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Who Is Truly Included in the Timberwolves’ Core?

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been trying to build consistent a winner for years. Who’s currently a part of that “core” and who should be in the long-term plans?

Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
(Editor’s Note: please welcome Charlie Walton to Canis Hoopus! We’re committed to continuing to grow Canis with the aim of delivering the best possible coverage of the Timberwolves and Lynx from the fan perspective, and Charlie will certainly strengthen our site. He produced some really strong coverage of the Timberwolves this season at Zone Coverage and we’re thrilled to bring aboard someone with as much passion for covering the team as he has. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieWaltonMN)

Winning culture, and lack thereof, has been one of the main talking points surrounding the Minnesota Timberwolves and their fans over the last decade. Many Wolves fans would describe themselves as pessimists, and how could they not be?

Prior to the 2021-22 season, the Timberwolves only made one trip to the NBA Playoffs since 2005. During that span, fans saw players who they thought would be stars, potentially leading the Wolves to sustained success, get flipped for yet another rebuilding package (i.e Jimmy Butler)

However, the Wolves built something special in the 2021-22 campaign. And while some of the magic from that season was sent out as part of the Rudy Gobert trade, Minnesota still has a championship window opening on the horizon and needs to lock in a key set of players to build around/with during these next coming seasons.

Last week, Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch joined The Herd and discussed his evaluation of where the Wolves sit right now, the end of last season, and their future.

“We like our core, it’s all about adding the right pieces to it. We were very, very happy with bringing in Mike Conley. We thought he was the perfect piece to kind of bridge the gap between Rudy, KAT, and Ant.

We felt like we learned enough about what we did this year, even though we had all the injuries, and KAT missed 50-some games. We have a better starting point coming into next season, which to go from and build from. We liked how we kind of finished a little bit when we were healthy. We had a good identity.

We are going to be open, but I don’t think this is something that we’re looking to pivot off anytime soon.”

It’s been a while since the last time Minnesota’s core was at the point of being ready to contend for a championship. However, as we look ahead to next season, winning should be the only thing on the minds of Timberwolves fans. Before that happens, I think it’s crucial we break down and understand just who should be a part of that long-term plan.

Chicago Bulls v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The No-Brainers

It’s not every day you get two cornerstone pieces in one draft class. However, that’s exactly what former President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas and Co. were able to achieve back in 2020 by acquiring Anthony Edwards with the top pick and selecting former five-star prospect Jaden McDaniels all the way down at No. 28 overall.

It — one word that has been associated with Edwards since last season. He just has it.

What does it mean, exactly? Well, Edwards, who is still just 21 years old, has completely taken this Timberwolves organization by the horns. Now, the first-time All-Star receives the loudest roar from the Target Center crowd and has the most jerseys in the stands. Fans everywhere have clung to equal parts Edwards’ evidently intense passion for the game and uniquely genuine charisma.

But above all that, he’s a winner.

Ant’s draft partner also impacts winning in his own unique way. Because Edwards draws comparisons to Michael Jordan, it’s only been fitting that McDaniels is hailed as Ant’s Scottie Pippen. However, Slim poses a different threat than Pippen did and has the necessary tools to become a more impactful player in the coming years.

Despite being robbed of an All-Defensive Team selection this season, McDaniels’ prowess on the defensive end is obvious to everyone who watches him play. The nickname Slim is very fitting for the 6-foot-9, 185-pound forward. The defense has always been there since day one. However, Jaden’s ability to break opposing defenses down with his evolving guard-style handles coupled with his lengthy, Kevin Durant-esque frame has unlocked dangerous two-way potential in his game.

Edwards and McDaniels both have one year left on their rookie contracts. However, Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly hopes to have their big-money extensions wrapped up this summer.

Key Rotation Pieces

When attempting to build a championship contender, having depth is paramount. Look at the Denver Nuggets, for example. Head Coach Michael Malone has had the luxury of primarily using only three guys off his bench — Jeff Green, Bruce Brown, and Christian Braun. However, if need be, Malone could call on any one of his players at any given moment and they’d produce winning basketball. A lot of that comes from high team chemistry, which untimely trickles off of success.

