When the Minnesota Timberwolves made the controversial decision to pull the trigger on a massive trade that brought Rudy Gobert to the Twin Cities, several analysts raised concerns about how head coach Chris Finch would manage the team’s offensive spacing.
Tonight, the Wolves put those concerns on film, 100 days after they officially acquired the three-time All-Star from the Utah Jazz.
Minnesota went scoreless for the first 3:15 of the ball game and allowed both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to see shots go down in the same span; the 9-0 hole the Wolves put themselves in set the tone for what was an ugly offensive night and disappointing debut of the Minnesota’s All-Star Northern Heights lineup.
From the jump, it became clear that starting five of D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns and Gobert need more offensive reps together in order to learn how to best play off of one another.
“Tonight we didn’t run any plans. We were playing, just trying to figure it out. We just got to play more first. Forget freestyle, how we play, what we’re doing,” Russell told Canis Hoopus after the game.
The Wolves’ starting point guard isn’t too worried, because he understands the context of the situation.
“In-game reps are going to give you something and we haven’t had practice reps. It starts behind the scenes first. All the behind the scenes needs to be a process for us and once we get there, the sky’s the limit for our group, honestly.”
Minnesota struggled to maintain spacing with the first group on the floor; the ball didn’t move quickly enough; and that cast of players simply aren’t well versed enough with each other as a collective unit to know how to move off of each other without making life harder for Gobert. As a result, many of the Wolves’ first quarter possessions went into the final five seconds of the shot clock and ended with poor shots or turnovers.
Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch offered a (partial) solution to that problem.
“I think we need [Russell] to kind of get us into some basic stuff earlier, not try to do everything early in the offense. His opportunities will come. I’d like to see him be the beneficiary of some more kick-outs,” Finch told Canis Hoopus. “But for that to happen, he’s got to get off of it and move and spot up and let other guys create some opportunities to draw two to the ball.”
Backup point guard Jordan McLaughlin is fantastic at infusing that into the offense when it’s needed, but did not play tonight as the team is looking to keep everyone fresh for next week. Despite playing without McLaughlin and in the face of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving’s incredible shotmaking display to keep the Nets in front, Minnesota generated kinetic energy with ball movement in the third quarter to bring some life back into the offensive flow and, in turn, the crowd.
Awesome ball-movement by the Wolves, this offense is going to be electric pic.twitter.com/9M0FXVYrDe— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) October 15, 2022
It all started with Towns, who has an advanced understanding of his place in this revamped offense and exactly what Finch and Co. need from him.
“You could see the ball was getting a little sticky. I was just making sure to get some flow, some everything,” Towns said postgame. “Just mostly trying to command the situation and play point guard a little more and put people in good spots where I saw throughout the game that they could really maximize their games.”
The three-time All-Star’s ability to put the ball on the deck and attack defenses from anywhere on the floor is at the core of his impact. Towns’ driving figures only to improve with Gobert in the fold.
“I think where it evolves is having that ability to have someone like Rudy, where instead of driving and really trying to make those tough layups and those tough finishes, you know, I get a draw, too,” Towns told Canis Hoopus. “The maturation of my driving game is...making sure I don’t have to make the hard play. Sometimes making the most simple play, which is the dump off to Rudy, let him finish, have a dunk. It’s gonna not only build the morale of our team, but it also makes the emphasis on the passing and the flow and making sure everyone’s getting a chance to touch the basketball.”
While many fans see Russell as the player who will bridge the skills of his teammates together in the half-court, Towns makes more sense to me as the guy who can do that. Opposing teams are so terrified of his shooting that they close-out too hard him, which opens up his drives that collapse defenses; from there, he can make them pay for over-helping and getting out of position with his high-level passing skills. That will open up driving lanes for Edwards against rotating defenses, wide open 3s for Russell, cutting lanes for McDaniels, and relieve pressure Gobert faces around the rim.
Towns’ handle is advanced to the point where he can run 4-5 dribble hand-offs or pick-and-roll with Gobert, too. Those actions unlock a mismatch one of Towns or Gobert can attack, all while you have three very capable 3-point shooters around them in Russell, Edwards and McDaniels.
When those mismatches occur, expect Towns and Russell to feed Gobert a healthy diet of rocket entry passes into the paint after Gobert seals.
