After a disappointing season last year, in which seemingly everything that could go wrong did, the Minnesota Timberwolves will look to rebound this year with a much more stable season that will hopefully culminate in the franchise’s first playoff series victory since 2004.
A healthier season from Karl-Anthony Towns, Mike Conley at point guard for the entire season, improved synergy with Rudy Gobert, and continued improvement from Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels are all reasons to be optimistic about the Wolves this upcoming season.
The Wolves have as much talent and depth as almost any team in the Western Conference, so they have the potential to be a very successful team, especially in the regular season. While they may not have an optimal roster for the playoffs, as a regular season team, the Timberwolves have a roster that can win a ton of games.
The question is, if everything comes together perfectly, and Minnesota was able to finish atop the Western Conference standings, what would that team look like?
The answer to this question is pretty simple to me, it would look like the 2020-21 Utah Jazz.
The 2020-21 Jazz earned the top seed in the Western Conference with a record of 52-20 (COVID-19 shortened season), a 59-win pace in an 82-game season. They had the NBA’s best net rating with the fourth-highest offensive rating and the third-best defensive rating.
While it may be a stretch to think the Wolves could replicate those numbers, the two teams have a lot of similar pieces that may make the Jazz of three years ago the blueprint for the Timberwolves success next season.
Both teams have very similar starting lineups, especially the point guard and center positions. Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert were both on the 2020-21 Utah Jazz team that finished first in the Western Conference and will look to replicate that success in Minnesota this season.
Anthony Edwards and Donovan Mitchell are two very similar players at similar points in their careers. In 2020-21, Mitchell was in his fourth season, had made one All-Star team, and averaged 24 points per game the year prior. Ant is also coming into his fourth season as a one-time All-Star who averaged just over 24 points per game last year.
Jaden McDaniels and Royce O’Neal are similar types of players who play great defense and space the floor with their shooting. Although that may sell McDaniels a bit short, as he is probably a better player than O’Neal, they both play similar roles for their respective teams.
While the last starting spot is a little bit less similar than the other spots, both teams’ power forwards do have some similarities. Karl-Anthony Towns and Bojan Bogdanović are both fantastic shooters who can give you some secondary playmaking and are a bit slow on their feet, at least compared to power forwards.
While the Wolves will certainly look to Towns to shoulder some of the offensive burden, this season Towns will most likely become a secondary offensive creator behind Ant similar to the role of Bogdanović and Mitchell.
The Wolves seem to have just as much talent if not more than the 2020-21 Utah Jazz, especially on defense where Ant and Jaden are much better defenders than their Utah counterparts. What the Jazz had, which the Wolves are still trying to find, is chemistry on both sides of the floor, something that talent alone can’t make up for.
In a world where the Wolves end up on top of the Western Conference standings next season, they will need to find some of that chemistry together while being able to showcase Edwards’ and McDaniels’ extra defensive talent.
The bench players are where the similarities between these two teams begin to diverge. Utah’s bench of Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles, Georges Niang, and Derrick Favors provided them with a lot of shooting and scoring to support their starting lineup. The continuity with this group was also off the charts, as many of them had played together for multiple seasons.
The Wolves bench of Naz Reid, Kyle Anderson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Shake Milton provides a lot more playmaking and defense compared to the Utah bench. The Wolves also have a deep bench of helpful players that can all provide value including Jordan McLaughlin, Troy Brown Jr., and Luka Garza.
Just on pure talent alone, this Wolves bench is just as good, if not better than Utah’s. The big difference is that the Jazz’s bench had the chemistry with each other and the 3-point shooting to be able to effectively space the floor around Rudy Gobert.
If the Wolves are to skyrocket to the No. 1 seed season, they will not only need their bench to coalesce with each other and the starters, but they will likely need a player or two to shoot the lights out better than they have previously in their career.
Needed Areas of Improvement
If the Wolves want to replicate what the Jazz did in 2020-21, many areas will need to be improved from last season.
A couple of areas of low-hanging fruit that the Timberwolves can improve on are rebounding and transition defense. Minnesota struggled greatly in both of these areas last season. To excel in transition defense and rebounding requires a lot of effort and focus, something the Wolves, at times, lacked.
While the Wolves may never be a good transition team, given they play two centers most of the time, they can still make great improvement. If they show more effort to getting back on defense and focus more on matching up with the right player, so guards don’t end up guarding centers, or vice versa, they should see improvement there.
As for rebounding, given the Wolves play two bigs, and have size elsewhere too, there isn’t an excuse for being such a bad rebounding team. Last season, Minnesota ranked 27th in rebounding percentage. If the Timberwolves want to improve next season, they will need to rebound much better.
The next big area that will need improvement is offensive efficiency. The Wolves ranked 23rd in offensive rating last season, a far cry from their 7th-place ranking the year prior. Getting Towns back healthy should help, but they will also need to show improved offensive chemistry with Gobert on the floor.
A higher volume of pick-and-rolls may be an option to improve the offense as that is where Gobert excelled in Utah during the 2020-21 season. Conley and Gobert especially were a great pick-and-roll pairing.
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The Jazz were also able to run effective pick-and-rolls without Gobert involved in the initial action. In the play below, Mitchell and O’Neal run the play with Gobert under the rim.
It is certainly easy to imagine Ant and Jaden running the play above in the roles of Mitchell and O’Neal. Running pick-and-rolls not just with Gobert as the screener, but also with him off the ball and under the rim could be very effective for the Timberwolves, especially with how long and skilled enough their playmakers are to make advanced dump-off passes in the paint.
The Wolves did start to do this down the stretch of the season as you can see in the play below. Gobert slips out of a screen of Conley’s man to set an off-ball screen for Towns, who finds him for the lob.
Using Rudy as the screener on the ball is probably the simplest way to produce efficient offense with him. He is a fantastic roll man but has also shown the ability to make a great pass when it is there.
Finally, for the Wolves to have their best possible season, they just flatly need certain guys to play better. Gobert specifically needs to have a more consistent (and healthier) season. He was great in the second half of the season, but in the first half, he looked far from the player that won Defensive Player of the Year three times in Utah.
Towns and Edwards also started last year slow with KAT getting severely ill during training camp and Ant not being in top physical shape. The Timberwolves will need those guys, and the rest of the roster to be ready to go by game one if they want to sit atop the Western Conference.