The Empire Strikes Back. The Godfather Part II. The Dark Knight. Terminator II: Judgment Day. Paddington 2.
A good movie sequel picks up from the prior story, showing the next step of a character journey. A great movie sequel takes things to such a new level that it actually changes the perception of the movie that came before it.
Why all this talk about movie sequels?
Well, the 2023-24 Minnesota Timberwolves are a sequel team. The majority of the main cast is back, there was just enough promise in the original to set high expectations, and the studio (ownership in this case) has bet a lot of money on blockbuster-caliber success.
When sequels work, they take advantage of the character-establishing, world-building work that’s already happened. When they don’t work? Well, depending on the level of failure, it can set back a franchise for years, or in some cases, derail it entirely.
The wonderful thing about the preseason is that it gives the same feeling as seeing a trailer for a movie you are really excited about. These little glimpses of what the team will look like get us dreaming about what could be if everything came together.
Are this year’s Timberwolves more The Empire Strikes Back or Rise of Skywalker? Are they more The Dark Knight or Batman and Robin?
Nobody knows yet, but I cannot wait to watch and find out.
Let’s get to the grading curriculum.
For those that are new here, let’s give a couple brief reminders about how the grades work:
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 will alter or add statistical categories throughout the season as needed. Especially in a preseason article, the expectation is that some of these initial stats will change as we get to know the grades better.
3. The season is divided into four quarters; twenty to twenty-one game increments. There will be mid quarter, quarter, semester and final grades throughout the regular season (and presumably some playoffs). Did you miss last year? Here’s are the season end report cards for each position: PG, SG, SF, PF, C
Mike Conley Role: The Do-A-Little-Bit-Of-Everything Floor General
The Stats: Assist-to-Turnover Ratio, True Shooting Percentage, Pick-and-Roll Ball-Handler Points Per Possession (PPP)
The Why Behind Them: Choosing stats and ranges for Minnesota Mike started with this premise: If he comes anywhere close to repeating what he did for the team last year, that’s an “A” performance. All three of the stats listed above were at career highs last season - quite the accomplishment from the then 35-year-old veteran. Expecting the exact same type of effectiveness for Conley this season seems a little fool-hearted - players don’t generally peak in their 18th year in the league.
However, Conley is no ordinary veteran. He’s one of the best and most professional to ever play the position, and if there’s a human being who can prolong a bout with father time, it’s him.
To account for this, I lowered each of the ranges slightly from last season, but even with that, the “A” range would still hit on what would have been career-highs if you don’t count 2022-23. If Mike Conley is healthy and as effective as he was last season, the Timberwolves will win a lot of games.
Anthony Edwards Role: The Face Of The Franchise Tone Setter
The Stats: FG% From 0-5 Feet, Stocks Per Game and Clutch Player Impact Estimate
The Why Behind Them: Each of the ranges given on these stats for Anthony Edwards presumes a step up from his All-Star season and beginning to creep into the All-NBA conversation.
The reason for the FG% from 0-5 feet: Ant is not a bad finisher, but the 60.9% that he finished at last season is a middle-of-the-road number. Take a look at a few of the notable names that finished comfortably above him:
- De’Aaron Fox: 75.3%
- Luka Doncic: 71.2%
- Andrew Wiggins: 69.3%
- Jaylen Brown: 68.3%
- Jayson Tatum: 66%
All drives and finishes are not equal, but most of the best players in the league with similar usage were much more effective finishers around the basket. It’s a part of his game that needs to grow.
Secondly, Edwards needs to continue to make some noise on defense with splash plays. Yes, he also needs to keep growing as an off-ball defender, but since that is harder to quantify, I’ll be tracking more of the splash plays for him. We need more moments in games where he locks in just like he did for team USA this summer.
And lastly, the clutch player impact estimate is as much about the team as it is about Edwards. The Timberwolves had turnover issues (fifth in turnover rate) and shooting issues (21st in true shooting percentage) in the clutch last year. The saving grace that kept them in the middle of the pack in overall net rating in the clutch? Their defense, which ranked sixth in the league.
It’s clear that defense will be a huge part of the Timberwolves identity this year as well, but one way that Anthony Edwards can show his growth as a player is impacting winning on both ends down the stretch. Whether that’s scoring, passing, rebounding, or being a lockdown defender, his clutch PIE score will be a strong marker of his growth as a player.