“He was underutilized (in Utah). I want to utilize him. I know I’ve said multiple times up here that he’s a generational defensive player. But he’s pretty damn good when he’s around the rim. I want to utilize that maximize it as much as possible,” Towns added. “It opens up different holes for us on offense. It gives us different looks and it helps our team win.”
Gobert was pleased to hear his new running mate speak so glowingly of him.
“I love that. That’s the first thing that he told me after the trade is that ‘I know what you can do, and I’m gonna use you and look for you’. And he’s done that tonight. It was even for me surprising,” Gobert said postgame. “I gotta get used to that and be even more aggressive flashing to the ball. And when I did, it was either a foul or a basket every time. I think doing that is going to open up things for everyone even more.”
The offense played at its best in the third quarter when Towns generated offense for himself and others; he registered three assists in a two-minute span, securing the Wolves momentum as they neared the fourth quarter. His positioning on the floor is going to important, too. Towns doesn’t need the ball in his hands to create for others, either. And he best part about that fact? He’s fully aware of his impact off-ball and how to leverage it.
“Just being there having my hands ready and looking aggressive to shoot the basketball. It draws a lot of attention already,” Towns told Canis Hoopus. “Throughout the game, [I’m] wearing the defense out with the mentality that I might cut, I may come off a screen, I may just sit there and just catch the ball. It just puts a lot of pressure on them and throughout four quarters you know it can be very valuable especially when it’s crunch time.”
Karl-Anthony Towns driving interior pass to Rudy Gobert pic.twitter.com/LhUtch63jk— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) October 15, 2022
While effort was an issue at the point of attack, Minnesota’s problems defensively stemmed mostly from their positioning around Gobert. Towns, who effectively played the weak side low man in drop coverage, got caught sinking too far under the basket, which opened passing lanes to the weak side corner, where Brooklyn got eight wide open looks for 3.
Gobert mentioned postgame he thought Towns is a good defender but, “I think a lot of times it’s just more about knowing where to be.” So, I asked him how much of developing the drop scheme is Gobert simply telling players where he wants them to be versus coaches inserting their view.
“I think obviously it’s [about] constant communication and all being on the same page. I love the way the coaching staff has really embraced me and really been willing to trust me a little bit on that end. We had some great conversations about the terms we want to use, where we want guys to send the ball,” Gobert told Canis Hoopus. “Now, I think it starts for us and the other guys, it starts with being focused on that end and to be a great defensive team.”
In order to do that, the Wolves have to build good habits of the — as Gobert put it — ‘not cute’ things, that will be part of the game whether Minnesota faces a shooting big or rolling big.
“First of all you have to want it and embrace it. You have to be willing to do the things that are not cute. Just communication, which is boxing out, contesting shots, all those things are not cute, but they really change the outcome of a game and season,” Gobert added. “Like if I’m guarding a shooting big, it’s going to be different than if I’m guarding a rolling big. If I’m off the floor, it’s going to be different, but if I’m on the court, all of those things come with understanding the game, and that’s why we need to help each other with communication every night.”
How Towns and Gobert evolve on both ends of the floor will ultimately determine the success of the team’s two-big revolution. The pair got off to a decent start Friday, combining for 31 points on 10/18 shooting, 17 rebounds, six assists and four steals, but Minnesota will need more in the regular season.
The good news for the Wolves is that they will have plenty of time to work out the kinks in their offense ahead of Wednesday night’s season opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Minnesota will practice Sunday, Monday and Tuesday with a smaller group as the team nears Monday’s deadline to cut down the roster to 15 full-time players and a pair of two-way spots.
“I told the guys the best thing about that game is that we got a lot on film. We can look at it, and go to work with a purpose in these next three practice days we have coming up. We got to just let the offense breath a little bit. I think everybody was trying to do too much out there early on,” Finch said postgame.
Nobody in the Timberwolves locker room is overly concerned first and foremost because of the depth of talent on the roster. But, I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that Minnesota plays by far the easiest schedule over the course of their opening 10 games.
The Wolves draw Oklahoma City twice, the San Antonio Spurs three times, the Jazz once, and the Lakers at Target Center before dates with the Phoenix Suns in the desert, Milwaukee Bucks in Minneapolis on ESPN, and the Houston Rockets at home. A much-needed on ramp for a team finding its footing in the wake of seismic change.
But the work on getting out to a good start in a loaded Western Conference starts in practice this week, and on Wednesday we’ll see a clearer picture of what the Wolves learned about each other behind closed doors.