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Offseason Outlook: Internal Development vs. External Additions

The time is now for Towns, Russell, and Edwards to simply win.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Editor’s Note: I’m excited to announce that Cooper Carlson has officially joined the staff here at Canis Hoopus! Cooper is currently going to school in Minnesota for journalism, and is not only a big-time Wolves fan, but also closely supports the Twins, Wild, and Vikings (damn, sorry Coop).
Cooper has been pumping out a ton of #kahntent this year over at his YouTube page (Minnesota Sports Daily) and I’m excited for him to start sharing his Wolves-related thoughts here with the Canis community. Welcome, Cooper!

The Minnesota Timberwolves offseason has somehow managed to match the Minnesota Twins season in terms of excitement level. That level, of course, is dread, confusion, and (hopeless?) optimism. I’m entering that third level of the offseason, optimism. I’ve accepted Ben Simmons and Myles Turner aren’t, and probably never were, coming to Minnesota and free agency just isn’t for the Wolves this offseason. Improvement could still come as we get closer to the trading window because nobody loves trades more than Gersson Rosas, but in the end I think Rosas plans to run this 23-49 team back.

Overall, I think running it back is an extremely bold move for this team. On one hand, this 23-49 record is perhaps the most misleading record of all time. Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards played just over 327 minutes together. That 3-Man lineup ranked 15th out of 20 Timberwolves 3-Man lineups in total minutes played despite having the best net rating at +5.3 points. That group is also 13-11 when all three play together. This 23-49 team also saw a coaching change midseason and Chris Finch is a clear upgrade over Ryan Saunders. It’s a misleading record.

Utah Jazz v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

On the other hand, can a healthy 82 games from Towns, Russell, and Edwards (plus Chris Finch) push the Wolves to the 10 seed? For context, they finished 10.0 games behind the Spurs for the 10th seed and 16.0 games behind the Warriors for the 9th seed. I think the 10th seed is more than fair to expect if all goes well, but the big three need to step up this season.

Back to this offseason, many are prepared to deem it as unsuccessful. I’m going to give this group the benefit of the doubt and wait to determine how successful this offseason was until the Wolves are either eliminated or locked into the 2021-22 playoffs.

Looking back when the season ends, a successful Timberwolves offseason would be headlined by the development of Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards. All three of them were top two picks in their respective drafts and it’s time for them to prove why they were taken so early.

Anthony Edwards obviously will get more leeway as he enters just his second NBA season, but his potential is through the roof. We all saw how good Edwards was last season, especially once Chris Finch arrived. Here are his scoring numbers before and after Finch took over.

  • With Saunders: 31 G, 28.5 MPG, 14.3 PPG, 37.5 FG%, 31.3 3P%, 79.5 FT%
  • With Finch: 41 G, 34.9 MPG, 23.2 PPG, 44.1 FG%, 33.7 3P%, 76.9 FT%

I highlighted everything that improved under Finch (this guy really needs to work on his free throws by the way!) Along with improving his scoring numbers under Finch, his shot selection improved as well. He started driving to the rim more like the bowling ball he loves so much while simultaneously reducing his pull up jump shots.

Anthony Edwards is going to be the face of the Timberwolves very soon and he already might be. I fully expect him to do whatever the opposite of a sophomore slump is. Sophomore success? Sophomore soar?

Now we move on to D’Angelo Russell, another Finch beneficiary… but aren’t we all? Russell and Towns are both entering their seventh season in the NBA and both are known for the same thing around the league. They’re good players with good statistics but they aren’t winners. Both have made the playoffs just once in their careers and both are seen as “fluke” seasons. Russell should have a chip on his shoulder entering this season. It’s time to prove he can win.

The expectations for Russell aren’t as high as they are for Towns but he’s still a max player in a city desperate for a winning team. We all know what he is on the offensive side of the ball. An elite, but streaky, shooter with good court vision to get his teammates the ball. He’ll once again be a 20 point, 6 assist, 50% shooter from the floor with upside to improve his shot selection and playmaking even more under Finch.

The big question when it comes to D’Angelo Russell is, and has been for his entire career, can he improve on defense? He has never had a defensive rating below 110 in his career and using the LEBRON stat from Bball Index, Russell was the WORST defender in the league last season. Basically the LEBRON statistic takes a player’s total impact on defense or offense and puts it in one number. Russell had a -2.38 D-LEBRON, worst in the NBA. If he were to get anywhere close to league average or just in the 30th percentile or something then I’ll personally set up a parade.

Alright, let’s talk about Karl-Anthony Towns. Edwards and Russell are good, but they’re still the secondary pieces to Towns this season. Edwards is knocking on the door and could be the guy in his third year, but this is a prove it year for Towns. I mentioned the similarities Towns and Russell have but I think the burden of never winning and the chip on Towns’ shoulder is much larger than what is expected from Russell.

According to both the LEBRON statistic from earlier and the estimated plus/minus from Dunks And Threes, Towns is a top 20 player. He ranked 13th in LEBRON and 18th in EPM last season. The only thing left for him to do is take that final step, mainly on defense, to get back into the territory of Joel Embiid and Nicola Jokic. Simple, I know.

All of Towns’ shooting percentages were down last season while his usage% was at a career high 29.1% and jumped to 30% under Finch. Towns is still the number one option on this team and despite nagging injuries he still averaged 24.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 4.6 assists. If he can just get back to his career shooting percentages then he’ll be back to being one of the most lethal scoring options in the NBA.

As for the defense, just keep improving. I think a lot of his defensive struggles have come from teaming up with poor perimeter defenders. Towns’ decision making has always seemed to be a weak point on defense and when the lead ball handler gets by Jeff Teague, or Andrew Wiggins, or D’Angelo Russell and leaves Towns to decide between defending his man or the driving guard it hasn’t always gone well. Last season we saw some improvement there.

The collective improvement on defense from Towns, Russell, and Edwards is going to be what everyone is watching for as the season gets underway. We all know the offense can be elite. The offensive rating when all three are on the court is 120.9 but the defensive rating is 116.0 which, yes, is a net of +4.9 but still needs improvement. The best 3-Man lineups approach a net rating of 30 points. I don’t expect the Wolves big three to get there, but let’s get to +15 or so!

Back to my main point of this whole thing, the greatest development of this entire offseason needs to be the development of Towns, Russell, and Edwards together on both ends of the court. Obviously adding someone like Ben Simmons, Myles Turner, or John Collins would be nice but I think those dreams are dead. I’m sure the Wolves will add another solid forward or backup point guard before the season begins but how much will that do if the big three don’t rise up?

It should be mentioned that Towns, Russell, and Edwards aren’t the only three that need to improve but they’re the most important because if they play well, so will others. Great players make those around them better so seeing guys like Okogie, McDaniels, Beasley, and Reid take big steps would likely mean the big three are making them better.

It’s extremely reasonable to assume these three will not only improve individually, but also as a group. They’ve played 24 games together and won 13 of them. By the way, that 13-11 win pace would’ve put them in the 8th seed if it was consistent throughout the season. The Wolves 2021-22 expectations should be to finish as at least the 8th seed in the west.