The Minnesota Timberwolves hold a 2-2 record through four games that have exhibited of a little bit of everything we’ve come to expect from the team ever since it phoned in the blockbuster Rudy Gobert trade.
Just to name a few things, the Wolves have:
1) played troublingly unorganized offense that becomes iso ball
3) put together alternating flashes of excellence on each end of the floor the team can’t quite simultaneously sync up
4) been declared by fans the winners of said Gobert trade
5) crushed the spirit of their fan base with a double-digit second half collapse
6) done nothing to step in and address Bally Sports’ utter incompetence as thousands of fans can’t watch games
7) re-instilled hope in the team’s potential with a great showing against the Denver Nuggets
We may not be new to the mystery box we open each time we walk into Target Center or sit down on the couch to watch the Timberwolves, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t find new new items when we open it.
So let’s analyze eight of them — four positives and four negatives — in no particular order.
Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley would certainly be included in my likes, but our Jared Martinson wrote a fantastic film room piece analyzing the duo’s dominance in the pick-and-roll game on Friday, so go get your fix over there!
Positive: Kyle Anderson As An Offensive Hub
President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly on Media Day called Kyle Anderson “a Godsend last year with all the injuries.” Through four games, Anderson is doing more of the same for a Wolves team now at full strength with the returns of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid.
Despite ranking fifth on the team in total minutes played he is tied for second in assists with Anthony Edwards (16), and also has more steals (six) than turnovers (5). Beyond that, Anderson has been a positive alongside each of the four most common two-man pairings he’ll be part of this season (+1.8 with Reid, +19.0 with Edwards, +15.7 with Towns, and +7.1 with Milton).
Where Slow-Mo has popped the most so far is as the team’s antidote to their zone offense issues that have plagued them since the Gobert trade. Zone will be a common response to Wolves lineups that have Anderson as the 3, especially those with Gobert at the 5. But Anderson’s combination of quick decision-making, passing touch, and an advanced understanding of how his teammates like to play makes him an ideal fit in the middle of the floor. This play is a great example:
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Even when plant Towns in the middle of the zone to collapse the defense, Anderson has remained impactful both as a ball mover and a scorer.
The Heat tried a zone defense for one stretch of the second quarter, but didn’t really get back to it because Anderson did such a good job of picking it apart; Slow-Mo scored four points and created seven more off of three assists in that quarter alone. Sure, it was one part of one game, but given how much teams are going to try a zone against the Wolves’ big lineups this season, having a clear blueprint for solving it is an important development.
“Kyle was Kyle. He got into the middle of the zone, made a ton of great plays finding people. With the ball in his hands you feel a sense of calm. He gets his hands on a lot of things, organizes us out there and he’s basically a point guard even if he’s not bringing the ball up,” Finch said after that win over Miami. “We want him to have the ball early and often. Really good game for Kyle. It was a key stretch where he was getting loose in the second half in the middle of the zone and came in and got us a few cheap buckets.”
Negative: The Timberwolves’ Shot Profile
Although the Wolves’ offense is certainly a work in progress, their process while figuring it out cannot be ignored.
(All numbers from Cleaning the Glass)
Minnesota is currently taking mid-range shots at the third-highest rate in the league (37.2% of all field goal attempts), while ranking 14th in mid-range accuracy (42.4% FG). That is up from 24th in the league in frequency (28.2%) and down from the 42.9% they shot on all middies last season — not great. Even more #notgreat when you consider that the Timberwolves are running less pick-and-rolls than they did last season and D’Angelo Russell is no longer on the roster.
The team’s growing propensity to take mid-rangers has come at the expense of the 3-point shot; Minnesota is 10th in the league in 3-point shooting percentage (38.1%) despite Towns shooting 5/21 from deep (23.8%), but are just 28th in frequency (30.7%). Last season, Minnesota was 11th in percentage (37.2%) and 14th in frequency (34.7%); it’s a key reason why the Wolves’ half-court offensive rating has dipped from 99.3 last season (13th) to 90.3 so far in 2023-24 (20th).
