The Minnesota Timberwolves officially opened their 2023-24 NBA season on Thursday by welcoming back players and local media members for media day at Target Center.
Wolves President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly, Head Coach Chris Finch, stars Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, and every other member of the full-time roster spoke to the media, fielding questions about last season’s finish, the 2023 FIBA World Cup, and their goals for the upcoming campaign, which — health permitting — projects to be one of the best in franchise history.
Let’s dive into the key takeaways, themes and storylines to follow from our first impressions of the 2023-24 Timberwolves.
A Season of Maturity and Growth
The Wolves want to put the 2022-23 season in the rearview for several reasons, but the incomplete nature of the team’s postseason experience is chief among them. This season, Minnesota is aiming to not only return to the playoffs, but make noise when they get there.
“We’ve got to win a playoff series. It’s been way too long since we’ve had success in the postseason,” Connelly said when answering a question about what it will take for this upcoming season to be a success. “Let’s be honest, we have to have success in the postseason for us to be taken seriously.”
Connelly added that he thinks the Timberwolves players feel confident in their ability to win at a ‘pretty high level,’ something that certainly didn’t happen last season, mostly because of the Wolves’ inability to defeat teams with records below .500. Minnesota went 17-18 against teams below .500, compared to their stout 25-22 mark against winning teams; to make matters worse, they went 5-5 in their 10 matchups with teams that won less than 30% of their games (Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and Detroit Pistons). Had the Wolves gone 8-2 instead of 5-5, Minnesota would’ve been the No. 5 seed.
“The team has to mature (and) the organization has to mature. ... There’s been a very loud mandate and risen bar about how we handle ourselves,” Connelly said, adding that the coaching staff and front office needs to be held to the same standard. “We can’t take nights off. There were way too many nights last year where he just didn’t show up. But then against the elite teams we showed what we’re capable of. A win’s a win’s a win.”
30-year-old Kyle Anderson added that he is expecting more of the team and himself as he enters his 10th year in the league.
“The fact I got into it with one of my teammates last year, that just didn’t sit well with me this summer. Getting five technicals last year, looking back at it that’s not who I am,” Anderson said in a evidently contrite manner. “[I’m] looking forward to this year, being a better teammate, not costing my team points with technicals, things like that.”
“As a team, I think we should do a better job of preparing for games and giving ourselves a chance to win, knowing the scouting report, knowing tendencies, personnel on other teams,” he added.
Finch agreed, speaking to the team leading the NBA in technical fouls and going 7-13 against the bottom six teams in the league.
“We were a little bit immature in our approach, readiness, stuff like that.”
Sound familiar? These are the same things that Finch talked about last season, pointing to the Gobert and Anderson acquisitions as moves that would greatly improve the team’s maturity and professional approach to games. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Minnesota blew second half leads left and right, didn’t take bad teams seriously, and reeked of an unearned arrogance that brought out boos from the home crowd on several occasions last season.
With an even stronger veteran presence in Minnesota — including Shake Milton, Troy Brown Jr. and, most importantly, a full season of the universally respected Mike Conley — this team has zero excuse for:
1) Being in the top 10 in technical fouls
2) Not winning at least 65-70% of their games against the bottom 10 teams in the league’
Conley is at the heart of why the team believes they can take a major step forward in 2023-24. The 17-year veteran scaled his game beautifully on the fly after his deadline move to Minnesota, while also bringing a revered presence into the locker room. The former Ohio State star recorded career-high efficiency at all three levels in his 24 games as a Timberwolf; Conley shot 42.0% on his 5.8 3-point attempts per game and recorded just 1.2 turnovers per game while adjusting to a team working through the seismic integrations of Gobert and later, Towns, when he returned to the lineup.
"I loved it. It felt like my role changed from when I was with the Jazz to here. I got here and Finchy was like, 'I need you to score, dribble, iso, make plays, create.'"— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) September 28, 2023
- Mike Conley on if the trade was invigorating with how much the Wolves needed him in 2022
But where Conley shined most was in his leadership.
“He brings such a calming influence. He’s so positive. I think professional sports and life right now is not really defined by positivity,” Connelly said. “He’s seen everything and anything that could happen on an NBA court. So the combination of positivity and calming influence coupled with the fact he’s a really good basketball player ... all those things make him a real special edition and we’re lucky to have him.”
He rallied the troops in the locker room after Gobert was sent home (and later suspended) for punching Anderson in Game 82, leading one of the most inspired comebacks we’ve seen out of the Timberwolves. He made tide-turning shots in big moments down the stretch of the regular season, Play-In Tournament, and into the playoffs. He became a crucial hub between Gobert and the rest of the team. And, perhaps most importantly, he lived in the ear of one of the game’s most scintillating superstars, Anthony Edwards.
