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Let’s Reflect: The First Half of the Season

What just happened, and what’s going on? Let’s reflect and look back, shall we?

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Did you really think this season was going to be smooth sailing and a coast through the regular season, you idiot?

It’s a thought that keeps playing back in my head over, and over, and over again as the Minnesota Timberwolves recently closed in on the halfway point of the season with a gigantic thud, then a slight lift on Monday night. What started out as a record-smashing, unforgettable, precedent-setting and franchise-changing start to the season through the month of November (13-2 in the month, and control of the Western Conference’s top spot) has suddenly surfaced a lot of questions as the NBA trade deadline nears closer and closer.

But instead of recency bias-fueled panic, I wanted to give myself, and hopefully in general some broad based perspective and look at the forest instead of the trees. The NBA, more than seemingly any other league has the propensity to want to drive sizable change after short stretches. Tim Connelly’s former franchise is the antithesis of this sentiment. But I think we’ve now seen two very different “short” stretches, and at minimum, we’re scratching our heads.

Can we try and make sense of any of this?

Minnesota Timberwolves v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

Where Did Things Shift?

My selection of the photo above and for the title of this article was pretty intentional to be geared towards the game in Dallas on January 7th.

Heading into that contest against a Mavericks squad that had both Kyrie Irving and Luka Dončić playing, the Wolves were one of the NBA’s best clutch teams (**clutch game/clutch time is when a game is within five points in the final five minutes of the game).

Heading into that game, the Wolves in the clutch, as a team were:

  • 1st in win percentage (84.6%, 11-2 record)
  • 3rd in field goal percentage (54.7%)
  • 5th in offensive rating (124.7)
  • 5th in defensive rating (102.3)
  • 5th in net rating (22.4)

Winning every 100 clutch time possessions by 22 points is incredibly dominant. But since the Mavs’ 19-9 run that closed out the Wolves on January 7th through Saturday night in San Antonio, Minnesota in the clutch is:

  • 20th in win percentage (28.6%, 2-5 record)
  • 22nd in field goal percentage (37.5%)
  • 26th in offensive rating (88.4)
  • 26th in defensive rating (128.8)
  • 25th in net rating (-40.4)

It’s hard to pinpoint a specific reason that the backslide has happened in these situations. Coach Chris Finch mentioned after said Dallas game that Mike Conley not touching the ball is a major reason things weren’t organized. I think that’s a fair assessment.

The Wolves are 2-3 this season in games Conley doesn’t play. Two of those three losses are to the Charlotte Hornets and the San Antonio Spurs, two of the worst teams in the league.

Their wins are against the worst team in the league in the Washington Wizards and one of the best in the Oklahoma City Thunder. Talk about volatility! Even so, the Wizards made a serious run to try and win, cutting the lead from 13 to 7 in the final five minutes.

(Editor’s Note: if you are reading this on Apple News, please click here to view embedded videos essential to the analysis and enjoy the best overall reading experience.)

Plays like the above; limited-pass possessions that end up in tough jumpers that, if it wasn’t against the Wizards, result in clean runouts and evaporated leads.

It’s a similar script, and the same result that happens time and time again as of recent. With Conley not on the floor, the initiating load shifts to Karl-Anthony Towns and a shot-happy Anthony Edwards, whose struggles in the clutch date back to last season, where his 16 clutch time turnovers were good for third-highest in the league. Sometimes he’s electric, sometimes, it just doesn’t work, and there has to be other pathways when the latter is happening.

Frustrations adjacent to late-game hero ball led to Finch’s viral “disgusting performance” press conference after the embarrassing recent home loss to Charlotte.

Just a month earlier, he applauded his team’s composure in closing out the same Hornets squad on the road. In fact, a Hornets team that had both Nick Richards and Mark Williams healthy, a tougher test, and one that was taken more serious.

So, What?

