On the night before Thanksgiving, the Minnesota Timberwolves played basketball as if the tumblers had inexplicably yet unmistakably aligned and the fat steel door of the safe containing all the secrets to answered hopes and adept hoops had swung open for teamwork.
The starting five were a giddy brotherhood, mind-readers on offense; marauders on defense. They shared the ball with abundant goodwill and success. Anthony Edwards made 7 of 14 shots, D’Angelo Russell 7 of 10, Jaden McDaniels 8 of 11, Karl-Anthony Towns 8 of 11, and Rudy Gobert 9 of 11. Everybody had at least two assists – DLo had a dozen and KAT earned 8. Everybody grabbed at least three rebounds – Gobert had 16 and KAT grabbed 11. Ant led the team with a trio of three-pointers in five attempts. DLo had three steals. McDaniels had four blocks.
The defense was relentlessly efficient.
“They were just better tonight,” said Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, whose team had won five games in a row coming into the contest. “Their length and physical presence caused problems for us to start the game. It felt like two or three losses – they were just coming at us in waves.”
Over in the other locker room, Timberwolves coach Chris Finch was succinct about his own team’s fifth straight win. “I just told the guys that was our best performance of the season, no doubt.”
That was less than a week ago.
The safe swung shut at halftime of Minnesota’s next game two days later in Charlotte against the Hornets, suffocating the Wolves as they were pre-occupied with their self-satisfied memories of teamwork. A 10 point lead evaporated halfway through the third quarter, and by the end of the period it was an eight point deficit, en route to a two-point loss against a mediocre opponent missing its best player.
Then came the carnage so familiar to longtime Wolves fans. Coming home to Target Center on a Sunday afternoon, they were annihilated by the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Ten seconds into the game, former Timberwolf Andrew Wiggins skied high over the rim, catching a lob from teammate Draymond Green for a vicious left-handed slam. Less than a minute later, guard Stephen Curry rebounded a missed KAT three-pointer and fed a streaking Green for an uncontested layup. Twenty-three seconds after that, Gobert slipped on the floor beneath the hoop and Green received a basic bounce-pass from Curry for another slam.
Golden State scored 47 points in the first quarter to lead by 20. Their biggest margin was 100-72 with four and a half minutes remaining in the third period. They made 25 of their 30 shot attempts in the paint – 80%. They could have named the final score, but settled for 137-114.
Monday night in Washington it was more of the same. The Wizards scored 77 points in the first half to lead by 19. The Wolves summoned some focus and dignity to cut the deficit to single digits just a few minutes into the third quarter. But shortly thereafter, KAT collapsed to the floor with nobody around him, clutching his lower right leg.
There are times when KAT will milk the pain of an injury to embarrass the refs who aren’t calling fouls or to call attention to his own grit through adversity. But history has shown that when he believes something is seriously wrong, he becomes somber and supplicating. That was his mien lying on the floor, and when being helped off the court without putting on weight on the damaged right leg. The biggest fear was a ruptured Achilles tendon, which would have ended his season. The diagnosis was a strained calf, however, which will exacts between four to six weeks of time for healing. Either way, another dose of dolor for a team already missing key role players like McDaniels, Jordan McLaughlin and Taurean Prince due to injury.
“Five days ago we played our best basketball of the season,” Finch said after the game. “We feel like we are a million miles away from that, the reality is that I don’t think we are.”
Maybe so – his disbelief is real – but the reality also is that the Wolves gave up 142 points, which, combined with the 137 Golden State notched on Sunday sets what I believe is a Wolves franchise record for most points allowed in a two-game span in contests that didn’t go into overtime.
Running out of excuses
For those who preached patience at the start of the season, this latest swoon has to be of concern. Twenty games, or approximately a quarter of a full 82-season, has been the most often-stated benchmark for those who assumed the Wolves simply needed time to adjust and familiarize themselves with a roster that was dramatically overhauled during the offseason due to the acquisition of Gobert. Regardless of how one felt about the trade, it was pretty apparent that it would fundamentally affect the team’s locker-room chemistry and stylistic approach to the game, especially on defense. Those who counseled patience had the virtue of logic for their position – and time on their side.
