You reap what you sow.
You make the bed you lie in.
The chickens come home to roost.
Across time and culture, idioms point to the reality that actions have consequences. For the Minnesota Timberwolves, their day of reckoning has arrived. All season long, the coaches, players and fans have lamented losses to sub .500 teams, specifically the combined 1-6 record against the San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets.
Banking even just two more wins against paltry teams would have this team nestled safely inside the lines of the play-in, but as it stands now, they are one loss away from falling out of the race entirely, a feat that would permanently pronounce this season as one of the most disappointing in franchise history.
Now they head into the final ten games with two hobbled superstars (TBD if Anthony Edwards plays tonight, and the ever present TBD on when Towns will be back) and an offense that simply is not good enough to win games consistently without them. Their early season foibles have left them without any wiggle room as they enter the final stretch of the season.
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. Fourth quarter grades will only involve stats accrued in the twenty games between February 24th and April 9th (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.
Mike Conley Fourth Quarter Check-In: 85% (B)
Conley has been doing exactly what has been asked of him. He’s a straw that stirs the offensive drink without needing a high usage. He’s been a plus defender with a knack for drawing offensive fouls on screen setters, and he is hitting open shots more often than not.
Conley is averaging 4.5 assists per game - a number that is a bit lower than D’Angelo Russell’s 6.2. However, Conley’s usage is substantially lower (22.8% to 15.7% respectively). Clearly he is tasked more with keeping the offense moving, rather than being a main initiator. That is a bet that the Wolves are hoping pays even more dividends when Towns is back in the lineup.
Anthony Edwards Fourth Quarter Check-In: 78% (C+)
The best way to sum up Edwards’ fourth quarter thus far is this: He has been good, but not good enough. The expectation for Ant is that he would step into the superstar role and single-handedly push this team to victory. The Wolves have needed him to play the last stretch of the season like an All-NBA player, and instead he’s probably been one step down from his All-Star level that we saw most of January and February.
Is this a fair expectation on a twenty-one year old? Absolutely not. Is the lower FTA made a bit more frustrating with the recent slew of referee performances? Sure. However, superstars in the NBA are a lot like life in Jurassic Park; they just find a way.
Jaden McDaniels Fourth Quarter Check-In: 88% (B+)
Buoyed by his lowest foul rate of the season, McDaniels has been staying on the floor more often, having his biggest scoring impact on the season with Edwards missing some time. While his season-long defensive impact number took a little hit this stretch if games, he’s been able to impact the game on both ends of the floor.
He’s earning what is becoming an increasingly large off-season contract. No matter what happens the rest of the season, he has proven himself to be the perfect running mate next to Anthony Edwards, a duo that will set this team up for success for years to come.
Kyle Anderson Fourth Quarter Check-In: 98% (A)
Taking roles out of consideration for the grades, you can make the argument that Kyle Anderson has been the best Timberwolves player over these last ten games. Between initiating offense, shooting effectively, and defending at an elite level, he has been a force on both ends of the floor.
While Anderson won’t probably won’t get looks for an All-Defensive team (he doesn’t have the same superstar matchups that McDaniels gets every night), his work on that end should get the same praise that Gobert and McDaniels does. According to defensive estimated plus/minus, he’s been the best Timberwolves defender and a top ten defender in the league.
He’s doing all of this while balancing offense initiation and being a top clutch performer for the team. Kyle Anderson is a championship-caliber player.
Rudy Gobert Fourth Quarter Check-In: 83% (B)
There are two sides to Gobert’s fourth quarter performance thus far. The good has outweighed the bad, but the one big point in the bad has unfortunately become the story of a couple of recent losses.
- Gobert is first on the team since the All-Star break in player impact estimate, both in regular minutes and in clutch time.
- He’s third overall on the team in net rating, trailing just behind Kyle Anderson and Anthony Edwards.
- According to defensive estimated plus/minus, he is still a top twenty-five defender in the league this year, second on the team behind Kyle Anderson
- His true shooting percentage has dropped a bit so far this quarter, led by poor free shooting: In the clutch, Gobert is shooting just 33%(!) on free throws, a noticeable element in a couple close losses this stretch of games
Gobert’s 58% free throw percentage for this quarter overall is keeping him from the full winning impact he is capable of. Like other things this article has lamented, turn his 0-2 trips to the line into even just 1-2, and we may be talking about two more wins.
It’s Time to Pay the Piper
It is a hard lesson to learn in sports, but every game matters. Having a few bad nights here or there is going to happen. But a string of lackadaisical losses peppered throughout the season against subpar opponents became part of the season-long DNA of this team. While the Wolves may have been improving in their efforts as they went along, they can’t get back those early games.
Maybe in December and January it felt like each game was just one game, but as we head into April, there is a moral to this story: The piper is here, and it’s time to pay.