At The Rim
Meanwhile, the Timberwolves at-rim shot rate (32.1%, which ranks 19th) is down from 37.2%, which ranked fifth a season ago. Even worse, Minnesota is converting a ghastly 57.6% of their looks at the cup this season (29th in the NBA), down almost 11% from a season ago (68.4%, ninth).
The Wolves shooting far less often from deep and at the rim, and far worse at the rim, has nosedived the team’s expected effective field goal percentage from 56.1% (third) last season to 53.1% (22nd). As for their actual eFG%, that has fallen to 51.6% (23rd) from 56.3% a season ago (eighth).
While expected eFG% isn’t always going to match actual eFG%, it is still a good indicator of process. Shots at the rim and from beyond the arc are more efficient for a reason, and the Timberwolves are comprised of players who are, generally speaking, very good shooting at the rim and beyond the arc, so shooting more of those shots is both good analytically, but also in terms of doing what your players are best at.
Positive: Rebounding (Finally)
It felt like only a matter of time that the Timberwolves were going to become an elite rebounding team with Gobert and Towns, perennially two of the league’s most consistent rebounders throughout their careers.
So far this season, Minnesota is third in defensive rebound rate (76.4%) and eighth in offensive rebound rate (29.6%), good for sixth in overall rebound rate (53.1%). Last season, the Wolves were 26th in DREB% (70.3%), 26th in OREB% (25.8%) and 27th in overall rebound rate (48.5%).
And going even further, the Timberwolves hold a DREB% of 84.5% on above the break 3-point shots (second in the NBA), up from 75.74% in 2022 (25th).
Both Towns and Gobert have individual defensive rebound rates of 24% or higher, and Gobert’s offensive rebound rate of 12.9% ranks in the 92nd percentile among centers.
That is the good stuff, folks. Not only will the Timberwolves’ length be a useful tool in forcing tough shots, but it should help them in collecting contested rebounds, especially in lineups where the smallest player on the floor is one of Shake Milton or Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
Negative: Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s Early Struggles
After struggling to find his footing early in his first few NBA seasons after a promising college career at Virginia Tech, Alexander-Walker becoming one of the Wolves’ most valuable players down the stretch of the team’s playoff run was one of the best stories of last season. He parlayed that into an excellent showing for Team Canada at the FIBA World Cup, during which he shot 20/51 (39.2%) on catch-and-shoot 3s.
All of that had Timberwolves fans understandably excited for NAW to put together a big 2023-24 season. But so far, it hasn’t happened.
Alexander-Walker is just 3/14 (21.4%) from deep and 3/8 (37.5%) on 2s, and doesn’t look confident on that end of the floor thus far. As a result, defenses have sagged off him, which cratered the spacing with the starting unit in the first two games of the season.
Minnesota’s offense is scoring 14.3 less points per 100 possessions and allowing 15.3 more points per 100 possessions with NAW on the floor compared to with him off of it; that -29.5 mark is by far the lowest of the nine Timberwolves who have played rotation minutes so far this season.
There is obviously still plenty of time for him to turn it around. And frankly, Alexander-Walker deserves some grace during his transition from cult hero logging 30 minutes per game in the playoffs to rotation player logging mid-teens minutes off the bench. The great thing about NAW is that energy, attitude and effort are three things you never have to worry about with him, and his teammates love him for it. Despite his struggles, he has been in great spirits in the locker room before and after the team’s two home games, and there’s no question that his teammates have his back while he fights through the struggles.
Positive: Naz Reid As a Bucket-Getting Mercenary Off the Bench
As I wrote in my recap of the Wolves’ 106-90 win over the Heat last weekend, the physical transformation Reid underwent in order to be a 4/5 hybrid that finds great success no matter who he plays on the floor with is nothing short of incredible.