“Each individual player is so talented at what they do. It’s about trying to get that out of them all together at the same time. For me it was trying to be that bridge the best I can,” Conley said, explaining his role in unlocking the team’s offense.
“Take moments where I’m like, ‘Ant, just give me the ball the next couple plays, I’m going to try to get Rudy the ball, try to get KAT the ball in a different way. I promise I’ll get it back to you.’ Same with a guy like KAT, we get him the ball a few times in post-ups, and l’ll try to get the ball over to Ant, get him rolling. Even Jaden, other guys. [It’s] just about trying to develop that trust, that confidence with each other. Hopefully I continue to be that guy they can lean on.”
Beyond health (and maybe an upgraded backup guard rotation), Conley is the best antidote for what plagued the Timberwolves in 2022-23. A full summer and training camp with one of the game’s best and most experienced leaders and late game operators in the half-court will do wonders for a team looking to mature, see a better return on investment for the Gobert deal, help its fourth-year superstar become an MVP candidate, and most importantly, go deeper in the playoffs.
With all that in mind, it’s understandable why the Wolves hope he’ll be around beyond 2022-23.
“When we got Mike, our goal was for this to be the last spot,” Connelly said. “And certainly we didn’t get Mike for just to be a short term thing. When you get a person as special as Mike is, you want to be sure that he doesn’t leave here. And it’s been really neat watching Mike and Mary not just to just to the team, but adjust to the city. They love living in Minnesota.”
Anthony Edwards Continues to Be a Treasure
The Timberwolves’ future is arguably brighter than it has ever been and there is one reason for that: Anthony Edwards.
Now in his fourth season, Edwards during media day reminded everyone in the room and watching online why he has an approval rating of 100% inside the locker room. The 22-year-old star deflected and opted to praise his teammates at nearly every turn.
Does Edwards feel extra weight on his shoulders coming into this season?
“Naw, not at all. I’ve got big KAT. Big KAT’s a superstar, man. He’s going to be like one of the best players in the league this year. He’s going to take a lot of pressure off me so yeah I’m putting a lot of pressure on him,” Edwards said, smiling throughout, before being asked a few moments later about what the Towns/Gobert pairing unlocked for him.
“Man, KAT just shoots the piss out the ball,” Ant said, to a room full of laughter. “It’s incredible to see. It’s incredible to play with somebody like him. Coming off screens, he’s popping every time, and Rudy’s rolling. I think it’s going to be more dynamic this year.”
Here’s more than three minutes of Ant praising his teammates, courtesy of the Timberwolves YouTube page.
(Editor’s Note: If you are reading on Apple News, but want to view embedded videos and enjoy the best overall reading experience, please click here.)
In between moments of praising his teammates, he also recalled a meeting with Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr prior to the 2020 NBA Draft that revolutionized his work ethic and “played a huge role in where I’m at today, because they pitched that to me early.”
Edwards said that the Warriors told him they wouldn’t take him at No. 1 even if they had that selection; ironically, Golden State took James Wiseman one pick after Minnesota selected Edwards and, well, we all know how that worked out.
Ant also had high praise for Jaden McDaniels, whose agents are in the process of negotiating a long-term contract extension with the Timberwolves. When asked how important it is that a deal get done, Edwards couldn’t hold back his excitement.
“Jaden is the most important person on the team, for sure, because he has the most potential. So, yeah, I think the world knows we wouldn’t be Minnesota Timberwolves without Jaden McDaniels,” Edwards said. “So yeah, I’m looking forward to him having a phenomenal season.”
Edwards’ next step is obviously going to be a popular storyline as the season evolves, but in his mind, it’s simple.
“I just want to win, man,” he said plainly, before defaulting to his complimentary ways. “I want all my teammates to be the best at whatever they need to do. Jaden and Rudy need to be competing for Defensive Player of the Year. Me and KAT need to be competing for who’s going to be the best player in the league. Just little things like that, like competition within ourselves. Just everybody playing hard and wanting to see each other succeed.”
The 2023 All-Star also left us with an all-time clip, nodding to the viral Future clip, in response to a question about how it feels to be back wearing No. 5 this season.
We’ll be tweeting this approximately one million times this season pic.twitter.com/wi2ebhz6Mk— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) September 28, 2023
Overall, it was an A+ media day for the Wolves star, who is in for a monster 2023-24 campaign.
A Defensive Identity and Changing Roles
The Timberwolves are bringing back every important piece of their rotation from last season with the exception of Taurean Prince, who signed a one-year deal with the Lakers during free agency. As a result of returning to health, and the additions of Shake Milton and Troy Brown Jr., roles for key players will unquestionably change entering this coming season. But amidst all the changing roles, the identity for this team will be built on the defensive end.
“I think if we build those habits the goal is to be a tough defensive team in this league and go from there. I think everything else will fall into place if we really focus on that,” Gobert said of his expectations for the team, before addressing the team’s defensive strategy for the season a few moments later.
