the absences of Russell and Beasley.
Conversely, when you look at the same shot chart, with colors adjusted to reflect shot frequency rather than shot efficiency, it looks much better.
What stands out here brings me to the Wolves’ lack of corner 3s shots.
Not including free throws, corner 3s are the second-most efficient shot in terms of PPS behind only shots at the rim. Daryl Morey’s Rockets realized this and made it a staple of the offense that fueled their annual runs deep into the Western Conference playoffs. Rosas, as we all know, was a part of that on-court revolution, but his Minnesota teams haven’t closely followed suit. Last season, Minnesota was 22nd in C3 rate and this season they rank 12th.
Toronto, Finch’s former squad, ranks third in the NBA in corner 3 rate (12.2 percent) this season and last season, Finch’s Pelicans offense ranked fifth (9.8 percent). His Wolves squad ranks dead last (5.4 percent) since his hiring.
Arguably the biggest reason reason why the Wolves C3 rate has dipped since Finch’s hiring is Beasley’s absence. The second-year Wolf is seventh in the NBA in C3s attempted (81) and has missed six of Finch’s eight games as head coach.
Another reason would be that Rosas’s team is filled with mediocre corner shooters. After Beasley, the team’s most frequent corner shooters are three of its streakiest shooters and three players whose career 3-point percentages are all below 34 percent.
For a team that is very analytically forward, that’s a major problem moving forward. The corner 3 is a major weapon for nearly every contender. 15 of the top 17 teams in corner 3 shooting percentage are playoff teams. The only two non-playoff teams (Sacramento and Chicago) are razor thin up front and have bottom-eight defenses.
If the Wolves don’t improve its stable of shooters around KAT, teams will follow the same blueprint the Blazers used last night: double and triple-team him and force others to make shots. As much as I’d love for Edwards to drop 34 every night, the team won’t get bailed out every night like they did last night.
Thankfully for Minnesota, there are some good options in the trade market that can be had to address each of the trouble areas I laid out. I’ll get into specific targets in Part III of my trade deadline series, which should drop later this week or over the weekend.
So, who stays and who goes at the deadline?
The best way to think about this is simply evaluating who fits with what the Timberwolves want to do and who doesn’t.
In the modern NBA — and especially in an inverted Finch offense that runs through, in and around Towns — spacing reigns supreme. First and foremost, the Timberwolves need players that are comfortable playing fast. Finch wants the team to get into sets quickly and run a ton in transition. Next, any new acquisition must be able to shoot (especially from the corners), or at least be a good enough perimeter player to prevent defenses from sagging off him and clogging the lane. A system fit can also cut off KAT, rebound well for his size and doesn’t need to be hidden on defense like Russell or Beasley do.
Now that we have a lens to evaluate, let’s take a look at each player one-by-one, separated by tiers.
Now is not the time to even entertain a conversation about trading Towns or Russell. Rosas won’t move either until his hand is forced, much less before the pair has played more than five games together.
What’s already understood about Towns doesn’t need to be explained. He’s the heartbeat of the franchise and it goes as he does. He’s not going anywhere now or anytime soon. We’ve already seen what Finch can do not only for him individually, but to maximize his teammates in order to give him as much help as possible, which he hasn’t had since Jimmy Butler left for Philly. If Finch has this team playing hyper-competitive basketball even without guys like Russell, Beasley, and McDaniels, it could be scary what he can do with a better-fitting roster.
Stay or go? Stay
Whether you like it or not, Russell is the point guard of the future in Minnesota. He’s an excellent shooter with good height at 6-foot-5, even better length with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, and tremendous vision to match that allows him to fit with just about any combination of wings and bigs. Finch was tremendous in how he maximized both Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell both on and off-ball in Toronto, and I expect him to do the same with D-Lo. We won’t see him pound the air out of the ball. Rather, he’ll be weaponized as a dynamic shooter and playmaker that puts pressure on the defense whether he does or doesn’t have the ball in his hands on offense.
