On New Year’s Eve, I had a revelation. That night, I watched the Minnesota Timberwolves lose to the lowly Detroit Pistons in-person. The first half of the game felt pretty normal - the more talented Wolves team got up by double-digits quickly, coasted a little bit in the second quarter, and went into halftime with a 14-point lead. The short-handed team seemed ready to end its five game losing streak.
But then, the Wolves got even more complacent, and the young, struggling Pistons found their rhythm and saw an opportunity to get a win. Minnesota got tight, while Detroit played free, loose and had some fun on their way to the win.
Although I heard the occasional smattering of boos, for the most part, the crowd was just pretty quiet as it all unfolded. Personally, I went from being confident about the win to making cynical jokes about the team and just laughing through Bojan Bogdanović’s barrage of 3s. After all, that is the Minnesota way - laugh our way through the terrible things. Years of long, hard winters and disappointing sports teams trained us well!
That’s when it hit me. This Timberwolves team and their fans are just mirror images of one another. I can guarantee that players on the Wolves’ bench were muttering about how unbelievable it was that the Pistons chose tonight to get hot from 3 - woe is us! The fans and the team are connected in feeling “of course this would happen to us.”
Veterans on the team decided that night that enough was enough. They called the infamous players only meeting - by reports, everyone got called out on all the ways they’d contributed to the six straight losses. The challenge? Show up and respect your opponent, do the little things, and let the chips fall where they may.
A four game win-streak later, that is where we stand at the halfway point of the season. A team determined to go into 2023 doing the little things to win games. With the first half of the season now behind us, let’s take a look back and see how the players have graded out.
Three reminders before getting to the grades:
1. These grades are roles-based, so the stats I’m looking at for each player are different.
2. Roles on the team can change as the roster and playing time changes—I may alter or add statistical categories as we see this team step into their identity.
3. The grades below are broken down into three sections: 1st quarter grades (stats from games 1-21), 2nd quarter grades (stats only from games 22-41) and semester grades (games 1-41 stats, with full season stats for all categories I’ve looked at).
D’Angelo Russell First Semester Grade: 77% (C+)
Quarter 1 Grade: 70% (C-)
Quarter 2 Grade: 83% (B)
Russell caught fire in the second quarter of the season, which has led to him having the highest TS% percentage of his career at the mid-way point of the season. In fact, his second quarter TS% of 63.8% would place him inside the top 40 in the league, a stat that is usually dominated by big men and the most efficient scorers in the game. You can’t say enough about how well he is shooting the ball.
So why a C+ to this point in the season? The questions surrounding the rest of his game. His turnovers remain around a career average despite having a career low usage rate. The usage rate is also affecting his assist numbers which have dropped off a bit since last season. Defensively he continues to be a net-negative player despite usually being placed on the other team’s least effective scorer.
With Anthony Edwards’ development, (more on that in a moment), Russell’s biggest issue on this team is becoming one of role and fit. With rumors circulating about broken off contract talks and ominous “bet on yourself” retweets, it is possible that D-Lo’s days on the Wolves are numbered.
The question going forward will be, “Is that a good thing?” You can make an argument for either side - I have certainly sent some frustrated texts to friends following defensive lapses or untimely pull-up threes. But the shooting numbers don’t lie - he’s been a key part of helping this undermanned Wolves team win games and stay afloat in the Western Conference.
Anthony Edwards First Semester Grade: 88% (B+)
Quarter 1 Grade: 77% (C+)
Quarter 2 Grade: 94% (A)
These last twenty games of the season may go down as one of the most important regular-season stretches of basketball in Timberwolves history. That may seem like a bold statement since the games themselves will end up being rather forgettable; winning and losing streaks full of tantalizing highs and frustrating lows. The key of these last 20 games has been the shift in the team hierarchy as veteran players and fans alike are saying the same thing: This is Ant’s team now.
There are stretches of games where he becomes an unstoppable physical force, getting to the basket at will. He’s been quicker to read double-teams, making the right pass when defenses are focused on trying to stop him. Defensively, he’s finding ways to maintain a more consistent level of intensity while balancing out the heavy offensive usage, a task not all NBA superstars are asked to do. There are even some seeds of a dominant post game being developed when he has a smaller player trying to guard him. All these developing characteristics have led to his teammates telling him in-game that it’s his time to take over, and he obliges.