Beyond that, his quick decision-making and explosiveness have made him the ideal fit in Finch’s optimal read-and-react, off-script offensive system, which is very good at creating shots at the rim or from 3. So far this season, 56.7% of the Timberwolves’ shots come at the rim or beyond the arc with Reid on the bench, while those shots account for 65.4% of the shot profile with Reid on the floor. That 8.7% jump is by far the highest on the team of any rotation player on the team; Alexander-Walker is second at 2.8%.
That stat shows itself most in transition, where Reid has scored 17 of his 64 points and generally been a force so far this season. Whether he cuts off of drivers who get in too deep, trails the play to attack the rim with a head of steam, spaces to the corner for 3, or drains a patented Towns trailer triple, he seemingly always puts himself in position to score.
Another key value Reid provides is his ability to punish mismatches at a higher success rate than any other Wolves player. As our friend Dane Moore points out here, Reid has scored on all seven of his post-ups that have ended in a shot.
Anthony Edwards when talking about Naz Reid tonight said: “For some reason, it seems like when he posts up he's scoring every time now. I don't know if it's because he's been in the weight room but I'm liking it. I'm loving it, actually. “— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) November 2, 2023
Looked up Reid’s post ups on Synergy,… pic.twitter.com/5swRUQxusD
Whether Reid has shared the floor with Towns or Gobert or played the 5 himself, it hasn’t mattered. All he does is help the offense generate good looks, score, and infuse energy into the offense at important times, and it’s easy to see why Finch loves him. Given how well his transition to the 4 has gone, I’ll be curious to see if we get Reid at the 3 alongside both Towns and Gobert, because his foot speed hasn’t been a problem defensively and I’d try just about anything to keep him on the floor for more minutes moving forward.
Negative: Anthony Edwards’ 2-Point Shooting
Through four games, Edwards is shooting 23/55 (41.8%) on 2-point shots and an impressive 13/24 (54.2%) on 3-point shots.
Instead of shooting more 3s — a shot he is statistically better at converting (and worth more points!) — his mid-range shot rate has nearly doubled, going from 28% a season ago to 50% this season. That, of course, has come at the expense of both his 3-point shot rate, which has dropped from 34% last year to 28% this year, and his at-rim shot rate, which is down from 37% in 2022 to 22% in 2023.
It would be one thing if Ant is connecting on middies at a better clip, but he’s not. Edwards shot 165/449 (37%) last season and is 14/39 (36%) this season.
Overall, his aggression just hasn’t been there. Edwards is shooting one less free throw per game than last season and he is yet to draw a non-shooting foul so far, which he did plenty of last season. In addition to that, his finishing hasn’t been there, either. Edwards is shooting just 60% at the rim (24th percentile), and while 31.2% of Ant’s shooting fouls drawn were and-1s last season (75th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass) and he has yet to convert one yet this season.
So, what’s going wrong?
Shots like these have become a sizable portion of Edwards’ shot profile. He’s dribbling the air out of the ball, not even looking for his teammates as cutters or spot-up shooters, and not even really making any sort of move with the ball in his hands. Nikola Jokić isn’t going to stop him at the rim, and he bails out Zeke Nnaji instead of taking him to the rack.
And in transition, where Ant is usually a force to be reckoned with, he hasn’t been finishing with the same power and explosion we’re used to. Here, he slows down to take a weird floater while falling back instead of jumping into Nnaji’s chest. Last year, that take is an and-1; but right now, it’s a weird miss that results in a transition opportunity for the opponent going to the other way.
And then in the pick-and-roll game, Edwards is simply making decisions that leave a lot to be desired.
In this next clip, Ant receives a double drag screen from Slow-Mo and Gobert. First, he sets up way too high and takes a bad angle as a handler, so neither screen makes contact with his defender, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. As a result, KCP is still in the play trailing him. Edwards inexplicably hits the breaks, lets KCP get back into the play, and then takes a tough, contested step-back 2.
He either could’ve gone full speed into Jokić for a guaranteed foul or bucket (or both), or thrown a very easy little lob to Gobert since Jokić was in no man’s land. Instead, he does neither.
