As a long-time Minnesota Timberwolves fan who has wandered in the desert of mediocrity, hoping just for one thirst-quenching drink of success, this season has the look and feel of an oasis. But, the problem with being a long-time Wolves fan is that I am absolutely terrified that this is all a mirage. I have a lurking fear that if I reach my hands out to actually make sure this stretch of incredible basketball is real and tell others about it, it’s going to wither away in my hands.
Then, when my fellow weary travelers come over, they’ll say, “It’s just the same old Wolves again.”
But you know what? There’s water here.
Through 42 games, the 2023-24 Timberwolves are the best regular season team in franchise history. Their defense is showing marks of being generationally special, and despite their offense occasionally performing disappearing acts that would make Houdini jealous, they have the best record in the Western Conference.
There are still 40 games left in the regular season, and while no one knows what is going to happen, it is not going to stop me from shouting in the desert that there is indeed water here — and that it may, in fact, be the best water we have ever tasted.
To know that for sure, one has to start looking into the past. In their history, the Wolves really only have one great team to compare others against; the 2003-04 NBA Western Conference Finalists.
That team was special, and I want to know if this roster can measure up in any way against them. So over this grading article, and the ensuing bench article, I’ll be comparing the two rosters. I’m using PER (Player efficiency rating) as a time-traveling stat to give some kind of foundation to stand on for different variations of the league.
Let’s get to it.
PG: Mike Conley (15.3) vs. Sam Cassell (22.8)
It is easy to forget how good Sam Cassell was in the 2003-04 season, the peak of his career. He was named to the All-NBA second team and was an all-star for the first and only time. He had multiple 40-point playoff performances in the first and second rounds which helped the Wolves team reach the Western conference finals. When healthy, Cassell put this Wolves team in title contention.
We all love Minnesota Mike, and even though he’s getting yet another “A” on his report card (sorry, spoilers), he is an elite role player for this team. Now the role is vast; it’s some combination of veteran leader, floor general, outside sharpshooter and referee liaison. He’s the piece that keeps the offense flowing correctly, but Cassell was the flow itself.
Advantage: 2003-04 Timberwolves
SG: Anthony Edwards (19.4) vs. Latrell Spreewell (14.7)
The up-and-coming superstar vs. the aging all-star. Spreewell was close to the end of his career, but he came to Minnesota to team up with Cassell and Garnett in the hope that this big three would give him one last run at a title. He was the third offensive option, but he filled that role well.
Anthony Edwards, on the other hand, is just starting what is going to become an illustrious NBA career. He is knocking on the All-NBA party door and is taking all the steps expected of a young All-Star making a growing imprint in league circles. Even Spree in his best years would have a hard time keeping pace with this version of Anthony Edwards.
Advantage: 2023-24 Timberwolves
SF: Jaden McDaniels (10.1) vs. Trenton Hassell (8.2)
Insert Spider-Man Pointing meme
This is my favorite matchup. Two defensive hounds, but KG wouldn’t like you to call Hassell just a role player, he was their defensive stopper. Hassell fit his role perfectly, but it was a role that was ultimately limited to defense.
McDaniels on the other hand is both one of the best defensive stoppers in the league, and offers a growing offensive repertoire. He is a much better outside shooter than Hassell (38.8% to 30.8% 3-point shooting respectively), and come playoff time, I expect that McDaniels’ offensive impact will help him stand out even more.
Advantage: 2023-24 Timberwolves
PF: Karl-Anthony Towns (18.9) vs. Kevin Garnett (29.4)
This was Kevin Garnett’s application submission to the hall of fame as he remains the only Timberwolves player to win an MVP award. You may find yourself occasionally watching Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals when you need a little jolt of happiness. Getting to watch a player like KG at the peak of his career is a basketball gift many of us will never forget. In fact, this season by Garnett would rank as the 45th greatest season in NBA history based on PER, and if you get rid of repeat seasons from players, KG becomes one of only twenty players in NBA history to record a PER that high.
This is the second lowest PER number for Karl-Anthony Towns in his career, something that marks the sacrifice that he has been asked to make in a role reduction on offense and playing smaller and quicker players on defense. KAT’s peak PER season as the number one option for Timberwolves was 26.5, and his fit and development within this role continues to be the main mark for how deep of a playoff run this Timberwolves team can make.
Advantage: 2003-04 Timberwolves
C: Rudy Gobert (18.2) vs. Ervin Johnson (8.5)
Want to know what is crazy? The difference between Rudy Gobert and an average NBA center in Ervin Johnson, is less than the difference between 2003-04 Garnett and an NBA All-Star in Towns.
Rudy Gobert is your defensive player of the year frontrunner, is currently leading the league in defensive wins shares, and has been the most consistent factor in driving winning for the Timberwolves this year. The competition between these two was over the moment Gobert stepped off the bus.
Advantage: 2023-24 Timberwolves
Doing this exercise really cemented the difference between these two sets of starters for me: The 2023-24 Timberwolves have an overall higher floor of talent, but there is no beating one of the league GOATs at the height of his powers. Anthony Edwards may be knocking on the door of the top 15, but KG was the life of the party that everyone was lining up to see.