Even with Edwards beginning to dip his toe into superstardom, his game has been far from perfect. His turnovers are still an issue, the ball can still get a little sticky in his hands on some offensive possessions, and his frustration with refs still occasionally takes him out of a play. Those mistakes are part of being a twenty-one year old still learning the game. The fact that he’s still a player committed to learning and has more ways to improve is one of the biggest reasons that this taste of a superstar is so tantalizing.
Edwards’ play, leadership and personality have earned him the title of the face of the franchise. This year and beyond, the Timberwolves will go as far as he can take them.
Jaden McDaniels First Semester Grade: 80% (B-)
Quarter 1 Grade: 73% (C)
Quarter 2 Grade: 87% (B+)
If Edwards’ development into being the face of the franchise is story number one, McDaniels’ evolution into a dynamic partner on the perimeter is the second biggest story for the franchise during these games. For everything that Ant is offensively for the team, Jaden is that on the defensive end.
Every game he continues to guard the team’s point of attack (and often best) player. Yup, the fouls are still an occasional issue, but like Edwards’ and turnovers, part of that is just going to come with an increased role. For maybe the first time in his career, McDaniels is even getting some love from national outlets as an all-defensive candidate.
Check out BBall Index’s graphic about the best defensive forwards in the league in regards to their ability to guard on-ball and navigate screens:
McDaniels may not be turning into the face of the franchise, but as a running mate next to Edwards, it’s hard to imagine a much better fit.
Karl-Anthony Towns First Semester Grade: Incomplete
Quarter 1 Grade: 73% (C)
Quarter 2 Grade: INC
Hard to give Towns anything other than an incomplete considering he’s missed more than half of the games this season. While Ant has established himself as the face and future of the franchise in his absence, this team’s ceiling is connected to what KAT does when he returns.
Here are the two key questions:
1. How will Towns react to being the second to last introduction at home games?
To be clear, I don’t have any inside information that this is happening, but everyone following this team knows that it’s time. With everything the 2015 No. 1 overall pick has gone through with this franchise, it is a big ask to have him step aside and become the 1b rather than the 1a. His whole life, he’s always been “the guy” - can he evolve his game to become one of the best second options in the league?
2. Can Towns and Gobert actually work on the floor together?
Ah yes, back to the same question we’ve been asking since the summer. Before the injury, Towns was the best player on the roster when it came to finding his fellow All-Star with a pass, but there were still a lot of kinks to work out to making the team function, especially defensively. Notably, the team’s defensive struggles didn’t all of the sudden disappear when Towns went down - they’ve gotten better with intentional effort from all five players on the floor. Could some of the early season spacing/rotation issues be solved with the team (and KAT) maintaining the same effort and intensity on his return, or does this version of the twin towers simply not work in today’s NBA?
Question one is about the Towns’ long-term future on the team, while question two is about the ceiling for the team now. In both cases, Towns has a lot to say about what happens next for this team.
Rudy Gobert First Semester Grade: 76% (C)
Quarter 1 Grade: 69% (D+)
Quarter 2 Grade: 81% (B-)
Gobert’s best games as a Timberwolf have come as part of the team’s recent four-game winning streak. Every one of the stats I’m tracking above is trending in the right direction as the team is finding its new identity. The four-time All-NBA selection is noticeably playing with more force on around both ends of the basket - in his own words, he’s been intentional about becoming more of a tone-setter.
Almost everyone one of my report cards for Gobert has ended with a “we need to see more” tone, and this is going to be the same. All of his notable stats have dropped off since his last year as a member of the Utah Jazz. There have been clear chemistry issues with the team struggling to find him on inside passes. The two players that he’s flashed the most offensive chemistry with (Kyle Anderson and Towns) have both missed games.
But, the last four games have seen at least two “RU-DY, RU-DY, RU-DY” chants at Target Center. If that is a sign of things to come, going through these early season chemistry struggles may yet pay dividends.
A “Fans Only Meeting”
Back to my New Year’s revelation. If this team and fanbase are mirroring each other and they needed a player’s only meeting to help call each other out on their sh*t, maybe it is time for us to call a fan’s only meeting.
We have more historical baggage than any other franchise when it comes to expecting a team to fall into sub-mediocrity. I would argue that since KG, not one of our star players has earned a superstar whistle (Ed Malloy!!), that teams have a strange habit of having their hot shooting nights against us (definitely has nothing to do with poor closing out or defensive rotations), and that if there is some kind of higher sports power, they love laughing about our misery.
It is time to let all of that go.
This is a new year.
Everything that has happened in the past to this team does not get to dictate what happens going forward.
Show up and respect your opponent, do the little things, and let the chips fall where they may.