This isn’t to say it’s been all bad for Ant. He is averaging 25/6/4 on 45.6/54.2/88.2 shooting splits despite playing bad basketball for extended stretches so far, which is exactly why he’s one of the best players on the planet. But if he wants to be talked about as the best, one of the most feared, and a guy who puts the Wolves in the Western Conference Finals or NBA Finals discussions, this is some of the fat he’ll need to trim.
If his 2-point shooting/process looks more like it did against the Atlanta Hawks than versus the Nuggets, he’ll be in good shape.
Positive: Shot Contesting From Gobert and Towns
Outside of maybe rebounding, this has been the most eye-opening development of the Timberwolves season thus far: Both Gobert and Towns have been excellent shot contesters. Gobert is contesting 16.5 shots per game, allowing just 37.9% FG on those shots (second on the team behind McDaniels’ 31.6%), while Towns isn’t far behind at 14.5 contests per game and 44.8% shooting.
Broken down further, Towns has been elite as a rim defender (38% FG% allowed), while Gobert has been excellent contesting when switched out on the perimeter (26.1% FG% allowed) outside of 15 feet.
Rudy has regularly been making contests like this, forcing a Tyler Herro missed 3 that results in a triple for the Wolves on the other end:
There’s no question that Gobert is healthier than he’s ever been in a Timberwolves uniform, and it’s unlocking him to fly around to make shots difficult at the rim, in the mid-range and from beyond the arc.
With both players finding their groove defensively, the team’s defensive rating has thrived no matter who is at the 5.
KAT playing the 5 has proven to be just as effective defensively as Gobert at the 5.— Jared Martinson (@JaredMartyMN) November 2, 2023
Wolves defensive rating w/ KAT, no Gobert: 93.75
Wolves defensive rating w/ Gobert, no KAT: 94.68
While the defensive rating hasn’t been good with both on the floor (114.4, 36th percentile), they have been contesting without fouling (8.3% free throw rate ranks in the 100th percentile league-wide). Towns so far is down from 3.8 fouls per game last season to 2.3 this year. As a result, the team’s rotation hasn’t gotten out of whack and Finch has been able to tinker with different lineup combinations in a more controlled way, which is optimal for learning about this team as quickly as possible.
If Gobert and Towns continue to contest shots at the rate they have been and hold shooters to the percentage they have so far, the ceiling of Minnesota’s already stout half-court defense is only going to rise as Jaden McDaniels moves off of his minutes restriction and joins the mix at full go.
Negative: Transition Defense
The Wolves may have the league’s best half-court defense (84.7 defensive rating), but they only force teams into the half-court on 78.2% of their opponents’ possessions (19th in the NBA).
That is largely because Minnesota is currently allowing teams to push the pace off of live defensive rebounds at an astronomical rate. The Wolves are allowing their opponents to create transition opportunities on 40.2% of defensive rebounds, second-to-last in the NBA. Even though the Wolves’ defensive rating in transition (102.1) is second in the NBA because of plays like this...:
...they are still going to give up a ton of unnecessary points if nearly half of their missed shots rebounded by opponents (and even made shots!) are going to result in 5-on-4s or 4-on-3s, etc.
Plays like this next one happen far too frequently and make it difficult for Minnesota to turn tight games into healthy leads and healthy leads into blowouts:
The Wolves ‘maturing’ is really just trading complaining to the refs and bad crashes for getting back. Whether it’s Towns, Edwards, Gobert, whoever. Just get back.
Minnesota being a bad transition defense is a bug, not a feature of their big lineups. While yes, Timberwolves are prone to crashing the glass at the wrong times (when they have no chance of getting a rebound), this is another area where their bad shot profile hurts them.
If the Wolves turned more of their mid-range shots into 3s, they would be closer to getting back in transition and less likely to crash the offensive glass on misses, simply because they are further from the basket.
Transition defense isn’t that difficult. Hell, the Timberwolves have proven they can be a very good transition defense if they just get back. That’s why it’s the team’s most infuriating problem thus far.