When the Minnesota Timberwolves bowed out of the 2023 NBA Playoffs following Game 5 of the first round at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, the Editor-in-Chief in me exhaled. The rollercoaster car finally came to a stop, marking the end of a remarkably weird, agonizing and yet somehow fun ride that took a lot out of those covering the team both for us here at Canis Hoopus and those doing fantastic work at other outlets. The fan in me wished — and believed there for a minute in the second half of Game 5 — we could’ve gotten an encore performance of The Anthony Edwards Show at Target Center for a Game 6; but like they did all season long, the Wolves zagged instead, losing to a truly cohesive, primed machine — nothing to be ashamed of.
I refrained from offering any long-winded thoughts in the season’s aftermath for several reasons — chief among them the reality that making any sweeping declarations about a team without two players at the heart of its present and future core was both inopportune and imperfect analysis. Now that the dust has settled and we’ve seen the playoffs shake out how they have, it’s time.
The one thought I keep coming back to, as each playoff game passes, is that I feel better about the Timberwolves’ future than I did both before the postseason began and when they were eliminated nearly a month ago. Curious if others felt the same, I posed the question on Twitter. After over 1,500 votes, here is how the poll played out:
I was surprised by the results, partly because so many Timberwolves fans are anchored by earned pessimism and partly because the share of the team’s fanbase that supports trading one (or both) of Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert felt very high when the team lost in Game 5.
Despite all of that, let’s dive into why it’s pretty easy for me to feel better about the team now than I did entering the postseason.
The Current Reality
We may not have known it at the time, but the Timberwolves played competitive basketball with the two best teams in the Western Conference.
Without the suspended Gobert, Head Coach Chris Finch and the Wolves had the Los Angeles Lakers dead to rights in the 7/8 Play-In Game, up 15 late in the third quarter on the road at Crypto.com Arena — where L.A. (5-0) has still yet to drop a game this postseason — before an epic offensive power outage over the game’s final 20 minutes wiped it away. Despite an awful game from Anthony Edwards, they were still right there.
After beating an understandably inadequate Oklahoma City Thunder squad in the second Play-In Game behind a heroic defensive performance from Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and dropping a basketball deuce in Game 1, Minnesota proceeded to play a very competitive four games with Denver Nuggets.
The Wolves’ series loss to the Nuggets looks so much better when you consider:
- How well the team defended two-time MVP Nikola Jokić, who is having one of the most efficient and dominant offensive playoff runs of all-time, compared to a Phoenix Suns team that was favored to win their second round series. Holding Joker to 8/29 shooting in Game 5 will go down as one of the best team defensive performances of the playoffs
- Jaden McDaniels wasn’t available to help slow down Jamal Murray, who undoubtedly would’ve had a more difficult time getting open without McDaniels hounding him
- The Wolves’ second unit offense was completely neutered without Naz Reid’s instant production against non-Jokić lineups
- Denver needed all of its depth to play well to win games — and to their credit, they did
The Suns, on the other hand, had zero chance of slowing down Nikola Jokić even a little bit. Jokić had the easiest 50-point performance I’ve ever seen in Game 4 and the Suns needed superhuman performances from Devin Booker and Kevin Durant to get Games 3 and 4 at home.
The Timberwolves doing all of the above without McDaniels and Reid deserves far more credit than anyone, myself included, was willing to give them as it played out.
McDaniels was rounding into form before a concrete wall had other plans. On top of otherworldly defense, the third-year rising star shot 42.7% from 3 on four attempts per game post-All-Star, and scored 13.9 points on 52.1/42.7/72.7 shooting splits during that stretch. McDaniels began to put all of his physical and scoring tools together to create an offensive weapon the team sorely needed while Edwards and Towns were working their way back into form.
As for Reid, they were missing arguably the most impactful bench scorer in the league after the All-Star break. Naz scored a whopping 27.6 points per 36 minutes on 55.8/39.2/71.8 splits in 14 games before his wrist gave out while doing what he loves — destroying people at the rim. And you wonder why the Wolves lost the non-Jokić minutes in just about every game of the series. That type of production is incredibly hard to replace, even against one of the worst bench units in the NBA. If the Timberwolves got even 80% of that production at a 25 minutes per game sample next season, you’re looking at a player who could — and should — be talked about as one of the league’s elite bench scorers.
Not to mention...
- Both Towns and Gobert were both less than 100%. KAT would tell you his first step wasn’t where it will be on opening night next season, and Gobert’s back made banging with Jokić a much more laborious task than it normally would’ve been for him.
