One year ago today, the Minnesota Timberwolves sat at 31-28, 2.0 games clear of the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 7 spot in the NBA Western Conference.
Franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns was fresh off winning the 3-point contest in a historic fashion that both opened the eyes of players, coaches, and fans around the Association, and became a euphoric ‘I told you so’ moment for both Towns and Timberwolves fans alike.
While the actual proceedings of All-Star weekend may seem insignificant compared to the honor of being an All-Star, that moment legitimately changed how Towns was viewed league-wide and ignited a fire in him that fueled one of the most important stretches in recent Wolves franchise history.
Over the next month of games, Towns led Minnesota to an 11-2 record while averaging 26.9 points on 55.7/42.9/84.0 shooting splits, 10.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.0 stocks across 30.3 minutes per game. His performance culminated with a night for the ages, scoring a franchise-record 60 points and grabbing 17 rebounds in a 149-139 win over the San Antonio Spurs on March 14.
WE ALL WITNESSED . pic.twitter.com/3dFS7miXmO— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) March 15, 2022
Towns heard all the noise about him for years. Between the 3-point win, sustained excellence while holding an edge to him, and a record-setting performance in San Antonio, he erased almost all of it because he changed his tone. Towns expressed through his play and his demeanor a deep belief that no one could stop him — a feeling he hadn’t yet conveyed to that degree in his career. The best supporting cast of his career, an empowering coach, Patrick Beverley, and the pressure of leading a team through high stakes NBA basketball helped bring it out of him.
The result was not only great individual play, but winning team play, and it all fundamentally changed his trajectory on and off the court. He became a clear All-NBA candidate, which secured him a supermax contract extension this past offseason.
Minnesota surged to 42-30 on March 20 after that 11-2 stretch, including going 4-0 without Anthony Edwards (knee). That mark tied the Denver Nuggets for the No. 6 seed and widened their lead on the Clippers to from 2.0 to 6.5 games.
Not only was Towns’ performance important for himself and the team, but it also provided Edwards a clear first-hand example of what a superstar carrying his team in big moments looks like.
In February of last season — just one year ago — Edwards averaged 16.5 points on 37.8/25.3/66.1 shooting (including five games of less than 10 points), 3.5 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game in what was a volatile rollercoaster ride mired by nagging knee soreness.
Upon returning from injury on March 9 against OKC, Edwards put up 21.1 points on 47.5/39.7/86.5 shooting, 4.4 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.3 takeaways per contest over the final 16 games, which included seven games of 24 points or more and a career-high 49 points against the Spurs on April 7.
The Timberwolves didn’t play meaningful basketball in the first season and a half of Edwards’ career — something to be expected for a No. 1 pick. KAT cooked up the opportunity for A1 to get a taste of it; in no time, Ant was holding a clean plate serving himself seconds.
Edwards ascended from promising talent who didn’t possess the consistency stardom required to full blown star whose output rose to exceed the stakes of the high-pressure moments. He went toe-to-toe in a Play-In Game with an ultra-experienced superstar in Paul George and came out victorious, posting 30 points on 47.6/45.5/83.3 shooting in a Game 7 style atmosphere.
When he arrived in Minnesota, Beverley was billed as an important leader with playoff experience that could get more out of Towns, help instill winning habits in Edwards and work to build a winning, blue collar culture. He brought the dog out of KAT and showed Ant the power of unleashing Edwards’ most potent weapon: an endearing personality that can evolve a crowd from a passive collective to a tidal wave that destroys anything in its path.
And when the lights got brighter and tensions rose, Pat Bev took his status from a respected vet to a stamped city legend that will always be revered by Wolves faithful, largely because of how he complemented an emerging two-headed monster.
With the help of Towns and Beverley, Edwards’ March and early April was so transformative that the Wolves rolled into Memphis for Game 1 of the NBA Playoffs with two true co-stars, something no one seriously envisioned during the All-Star Break. To prove it, the pair combined for a whopping 65 points on 17/25 (56%) 2-point shooting, 6/16 (38%) from deep, 15 rebounds, nine assists and five turnovers in a 13-point upset win over the Grizzlies.
While Minnesota ultimately fell short in the series, the punch Towns and Edwards packed was intoxicating. They emerged from fun underdog story into a respected force to be reckoned with that illuminated an extremely bright path forward for the Timberwolves franchise. The moments they created restored faith in a fan base raised on the emanating despair of the worst franchise in modern American sports history. You’re probably smiling reading this, feeling that experience Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, Patrick Beverley and D’Angelo Russell created.
