“To become what one is, one must not have the faintest idea what one is.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Since the Rudy Gobert trade went down, players and fans alike have been trying to nail down the identity of this Minnesota Timberwolves team. All the off-season chatter was rightfully about making a big man lineup of Karl-Anthony Towns and Gobert fit. We even tried nicknames like “The Twin Cities Towers” or “The Target Centers” on for size.
Then Towns got sick and missed most of training camp, the team struggled early in the season to adjust to new roles, and with KAT getting injured, all predictions about what this team would become were out the window. A team that was already struggling with the pecking order would now have to reshuffle the deck again.
Two roller coaster months later, and the team is a game above .500, but has been one of the better teams in the league since 2023 began. Pieces of an identity are beginning to be developed as roles have shifted. Something is beginning to click into place; the Wolves current batch of starters have a net rating of 13.8, 83rd percentile in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass.
There is, of course, one last big part of this team’s identity to sort out (more on that later), but in the meanwhile, let’s take a look at how the Wolves’ starters have fared through the first twelve games of the third quarter of the season with a glimpse into each player’s developing team identity.
Three important reminders:
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. Third quarter grades will only involve stats accrued in the twenty games between January 11th and February 16th (the All-star break).
D’Angelo Russell Third Quarter Check-in: 90% (A-)
Developing Identity: The off-ball sharpshooter
It is getting harder and harder to quantify just how good of a shooter Russell has been for about 2/3rds of the season now. Since the new year, D’Lo would have the 3rd best True Shooting percentage in the league for guards that play at least twenty-five minutes.
Russell has been thriving in more of an off-ball role offensively. He’s at a career low in usage rate, but in this case, less usage has meant more for D’Lo. Even though his assist numbers are down, he’s still top forty in the league in potential assists and secondary assists (passing the ball to the player who gets an assist). In other words, he’s either shooting the ball efficiently or moving the ball effectively to his teammates.
Three weeks ago it seemed like we were heading for an inevitable trade deadline deal as contract talks with Russell had seemingly come to an end. Now? I’m not so sure. While you don’t want to lose him (and the salary slot) in the off-season for nothing, his play of late (specifically the complimentary role on offense) shows him to be a key part of this team’s identity.
An argument could be made that now is the perfect time to trade a player whose value is the highest its been all season (especially if there is little interest on his side in coming back), but it seems unlikely that you will get an asset that can match what he has brought to this team since the new year. We’ll know more soon!
*Two new stats I’m tracking for Russell this quarter to better fit his role: Assist-to-turnover ratio and net rating. AST/TO should be a better way to track his moving the ball with lower usage, while net rating is a way to show whether or not his play connects to winning.
Anthony Edwards Third Quarter Check-in: 95% (A)
Developing Identity: The Franchise Player
Anthony Edwards is the identity that the team is building around. Through these twelve games, Edwards is averaging 29.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists and has shooting splits of 49.2%/42.2%/82.5% on field goals, 3-pointers and free throws respectively.
To help keep track of how much Edwards can hang with the league’s best players, I’ll be tracking a new stat for him: Player-Impact Estimate (PIE). For the numbers above, I based it off last year’s top fifteen players in the NBA (All-NBA range). As a reference point, Towns finished last season with a 15.9 in PIE - en route to his All-NBA selection. Above a 16 in PIE… well, now we are talking about one of the league’s top fifteen players.
If he continues to play at this level for the rest of the season, and the Wolves keep stringing together wins, maybe the All-Star team debate is just the warm up for a bigger conversation.
Jaden McDaniels Third Quarter Check-in: 83% (B)
Developing Identity: The Perimeter Lockdown Defender with Offensive Upside
He is hitting all the benchmarks of a developing star. His offensive game continues to grow with efficient outside shooting and flashes an improved handle. Defensively, he is the team’s best perimeter defender, always being matched with the other team’s most effective scorer. As you can see from the stats above, his kryptonite continues to be foul trouble, though at least by my eye test, he is missing less big chunks of games and spreading the fouls out more judiciously.
For a more in-depth breakdown of just what Jaden has meant to the team defensively, check out Tyler Metcalf’s excellent film room breakdown of the work McDaniels has been putting in against elite point guards.
McDaniels will be in the mix for an all-defensive team come season’s end, something that was a part of my “A” season hypothesis.
Kyle Anderson Third Quarter Check-in: 102% (A+)
Developing Identity: The Do-It-All Glue Guy
Is Anderson the greatest free agency signing in Timberwolves history? For the role that he has been asked to play, Slow-Mo has been everything and more for this team.
For the season as a whole, Anderson ranks 8th in defensive estimated +/-, hanging out with names like Jaren Jackson Jr., Alex Caruso, and Draymond Green. He’s grabbing rebounds, dishing out assists, and even serving as an important initiator for the clutch-time offense. He continues to show the best passing chemistry with Gobert, something that is instrumental in making this group of starters click offensively.
Here’s a fun thought experiment: When Towns is back healthy, what will the closing lineup for the Timberwolves look like? For my money, I think Anderson has been too valuable of a piece for this team to keep him off the floor in crunch time, but does that mean you take a shooting threat like Russell off? What a good problem for this team to have.
Rudy Gobert Third Quarter Check-in: 80% (B-)
Developing Identity: The Defensive Anchor and Glass Cleaner
With all of this talk about identity, Gobert has been the elephant in the room. The trade that brought him here meant that his presence was going to shape whatever this team became, for better or for worse. The whole season players and coaches alike have talked about adjusting to playing with a big like Gobert, with Jaden McDaniels just recently confirming that parts of that defensive chemistry are beginning to click.
The eye-test and stats-test both are pointing to the same thing: The Utah Jazz version of Gobert has been showing up more and more in Minnesota. He’s been a presence at the rim on both sides of the ball, and even if his offensive rebounding numbers are still down a bit, he’s showing up in all the ways we had hoped he would back in the preseason.
Most importantly, his teammates are getting more comfortable playing alongside him and letting him dictate the defense. He feels like a part of the team, rather than an outsider. It always helps when you have a personality like Edwards to give you some love in front of the home fans.
*A side note about the rim FG%: Before the two-game Sacramento Kings series, Gobert was in the “A” range in that category. The combo of Domantas Sabonis, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk (the No. 2 offense in the league) attacking the rim did move that grade a ton. I’m giving a little grace in the overall grade as it didn’t feel right to move him out of the “B” range with his play of late.
One Final Piece of the Identity
The specter hanging over this improving team is Karl-Anthony Towns’ return. Beat writers close to the team have been consistent in predicting a post all-star game return, so that sets up Towns to return for the last quarter of the season.
Will he return as the white knight who comes in and elevates a team to contender status in the middle of a western conference slug fest?
Will his return mean a re-jumbling of identities leading to a team that struggles to adjust and ultimately falls short of their playoff push due to lack of chemistry?
Perhaps Nietzsche’s words can offer this important wisdom as we head towards the final stretch of the season: Finding one’s identity cannot be forced or coerced, it has to grow organically. Despite how far they have come, this team still has more to discover about itself; all we can do, as fans, is hope they do it in time to make the last part of the season something special.