Here’s how the final numbers shook out:
Now the good news for those of us hoping that this year’s Timberwolves team may still have a chance to knock the 2003-04 Wolves after their “best team in history” perch, a roster is not made up entirely of starters. Check back in a few days to see how the bench units shook out; I’ll leave you with this question to whet your appetite: Who is a better bench player - Wally Szczerbiak or Naz Reid?
Let’s get to the semester grades.
A few brief reminders about the grading system:
- These grades are roles-based, so the stats I’m looking at for each player are different.
- Roles on the team can change as the roster and playing time changes—I will alter or add statistical categories throughout the season as needed.
- The below stats are broken down into three pieces: Quarter 1 (the first 21 games), Quarter 2 (the next twenty) and First Semester (all games through the first half of the season which goes to Game 41 vs Memphis on 1-18-24).
Mike Conley First Semester Grade: 94% (A)
As a quick reminder, these stats are just from the first half of the season and don’t include Conley’s worst performance as a member of the Timberwolves in Saturday’s loss to the Thunder, but irregardless, one bad performance (and in terms of Conley’s Timberwolves tenure, it might actually just be one bad performance) does not a season define.
There is a case to be made that behind Anthony Edwards, Conley is the next most important piece for offensive effectiveness on this Timberwolves roster. He’s second on the team in offensive estimated plus/minus, and countless times this season, he’s proven to be the straw that stirs the drink and makes this strange cocktail of players coalesce into something delicious.
Anthony Edwards First Semester Grade: 88% (B+)
Superstar expectations for superstar players. Edwards is taking all the steps you want for a player to graduate from All-Star to All-NBA, but as previously written, he’s still only knocking on the door. He hasn’t quite kicked it down and declared “this is my party now.”
The Exceptional: He’s adding dimensions to his offensive game including playmaking (career high 5.0 assists per game) and foul drawing (career high 6.7 FTAs per game). He’s become a more consistent night-to-night defender (87th percentile in defensive estimated plus/minus) and still has the ability in key moments to lock down some of the best players in the league.
The Areas of Growth: Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Since the start of the second quarter of the season, Anthony Edwards is fifth-worst in the league in turnover ratio. The players above him? Two rookies (Scoot Henderson and Victory Wembanyama) and two, let’s say, reputedly careless point guards in Lamelo Ball and Trae Young. Edwards is too special of a player to be turning the ball over this much.
The Timberwolves have the 19th ranked offense in the league, and that is something a player the caliber of Anthony Edwards should take personally. Get inside the top 10 during the second half of the season, and his inauguration into the All-NBA party will be complete.
Jaden McDaniels First Semester Grade: 85% (B)
This is the grade that most surprised me when crunching the numbers and the overall public perception of his play. There are a lot of things trending in the right direction for Jaden McDaniels after a slow start. Look at the fouls per 36. When McDaniels doesn’t foul, he plays more consistent minutes. When he plays more consistent minutes, he establishes more of his role. When he establishes his role on both ends of the court, there is a different level of intelligent engagement on both ends of the floor.
The trend of defending without fouling is akin to Happy Gilmore learning how to putt. A consistent McDaniels will make this number-one-rated defense even better.
There are signs that McDaniels is rounding into the upper level form on both ends of the court. There is one new stat I’ll be tracking starting in the second semester, and this is a combo of rebounds and assists per game - something that should mark more involvement on the offensive end and doing more little things to help the team win.
Buy as much of his stock as you can now, because he will make noise the second half of the season, including finding his way onto the All-Defense team.
Karl-Anthony Towns First Semester Grade: 83% (B)
Once again, KAT is the hardest player to grade for me this season. These are roles-based grades and Towns’ role continues to be nebulous - he’ll morph from the primary offensive option one game to the secondary one in another. In some matchups (Saturday night) he may be best as a tertiary option and elite role player and floor spacer. Like Anthony Edwards, turnovers continue to be a real hindrance to offensive production.
His defense was notably improved at the start of the season, but bit-by-bit as the season has gone on, the defensive efficiency numbers have been dropping, even as players around him have improved. He went from the 4th-ranked defensive player in estimated plus/minus through the first twenty-one games of the season, to the 9th by the end of the following twenty.
He is still the second best player on the team in terms of efficiency rating and estimated wins added despite playing in a more limited role. Throw all of those numbers together and the categories I’m tracking at, he finishes at a “B” grade.
One thing is for certain; the development of his role on both ends of the court may be the single most important factor in whether or not this team can contend for a title.
Rudy Gobert First Semester Grade: 95% (A)
Despite a little bit of a lull in the second quarter, Rudy Gobert remains atop my list as this season’s role-based MVP. This team’s identity is defense and the 7-foot Frenchman is at the heart of everything this team does on that end of the floor.
He’s the DPOY betting favorite, the team is comfortably rated as the best defense in the league, and the questions about his being too long in the tooth are being put to rest. Should he win the DPOY award this year, he’ll join Dikembe Mutumbo and Ben Wallace as the only players in league history to win the award four times, giving him a strong argument for being the best defensive player ever to play the game.
I’ll be back later in the week with a bench breakdown and some final big picture thoughts. In the meantime, if you are looking for some more Timberwolves content, check out the Dunks After Dusk podcast on both Apple and Spotify. On our most recent episode, hand out our midseason awards including the first-half MVP, most important role player, and give a list of our top five moments of the season thus far.