In the preseason preview, I introduced the concept of this iteration of the Minnesota Timberwolves as a sequel team. The main cast from last year is back, betting on the idea that the team was only beginning to scratch the surface of their upside.
Eleven games into the season, that has been a good bet. It is too soon to make any grand proclamations about this team being a *gulp* contender, but I do feel comfortable saying this: In great sequels, the opening scene sets the tone for the whole movie.
The Dark Knight begins with the bank heist introducing the Joker.
The Empire Strikes Back – The Battle of Hoth.
Terminator II: Judgment Day opens with the future war.
The Timberwolves opening scenes have involved an 8-3 record, seven wins in a row for the first time in twenty-two years, put-the-league-on-notice victories over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors, the ascension of young and newly contracted stars, the return to form of a certain French big man, and, if this kind of thing is up your alley, ejections and chokeholds to boot.
The rousing first act of a movie doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s still a good sign. And a hell of a place to start.
Let’s get to the grades. A few 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 will alter or add statistical categories throughout the season as needed.
3. The season is divided into four quarters; 20 to 21-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: 93% (A)
Every single time the 36-year-old veteran touches the ball, it’s purposeful. Need to get the ball to a teammate who has been in an offensive rut? Check. Sensing momentum in the game beginning to slip and you need an easy bucket? Check. Take a moment to impart some wisdom to your 22-year-old All-Star teammate who is pressing too much? Check.
Hitting the final dagger shot in a game that could best be described as a glass case full of emotions? Check.
Wednesday night’s game against the Phoenix Suns had blaring “schedule loss” warning signs with a tired team in the midst of a five-game road trip. Outside of Towns, Minnesota Mike was the only starter to bring the same level of intensity and effort to the game, always setting the example for how to win in the league.
Conley is one of the best players in the league to have in your locker room, and as he keeps showing, still one of the most reliable point guards to have on the court.
Anthony Edwards: 84% (B)
Anthony Edwards is a big-moment hunter. He’s unafraid of anything and anyone, and when the lights shine the brightest, he soars. He has been adding a new element of playmaking to his offensive repertoire, highlighted by his game-winning pass to Conley in Tuesday’s 104-101 victory over the Warriors.
So why isn’t the team’s best player at an “A” level when the team has started 8-3? Two big reasons:
- Through the New Orleans Pelicans matchup he was easily there, but his last four games? He’s shooting 39% from the field, 27% from 3-point range, and overall a -20 in his time on the court (yes, the Phoenix game is the major culprit, but the -9 in Tuesday’s victory over Golden State jumps out too).
- He continues to struggle with inconsistent defense. His defensive field goal percentage lands in a zone that feels perfect for the eye test. When he is on-ball and locked in on a marquee matchup, he defends at an elite level. When he is off-ball, he is still prone to lackadaisical stretches where he loses sight of his man and gives up buckets. This isn’t to say he’s a bad defender this season, just when you average the locked-in moments with the lackadaisical ones, it’s coming out of the wash as “fine”.
There is no part of Edwards’ game that should ever settle for being “fine.” He’s too special of a player.
For the season as a whole, he’s playing at an All-Star level, but for this team to go where it can this year, just an “All-Star” isn’t going to be good enough.
Jaden McDaniels: 86% (B)
“He’s here! He’s there! He’s every-******-where!”
Maybe one day Target Center will borrow the “Roy Kent” chant from Ted Lasso, but for the time being, it’s one of the main things that goes through my head watching Jaden McDaniels play defense. With the ultimate backstop in Rudy Gobert being in the paint, this has allowed McDaniels to use his slinky-like length to fight around screens, contest shots, recover from pump fakes, get his hands into passing lanes and just generally, make the night of every best player on the opposing team a little bit longer.
And much like the fictional Roy Kent that struggled with being hot-headed, the fly-in-the-ointment of McDaniels’ season continues to be his frustration fouls. It’s only nine games for McDaniels, but this is easily his worst fouling rate of any season. Even without the ejection on Tuesday night, he would still be averaging under thirty minutes a game due to an inability to stay on the court.
The fire that McDaniels plays with is needed for the unglamorous job he’s being asked to do, but until it is channeled properly, there will be games where his lack of availability will cost the team.
Karl-Anthony Towns: 82% (B-)
Karl-Anthony Towns has been asked to sacrifice as much as any single player in the NBA over the past two seasons. Simultaneously, he’s been caught between the transitions of bringing in another All-NBA big, which has come with a position change, and the meteoric ascension of a new franchise player in a franchise where he has been “the guy” for nearly a decade.
More than anyone else in the starting lineup, KAT’s role is in flux as both he and the team are trying to figure out the best ways to utilize his offensive unicorn skill set. And offensively, that shows. Despite beginning to find some rhythm over the past five games (he’s been the Timberwolves best player over that stretch), his shooting numbers are down from his career averages (a 56.7%/33.8% true shooting and 3-point percentage are the worst of his career). To go with his subpar shooting, he still has his bouts of… let’s be generous and say “creative” outlet passes and offensive arm bars while driving that are affecting his turnover numbers.
But guess what raises his grade from a “C” range offensive start? His defense. Going back to the Denver series last year, Towns has been a good (maybe even very good?) defender going up against Nikola Jokić. He did it again in the team’s 110-89 win over the Nuggets on November 1. Defensive metrics are always really hard to gauge as they are so team-oriented, but here’s a few to sink your teeth into:
- He’s averaging 2.8 fouls per game, the lowest of his career.
- He has 0.8 defensive win shares through eleven games, setting him up for a pace of around 5.95 defensive win shares for the season, easily beating his previous best of 3.4 (As a point of reference, his offensive win shares are at 0.2, which if this trend held, would be the first time in his career he had more defensive win shares than offensive).
- His estimated advanced defensive rating would place him (and the rest of the Wolves starters) in the top 40 of the league when you filter by playing time.
The Timberwolves are defending at an elite level as a team, which is the rising tide affecting all boats, but Towns has been an asset on that end as much as anyone not named McDaniels or Gobert.
If he can maintain his defensive effectiveness with the pending return to form of his offense, the ceiling of this Timberwolves team will be raised.
Rudy Gobert: 95% (A)
If Edwards is the head of the team, Rudy Gobert is its spine. The identity of this Timberwolves team is defense, and that begins and ends with his presence in the middle of the floor.
Last season, my season-ending assessment for Gobert was: “He was very good, but the Timberwolves paid a trade price for great.” This season has been more than just a return to form for Gobert.
He’s averaging a career high in offensive rebounds and above his career averages in defensive and total rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, and minutes played. The stats, in this case, perfectly align with the eye test; this is the player that Utah Jazz fans gushed about. All the remarks that were made about all the little things he can do to help your team win has proven to be true - even the standout stats only tell a part of the story.
Rudy Gobert has been the best defensive player on the planet and the Timberwolves team identity all starts with the presence of the big Frenchman in the middle. He has been magnifique, and through eleven games, is my roles-based MVP.
Check back in a few days for the mid-quarter grade update for the bench unit.
It’s an ad-free mix of reaction, humor and basketball analysis from two best friends who don’t take themselves too seriously. Immediately after each game, we hop on the mics and give a post-game fan-reaction that includes key stats, game “awards,” and a brief look ahead to the next game. We’ll also be diving into the grading articles throughout the season to pull back and give some big picture thoughts, and presumably, for my co-host to mock me and tell all the ways I’m wrong.