Back to seventh and it feels so good.
I hope you read that as a little jingle, otherwise it’s an especially odd opening. With an 11-point win against the now Eastern Conference’s second seed Brooklyn Nets, the Minnesota Timberwolves won their third game in their last four and secured sole possession of the seventh seed by half a game over the Los Angeles Lakers.
The sense of optimism currently surrounding this team is odd, especially coming off of the all-around debacle we saw in Atlanta. After surrendering what should have been a commanding lead, the Timberwolves rapidly imploded as the referees executed their best interpretation of a Monte Python sketch. After such an abhorrent performance, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the Timberwolves came out flat and dropped another game to the Nets. In what is becoming a consistent trend, though, the Timberwolves came out firing and were consistent until the end.
As the season continues, I’m sure there will be plenty more perplexing losses that make you question your fandom. However, I think the days of those loses derailing the entire franchise are gone. This team continues to prove that they can bounce back from disappointment, and their short-term memory is an encouraging omen for regular season success.
The Timberwolves are now 5.5 games clear of the 11th seed, 1.5 games back of the sixth seed, and 3.5 games back of the fifth seed. Barring calamity (never completely out of the question), the play-in games for this team should be the expectation and a top-six seed the goal. They have consistently proven they are better than the Portland Trail Blazers and Lakers, and the Los Angeles Clippers’ injury issues continue to drive them down the standings. Timberwolves’ fans have adapted Ellis Redding’s (Red from Shawshank Redemption) stance on hope being a dangerous thing for good reason over the years, but remember “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
KAT In His
Karl-Anthony Towns has taken a lot of flak over his career, and much of it has been earned. However, he still remains one of the most offensively gifted big men who has ever set foot on an NBA floor. It is entirely fair to be sick of his antics with the refs and his constant flailing, but Towns is producing at an extraordinary level. So far this season, Towns is averaging 24.3 points (16th in the league), 9.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 blocks, and 1.1 steals while shooting 51.5 percent from the floor, 40.4 percent from three, and 80.6 percent from the line. Simply put, he’s been an All-Star and the third best center in the league, behind MVP candidates Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic.
Additionally, Towns’ on/off net rating differential of plus-6.5 ranks in the 81st percentile and his offensive rating on/off differential of plus-9.6 ranks in the 96th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass. While many have begrudgingly acknowledged that Towns has been good this season, his impact constantly is undersold. Why?
The box score watchers will simply point to the defensive and rebounding numbers. To be fair to them, it is a point in their favor as Towns’ defensive rating on/off differential of plus-3.0 ranks in the 28th percentile, and his defensive rebounding rate of 17.7 percent ranks in the 50th percentile and is the lowest of his career. What these numbers fail to consider, however, is context, the internet’s least favorite thing.
I’m not bold enough to say that Towns is now a great defender, but he has been much better than recent seasons despite what the numbers show. The main reason for this is the adjusted role Towns has been issued when defending the pick-and-roll. The Timberwolves’ new defensive coverage has been noted many times this season, but it is the main reason for Towns’ skewed rebounding numbers.
Since Towns is frequently pulled away from the rim, he is not in position to gather a defensive rebound. Hence the lower rebounding rate. Well then how do you explain the worse on/off defensive rating differential? Brilliant question, thanks for asking. It’s based on the lineups the Timberwolves use when Towns isn’t on the floor, which tend to skew towards brining in more athletic, versatile, and defensively focused players off the bench. Towns isn’t a great defender, but he has executed his new defensive role about as well as we could hope for. His block rate of 1.8 percent (57th percentile) is in line with the last few seasons, his steal rate of 1.4 percent (71st percentile) is the highest of his career, and his defensive foul rate of 3.1 percent (78th percentile) is the second lowest of his career. Not only has Towns performed at an All-Star level this season, but he should be heavily involved in the All-NBA discussion at the end of the season if his performance continues.
The Timberwolves having legitimate and reliable pieces coming off the bench is something I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to. The emergence of Jaylen Nowell has and will continue to be well documented, as have the inconsistencies of Malik Beasley. Naz Reid has become a staple in the rotation for a while now, and the defensive acumen and offensive flashes of Jaden McDaniels are a rare luxury.
The big disappointment, though, has been Taurean Prince. I have always had a lukewarm view on Prince as a player, but a career 37 percent three-point shooter who can defend multiple positions was an intriguing fit in this lineup.
Unfortunately, Prince has largely underwhelmed as he is shooting 33 percent from three and is struggling with his inconsistent minutes. To Prince’s credit, this is the lowest minutes per game average of his career which can be a rough adjustment depending on the player’s tendencies. Admittedly, I was about ready to cut ties with the Prince experiment as it was reaping few rewards and his corner three-point shooting (basically all he was asked to do on offense) was unreliable at best.
Recently, though, Prince has slowly begun to regain his form. It isn’t on high volume, but over his last five games, Prince is averaging 5.4 points while shooting 71 percent from the floor and 57 percent from three. If this is a sign of things to come from Prince, the excitement surrounding this bench group should rise precipitously. There simply aren’t enough minutes in this rotation for Prince to play a role like he has previously in his career, but Coach Finch has consistently shown that he rewards production. As long as Prince can continue to convert the handful of jumpers he gets each game, he will not only help the overall production of the rotation, but also earn himself a more consistent role.