Stay or go? Stay
Edwards is showtime and will be well worth the price of admission when fans are allowed back in Target Center next month. As we saw last night, he’s the total package as a wing prospect in the NBA. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, he’s an athletic super freak built like a Mack Truck that will go through you, past you, or over you to score. If and when his 3-point shot begins to fall at a higher clip, he’ll evolve into one of the best scorers in the NBA who can completely take over a game on any given night. As his cutting grows, he’ll have so much gravity that he can collapse defenses off-ball by flashing to the lane, freeing up cross-court passing lanes for Towns. The flashes are insane and he can do everything this team needs from him on the offensive end of the floor. His overall ceiling as a player will depend on his shot, as well as how much of a leap he can take on the defensive end of the floor, but his future with Finch is extremely bright.
Stay or go? Stay
Some may be surprised to see McDaniels on this list, but he’s the best two-way player on the roster as a rookie, and is under contract through 2023-2024 earning $2.0M, $2.1M, and $3.9M over the next three seasons. Because of his very team-friendly contract, you could make an argument that he should be the most off-limits player on the roster outside of Towns as the team builds a winning roster around the two-time All-Star. McDaniels is a legitimately very good rim defender at 20 years old. He covers a ton of ground on the backend of the defense and can guard 1-4 with ease. He’s shown flashes of on-ball creation and shooting off the bounce and those skills will only grow with time.
Stay or go? Stay
Nobody’s stock has risen more since Finch was hired as head coach than the former PAC 12 Player of the Year. In Finch’s eight games, Seattle’s finest has averaged 14.0 points on while 48.8/50.0/100.0 shooting splits, connected on 21-of-42 3s, and proven that he is much more than a spot-up shooter. Nowell has some juice off the bounce, too. Finch has empowered him to score at all three levels with the ball in his hands. He’s scored 26.8 percent of his points in the paint, 56.3 percent of them from 3 and 42.5 percent of them have been unassisted. If you turn on his tape from Washington, you’ll see the same thing.
The dude can flat-out kill defenses from anywhere on the floor and at 21, he’s just scratching the surface. His role moving forward is as a bench dynamo that can carry the offense without one of Towns or Russell on the floor, but he could very well evolve into a starting 2 guard before if Minnesota wants to move Edwards to the 3 and Beasley back to the bench when Russell returns. The best part? Nowell is on a minimum contract that will keep him in Minnesota through the 2022-2023, too.
Stay or go? Stay
I wrote about Reid’s development last month as one of the best stories of the 2020-21 Timberwolves season and it’s still true today. Considering how raw he was coming out of LSU as an undrafted free agent, his production this year — along with the jump he’s made from his rookie year to his sophomore season — has been staggering. He’s an excellent, aggressive roller that puts opposing bigs on their heels whenever he’s involved in the offense. Finch has been creative using him as a screener all over the floor and also giving him the green light to drive out of hand-off fakes and take bigger, slower defenders off the dribble. Reid still has a way to go on the defensive end and needs to shake his tunnel vision when he gets the ball inside, but he has all the tools to be one of the league’s best backup centers for a long time. Another plus for Minnesota is that Reid is on an essentially identical deal as Nowell.
Stay or go? Stay
Salary Filler That Likely Stays Put
Very few players in the NBA have as high of a ceiling as an on-ball defender as Okogie does. His lateral quickness, strength and hands are all tremendous. The former Georgia Tech standout’s skills have been on full display against some of the NBA’s elite offensive players, including most notably against Damian Lillard (see above photo) and Bradley Beal. Okogie has been a disaster offensively at times this season, but has also played significant minutes with other players who don’t space the floor very well, such as Rubio, Vanderbilt and Davis, which can compound the effect his shooting deficiency has. At his best, Okogie can collapse the defense and make good kick-out passes, draw fouls, and raise hell on the offensive glass.
