clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Lessons Learned From a Trying Timberwolves Season

What did we learn along this rollercoaster ride?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Man, what a freaking year.

The Minnesota Timberwolves came into the 2022-23 season with aspirations of a 50-win season and a legitimate playoff run, and then proceeded to take the rockiest possible path to a 42-win campaign and a five game stay in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

It began with an infuriating display of disinterest and disrespect towards less-talented opponents, opening the year 4-3 against a schedule that featured one playoff team, the Lakers, who started the season 2-10 in their own right. The lack of effort eventually got so bad that we set up a pledge to donate to Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity for every charge the team took.

Shortly after the team found the requisite desire to play semi-meaningful basketball, Karl-Anthony Towns was lost for more than 50-games due to a severe calf strain. From that point forward, the two bigs experiment with KAT and Rudy Gobert playing together was more-or-less sunk for this season. You may or may not think there was a large enough sample size to make a determination on that fit, and I’ll argue that we did see enough, but that alignment was never going to peak this year.

For a long time, I thought this was just going to be a completely lost season, but the reality is that in the midst of the madness, we learned a lot about the players, the coaching staff, and the front office. While Minnesota fell well short of their goals this season, they can take what they saw this season and apply it moving forward to ensure that next season is not also a disappointment. Better injury luck would help, but there are tangible ways to learn from this year and make next year better.

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Leaps From the Young Guys

Anthony Edwards: Superstar

What a year for Anthony Edwards. By his own admission, Edwards came into camp a bit out of shape, but once he played his way back into form, he went on an absolute tear. As the Wolves leaned more into Point Ant, he took off and never looked back. For a while, he was a nightly triple-double threat. Edwards really was doing everything for the Timberwolves from December through the All-Star break, regardless of who was available around him.

He took pride in playing through injury this year and being available for his team, but it did seem to wear him down towards the end of the regular season. Only Mikal Bridges played more total minutes than Edwards this season and, given Towns’ injury, Ant shouldered a remarkable amount of responsibility for the majority of those minutes.

Still, Edwards made his first All-Star team and set per-game career-highs in points (24.6), FG% (45.9%), 3-point shooting (36.9%), rebounds (5.8), assists (4.4), steals (1.6), and blocks (0.7). The only notable area Ant did not set a career-high in was his 2-point shooting, but he increased his two-point attempt rate to 62.5%. The next step for the Atlanta native is improving his efficiency and touch on 2-point shots outside the restricted area.

While it was an impressive regular season for the young star, this season was worth all of the pain just to see him shine once again in a playoff setting. A year after averaging 25.2 points per game on 60.4% true-shooting (TS) as a 20-year old, Edwards put up a 31.6/5.0/5.2/1.8/2.0 line on 60.4% TS as a 21-year old.

A skeptic could point out that it’s only an 11-game sample, but the playoffs are by nature about small samples. You don’t get the benefit of waiting for trends or variance to correct like you would in the regular season.

Ant will have a poor playoff series at some point in his career just like every player does, but as Head Coach Chris Finch stated in his exit interview, it’s “probably not a coincidence” that Edwards has now had two outstanding playoff series in a row at such a young age. What he has shown in the biggest spots, at his age, is bordering on unprecedented. Moving forward, the priority for this organization should not be finding what “works,” but what is best for that young man. That’s how they will eventually find themselves playing beyond the first round, but playing for trophies.

Jaden McDaniels’ Offensive Growth

Minnesota got a whole lot wrong in the trade for Gobert, but one thing the front office now clearly appears to 100% correct about was Jaden McDaniels’ value. It doesn’t come close to making the trade a good one, but this organization would have been so much worse off had they included McDaniels in the trade instead of a couple extra first-round picks. If they’d included Jaden, I think it’s a near certainty that the 2023 pick Minnesota sent to Utah is a lottery-pick.

McDaniels took a starting role and ran with it this season, setting career-highs in minutes and scoring both in terms of volume and efficiency. The third-year wing finished the year scoring 12.1 points per game on 61.1% TS, which was 3% above league average. Jaden had previously shown that he could be a decent spot-up option on the perimeter, but this season he displayed a polished creativity with the ball in his hands that helped make him a top-10 recruit coming out of high school.

What impressed me most about McDaniels’ offensive leap was his touch in the mid-range. Those intermediate shots are good ones if you shoot them efficiently, and McDaniels absolutely does. He made 46.1% of his shots from 3-10 feet and 44.4% of his shots from 10-16 feet. He is a legitimate weapon, as many teams found out this year after beginning games with their weakest defender on him. The most glaring example of this was when the Atlanta Hawks started Trae Young on Jaden, thinking they could hide him there, only for McDaniels to blow that gameplan up right away.

There’s more to work with here than they’ve tapped into in his first three seasons, and my hope is that they find a way to give him more offensive responsibility moving forward. His scoring average does not reflect how good of a scorer he can be. He’s just a very good player. When you combine his offensive upside and his All-Defense level of play on the other end of the floor, McDaniels is a player I’d give five years and $125 million to and not lose one iota of sleep over.

