The reason I love watching sports is the element of story. If you look at the draft coverage of most major networks -they generally offer a brief snippet of the player’s acumen on the field followed by a five-minute piece about the player’s personal life; who they are, where they came from, and if there is any sense of an obstacle they had to overcome or a tragedy in their past, you might find yourself welling up as you listen.
Players and fans alike love stories. It can give the whole season a sense of grandeur that goes beyond grown-ups dressing in the same colored clothes and putting a ball into a hoop.
All season long, everyone has been trying to find the story of this Minnesota Timberwolves team. This season has been a roller coaster. Stretches where the team looks put-together will lead to bottoming out, followed by promises that they will figure it out. Here is a great season summation from Wolves radio play-by-play announcer Alan Horton:
You have the above highs and lows of a season, and then game eighty-two happens. Two different players threw punches that will have a long-lasting impact on the franchise. Those punches reveal a story many of us didn’t want to see: The 2022-2023 Minnesota Timberwolves are an immature team that wasn’t ready to take the next step into contention with the NBA’s elite.
And you know what? That’s a bummer of a story. If you’ve been a fan of this franchise for a long time, you’d be forgiven for having a sense of deja vu thinking that you’ve seen this before. This is not a story to stand in line on opening night for. In fact, this isn’t even a story to watch on a streaming service or DVD. Without knowing it, JaVale McGee may have given a perfect quote to sum up the feeling of watching this team when talking about his own in-game story:
There you have it. The 2022-2023 Minnesota Timberwolves regular season; the straight-to-DVD-release full of convoluted plot lines and immature performances from a talented cast that never could find the right chemistry.
The season may not be over yet (more on that at the end), but first, let’s get to 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 have altered or added statistical categories throughout the season as player roles have evolved.
3. Second semester grades will only involve stats accrued in the second half of the season, the games between January 11th and April 9th unless otherwise noted by an asterisk - the estimated plus/minus* numbers are season-long.
Mike Conley Second Semester Grade: 90% (A-)
Quarter 3 Grade: 75% (C)
Quarter 4 Grade: 94% (A)
Mike Conley’s third quarter statistics came from a three game sample size, so all of the heavy lifting for his semester stats was done in the fourth quarter of the season. Over the final twenty-one games of the season, Conley has proven to be one of (if not the most) reliable players both on and off the court. In fact, Mike Conley would rank in the 91st percentile in Estimated Plus-Minus, placing him as still being a top fifty player in the league.
“Minnesota Mike” stands out even more as this team struggles with immaturity. He is a player you want around for years to come to teach younger players how to interact with the officials, respect the game, and play team-first basketball. Best of all? Even at thirty-five years old, he has proven that his winning impact isn’t just talk, it’s still action.
With whatever may still be left in the tank for Mike Conley going forward, it feels fortunate for the franchise and this fanbase that we get to be a small part of his storied career.
Anthony Edwards Second Semester Grade: 83% (B)
Quarter 3 Grade: 90% (A-)
Quarter 4 Grade: 77% (C)
Anthony Edwards deserves his flowers for the third year leap he made. In terms of his numbers for the latter portion of the season, he had a clear stretch of games where he was either hampered by sickness, an injured ankle, or both.
The dip in numbers does coincide a little with the return of Karl-Anthony Towns, but this correlation might not be causation. One of the biggest questions left to be answered for this team in the play-in and potential postseason series is how Edwards and Towns can operate as the team’s 1a and 1b offensive options.
With McDaniels out for the rest of the season, Edwards may become more of the 1b option offensively because he is going to be needed as the 1a option on the defensive perimeter. His performance when matched up with Brandon Ingram in the second half of Sunday’s game was special - he was a defensive force willing the team to victory.
We need that force tonight for the Wolves to have any chance to win. The final piece of the Wolves’ story is going to be in his hands.
Jaden McDaniels Second Semester Grade: 89% (B+)
Quarter 3 Grade: 87% (B)
Quarter 4 Grade: 90% (A-)
*Sigh* What Jaden did on game eighty-two ultimately is going to have no effect on his regular season numbers/grade, but it was most likely a knockout punch for this team’s already slim chances of making any kind of postseason noise.
We’ll get to Rudy Gobert later on, but there is a key difference between how the two punches were thrown Sunday afternoon: McDaniels is just twenty-two years old and took out his frustration on a locker—and Gobert is thirty years old and took out his frustration on a teammate. McDaniels action, while immature, could just be a young player making a mistake and getting a chance to learn and grow from it.
Like Naz Reid, McDaniels’ 2022-2023 story is over. His next story will most likely begin with a huge off-season contract, raised expectations for his on-court performance and raised expectations for his growth as a player. A moment like Sunday’s is easy to forgive for an up-and-coming late round draft pick that has surpassed all expectations - it would not be so easy to forgive for someone who is deemed to be (and paid like) a core part of this team going forward. May Sunday be a learning experience that helps McDaniels channel that frustration in the right direction.