I’m firmly an Okogie believer (especially defensively) and think his offensive game still has room to grow, despite some of his daunting shooting stats. Finch has praised his leadership, defensive acumen and energy, which are also needs on the team moving forward. This team can’t afford to keep too many non-shooters on the roster, but Okogie is an excellent defender, and given that he’s shooting 79 percent from the line for the second year in a row, I‘m not ready to give up on his 3-point shooting. I don’t think Rosas is, either. He’s still just 22 and would likely re-sign in Minnesota on a team-friendly deal after his rookie contract.
Stay or go? Stay
Layman has quickly become a fan favorite this season thanks his timely cutting, very good team defense and transition play, as well as his knack for knocking 3s that give the Wolves momentum when they need it most. He is the best cutter on the roster and has thrived in a starting role playing off Towns since Finch took over. His 3-point shooting will likely never be league average, but it is good enough to keep defenses stretched out. Layman is a great athlete who can attack attack close-outs, make defenders pay for poor positioning and awareness, and be a plus on the defensive end with his anticipation, communication and timing. The Boston native is under contract for another year and owed just $3.9M next season, making him a good value bench player worth holding onto unless he’s needed to make a Collins trade work.
Stay or go? Stay
Locker Room Leaders
Rubio’s homecoming was a great story and he’s one of the most widely respected veteran leaders in the NBA, even among the game’s best. At 6-foot-3, he is big enough to switch onto less dynamic 2 guards without being overpowered, but given his lack of consistent shooting and declining burst off the dribble, what he brings on the court is no longer his best asset. Finch wants to play fast and Rubio just isn’t comfortable doing so. He’s been out of sorts for most of the season and even as his 3-point shooting renaissance rolls on, defenses still don’t respect his shot enough for it to move the needle or for him to consistently attack close-outs and get to the rim like he did in Utah and (at times) in Phoenix.
If Rubio wasn’t owed $17.8M next season, he’d likely play out the back end of his career in Minnesota. But he is, and if the Wolves gun for Collins, they just can’t afford to keep him. His leadership (and cap hit) should keep him in Minnesota through the rest of the season, but I expect Rubio to be the best leader in a different locker room and favorite of another fanbase by the start of next season.
Stay or go? Stay, at least until the offseason
There’s no doubt that Davis was brought in primarily for his leadership and relationship with Russell, as well as his glowing reviews from former Blazers teammates C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, and current associate head coach David Vanterpool, who coached Davis in Portland.
He has unexpectedly played a decent amount this season in the wake of Towns’s wrist injury and subsequent COVID-19 diagnosis, but has not played a minute since Finch’s hiring on February 21st. He is not a schematic fit in Finch’s preferred system whatsoever on either end, but could have a spot on the Wolves beyond this year as a veteran leader and mentor if there is mutual interest or teams prefer Hernangomez in a deal over his expiring contract. I expect his $5M cap hit to be one the Wolves use in a trade at the deadline, given there isn’t much he can offer the team on the floor moving forward.
Stay or go? Go
Young Talent to Potentially Use in a Collins Package
Vanderbilt has been a pleasant surprise for Minnesota this year. He’s a good flasher in the lane that often makes good decisions on when to cut versus clear the lane for drivers. The former Kentucky Wildcat is a tenacious rebounder and energizer bunny that never lets anyone play harder than him while he’s on the floor. His minutes have a soft cap because can tank the team’s floor spacing when sharing the floor with another non-shooter, but he is a very useful player when surrounded by shooters or PnR players he can set screens for.
His interior team defense is something this team would surely miss if he was moved, but certainly isn’t enough to warrant his placement on any no-trade lists. Given he will be a restricted free agent this summer, I expect Rosas to keep him on the roster and use the RFA leverage to sign Vanderbilt to a long-term, team-friendly contract for three or four seasons.