- Mike Conley came into the team to learn one identity on the fly, only to help reintegrate Towns about as seamlessly as Finch could’ve asked for offensively. A full offseason with Minnesota Mike should do wonders for this team’s identity, especially offensively.
Lessons Learned in the Playoffs
1) You need a superduperstar to have a chance
Each of the four teams remaining have a clear-cut superstar leading the charge. The Miami Heat have Jimmy Butler; the Boston Celtics have Jayson Tatum; the Denver Nuggets have Nikola Jokić; and the Los Angeles Lakers have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James.
Anthony Edwards proved that he can be thought of in that same tier moving forward. He put together 31.6 points on 48.2/34.9/84.6 shooting splits, 5.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists-to-1.6 turnovers per game.
Outside of Devin Booker’s outrageous first round, you can make an argument that Edwards had the best opening series of any player in the league, which is crazy for someone in his age 21 season.
If the 2020 No. 1 overall pick is healthy entering any given series, the Timberwolves will have a legit shot to win it. That should help everyone sleep easier at night.
2) Playing multiple is a must
Wild adjustments take place from game-to-game, from starting lineup changes, taking a key player out of the rotation completely, or gaming the rotation to get to specific lineups at a certain point of the game to exploit even the smallest mismatch.
The Timberwolves have what they need to do this. Patrick Beverley said during his exit interview last season that the biggest reason the Wolves couldn’t find success outside of the high wall was personnel. A year later, Minnesota has that box checked. The Wolves can play...
- Small/Quick with Conley/Edwards/McDaniels/Anderson/Towns or Reid
- Big/Physical with Edwards/McDaniels/Anderson/two of Reid/Towns/Gobert
- Switch heavy with Nickeil Alexander-Walker/Edwards/McDaniels/Anderson/Gobert
- Offense-first with Conley/Edwards/McDaniels/Reid/Towns
Within those lineups, Finch and Co. could deploy any of the core three defenses — drop, high wall, or switching.
When you look around the landscape of the Western Conference, think to yourself how many teams can actually do that. Depth has mattered a ton in this playoffs, and the Wolves have it. The reality is the Wolves just didn’t have a reliable identity formed yet, which is understandable given the context of their injuries and trades, and takes us to lesson No. 3:
3) Great teams have a very clear identity everyone understands
- The Heat share it offensively, move without the ball, and play rock solid team defense.
- Boston takes away what their opponent does best offensively and plays through their two stars offensively.
- LeBron and Co. funnel everything to AD and dominate defensively, while letting James dissect and control the game offensively in the half-court.
- Michael Malone’s group plays hard and gang rebounds defensively despite suboptimal personnel, runs relentlessly in transition, and runs the offense through Jokić in PnR and in the DHO game.
The Wolves didn’t have a discernible identity offensively. They played drop coverage defensively around Gobert, and were willing to switch some with Towns off the floor, but didn’t deploy switching or the high wall enough to make their opponents uncomfortable. Coaches need to be willing to exhaust every possible option when making adjustments in these series, but the reality is that Finch didn’t feel comfortable going to things we hadn’t seen at all during the regular season; that’s what injuries to Towns, McDaniels and Reid will do to a coach. I am okay with giving Finch a pass there, with a big if: he experiments with these things at length during the 2023-24 regular season.
The two-bigs experiment can work and take the Wolves deep into the playoffs. But in order to do so, the Timberwolves have to be better at playing to that identity and dictating the terms of a game than their opponents. They clearly couldn’t do that with limited reps in this year’s playoffs. It may not be likely they can do it next year, either, but I certainly can’t rule that out given how they were able to win games pretty and ugly alike down the stretch of the season.
4) Good luck defending without bodies to throw at stars who live in the paint
Whether you’re tasked with guarding Jokić, Davis, LeBron, Stephen Curry, Ja Morant, Kawhi Leonard, De’Aaron Fox or Domantas Sabonis, all those stars love to do their damage in the paint, and you need to have plenty of rim protection and bigs to bang in the lane.
Again, the Timberwolves have both covered. Despite a down year, Gobert is still one of the best rim protectors in the world, and McDaniels is the best back-side/non-big rim protector in the NBA. And, despite what some angry fans want to tell you during a game, Towns did a very commendable job getting physical with Jokić and slowing him down, especially in Game 5.
Each of these lessons are evidence to support running it back with tweaks on the margins, which is the very likely outcome given that Tim Connelly is operations as though he’s going to continue forward as Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations.
When you look around the NBA at each team’s stable of players under 25, the Wolves have a one of the league’s best groups if you just include their top-three.