Kyle Anderson Second Semester Grade: 96% (A)
Quarter 3 Grade: 95% (A)
Quarter 4 Grade: 97% (A)
If we were handing out team awards for this season, Kyle Anderson would get my vote for team MVP. He isn’t the best player on the team; but he’s been the most valuable in terms of making all of these disparate pieces fit together. Kyle Anderson can play in any lineup and make that lineup better both offensively and defensively.
He finishes the season as the team’s best defensive player according to defensive estimated plus/minus (narrowly edging out Rudy Gobert and McDaniels) and third on the team for estimated wins added (behind Edwards and McDaniels) - a stat that takes into account minutes played. The Timberwolves are not even in the play-in tournament without his presence on the court this season.
Shout out to Chris Hine from the Star Tribune for his timely story on Kyle Anderson’s leadership, including a now infamous quote from Gobert about responding to Anderson’s leadership style. Without knowing the full details of what exactly happened (including how physically limited Gobert was from dealing with back spasms), the story adds some really helpful context to Anderson’s brand of leadership and is a must-read for Timberwolves fans to get a little glimpse behind the scenes.
Karl-Anthony Towns Second Semester Grade: 78% (C+)
Quarter 3 Grade: NA
Quarter 4 Grade: 78% (C+)
Karl-Anthony Towns played only four more games than Bryn Forbes in a Timberwolves uniform this season. Since returning from injury, the number of games reflected in the stats above is eight. About half of these games he was on a pseudo minutes restriction - there really isn’t a statistically fair way to sum up his performance on the court because these games have all been about trying to mix in with the team and return to form.
Since the debacle that was the Portland Trail Blazers game (may we never speak about it again), Towns has been flashing the skills that make him such a special player. Here are his numbers over the last three games:
24.7 points per game, 10 rebounds per game, and 5 assists per game.
There is only one player in the league that has averaged those numbers throughout the season, and that is Giannis Antetokounmpo. Now of course, three games are an incredibly small sample size, but with a team desperate for some optimism heading into the postseason, a Karl-Anthony Towns who looks more like the All-NBA version of himself is something to grasp onto.
Rudy Gobert Second Semester Grade: 77% (C)
Quarter 3 Grade: 72% (C-)
Quarter 4 Grade: 83% (B)
It has been hard to quantify Gobert’s effect on the court this season. With game eighty-two now in the rear-view mirror, the sobering reality for him is this: The lasting image of his first season in Minnesota is now him punching a teammate in a must-win game and subsequently getting suspended for the first game of the postseason. It is embarrassing for him, the franchise, and the fans who have been showing up for this team.
On the court, my assessment of the numbers are this: Rudy Gobert has been a good defensive anchor this year, but the team paid a price for great. He’s still an upper echelon defender (92nd percentile by defensive estimated plus/minus), and rebounder (97th percentile in defensive rebounding percentage, 93rd in offensive rebounding percentage). The problem is in the hefty expectations he shouldered to be a top five defender, not top thirty.
The price that this team paid to get him is not Gobert’s fault, but it is still connected to his season. Should he continue to be part of this franchise going forward (a long off-season lay ahead to have those conversations), it will be good for everyone to hit the reset button and distance Gobert from the expensive trade and the inflated expectations.
He may not be the All-NBA defensive anchor of previous years, but he can still be a winning player. Maybe he even comes back completely re-engaged following a new low point in his career. That part of his story is for Gobert to write.
A Post-Credits Scene
Movie lovers are very familiar with post-credit scenes by now. They’re something to whet your appetite for releases coming down the road; a studio’s plea to stick around because there’s more story to tell.
Even though I called the Minnesota Timberwolves 2022-2023 regular season a disappointing straight-to-DVD release, I know the movie isn’t quite over. Would any kind of extended postseason run make sense from what we’ve seen this season? Of course not. But maybe that is the benefit of slapdash storytelling; the plot doesn’t have to make sense.
During game eighty-two, the Timberwolves’ two franchise centerpieces refused to let the team lose. Anthony Edwards in particular gave a career-defining performance on the defensive end.
The Timberwolves will have no reasonable expectation to win tonight, but that could be a breath of fresh air for a team that has been drowning in the weight of expectations all season. Maybe tonight offers a flash of the much more carefree team of last year. Rather than attempting to make all the pieces fit, what if they play a fast, loose and ultimately more joyful brand of basketball?
Maybe we are even lucky enough to get a metaphorical instance of the famed Marvel post-credit where one of our team’s superstars grabs the Infinity Gauntlet and says, “Fine. I’ll do it myself.”
In sports, there is always more story to tell. That’s why we all keep watching.