Stay or go? Stay
On the court, Beasley has been everything could’ve hoped for this season after the Timberwolves signed him to a four-year $60 million contract extension last November. He’s averaging 20.5 points on 45.5/40.6/84.7 shooting splits and has truly been one of the NBA’s 10 best shooters this season. The Atlanta native connects 3.5 of his 8.7 3s taken per game, which is incredible efficiency at such a high shooting volume. When playing with Towns, Beasley has proven his value as an elite off-ball sniper that makes defenses pay for sending a second or third defender at the big fella.
Unfortunately, Beasley still doesn’t offer much off the dribble or as a playmaker. The combination of his somewhat capped ceiling offensively and his major shortcomings on the defensive end as a team and on-ball defender muddies his future in Minnesota. On a good team, he’s a sixth man that likely can’t close games because of his defensive lapses, which likely fueled Denver’s decision to trade him to Minnesota last season. It should be mentioned that Beasley’s off-court issues could be a factor in his potential inclusion in a trade for Collins, too. When you combine that with the emergence of both Edwards and Nowell in recent weeks, you could make an argument that losing Beasley wouldn’t be as big of a blow as many would’ve thought a month ago. He is the best sell-high candidate on this roster and I’d bet Rosas and the front office will cash in, trading him as part of a package for Collins instead of surrendering multiple first-round picks to acquire the young Hawks forward.
Stay or go? Go
Squarely on the Trading Block
The Wolves took a big swing, moving up to #6 from #11 in hopes of acquiring now-Cavs guard Darius Garland back in the 2019 Draft, but settled for Culver after Garland was taken one pick earlier. It has been the biggest mistake of Rosas’s tenure as President of Basketball Operations in Minnesota. Despite his consistently excellent defense, the former Texas Tech superstar has struggled to find his footing on the offensive end of the floor, which has led to confidence issues that have stagnated his development. Culver can’t shoot or finish inside consistently — which has largely taken him out of the Wolves rotation just one season after he was drafted — and as a result is not a fit in Finch’s system, despite his solid cutting instincts.
Culver is heralded as an incredibly hard worker that is as kind as they come and very easy to root for. Teams will bet on a former top-10 pick just two years out from his draft night and a trade is what’s best for both parties. Rosas had trade talks surrounding Culver leading up to the 2020 Draft, but I expect the Wolves to use him in a package for Collins, either going to the Hawks or a third team that helps facilitate the trade.
Stay or go? Go
Hernagomez earned a three-year, $21 million contract extension last offseason thanks to stellar play after his arrival in Minnesota last February. Unfortunately, Hernangomez missed the start of an already abbreviated training camp because of visa issues. That absence made it difficult for him to find a rhythm — and a spot in the rotation — early on in the year, which has tanked his entire season. The Spain native is a negative defensively, but offers decent floor spacing and above average rebounding, and is beloved by his teammates. He plays smaller than his size because he struggles to finish consistently inside, but can offer good value to a team that needs shooting more than it needs defense.
Michael Scotto of Hoops Hype reported yesterday that the Wolves were taking calls about Hernangomez and I anticipate him being moved in a package for Collins.
Stay or go? Go
With 10 days to go until the NBA Trade Deadline next Thursday, expect plenty of smoke surrounding the Timberwolves and their pursuit of John Collins. As I wrote in Part I of my trade deadline series, Gersson Rosas is as aggressive as they come in the front office. He’ll stop at next to nothing to maximize Karl-Anthony Towns while he has the chance to. As the leader of the worst team in the NBA, Rosas has nothing to lose by taking a swing for a player of Collins’s caliber, who would be a perfect fit alongside the Wolves other four core players. Collins is the name to watch, but I expect Minnesota to make another move or two on the margins to acquire better-fitting players in Chris Finch’s system.
The future does appear to be bright in Minnesota, and over the next week and change, Gersson Rosas (and his front office) will give us a much better idea of just how bright this whole thing can shine.