Jaden McDaniels Role: The Defensive Perimeter Warden
The Stats: Fouls Per 36 Minutes, Rebounds Per Game, 3-Point Percentage
The Why Behind Them: The foul number is the low-hanging fruit for McDaniels stats, yet it is also central to his growth as a player. As McDaniels defensive reputation grows, he should get the benefit of the doubt more on the whistle.
Combine that with maturing past silly frustration fouls? This year could be a turning point for the foul discussion around his play.
Focusing on rebounding for McDaniels is based on two things: A near-seven-footer should not average under four rebounds a game (last year was 3.9) and with the development of Nickeil Alexander-Walker as a point of attack defender, McDaniels should find more scenarios in a game where he’s off ball and able to be a more to be an effective rebounder. The projected “A” range isn’t a monster leap by any means, but seems like a fair ask for a player to help strengthen a team weakness.
And finally, 3-point percentage. Jaden’s offensive game has evolved beyond being just a catch and shoot three point shooter, but it still will be one of the ways that his offensive impact will be most felt with the starters. He’ll get open looks with the gravity of the players around them and if he continues to shoot in the upper 30’s, he’ll make the day for the opposing defenses that much more difficult.
Karl-Anthony Towns: Role: The Offensive Unicorn
The Stats: 3-Point Attempts, Contested Shots, Turnover Ratio (TO’s Per 100 plays)
The Why Behind Them: Karl-Anthony Towns proved in the playoffs last year that he is more than just an offensive player, but that doesn’t alter his main role for this team: Make the potentially mismatched puzzle pieces fit together offensively by being the generational offensive talent that he is.
That starts with the first stat which is simply three point attempts. Towns’ career high in 3-point attempts (7.9) came in Ryan Saunders’ first full season as a head coach. This team is too talented for KAT to consistently hit that number throughout the season, but Towns’ spacing and effectiveness as an outside shooter are going to open up the rest of the offense for everyone, including himself.
The second stat, contested shots, was a little bit of a tricky choice. Towns’ role defensively may be just as varied as his offensive role. He’ll start games defending a lot of power forwards and needing to be a help defender and chaser. He’ll transition to guarding centers and needing to body up against big men. When he and Naz Reid share the floor, the team is going to switch more so he’ll have to be a capable perimeter defender. To cover all these roles, contested shots is the stat I’m settling on in the hope that KAT can effectively contest without fouling.
And finally, the turnover percentage. Turnovers haunted this whole team last season, but Towns was an interesting case. His actual turnovers per game were down, yet his turnover percentage was up. Long story short, he turned the ball over more often on the lower amount of offensive touches he received. In one of KAT’s best seasons where he was sharing high offensive usage with another all-star (the 2017-2018 year), his turnover ratio was at a career best of 9.3. That’s a high watermark, but one he has shown he is capable of.
Rudy Gobert Role: The Defensive Interior Anchor
The Stats: Opponent Field Goal Percentage at the Rim, Screen Assists, Blocks Per Game
The Why Behind Them: Go and be dominant at and around the rim.
At the start of last season, the Timberwolves tried some new ways to get Gobert involved in the offense, but by season’s end, it was clear that the best way to utilize Gobert’s All-NBA skillset wasn’t through creative touches in the post, but rather through optimizing the things he already excelled at in Utah: Guarding the rim, blocking shots and setting screens.
Both of Gobert’s blocks per game and screen assists were at career lows (outside of his rookie season). More fluidity is expected of his role defensively, meaning he’ll show more on screens - his block numbers will not match what he did in his best seasons in Utah. But, with another year of teammate experience, it seems fair to expect that he’ll bounce back from where he finished last year.
As for screens, Head Coach Chris Finch has stated that he plans on bringing in more structure to the offense, and with an excellent pick and roll ball handler in Conley here for the whole season, Gobert’s effectiveness as a screen should bounce back as well.
I’ll be back next week for a “part two” article to lay the foundation for the bench player grades. In the meanwhile, don’t be shy with feedback in the comment section down below. The whole Canis community was a big help for me last season in shaping roles, stats and ranges.
For a little bit more of the “why” behind the stats and roles, check out the Dunks After Dusk podcast on both Apple and Spotify. We devoted an episode to discussing these grades, as well as an episode filled with preseason game one overreactions including:
- Is Anthony Edwards’ starting spot in jeopardy?
- Is KAT immediately back in the All-NBA conversation after one preseason game?
- Should Rudy Gobert wear football gloves?
- Will Luka Garza set a league record in shots per minute?
- Is Mike Conley a future president of the United States?
For these hysterics (and yes, hopefully some actual, sober basketball analysis) check out the most recent episodes and hang out with us through the season.