Happy almost Friday, folks!
I want to start by thanking everyone who has reached out to me over the past week wishing me well and offering their congratulations after taking the torch from Kyle. It has been a whirlwind week but I’m very grateful for the opportunity as Site Manager to continue building on Kyle’s incredible work!
With that out of the way, like most of you surely have at some point this postseason, I have been taking in the Conference Semifinals thinking to myself that anything, truly anything, can happen in the playoffs. Partly as a result of that, the Minnesota Timberwolves can’t be that far off in the Western Conference.
The Dallas Mavericks are getting monster minutes from Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber and Reggie Bullock to make life extremely tough on the No. 1 seed Phoenix Suns, a team many thought would runaway with the conference title. Dallas is doing this in the face of “high usage guys don’t find success in the playoffs” notion that Ryen Russillo floated back in February, plus clear roster flaws. Considering the Mavs start a huntable point guard, a 6-foot-1 2 guard and no true center, the fact they’ve won two games in a convincing way proves that identity matters.
Jason Kidd’s squad all year long has fought tooth and nail defensively, made good rotations, and found themselves in the No. 10 spot in defensive rebounding percentage despite carrying many of the same roster concerns the Wolves have about size.
The Mavs on the other end move extremely well without the ball while functioning around an engine with insanely high basketball IQ and elite passing skills, and shoot a ton of 3s. Their playoff mark of 40.5 is the most by 3.6 per game; that is roughly the same gap between the No. 2 and No. 9 teams. 3s represent 49.9% (!) of their total shots through 11 playoff games. They do it with four multi-positional perimeter players and a non-shooting, but active big.
The Wolves share similarities roster-wise and have the strengths to be able to play comparatively, yet lack a clear identity. D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels and Karl-Anthony Towns are all perfectly capable shooters, and McDaniels is an active big that can fly around the court. To find that identity, whether he wants to initiate offense or not, Edwards may need lean into what is his best role moving forward — a playmaking lead guard. His role as a primarily off-ball guard is sup-optimal because it sells his abilities short and stunts his growth as an initiator.
One of Edwards’ stated focuses at Ant Camp™ this offseason is to improve as a playmaker. The sooner he can improve at making the correct read on nearly every trip down the floor, the better. I asked Minnesota head coach Chris Finch during exit interviews about how Edwards can improve with thinking/reading the game in the half-court.
“I think it’s almost exactly the conversation we just had with Ant, about how huge this summer was, being able to learn from what he just went through and how he can process those different looks. Learning how to be a closer,” Finch said confidently. “It’s not always about trying to make the big play, it’s way more about making the right play at the right time.”
Minnesota has the personnel around Edwards to make life very easy for him as a playmaker, especially in a playoff setting as he learns how to be a closer. If the front office — which should be led by Sachin Gupta (but that’s a conversation for later) — can upgrade at the 4 with a bigger body capable of shooting it, or add another versatile wing in place of Russell, the infrastructure will be in place for Point Ant™ to become not only a reality, but also an inflection point.
The great thing about Ant is that he doesn’t need to be an extremely high-usage player that is surrounded by role players because he already has a superstar teammate in Towns. Not to mention that Edwards has a coach who understands how he can be better to foster a more synergistic relationship between Ant and KAT. The offensive potential created by those two players is legitimately limitless. That type of combination is something that comparable Western Conference teams, such as the Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, or Utah Jazz simply do not have. I’m more concerned about the Denver Nuggets (assuming they can get healthy) and New Orleans Pelicans, frankly, than any of those three teams moving forward.
What is preventing the Wolves from playing in the second round in place of the Grizzlies is their defensive shortcomings and inability to be multiple on that end, despite having some good defensive pieces in place with Patrick Beverley, Edwards, McDaniels, Vanderbilt, and yes, Towns. But, according to Beverley, the road map to become a more effective defensive team that can play different schemes successfully is rooted in one thing:
Finch and company, after a season focused on the “high wall” coverage, will have their work cut out for them with entering more switching and zone into the fold in 2022-23.
But first, we all wait until the Wolves make the first move this offseason in the D-Lo Deal Zone. Whether it is offering a contract extension or making trade calls, we won’t know how Minnesota plans to prove they aren’t that far off until that first domino falls. Once it does, transformative potential of this offseason will start to be realized or wasted, depending on how that domino goes down.
Armed with four picks in June’s NBA Draft, the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, the bi-annual exception and a $4.75 million trade exception created by the Ricky Rubio/Taurean Prince swap, Gupta and the Wolves’ front office can be aggressive, even if they are improving on the margins.
Whether you prefer to bank on external acquisitions or internal improvement, it’s not at all a reach to land on the (hopefully) correct conclusion that the Wolves aren’t that far off from making louder noise in a Western Conference ready to reload this fall.