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SB Nation Reacts: NBA Awards Season

With the 2020-21 Wolves’ season now in the books, let’s examine Timberwolves fans’ confidence moving forward and some award talk from around the league.

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New York Knicks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Welcome to SB Nation Reacts, a survey of fans across the NBA. Each week, we send out questions to the most plugged in Minnesota Timberwolves fans, and fans across the country. Sign up here to join Reacts.

With the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2020-2021 NBA season now officially in the books, it’s time to examine the fan base’s confidence in the team moving forward, as well as dive into some annual awards.

There’s no question that this season was an emotional rollercoaster for Timberwolves fans, which, to be honest, was better than the half-assed emotional investment into despair Wolves fans have become accustomed to every November. The excitement after a 2-0 start, including an impressive win over the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City, was quickly tempered with Karl-Anthony Towns sustaining a wrist injury that has affected him throughout the entire season.

Shortly after he came back, he was diagnosed with COVID-19; one game before Towns was set to return, D’Angelo Russell suffered a knee-to-knee hit that required surgery on his left knee that carried a six-week recovery timeline.

Ryan Saunders was then relieved of his duties as head coach and Chris Finch was signed to a long-term contract, only to then have NBA Star Malik Beasley get suspended 12 games for a felony threats charge he pleaded guilty to last September.

Then, to cap it all off, just hours after it was announced that Russell would make his return to the floor, the team announced that Beasley would miss four-to-six weeks with a hamstring injury. We now know that it subsequently ended Beasley’s season.

This season wasn’t all bad, however.

Outside of Beasley’s injury, things mostly got much better after the All-Star break.

The SB Nation Reacts survey taken by select Timberwolves fans is in line with the notion that this season was an emotional rollercoaster. According to the most recent survey, 78 percent of Timberwolves fans are confident the team is headed in the right direction. That’s down from 80 percent last week but up from 75 percent two weeks ago.

The biggest reason for the jump in the fanbase’s confidence is undoubtedly Anthony Edwards. Heading into the team’s final two games, he’s played in all 70 games, bringing his happy-go-lucky, positive and overwhelmingly joyful spirit to the floor (and the post-game Zoom) each and every night.

After a mediocre first half of the season — in which he averaged 14.9 points on 37.1/30.2/80.5 shooting splits, 4.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists — Edwards has flourished since the team’s return from the All-Star break, even in a watered down version of Finch’s offensive system.

Heading into the Boston game, No. 1 pick held averages of 23.6 points on 45.4/35.0/74.7 shooting splits, 5.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists, all while showing a well-developing chemistry with fellow his cornerstone, Towns.

Two major drivers for Edwards’s scoring growth have been his improved shot profile and pull-up shooting game. He has become more efficient on the drive and in the restricted area for three of reasons. First, Towns and Russell being back has de-cluttered the paint from the significant time he spent playing with Ed Davis and Naz Reid while Towns was out. Second, he’s getting fouled at a much higher rate than he was in the first half of the season.

And last, his pull-up shooting numbers have improved, which has forced defenders to stay closer to him, which makes it easier for him to get down hill and attack the basket with less resistance. Ant shot 25.2 percent from deep on 3.0 pull-up 3s per game before the All-Star break, but has upped those numbers to 39.0 percent on 4.0 attempts post-All-Star break.

Even though his scoring has picked up quite nicely, Ant’s improvement in playmaking is what has really stood out to me.

His insane in-season improvement given the context of this season is why I’d easily vote for him over LaMelo Ball for Rookie of the Year. Edwards had a very shortened training camp and pre-season in the middle of a global pandemic. He saw his team’s two best players get hurt/sick early in the season. He dealt with very limited floor spacing and a rotating door of lineup combinations. His team had a mid-season, external coaching change as a No. 1 pick. Yet, Edwards somehow improved his efficiency with increased volume as the season progressed, fueled the Wolves’ run to a 15-21 post-ASB record (which is a major improvement from the team’s 7-29 pre-ASB mark), and, oh yeah, he played in every single game this season.

