The last week for the Minnesota Timberwolves has been yet another roller coaster. Shocker, I know. Between the COVID absences and little injuries, we’ve seen the raggiest of rag tag groups hit the floor in a Timberwolves jersey.
Over their last four games, the Timberwolves have gone 1-3, which feels mostly unjust. Despite the depleted roster, the Timberwolves have played well and deserved more than that lone win. If they had a healthy roster, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t have gone 3-1, or at least 2-2, given how well they’ve played. Unfortunately, with no Karl-Anthony Towns or D’Angelo Russell, that’s how things will likely go.
I want to start off on a low note with the weekly recap so we can build back up and finish with some optimism as we enter a favorable stretch. The Timberwolves last five games have consisted of the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, and Utah Jazz (twice). All of those teams had extended playoff expectations entering the year, so it shouldn’t be a complete surprise that the Timberwolves went 1-4. What hurts, though, is that the Timberwolves dropped the games against the Knicks and Lakers, both of which were incredibly winnable.
It feels simplistic, especially during a stretch where everyone is losing players to the COVID list, but the absence of Towns and Russell seems to be the sole factor in these results. Per NBA Stats, the Timberwolves have a net rating of +8.3 with Russell on the court and a net rating of +3.1 with Towns on the court. Unfortunately, these numbers plummet to -10.2 and -6.6 respectively when Russell and Towns are not on the court.
I’m not shattering new ground here by pointing out that the team is worse when two of its best players aren’t available. However, for two players who have missed significant time in recent seasons and a season that is seeing an abundance of absences due to COVID, things could get tight for the Timberwolves in their hunt for the playoffs. The Timberwolves didn’t have any room for error entering the season. Now that we’re seeing players miss time across the league, the Timberwolves can’t afford any minor injuries, illnesses, or setbacks that could keep either of Russell or Towns off the floor.
Without Towns and Russell, the hope would be Malik Beasley would step up in a big way. Unfortunately, Beasley’s early season struggles have prolonged and are looking to be a much bigger concern. Over his last four games, Beasley is scoring an impressive 18.3 points, but his 37% from the floor on nearly 19 shots, 33% from three on nearly 13 attempts, and zero free-throw attempts are concerning. Beasley is consistently trying to play hero ball which results in him chucking up everything he touches. When his shot isn’t falling, which has been most of this season, Beasley is struggling to find ways to be a positive contributor.
See that wasn’t too doom-and-gloom, right? Now we can talk about some of the fun stuff, which is surprising given three straight losses and a 1-4 record in their last five. Despite all that, there has been an encouraging amount of good stuff happening.
For starters, the Timberwolves were never expected to succeed during their last ten games. All ten matchups were against teams with playoff expectations and the Timberwolves went 5-5 over this stretch, including four straight wins before the COVID spree happened. Picking up a few more wins would’ve been nice, but to come out of that difficult stretch without losing significant ground is encouraging.
The schedule is a lot like riding a bike. There are hills that you absolutely struggle to get up, but if you survive the climb, then you get to enjoy the ride downhill. The Timberwolves should exit their next five game stretch with a 4-1 record, at least, as four of their games are against teams who will be vying for the top pick at the end of the season, and the other matchup is against a Paul George-less Los Angeles Clippers. Even if both Towns and Russell aren’t back for the entire stretch, this team has plenty of firepower to come through these games unscathed.
One of the lone bright spots of this unsustainable roster turnover is we get to see players take on minutes and roles they wouldn’t otherwise be afforded. In a lot of cases this scenario just tells us that a bench guy is definitely not what we hoped he was, but in other cases, we get to see flashes of production that make us think, “huh, maybe a ten-man rotation isn’t the worst thing.” For the record, a ten-man rotation is typically not ideal and not what I am vouching for.
Jaylen Nowell has taken advantage of his opportunity the most. Nowell was seeing an uptick in minutes before the COVID disruption, but he hasn’t taken this opportunity for granted. Over his last four games, Nowell is averaging 26.1 minutes, 16.8 points, four rebounds, four assists, and has 48/35/70 shooting splits. Nowell won’t be getting 26 minutes once the full roster returns, but he is making a strong case that he should be getting at least 15 minutes a night. His defense has been erratic from game to game, but he is quickly becoming one of their more reliable scoring options off the bench.
Additionally, Jaden McDaniels has had an encouraging offensive resurgence. It hasn’t been earth shattering stuff from McDaniels as he is still just shooting 26% from three over his last four games, but the second year forward is also averaging 13.5 points while shooting 50% from the floor. McDaniels has been much more assertive at getting to the rim and taking quality shots inside the arc. He doesn’t need to be a lights out shooter, although it’d certainly be welcomed, but if McDaniels can continue to show his aggressiveness on attacking close outs and cutting when Russell and Towns return, the team’s offense could see a meaningful improvement.
Finally, Greg Monroe is back in the NBA. That was fun, wasn’t it? In his first three games with the Timberwolves, the wily vet averaged 6.7 points, seven rebounds, and 3.7 assists. I know it’s fun and exciting when players come back with these types of performances, but please don’t make the mistake of overinflating his numbers, role, or long-term impact on the team. Remember that Monroe was out of the league for a reason. With that said, it wouldn’t stun me if Monroe ends up getting a deal through the end of the season as some insurance and another veteran presence. It was a fun trip down memory lane and his impact was shockingly positive. However, if the Timberwolves are relying on Monroe minutes going forward, then something has gone very wrong.