The way his season ended was disappointing, but nonetheless, priority number one for this franchise should be to lock in the Edwards/McDaniels wing duo on five-year deals and build around that, with their best interests in mind.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Naz Reid is a Player Worth Betting On

I’ll admit I was slow to the party on Naz Reid, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to discount the improvements Big Jelly continues to make. He’s gotten his body right and improved in every season of his career. The 2019 undrafted free agent began the season on the outside looking in for rotation minutes, yet we ended the season using some form of “Naz was hurt” as a coping mechanism after the series loss to the Denver Nuggets. Reid finished with career-bests in scoring and efficiency across the board, giving Minnesota a scoring punch off the bench that they otherwise sorely lacked.

The Wolves still lost Reid’s minutes on a whole for 2023, losing his minutes by 4.3 points per-100 possessions. When you look a little deeper, though, you see that Reid’s minutes were partially sunk by the fact that Minnesota asked him to play alongside another big frequently. The Wolves were outscored by 12.7 points per-100 possessions when Naz and Gobert shared the floor as well as 7.3 points-per 100 possessions when Naz and KAT played together. That doesn’t absolve Naz of responsibility for the Wolves continually losing his minutes, but it is important context; he thrived as the lone big on the floor, and showed promise beside Towns after KAT returned from his injury.

How you view that information through the prism of Reid’s free agency is an ‘in eye of the beholder’ situation. If you believe the Wolves should continue with both Towns and Gobert on the roster, it does not make sense to devote real capital in a third center that has not really shown he can play the 4, “Naz Week” on the west coast aside. If you do not believe in the KAT-Rudy duo, betting on Naz to continue to improve in his age 24-27 seasons seems like a good bet.

There’s a number where the Wolves do eventually just need to walk away from the negotiating table. Still, quibbling over an extra $1-2 million annually for Reid when you have roughly $100 million/year devoted to a starting front court that has questionable postseason feasibility feels like a ‘missing the forest for the trees’ situation.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Big Picture Mistakes

Accentuating Strengths vs. Covering Weaknesses

The rationale for the Rudy Gobert trade was simple: the team would fix their defensive rebounding and rim protection woes by adding someone elite at both.

What the front office, coaching staff, and those of us who drank the Kool-Aid failed to understand was that basketball is not that simple. The Wolves did in part fix their rim protection issues, sporting an elite half-court defense that was far more sustainable against offenses with multiple ball-handlers than the year prior.

The cost there, though, was brutal transition defense when the two bigs were on the floor together. It’s hard to take season-long numbers as gospel since KAT missed so much time, but the Wolves were 13th in defense last year and 10th this year. That level of improvement is not worth the cost of what happened to the offense. After finishing seventh in offense last season, Minnesota finished 23rd this season.

The absence of Towns for such a large portion of the season could be a viable excuse for that drop-off, except that the offense stunk during the Towns-Gobert minutes as well. The Wolves scored at 106.2 points per-100 possessions with the two big men on the court together. For reference, the Charlotte Hornets finished last in offense this year, scoring 108.4 points per-100.

Minnesota set out to cover their most glaring weaknesses, and ended up negating many of the advantages they had to begin with.

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Fitting Square Pegs into Round Holes

While I remain out on the Towns/Gobert pairing, I don’t think the team at-large was put in a position to succeed offensively. In a vacuum, I believe the way Finch wants his team to play offense is the correct way to do so; an abundance of ball movement, off-ball screening, and cutting lends itself to beautiful basketball when you have the quick decision makers to make that style of play work.

This roster just did not have enough quick decision-makers to make that system work. Finch has shown to be a very flexible coach in terms of what defensive coverages his teams run, generally adapting to his talent. Now, he must do the same with his offense. I’m as big of a Finchy fan as there is, but it would be malpractice to run back the same core of the roster next year without a heavier diet of structure, as well as a higher pick-and-roll frequency.

A roster shake-up could make Finch’s offense more viable again, as we’ve seen that Ant and KAT can thrive in that together — both in the regular season and the playoffs. Adding a third core piece that struggles with the ball and decision-making (Gobert) removes a lot of the space and timing needed to make that system work.

Setting Your Priorities

As pessimistic as I may be about the fit in the front-court, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the Wolves could not be moderately successful with this core. To a certain extent, this can work much better than it did this year. Better health, continuity, and a more structured offensive gameplan would all help.

And yet, I remain unconvinced that this pairing would reach a satisfactory level if the priority is to build around Ant. I don’t know who they should move or exactly how they should tweak this, especially without knowing what potential returns would look like. Still, I think even the most devout believers of the KAT/Rudy duo would have a hard time justifying how this is what’s best for Ant and Jaden’s development. As talented as Towns and Gobert may be, every move going forward should revolve around that singular priority.

As we head into an off-season where the team seems, by all indication, set to run this group back, I leave you with this.