“I don’t know. We need more competitiveness in a lot of places right now.”
That was Minnesota Timberwolves’ Head Coach Chris Finch’s response to a question about where he can find more competitiveness on his team following the Wolves’ inflection point 116-104 home loss to the last-place Detroit Pistons that extended the team’s losing streak to six.
Finch has been searching for a heightened sense of urgency, competitiveness, work ethic and toughness for weeks, but hasn’t found it consistently in anyone outside of Anthony Edwards — who gutted through a nasty left hip contusion to score a game-high 30 points on the second night of a back-to-back — and Naz Reid — who leaves everything he has on the floor every night regardless of whether or not his shots are going in, how often he’s getting the ball, or what the scoreboard reads.
“Everybody to buy-in, everybody to want to win, everybody to want to be the best version of themselves and help each and every one win,” Reid said in the locker room as to what the key is to boosting the team’s collective compete level, a key issue in their second half meltdown.
“Just try to be honest with them, as honest as possible. Try to up the accountability, and maybe I need to think differently about who plays when and how,” Finch added. “Maybe I’ve just got to shuffle [the lineup] up totally different.”
That honesty bled over to the players tonight in the locker room.
On a normal night, the locker room is open to the media within 20-25 minutes of the final buzzer sounding. But on Saturday night, the locker room doors remained closed nearly 45 minutes after the game went final, because the team held a players only meeting in the locker room — one that fans can only hope charted a path to turning the season around.
“Tonight was the first time I saw them frustrated with each other through a lot of different ins and outs of the lineup, tough losses on the road, but tonight I think it manifested itself in a different way,” Finch said postgame. “A lot of frustration with guys not making the right and simple play.”
Reid then shot down the notion that the team’s underachieving to this point is a mystery, with an eye-opening answer.
“Not really. We know. We know. We know why. And ya know, I’m gonna kinda keep that in house. But we know why,” Reid said. “That’s why I said before, I feel like we can change this. We know we can change it. So we just got to buy into the things that we know.”
Clearly, the Timberwolves are not on the same page, from every player to the coaching staff to the front office.
The team is comprised of very different personalities on and off the floor, and has no defined leader. Rudy Gobert even admitted last night that the team can get “tired of hearing each other’s voice” when it comes to holding each other accountable.
The coaching staff’s messages aren’t landing with players, because the team’s season-long problems with rebounding, effort, turnovers, and transition defense — none of which are personnel-related — continue to plague them, despite lineup tinkering and differing matchups from night-to-night.
The front office mortgaged the team’s future and glue guys for a player on a different timeline than its two cornerstone players, who also isn’t a fit with the boisterous and supremely confident personality that the Timberwolves rode into the playoffs last year. Not to mention that Gobert’s pick-and-roll skills and play style do not mix well with the incumbent head coach’s preferred pace-and-space, unscripted offensive system.
A widespread lack of alignment among all three levels of an NBA team creates season-defining nights like the one fans witnessed at Target Center on Saturday.
When a team enters a game riding a five-game losing streak and has two All-Star caliber players both significantly better than any player on the opposing roster, then blows a 14-point halftime lead in humiliating fashion on its home floor before getting dominated in the fourth quarter by Hamidou Diallo, Cory Joseph, Rodney McGruder, Marvin Bagley III and Alec Burks, questions will surely arise.
Pretty standard third quarter Wolves defensepic.twitter.com/HVGfjvMqHg— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) January 1, 2023
First up, how did that lineup score 26 of the Pistons 28 fourth quarter points and win the game?
Entitlement and a putrid disrespect of the game of basketball wreaked havoc on the Timberwolves’ fourth quarter. Entering the frame all square at 88 after carrying a 64-50 lead into the half, the Wolves had a terrific opportunity to respond, end their losing streak, and feel better heading into the New Year. Instead, they let Diallo, McGruder and Bagley III hustle them for six offensive rebounds in the first 5:31 of the quarter and outscore the entire Wolves team 20-16 by themselves in the final frame.
Simply put, the Pistons wanted every possession more. Minnesota went through the motions arrogantly expecting their talent would win out, like they have for most of the season. The Timberwolves shot 4/10 from 2 and 0/7 from 3, and didn’t make up for it with added effort on the other end. Plays like this defined the quarter — and the season.
Despite Gobert and Edwards having better position to rebound the ball than McGruder, the Pistons guard comes up with the loose ball simply because he worked harder. An end-of-the-bench player exhibiting winning basketball better than two All-Stars.
“The second half, ball movement stops, the competitiveness stops and they get, what do they have in transition, 40-something in transition and the offensive glass. Those are just effort categories. Obviously they just wanted it more than we did,” Finch said. “We got really selfish in the second half.”
Is there an internal solution to the problems the Wolves face?
Outside of the getting healthier and welcoming back more firepower in the team’s two best shooters in Karl-Anthony Towns and Taurean Prince, and the best table-setter on the roster in Jordan McLaughlin, that’s not a question I can answer.