Heading into last season, I personally believed that the Wolves had one of the deeper teams in the league. And on paper, they did. Unfortunately, the NBA isn’t played on paper. Rotation staples suffered significant injuries at inopportune times and the front office executed a seismic mid-season trade; the consequences forced Finch’s hand in playing lineups with minimal experience together, which understandably held Minnesota’s bench back from what it could have been.

Finch couldn't count on his bench mob to produce in the way he did the season prior. However, there are a few key pieces that need to be locked up if the Wolves hope to compete for something greater than just a Playoff berth.

2023 Play-In Tournament - Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Naz Reid

It’s been to create space in the Wolves rotation for Naz Reid to see consistent, linear growth in his role since he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019. But the internally beloved Reid didn’t let that stop him from putting in the work to improve, and endeared him to everyone in the organization.

As Connelly said, Reid has worked his tail off to get where he is right now both from a skill-set point and a physical point. After his blossoming in 2022, it was expected that he would have a large jump in the coming season. However, Gobert came over and Reid’s playing time would dwindle as a response.

“I know he’s frustrated as a young player trying to come in and prove himself, build his career resume, earning potential, all that,” Chris Finch said heading into the 2022-23 season. “But he realizes last year it was a 16-minute role for the most part. This year, the role could be a little bit all over the place.”

Despite some frustration, it seems Reid still has a desire to return to Minnesota after becoming an unrestricted free agent this July. Hopefully, Connelly and Co. will be able to find the money that will allow them to keep him a part of the team’s long-term future. If not, Reid may just end up heading to another team that can guarantee him a larger role and an even bigger paycheck.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves - Play-In Tournament Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Nickeil Alexander-Walker

While Reid has been a Timberwolf his whole career, the other player that should be a part of Minnesota’s long-term plans is someone who came over to the Wolves at the trade deadline — Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

Walker’s impact was obvious from his first game with the Wolves. Similar to McDaniels, NAW poses a threat on both sides of the ball. On offense, Walker’s ability to control the pace and hit off-the-ball triples make him a unique weapon off the bench. Defensively, we saw Walker do an incredible job on Jamal Murray during the first round of the Playoffs.

In the second half and overtime of Game 4 between Denver and Minnesota, Murray was held to 3-of-10 from the floor with only seven points after netting 12 points in the first half. NAW was the primary defender in the second half and was irritating Murray the rest of the night.

We’ve seen Murray tear up opposing defense throughout the playoffs, averaging a calm 32.5 points per game against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. This further proves just how good of a job NAW did against him.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves - Play-In Tournament Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Are the Northern Heights Going Dim?

Due to the haul that the Timberwolves gave up in exchange for Rudy Gobert, some fans are already out on the two-big lineup. Despite the Wolves owning a 27-26 record in games where Towns was inactive last season, we saw the offense flow very well with only one big man on the floor at a time. This, plus his looming supermax extension taking effect in 2024-25, has led to talks surrounding KAT’s potential departure from the Twin Cities this summer.

Championship-contending windows come and go extremely fast in the NBA. And with Minnesota’s seemingly on the horizon, you can’t have a sedentary mindset in terms of roster moves. However, we only saw the starting lineup of Conley, Edwards, McDaniels, Towns, and Gobert for seven total games last season — leading me to believe that the best option would be to give the team one more season before making any drastic moves.

Money-wise, it would be very hard for the Wolves to keep both Gobert and Towns long-term, especially with all the upcoming extensions of Minnesota’s supporting cast. Regardless of that, I would still like to see just one more, healthy season before dumping Towns or Gobert.

Minnesota’s core is coming together, and you don’t have to squint to see a team on the horizon capable of going deep in the Playoffs. If the team’s front office can lock down its core, fans should enjoy sustained winning in the Twin Cities very soon.