But most importantly, they completely reshaped the trajectory of the Timberwolves franchise and the makeup of the team’s foundation.
So much so that incoming owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez built upon it by poaching President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly from the Nuggets and immediately made a splash by trading for three-time All-Star Rudy Gobert to redefine what this team was supposed to be capable of in a Western Conference set to reload in a major way this season.
The Wolves will emerge from the All-Star Break tonight with a 31-30 record, in possession of the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. While they are 3.0 games back of the No. 3 seed Sacramento Kings and 6.0 behind the No. 2 seed Grizz, they are only 3.0 games clear of the Los Angeles Lakers, who are 13th in the West, so the stakes are markedly higher than last season.
This time around, Edwards is the one emerging from the break an All-Star — averaging nearly 25 points, six rebounds and five assists per game — and Towns is the one waiting in the wings.
Edwards thankfully has another star to pair with him and a table-setting point guard that can control the game — a luxury Towns didn’t enjoy last season. However, the third-year force of nature will continue to carry one of the heaviest loads in the entire league until Towns returns, and is firmly in control of his team’s destiny — something the Timberwolves themselves didn’t foresee when they swung for Gobert, a move that maximized KAT’s prime.
The Gobert acquisition was aimed at shoring up Towns’ weaknesses so that KAT could be the best version of himself: as the centerpiece leading a team deep into the playoffs. Undoutedbly, a key byproduct of the move was to secure Edwards and Jaden McDaniels significant playoff experience on an annual basis.
Instead of Edwards and McDaniels rounding out the edges, Edwards’ Herculean effort on a night-in, night-out basis and McDaniels’ evolution into a lock for an All-Defense team with a budding offensive game has kept the team afloat without Towns. All while Gobert, drowning in an effort to fit in, has clutched to a life ring thrown by Kyle Anderson, who continues to reel him back into the boat.
Now that Gobert is getting up to speed, especially now with a point guard he’s comfortable with in Mike Conley, it is time for Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch and his staff to put their best work on display.
Currently, the Wolves are viewed as the team that overpaid for Gobert, and also has Anthony Edwards. Despite that, the reality remains that this team has the opportunity to coalesce and become a perennial Western Conference power that carries the weight and expectations that the Nuggets, Clippers or Phoenix Suns do — something short of the dynastic Golden Warriors.
If Minnesota truly wants to become synonymous with the playoffs through Towns’ prime and as Edwards and McDaniels rise into theirs, the next step comes over the final six weeks of the regular season: securing a playoff spot without going through the Play-In Tournament.
Finch and Co. have done an admirable job adjusting things on the fly without Towns, but reintegrating him and ensuring this team is greater than or equal to the sum of its parts is essential. Yes, Towns has missed more than half the season, but that doesn’t mean the final 21 games — especially the ones they get with KAT — are exempt from a brutally honest evaluation of what this team can be this season and beyond.
If Finch tactically wins games by boldly disrupting the status quo in key moments without fear of bruising egos (examples such as sitting Gobert in five-out situations, playing offense/defense with Towns, or correctly closing a game that calls for Jordan McLaughlin), not only will he earn the respect of his team, but he’ll get this team where it needs to go. This team’s collection of talent is too versatile and too deep to not fully utilize it based on game script, situations and player performance on a given night.
As our Mike O’Hagan wrote earlier this month, humility will go a long way in determining where the Timberwolves finish this spring. There can be no egos — from Edwards, Towns and Gobert on down — if the Wolves want to not only make the playoffs, but get out of the first round and make some noise.
Minnesota needs to win a playoff series this season for it to be deemed a success. Edwards’ blazing leap has been too promising to burn out in the first round. A franchise cannot trade five picks, an All-Rookie First Team caliber player and three key role players for another supermax player and regress or remain the same. Injuries or not, it is unacceptable. There is plenty of talent for the Wolves to make it happen.
In good ways and bad, the 2022-23 Minnesota Timberwolves have proven us wrong all year long. Now, they have to realize they can prove the rest of the league wrong, too. Just as it was last season, their destiny is there for the taking. But this time around, they are more talented, more experienced, and more capable of turning beliefs into reality.
Can Anthony Edwards become a superstar? Will Karl-Anthony Towns prove his injury is behind him and his dominance can translate to the postseason. Might Rudy Gobert combine with Towns to play other teams’ small lineups off the floor? Can Chris Finch replace memories of his team’s disastrous late-game choke jobs with clutch-time brilliance? Is it safe for Timberwolves fans to jump head first into believing this is the team that breaks through and win a playoff series?
The Wolves will have 21 games to answer those questions. The clock starts now.