I don’t know what lies inside of every player on the Timberwolves roster. As much as I wish I could confidently say that this six-game losing skid has lit a fiercely burning fire inside all 17 Wolves, I can’t.
But if the players can’t find that fire, or travel to that place inside their minds that energizes and motivates them to conquer the adversity in front of them, it may send a message that they aren’t responding to Finch, a death knell for NBA coaches.
Reid believes the team can turn it around.
“I feel like some of the factors are the same, some aren’t. But, like, it’s fixable. That’s the biggest help of everything, it’s fixable. Both factors were fixable,” he said when asked if the change needed to spur a run this season is similar to that of last season. “So, I mean, this is not something we can’t fix. We can fix it, turn it around and can be in the best situation for us thus far.”
However, players have been speaking about how fixable the Wolves’ issues are since the second week of the season. We’re now 37 games into the season and the Wolves sit five games below .500 at 16-21. Given that context, nights like Saturday often result in decision-makers evaluating all their options.
After working with a roster last season that fit his system wonderfully, had an alpha dog leader in Patrick Beverley and players who bought into clearly defined roles, Finch hasn’t enjoyed the same luxuries this season, and hasn’t had good injury luck, either.
Despite plenty of public support from Edwards, Towns and even President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly leading up to this season, time will tell if his players rise to the occasion, play harder, play more connected basketball, win more games and prove they believe Finch can help them do so.
Jaden McDaniels is a man of very few words. Yet he shared an important sentiments tonight:— Jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) January 1, 2023
"We know what we need to do, what we’re bad at. We watch it every day in film, so I feel like it’s a care factor.”
The care factor needs to be higher?
"Yeah, I would say that.”
If there isn’t an internal solution, what happens next?
A full audit of the team’s roster around Edwards would need to be in order over the remainder of the season. Towns is a perfect offensive fit as a stretch big next to Edwards, and the pair thrived together during the second half of the season and into the postseason. Towns’ shooting gravity brought the best out of Edwards while also ensuring Edwards didn’t have to carry the scoring load night in and night out.
If it were up to me, I’d absolutely keep Towns, because he’s one of the best basketball players on the planet. But given the all-in nature of the Gobert move, the only avenue for the Wolves’ front office to recoup enough value in order to effectively build around Edwards may be to take calls about Towns. That’s the worst part of the Gobert trade.
Not only did the team potentially alienate Edwards in a way by trading two of his closest friends on the team who are also excellent defensive fits, or trade for a player who clearly does not fit well next to him at this stage of his career, but they also may have pigeonholed themselves into trading one of the league’s best No. 2’s, a tremendous Finch system fit and the rare player who loves it in Minnesota.
And, if the Wolves keep Towns for another year and the Gobert move doesn’t bear fruit, they may run the risk of wasting a second year of Edwards’ star-level play on a rookie contract, only to reach the same end of trading a star.
Even if the Timberwolves traded Towns, it’s hard to balance the calculus of netting high-level with finding good personality fits with Edwards, who evidently loves going to battle with hard-nosed, fiery, leave-it-all-out-there teammates by his side.
And given Russell’s expiring contract, it’s hard to trade him in-season as a means of achieving the same end as a Towns move, because Russell wouldn’t net a comparable return and it would complicate their cap sheet. Not to mention Russell departing would create a sizable hole in the team’s makeup that is difficult to replace given the team’s lack of tradable assets and financial flexibility.
Again, this fork in the road only appears if the team cannot conjure the effort, spirit, and cohesion required to win in the NBA.
Aimed at catapulting the team forward into more consistent and lasting playoff contention, the Wolves went all-in by acquiring Rudy Gobert.
37 games in, the result is a team in disarray at three levels of the organization. The move disrupted Minnesota’s collective personality as a team, created a disconnect between the roster and Finch’s offensive system, and left the front office with very limited options to improve the team internally or externally.
The Timberwolves are finding out in real time that playing winning basketball is so much more than talent.
The Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, and Phoenix Suns all have endured more player games missed due to injury or illness than the Wolves, yet all are at least three games above Minnesota in the standings.
Because playing hard is not a chore for those teams. Players on those teams play more connected basketball. They all buy into what their coaches and teammates ask of them. They hold each other accountable. They mostly dominate at home. Perhaps most importantly, they all have fun.
None of those things are true for a Minnesota Timberwolves team whose stock has crashed to rock bottom, with little hopes of a quick rebound given the state of their injury report. The team couldn’t find it within themselves to play with the requisite effort to beat the worst team in the NBA with no All-Star caliber players, and correctly got booed off their home floor.
If that doesn’t inspire change in the Wolves’ collective effort and competitiveness, nothing will.
And if that change doesn’t come, ringing in the New Year by getting run off the floor by bench players on the worst team in the league to will be the least of their problems.