The comparison I laid out was 13 games vs. seven games. Small samples, but trends. I think there can be two ways to look at this, and they all can be true:

1.) A backup point guard that tapers off the Wolves’ reliance on the 36-year old Conley is going to be necessary if a deep postseason run comes to fruition, and for the future moving forward. I love Kyle Anderson and Jordan McLaughlin, but said backup point guard needs to be able to shoot the ball consistently to stop the bleeding when runs are being given up, or settle down a jumpy young core around them.

2.) The calls for “Point Ant” more permanently need to stop. It’s clear that while he’s progressed to an all-star level, a more full-time, heliocentric facilitator role is not something he’s ready for with teams throwing their entire defensive book at him. That development needs to be slow and intentional, and I think it’s why Finch has publicly pumped the brakes on that dating back to last season.

3.) Ball movement needs to come back. Finch has openly begged for it after blown fourth quarter leads. The increase in hero ball has increased, and the disappearance of Conley, or a true pure point guard that can shoot, from the lineup is directly correlated to this.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The Offensive Barometer

Next year will be the inception of Jaden McDaniels’ five-year, $136 million contract extension that he signed just a few months ago. He’s earned every single dollar of it leading up to the season, but it’s time for him, and his place in the offense, to take a simultaneous step forward.

So far, McDaniels has plateaued in relation to last season. In what was a breakout season of sorts for him both defensively that saw a snub from the all-defense team, and a spike in his offensive usage and production, it’s been a half step back in 2023-24.

McDaniels is now in his second consecutive year in which he’s flirting heavily with a 40 percent 3-point shooting season (currently at 38.2%, was 39.8% last year). But more impressive than his clip from deep is the volume he does it on.

The fourth-year Seattle native doesn’t command a lot of shot attempts. In fact, he’s never averaged much more than nine per game from the field in his career. Yet, he’s still relied upon to post production, and it’s proven how important his production is to the success of the team overall.

The Wolves are 10-3 this year when McDaniels scores 13 or more points. They’re 5-2 when he scores 15 or more. In the 36 games that he’s recorded an appearance in, Minnesota is 25-12 when he plays, and 20-5 when he shoots 50 percent or better from the field.

Finch has spoken about how imperative McDaniels is. His shooting, though sometimes spotty, is essential for a team that is already lacking it. His defense, though not been quite as good as it was last year, could not be more important at the point of attack in funneling people right into Rudy Gobert’s territory at the rim.

He’s often been called, by Finch and others a “barometer for ball movement”. As in, his production and success on the offensive end is a direct reflection of how well the ball is moving. Finch has said outright that they don’t call plays for McDaniels, and that he finds a lot of his spots in the flow of the offense. When the flow isn’t there, or he isn’t getting wide open shots? Often a cautionary tale of where things could be headed.

All to say, it’s not the number of shots being attempted by McDaniels on a nightly basis, but the quality that’s reflected. You just can’t commit long term to a player of Jaden’s skill level and make him a continued shot attempt bottom feeder; a recipient of late clock garbage, or the necessity to continually create his own heavily contested work off the dribble. It’s something that needs to turn around before April rolls in, or the Wolves could be experiencing more April showers than May flowers in the postseason.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

Are You Worried?

Not really, because I’ve seen a sustained 20-game stretch of great success.

Scouts are getting tougher, and teams want to play a top team in the Western Conference with a little bit more juice, and they have to be ready for that.

I hate to compare seasons to the previous one, but it’s something I always tend to fall into. Last season didn’t work because there was never a successful sustained stretch of basketball that was put together. It seemed like a physical impossibility for the team to put together a four-game win streak. That’s not the case this year.

The calls to “fire Chris Finch” or “trade [important piece] now!” are just a tad impulsive. Let’s see how the postseason plays out and reserve our judgements until then. The course of an NBA season brings a lot of twists and turns, and there’s not a single team in NBA history that play consistently during the entirety of a season. Even the 73-9 Golden State Warriors lost to the 29-53 Wolves team in which Shabazz Muhammad dropped 35 points off the bench. It happens.

But it’s time to get the bad games out of the system now, grow up a bit, and re-establish an offensive identity. If not? Well, I guess I wrote this for nothing.