- Anthony Edwards, 21 years old
- Jaden McDaniels, 22 years old
- Naz Reid, 23 years old
But when you widen it to include postseason hero Nickeil Alexander-Walker (24) and even 2022 draftees Wendell Moore Jr. (21) and Josh Minott (20), you have a scary combination of players that should excite fans, even without draft picks in *gulp* 2023, 2025, 2027 and likely 2029. If the Timberwolves play their development cards right, they could use a Moore Jr. or Minott as valuable trade chips if they extend Kyle Anderson and maintain a veteran laden rotation.
Prettay, prettay, prettay good.
The best part is that you don’t need to worry about any of them off the floor; all six are high-character people that buy into what Finch preaches and the greater team culture at-large, which increases both their value to the team internally and the odds they reach their ceiling as a unit.
You add in one of the most high-character individuals in the NBA at point guard in Mike Conley, good vets in Kyle Anderson, Gobert, and Towns — plus a the return of a Beverley/Austin Rivers type — and you have a team that should get along phenomenally well, mid-game punches be damned.
While there is uncertainty at point guard beyond 2023, Conley wants to keep playing as long as he’s in the playoff hunt, and Minnesota should give him an excellent opportunity to do just that.
Mike Conley on being in the playoff hunt:— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) March 28, 2023
"It’s the reason why I’m still playing. I want to play until I’m 40 if I can be a part of these situations where we can compete at the highest level against the best competition in the world and do it with some guys like this."
He is owed $24.36 million, next season (down from $31.38 million this season), and is currently extension eligible. If they can retain Conley at a more team-friendly figure, say $12-15 million per year, beyond next season, he’d surely be welcomed on a team that (hopefully) will not have to lean on him quite as much as the Wolves did down the stretch this season.
The $91 million elephant in the room is the Timberwolves’ costly two-bigs experiment, which could be entering its final season as a result of looming new financial implications in the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, which take effect in 2024-25. While there is little public information about those implications, what we do know is that the “first apron” will be $7 million above the luxury tax line and the “second apron” will be $17.5 million above it.
There are severe penalties for teams that push up against the new “second apron” above the luxury tax line, per ESPN:
- Unable to use a taxpayer mid-level exception
- Unable to sign a player bought out of a contract north of the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (~$11 million or so),
- Incoming salary matching exception is reduced from 125% to 110%
- Cannot aggregate salaries to land a single player with more incoming money than outgoing money and cannot use cash in trades
- Cannot trade a pick more than six drafts away
- Increased financial per-dollar-over-the-tax penalties for repeater teams
The Wolves would be nearing this second apron in 2024-25 if they...
- Re-sign Edwards to a maximum five-year, $207 million contract extension (which could get to $249 million for All-NBA, per ESPN) this summer (very likely). This would make the Wolves the only team in the league with three max players under contract for ‘24-25.
- Re-sign McDaniels to some form of long-term extension (also likely) that will surely push $25-30 million per season
- And hold onto the two bigs for $91,521,737 in 2024-25
New money on extensions for Edwards and McDaniels would begin in 2024-25. Let’s say Edwards had a $41 million cap hit and McDaniels’ was $24 million. That’d give the Wolves roughly...
- $15 million of cap space to play with
- ~$30 million of luxury tax space
- ~$37 million of space below the first apron
- ~$47.5 million of space below the second apron
If the team re-signed Naz Reid to a deal roughly worth $11 million a year (mid-level exception), that would eat up a fourth of that apron space immediately. So, you get the picture. It’s pretty hard to build a rotation around four guys making a combined $155 million. Gobert has two years left on his supermax deal, with a $46.6 million player option for a third in 2025-26; so the Wolves could trade Towns after 2023-24 and then see Gobert’s deal come off the books ahead of Rudy’s age 33 season (2025-26) if he were to decline that option and secure a more lucrative deal in free agency, but it’s very possible he accepts that option and is here through 2026.
No matter how you slice it, the Timberwolves’ young core of Edwards, McDaniels, Reid, NAW, Moore Jr. and Minott give them plenty of options to go in building around them if they send out one of Towns or Gobert and recoup some assets and split the money owed into smaller, more manageable deals prior to the 2024-25 season. With that said, doing so prematurely this summer before fully understanding how that team construct can work would be an overreaction that reflects poorly on a front office that pushed its chips into the middle less than a year ago. If you put yourself in their shoes, with their reputations and future job candidacies on the line, it’s a hard table to walk away from.
But make no mistake about it, the 2023 NBA Playoffs — and the landscape of the West at-large — should make every Timberwolves fan, regardless of their feelings about the two-bigs experiment, feel better about the team moving forward. Edwards and McDaniels afford this team both an exciting present and tantalizing future that, despite a lack of draft capital, is as promising as that of any team in the NBA.