In the third quarter of a school year, you have one job: survive. Unlike the initial excitement at the beginning of the year, the feeling in a classroom after Christmas break is more of a slog. You wake up before sunrise, get home at dusk and watch the classroom days bleed into each other. Your life feels like a ticking metronome, school, sleep, school, sleep. Back and forth, ticking through each week without variation.
This year in the western conference, the back-and-forth slugfest of teams competing for playoff spots has presented a reality where you can be the 4th seed one night, lose your next game, and find yourself in 8th. Besides the Phoenix Suns (7-3), the 2-12 teams in the West all have four to six wins in their last ten games. This congestion has made watching the standings feel like whiplash; elation and hope one night, followed by disappointment and dread the next.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have played sixty-one games, tied for most in the league with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers. They have been equal parts encouraging and frustrating, a maddening reality for fans. Their effort in games swings back and forth, a metronome; one moment they are dominant, the next they are tentative and lackadaisical.
One night they are beating the Dallas Mavericks on the road, the next they are blowing a twenty point lead at home to the Washington Wizards. Since January 28th, they have fallen into a pattern of alternating wins and losses.
A metronome is a marker of rhythm. Once set, it takes conscious effort to stop the pattern. The Timberwolves find themselves entering the 4th quarter of the season in a desperate position to stop these back and forth efforts; if not, the metronome that once set the rhythm of their play may turn out to be a doomsday clock, methodically counting down to the end of their once promising season.
Tick. Tick. Boom.
Onto the grades.
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) unless otherwise noted by an asterisk. As we get to the end of the season, I’ll be mixing in some season-long advanced metrics that better track defensive prowess and aren’t as much of a prisoner of the moment.
D’Angelo Russell 3rd Quarter Grade: 83% (B)
Mid-quarter Check-In: 90% (A-)
When I look at the above grades, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the D’Angelo Russell experience in Minnesota. Moments of incredible shooting that could single-handedly win games, an upper tier passing ability that was marred a bit by turnover issues, and finally, the big question as to whether or not the overall balance of Russell as a player led to winning. That final question lingers in an eternal battle between the D’Lo stans, the haters, and the rest of us who find ourselves somewhere between the two.
With the reports of Russell and Gobert’s behind-the-scenes struggles, another important element of Russell’s effect on team chemistry should be mentioned: Since the Karl-Anthony Towns injury, he was open to altering his role/usage to better fit Anthony Edwards’ development.
Russell is a twenty-six year old former All-Star; deferring to the up-and-coming Edwards improved the team. His willingness to defer on the court helped Anthony Edwards make the third year leap.
We’ll come back to Russell when we get to the end of the regular season and offer a final grade for his 2022-2023 performance as a member of the Wolves.
Mike Conley 3rd Quarter Grade: 75% (C)
Mid-quarter Check-In: NA
Of course, the ever necessary “way too small a sample size” refrain is needed here. For Conley’s stats, I actually went back and took the categories I had set aside for Russell during the first quarter of the season. Conley’s “A” season will look a lot like what Russell’s was meant to be (albeit with lower usage): Get everyone involved on offense with a special focus on the Gobert connection, make up for steps lost defensively with veteran moxy, and hit the open shots when the ball swings your way.
For a more in-depth look at Conley’s first couple of games with the Wolves, check out Jared Martinson’s film breakdown of Conley’s game against the Dallas Mavericks. It is clear that that Gobert connection is going to unlock things on the offensive side of the ball.
First things first: Time for Mike Conley to go get some sleep.
Anthony Edwards 3rd Quarter Grade: 90% (A-)
Mid-quarter Check-In: 95% (A)
Anthony Edwards is a twenty-one year old All-Star. He leads the league in minutes and steals, is seventh in total points, and is in the 94th percentile for estimated wins added. He’s doing all of this while still developing both his offensive and defensive skill sets. What more can you say about him?
The above A- is only based on the raised expectations of his grading system. He’s taken that next step, but for this team to go beyond round one of the playoffs, they need Edwards to continue building on what he has already accomplished.
If this is Edwards’ team, then their upcoming 4th quarter record will be a reflection of how high he can lift the team’s ceiling. Lead the team to a 12-9 record? They’re probably out of the play-in. Go 9-12 over the last twenty-one games? Now we’re in a scramble just to make the playoffs.
There is not much wiggle room. Let’s see what our All-Star can do.
Jaden McDaniels 3rd Quarter Grade: 87% (B)
Mid-quarter Check-In: 83% (B)
What more can be said about McDaniels right now? For all the steps Anthony Edwards is taking as the face of the franchise, McDaniels’ is walking in step as his running mate. Edwards is proving himself to be a generational offensive player, while McDaniels is flashing some generational defensive upside.
Defensive estimated plus/minus is the single defensive stat that I’ve been able to find that gives some context to who McDaniels is sharing the court with. He’s in the 92nd percentile of the league (right along with Gobert). The last check mark McDaniels’ will need to hit to close out an “A” level season is making an All-Defensive team.
If the Wolves are winning more than they are losing down the stretch, McDaniels defense is going to be a big part of it. The national noise he is already beginning to get will get louder, and then he’ll solidify his place on the 1st or 2nd team.
Kyle Anderson 3rd Quarter Grade: 95% (A)
Mid-quarter Check-In: 102% (A+)
Earlier in the season, I referred to Kyle Anderson as duct tape. Wherever there is any kind of leak on the team, he comes in, plugs it up and helps hold a lineup together. In KAT’s absence, he’s doing even more than that. He’s been one of the best players on the team defensively, he initiates the offense, and he is a veteran presence that helps the young players learn on the fly.
For players that qualify with minutes, Anderson ranks 19th in overall net rating in clutch time (when a game is within five points with five minutes remaining). He has turned the ball over just once during clutch situations, and has eleven assists.
Slo-Mo has been a huge part of running the offense in the clutch. Karl-Anthony Towns’ imminent return will shake up the lineup, but it’s hard to imagine even an earthquake knocking Anderson off the floor during the final minutes.
Rudy Gobert 3rd Quarter Grade: 84% (B)
Mid-quarter Check-In: 80% (B-)
Gobert’s on court impact has been slowly ticking up since the beginning of the season. It seems he’s been energized by the trade deadline deal that brought him a locker room ally, and the resulting games have led to some of his best efforts of the season.
However, like Anthony Edwards, Gobert is going to have a lot to prove as the team enters the last quarter of the season. Fair or not, the Wolves final win/loss record is going to be a reflection on him and the deal that brought him here. In terms of his legacy, he has as much on the line these last twenty-one games as any player in the NBA.
His third quarter numbers were good. His fourth quarter needs to be great.
*As for the lower rebounding numbers, I don’t think there is a need to sound any alarms. The numbers are skewed a bit by an early exit in which he played only five minutes against the Utah Jazz. As Gobert showed last night, he is still one of the top rebounders in the league.
Check back soon for bench grades and a look at the team as a whole!