Every team, every franchise goes through adversity at some point. You may make it through most of a season unscathed, or if you’re really lucky, maybe one full season. But eventually, everyones luck runs out, especially on the injury front. Things weren’t perfect for the 2021-22 Minnesota Timberwolves, but they did experience very good injury luck.
It’s difficult to find accurate, publicly available “games lost to injury” data, but needless to say the Wolves were fortunate that Anthony Edwards was available for 72 games last year and Karl-Anthony Tows played in 74. There were few extended absences from prominent role players as well. Edwards has been remarkably durable this year, but pretty much up-and-down the Wolves roster, key role players have missed somewhat significant time.
The point being, while last season’s team was “lucky” in the injury department, this Timberwolves team has not, and the impact of those injuries have been felt doubly.
(Editor’s note: the over/under on number of grafs before Mike referenced Vando and Beas was set at 6.5. Cash the under)
For one, the Wolves are just not as equipped to take an injury as they were a year ago. When people discuss the cost of the Rudy Gobert trade, most of the discussion centers around the draft compensation headed to the Utah Jazz. But another gamble President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly took was thinning out his team’s depth by sending out three rotation players (four counting Walker Kessler) for their new big man. That’s not meant to imply that it’s Gobert’s fault or anything like that. It’s just the reality of a trade which sends out five players for one, including three of the top seven in total minutes played.
The Wolves surely foresaw Jaylen Nowell taking many of the vacated Malik Beasley minutes, and understandably so. Nowell was outstanding last year in a limited role, and seemed ready for a bigger one. Things haven’t gone Nowell’s way this season, though, and he has also been battling a nagging knee injury of late. Similarly, the Wolves surely projected that Jordan McLaughlin would assume many of Patrick Beverley’s minutes in the back-court, as well as Taurean Prince earning a more concrete role.
Instead, J-Mac missed 37 games earlier this season due to calf and heel issues, while Prince missed another 24 games due to ankle and (primarily) shoulder issues, according to Spotrac.com. Injuries are not the players’ fault, it is just unfortunate that the players who had earned larger roles and were set to fill the vacated minutes from the Gobert trade underperformed and/or fell victim to nagging injury issues.
It hasn’t just been bad luck that’s drawn Minnesota to mediocrity, though. They’ve done plenty to place themselves there, independent of health. Injuries are not an excuse to be careless with the basketball, foul excessively, and overlook what could be seen as inferior opponents. Sure enough, the Wolves rank 27th in turnover rate, commit the second-most fouls in the Association, and have notably lost eight times to the five worst teams in the NBA (twice to the Charlotte Hornets, twice to the Detroit Pistons, twice to the San Antonio Spurs, once to the Orlando Magic, and once to the Houston Rockets). I rarely get too worked up over one loss, but in totality, those sting badly now, given how tight the standings are.
Despite all of that, the Wolves have managed to remain in the playoff race. They’re currently tied for ninth with the (gulp) Jazz, but are still just one game out of 6th place in the remarkably mediocre Western Conference. Of course, you can play the same game the opposite direction and point out that they’re only half of a game ahead of the 12th place New Orleans Pelicans.
In large part, that’s due to the leap Edwards and Jaden McDaniels have made with their offensive consistency, but it’s also because of the defense the team has played. Gobert started the season a bit slow, but has looked much more like himself since the turn of the New Year. The Wolves are 10th in the NBA in defense since Towns’ injury, with a near dead even point differential. In the context of missing an All-NBA caliber stretch 5, that’s a minor miracle.
With nine games remaining, it seems as if KAT and Edwards are set to return this week. There was not much evidence to suggest that the KAT/Rudy/Ant trio had developed any chemistry earlier in the season, but I actually think that could be explained more by the poor play of the guards than the awkward fit in the front court.
There is optimism that Minnesota Timberwolves stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards (ankle) could return as soon as Wednesday vs. Atlanta Hawks, sources tell @TheAthletic @Stadium. Towns, sidelined since Nov. 28 with Grade 3 calf strain, is on the cusp of a major return.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 21, 2023
It feels like ages ago, but the Wolves slow start to the season was largely due to uninspiring play from D’Angelo Russell and what seemed to be a ramp-up period for Edwards from a conditioning standpoint. We just never really got to see what this team would have looked like with an in-shape Ant and the version of Russell that blossomed for much of the season. More than anything else, that’s what could leave a bad taste in my mouth about this season.