“We’ll be able to adjust. Tomorrow we’re going to get to sit down with the coach and see all the things that we need to do defensively, but I really think that sometimes you don’t want to diversify just to diversify. You want to do what you’re great at, and you want to be able to adjust when needed. I think first you build that foundation and go from there.”
The good news is that the Timberwolves have the requisite versatility to switch at a high level, arguably the greatest drop defense big in the history of the league, and a stable of long, high-quality perimeter defenders, led by McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who was terrific in the playoffs.
“I think it can be very, very, very dynamic,” Alexander-Walker said about the potential of sharing the floor with McDaniels in a lineup aimed at maximizing defensive impact. “A lot of teams have two-to-three guys. There’s only one man (with the ball), so having someone else being able to, I guess, assist him with that, take that co-leadership role defensively, alongside Rudy. It kind of feels like you’re able to level out (those two-to-three guys), as best as you can. ... And that will give us a good chance, a fighting chance, in a lot of games.”
The player whose role changes most will likely be Anderson, who started in the Play-In Tournament and in the first four games of the playoffs. Slow-Mo now will shift back into a bench role in which he could spend more time as a 3 instead of a 4, where he played approximately 90% of his minutes, per Basketball-Reference.
“I think maybe just a little bit more a role of handling the ball when there is two bigs in there,” he said. “Just go out there, try to make plays, shoot it when I’m open and play the game the right way. I think playing with two bigs will be a bit of an adjustment and I’m going to have to find ways to be effective and I know I will. It’ll take some time but I’ll figure it out.”
Connelly cited Anderson’s “unique” ability to “guard all over the place,” and called the veteran a “godsend last year with all the injuries.” Anderson’s versatility on that end will be an important piece of that puzzle, both when he plays alongside starters and bench players. He can fit in as a backside rim protector next to a 5, a perimeter defender with two bigs, play the 3 or the 4 in a switching scheme, and even guard a bigger ball-handler like Luka Dončić.
Given Anderson’s importance to the team success last season and his familiarity with Finch and existing players, it feels likely that he will fill the 22.1 minutes per game Prince leaves behind. Prince played 45% of his minutes at the 3 and 52% at the 4, according to Basketball-Reference, which feels about right for how we will see Anderson fill in this season. However, given that Reid will play the 4 more likely than the 5, that split may skew more towards the 3 for Slow-Mo. Both will have to sacrifice in order to help each other fill their roles and succeed, which will be a fun story to follow.
“We have the depth to be able to have a really solid second unit with its own identity. What that looks like now, I’m not exactly sure. I could see Kyle being key to that, being able to play a multitude of roles,” Finch said of his Swiss army knife.
Milton will be another important piece, and he spoke about his projected roles and fit with the team on Thursday. Curiously, his conversations with the Wolves didn’t include how many minutes he may play in Minnesota.
“It was just more so the fit. Coach was telling me how he liked the fact of my versatility, I could be on the ball, be a point guard, and also have a mentality of scoring,” said Milton. “ I really like to be aggressive, and I think Mike and Ant coming in, I think I could affect the game in many different ways in the second unit, too. ... That’s [what I think fits] so perfectly about this team is just the versatility and guys being able to plug into different spots and help the team win.”
His experience playing alongside dynamic handlers in James Harden and Tyrese Maxey (Ant and Conley) will be important, since Finch likes to vary who has the ball.
“When I was on the floor with James, I would be kind of off ball. But on the floor with Tyrese and De’Anthony, I would be on-ball, too, and me and Tyrese would kind of ping-pong back and forth on ball, off ball. I was on the ball and off the ball in college, too, so it’s kind of something I’ve done my whole life.”
Beyond that, playing with an inside-out big (KAT) in Joel Embiid and a rugged, explosive center like Montrezl Harrell (Naz) will be important in how quickly he can find success in the Wolves’ rotation, too.
“I definitely think it’s communication and also probably just a little bit of feel. Getting out there and getting to really experience it, develop some type of chemistry. Those are three talented bigs, two of them who can really step out and shoot and stretch the floor. I think that’ll definitely help,” he said. “I feel like the more we get out there, the more we get reps in, I feel like the more we’ll develop a little chemistry that way. But I definitely think it’ll work and it should be fun.”
Media days may not preview the season in the best way (since we haven’t seen the team on the floor at all, yet), but they do inform us what executives, coaches and players believe is important entering a new season, and Thursday was a terrific crash course in that. The Wolves are genuinely interested in defending at a high level, sacrificing for one another, and working together to find roles that can maximize the impact each player makes on the team. Whether that will change once the feeling of playing less minutes or in a suboptimal role is yet to be seen, but this iteration of the Timberwolves is full of professionalism and down-to-earth people that should serve them well as they embark to accomplish what no team since 2004 has done: win a playoff series and go deep in the postseason.