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Assessing the Wolves with Mostly Fresh Eyes

I took a break from the team, but now I’m back. This is why.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

You know what, I’ll be honest from the top: I didn’t watch much of the Minnesota Timberwolves beyond the first 20 or so games last season. I made that choice for several reasons, some legitimate — my wife and I moved twice, I started a job covering local prep sports, etc. — and some not so — a lot of the time, I didn’t care to tune in.

While I served as the now-former Managing Editor for the now-on-indefinite-hiatus last winter, I found my interest in the team to be at an all-time nadir. What was there left to learn about the Wolves? At its core, how was the team any different than its last, oh, seven or so iterations? They were going to be bad again despite how much I wanted to believe that they wouldn’t be. (I’m sure a fair number of you can relate.)

I still followed the team by keeping an eye on the stats, listening to podcasts, and reading articles, but the same stale air of seasons past lingered. Stuck were the Wolves in a Groundhog Day scenario. I had seen the 2020-21 season before during the 2019-20 campaign and the 2018-19 campaign and … you get the idea.

So I detached myself from the team and took a sabbatical.

While my doing so may raise some eyebrows among the commenters below, frankly, taking some time off was one of the best decisions I could have made. It was freeing, not worrying about the defensive rating of the Russell-Edwards-Towns trio or contemplating the reasoning behind the media’s decision to elect LaMelo Ball as the Rookie of the Year over Anthony Edwards. In many ways, my incomplete ignorance was bliss.

But that ignorance was also as refreshing as it was freeing. My proverbial batteries recharged. I’m now ready to be hurt again. So, here I am, back writing about and analyzing the team with mostly fresh eyes. Or, at least, fresher eyes; the slate can never be entirely wiped clean.

I’m encouraged by the re-signings of Jarred Vanderbilt and Jordan McLaughlin. While Vanderbilt likely doesn’t have the overall skill to be a starting power forward long-term, he excels in areas where the Wolves have struggled for countless years; namely, he rebounds, and his motor runs unceasingly. McLaughlin is one of, if not the best, third point guards in the entire NBA. He’s more than competent running the offense, which will allow Chris Finch to deploy D’Angelo Russell and even Patrick Beverley off-ball on occasion. His presence will also enable Leandro Bolmaro to wade into NBA waters rather than being thrown into the deep-end as a ball-handler.

The swap of Juancho Hernangomez and Jarrett Culver for Beverley was as necessary as it was appealing. Hernangomez was a failed project from the start, his inconsistent play quickly rendering his re-signing two summers ago as a blunder by the front office. Culver’s hesitancy and lack of feel on offense will prevent him from ever living up to the reputation he developed at Texas Tech and as the sixth overall pick. Simply put, it was time for the Wolves to move on from both athletes.

Beverley, on the other hand, will bring a junkyard dog attitude and defensive tenacity that will play well next to Josh Okogie, Jaden McDaniels, and Vanderbilt, in particular. While not a floor general like, say, Tyus Jones, Beverley’s three-point shooting and edge will provide the Wolves with a weapon that they have not had for a while off the bench at lead guard.

Speaking of McDaniels, he has a chance to be a great role player on a playoff-caliber team. The Washington product has all the physical tools — height, length, athleticism — and the ever-nebulous “it” factor. If he continues to develop at the rate he displayed last spring, well, that’s the type of draft pick that front offices can boast about for a long time.

As for the coaching staff, Chris Finch is one of the best up-and-coming coaches in the league and is the first in the Towns’ era who understands how to optimize the offense around his 7-foot great. The NBA is a perimeter-oriented league, and the Wolves still need more help in that area, but few players fit better alongside Towns than Edwards and Russell. (Well, Ben Simmons does, but that horse has been beaten far beyond death at this point.) Finch knows that and will run his offense through them.

I don’t know what to expect from Bolmaro. Rookies rarely excel right away in the league and, while his talent is intriguing, he remains raw. McKinley Wright and Nathan Knight are precisely the types of players perfect for two-way signings, but what they will bring to the Wolves will ultimately depend on health and opportunity. Missing out on a seventh overall pick caliber talent is rough, if only for the value that player would bring on a cheap contract.

As of this writing, the Wolves’ roster remains unfinished and imbalanced. There is depth in the backcourt, but the frontcourt needs work. Still, as currently constructed, there’s reason to believe that the team is capable of winning 35-40 games. They’ll need health and for Edwards, McDaniels, and others to leap forward, but they should be competent enough to contend for a top 10 finish in the Western Conference. And if they obtain Simmons, well, perhaps a top 5 seed is in the cards, depending on how much they have to surrender in return.

In many respects, the upcoming season is a prove-it campaign for the Wolves. If they fail (i.e., they don’t display demonstrable growth and contend for a playoff spot), they may be forced to change to an uncomfortable degree. All we can do now is wait and see how things unfold.