With Ant in theory healthy and ready to go soon, and theoretically a better fit at point guard (or one that simply didn’t have it out for Gobert), maybe the clock hasn’t struck midnight for the Wolves. Would I bet on everything clicking right away? Absolutely not. Would I say there’s, I don’t know, a 20-25% chance Towns and Edwards are able to catapult the Wolves into the No. 6 spot in the West? Yes, yes I would. Even with so few games left, a three or four-game winning streak is generally enough to move up a spot or two, especially considering the Wolves tiebreaker situation.
Timberwolves tiebreakers as of 3/20— Leo S (@Y0Leo) March 20, 2023
✅ LAC (2-1)
✅ DAL (2-1)
⌛️ GSW (1-2) - 1 gm left + Conf record
✅ OKC (3-1)
✅ LAL (2-0) - 1 gm left
⌛️ UTA (2-2) - Div/Conf record
⌛️ NOLA (1-1) - 1 gm left
They're in good position if things stay tied up. Can secure ✅ for seeds 5 thru 12
While Towns seemingly is returning tonight, I think it’s a fair to assume he won’t play either of the remaining back-to-backs during this season. That would set him up to play in seven of the final nine games of the regular season. I’d expect some sort of adjustment period, but could this team win the final five games of the season? It’s certainly possible.
Trying to play the schedule game with this team has been a fool’s errand all year, but they do close with games against the Portland Trail Blazers, Brooklyn Nets, Spurs, and Pelicans. If there were ever a time for the Wolves to build some momentum and surge up the standings, that’s a golden opportunity to do so.
You don’t have to squint nearly as hard to see the fit now as you did early in the season, either. The Wolves now know what they have in Kyle Anderson, which is a winning basketball player who figures to find himself playing many crucial fourth quarter minutes. Anderson was dealing with back spasms for much of the time Towns was actually on the court this season, so having both of the forwards will be huge for Minnesota down the stretch.
They also have a point guard who is interested in actually playing point guard. For as awesome a fit as D’Angelo Russell was next to Anthony Edwards during the KAT injury, he has been pretty vocal throughout his time here that he just does not view himself as a point guard. Mike Conley is a steady hand throughout games but particularly in crunch time, as evidenced by his 24:3 assist to turnover ratio in the clutch this season, per nba.com/stats.
If the matchup calls for it, it’s also easy to see Conley handling it well if head coach Chris Finch opts to play a bigger, defense-oriented lineup that doesn’t include him down the stretch. This is not an original idea by any stretch, but I am fascinated by a potential Anderson-Edwards-McDaniels-Towns-Gobert lineup that could overwhelm teams with size, play-making, and length.
There are fit issues still to be worked out, namely how well Towns can defend in off-ball screening situations and whether this team will have enough foot speed to get back in transition. It’s easier to overcome those deficiencies when the rest of roster around the stars is filled with connectors who can amplify those guys.
Kyle Anderson has been magnificent filling in for KAT, but he should absolutely shine once able to play off of guys who create advantages for him that he just needs to maintain. Often times lately he’s been the primary ball-handler tasked with creating advantages for other guys from scratch, which he is capable of to a degree but pushes the limits of his skill-set. Finch once called Anderson the “connective tissue” of the team, and it should be much easier to be that when you aren’t also tasked with star-like ball-handling responsibilities.
In short, many of the same questions from earlier in the season remain, but the Wolves shouldn’t be attempting to overcome those issues with one hand tied behind their back like they were in November. With a backcourt that looks set to perform, their stars nearing something close to full health, and an amplifying piece like Anderson healthy, the Wolves are equipped as ever to make a late-season surge. Now, we wait to see whether they can gel fast enough to make the most of the roster, or if they’ll be left watching the NBA Draft Lottery hoping to avoid the doomsday scenario.