After factoring all of that into his gaudy season numbers for a rookie wing, the argument for Ball just wains in comparison.

Ball played 21 less games than Edwards and has really struggled after the All-Star break. Sure, he was returning from injury and Gordon Hayward has been out, but even after getting his legs back, he’s been a shell of his pre-ASB self.

The “Ant is inefficient and doesn’t impact winning” argument we saw many make at the start of the year just doesn’t hold up anymore. He’s the rookie of the year. He’s destined for superstardom in the NBA. And he, along with Towns, are the biggest reasons Wolves fans are feeling pretty damn good heading into the offseason.

Towns bolstered the argument to be made that he’s the most talented offensive big of this generation, all while grieving the loss of his mother, battling through a nagging, season-long injury and overcoming a bout with COVID-19, which caused him to have, as he described, “a lot of scary nights.” Not to mention he frequently played without much spacing and general offensive help outside of Edwards and Beasley while Russell was hurt.

Heading into the final two games of the season, he averaged 24.8 points on 48.6/39.5/85.7 shooting splits, 10.5 rebounds, a career-high 4.5 assists, 0.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game.

No matter where you stand on Karl-Anthony Towns as a player, the strength he has shown as a human being this season is incredibly inspiring. I know I speak for all of us at Canis Hoopus when I say that we all have a lot of love, respect and admiration for the Big KAT. He’s a generational talent that should never, ever be taken for granted.

As the playoffs approach, the biggest surprise of the season is likely the success of the New York Knicks. For the first time since 2013, the Knicks have reached the postseason and they did so without a true superstar leading the team.

In place of a superstar, the team is led on the court by Julius Randle and head coach Tom Thibodeau. Both of whom fans believe will finish the season with an individual award. 69 percent of fans around the league believe Randle should win the 2020-21 Most Improved Player award. The next closest player, Michael Porter Jr., received 11 percent of the vote.

50 percent of national fans believe Thibodeau has earned the Coach of the Year award this season. Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams took 23 percent.

(To vote in the Reacts surveys and have your voice heard each week, sign up here).

Julius Randle is undoubtedly the Most Improved Player. The manner in which he’s taken such a monstrous leap in his seventh season is unheard of in the NBA. Randle wasn’t a bad player in his first six seasons by any means, especially since his departure from the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018.

This season, Randle is averaging 24.0 points* on 45.7/41.2*/81.5* shooting splits, 10.2 rebounds*, 5.9 assists*, 0.9 steals* and 0.2 blocks in 37.4 minutes* per game (* career high), all while leading the Knicks to more wins this season than in the previous two combined, and a playoff birth.

Randle’s ascent into superstardom is driven by his work ethic. Rebecca Haarlow’s report on his work ethic, during a 111-96 Knicks win over the Lakers on April 12, is one of my favorite stories of this season.

This type of buy-in is also a testament to the gritty, get-it-out-the-mud culture Leon Rose and Thibs have built in the Mecca of Basketball. Much to Thibodeau’s liking, it starts on the defensive end.

Last season, New York had a defensive rating of 112.4, net rating of -6.5 and 21-45 record, good for 23rd, 26th and t-24th in the NBA, respectively. This season, the Knicks have improved all of those numbers to 107.9 (4th), +2.4 (10th) and 40-31 (t-11th).

A turnaround of this proportion is definitely worthy of Coach of the Year. I would have a tough time picking against Suns head coach Monty Williams, but given that the Suns were projected to be a much, much better team than the Knicks were this season, Thibs would get my vote here.

More impressively, the Knicks did this by adding only rotation players on the margins: Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel and Derrick Rose, who have all been awesome for New York this season. They’ve also played most of the season without their starting center and elite rim defender, Mitchell Robinson, which makes their defensive numbers even more impressive.

The fan excitement about the Knicks is very palpable, which is a great thing for the league. The NBA is better when the Knicks are good, and we’re in for a treat with the Knicks destined to make some noise in the first round - and potentially beyond - in the coming weeks.