But that warranty is fast approaching an expiration date. A full six weeks into the season, the Wolves are a game below .500 with a won-lost record of 10-11. Per basketball-reference.com, they have played the fourth-easiest schedule in the 30-team NBA. In terms of points scored and points allowed per possession, they rank 17th on offense and 15th on defense. If the regular season were to end today, they would just eke in, by .002 percent, for the 10th and final spot in the standings to qualify for the play-in tournament.
For a franchise that sacrificed five first round draft picks (counting this year’s selection of Walker Kessler) and three of its top seven rotation players from last season to secure the right to pay Gobert max money for the next four years, this prolonged mediocrity is scary. The growing pains are unleashing more pain than growth.
The subsidiary excuses are peeling away. Yes, the combination of Gobert’s heavy schedule playing in the EuroBasket tournament this summer combined with preseason illness for KAT delayed and diminished the chances for them to share the court and develop a rhythm before the regular season. And yes the team’s dreadful effort to start the season forestalled any meaningful measure of how various schemes would fare when faithfully implemented by this revamped roster.
But KAT and Gobert have now logged 401 minutes together. The results of their pairing, and any other lineup combinations ranging from two to five players, have now had the wretched, no-effort minutes leavened by periods, including the five-game winning streak, when the schemes are being implemented well enough to vanquish opponents. And the picture that is beginning to emerge is that something is stubbornly wrong with this team.
From bad to worse
On Monday night, the Wizards exploited a trademark flaw in Gobert’s otherwise stupendous defense – his ability to go out to the perimeter and guard large centers who shoot well from outside. Consequently, the Leviathan, Kristaps Porzingis, who tower three inches above seven feet, rained down 29 points on just nine official shots in the first half alone. Eight of those shots were three-pointers (the other was a lay-up), and six of those treys went in.
When Gobert went to the bench after 5:31 of play, Porzingis had 14 points and the Wizards were up by 15, 23-8. Then Porzingis began to torture smaller defenders with his height inside, drawing enough fouls to garner nine free throws, almost all of them with Gobert on the bench.
One of the reasons the Wolves surged to start the second half was because they swapped in versatile forward Kyle Anderson for guard Austin Rivers in the lineup. Anderson took Porzingis, squelching the big man’s freedom to shoot out on the perimeter, while Gobert “guarded” the offensively limited Wizards forward Deni Avdija, enabling him to roam in the half-court to best deter rim protection, should Porzingis or any other player deign to come into the paint.
It a familiar set-up – last season, Utah would stick Gobert on Jarred Vanderbilt and let a smaller player take on KAT beyond the three-point arc. After the game, Finch acknowledged that it was “something we should have done maybe to start the game.” But of course the Wizards countered by taking Avdija out of the game, meaning that Finch, as he put, “had to go back to shuffling the deck.”
The problem is that KAT is not an exceptionally strong perimeter defender either, which is why going with the huge front line of Gobert, KAT and Anderson to start the second half was the best option. It is one of many ways that starting lineup isn’t a great fit.
At the beginning of the season, the hope was that the Wolves could adapt well to drop coverage on defense, which is Gobert’s specialty. When Gobert went to the bench, Finch had hoped to continue using the “high wall” defense that best suits KAT at center and which promotes an aggressive, “fly around” mentality that became integral to the team’s identity last season.
But the Wolves couldn’t handle the complexity of switching habits and on-the-fly assignments depending on which or how many bigs were in the game for them, and Finch abandoned the high wall in favor of more switching, a little more zone, and a concentration on drop coverage.
Except the drop coverage wasn’t working that well either – certainly not up to Gobert’s usual impact as rim protector – because the starting backcourt of DLo and Ant couldn’t (or didn’t) fight through screens or doggedly move their feet well enough to prevent guards from flooding the paint. In response, Finch moved Gobert up a little more to meet his man at the point of attack and deter the guards on pick and roll, then drop back as the situation warranted. Wolves color commentator came up with the term “soft wall” for it, as it merged some of the principles of the high wall with classic drop schemes.
This fix worked for a while, but inevitably opponents have scouted it out and counter-schemed, or simply play in a style that features baseline cuts that produce layups behind Gobert if and when he moves forward to create a “soft wall.”
So, KAT is not fleet afoot out on the perimeter. DLo and Ant don’t execute on-ball defense reliably enough to trust them in a classic drop scheme. And utilizing the scrambling, fly-around high wall scheme often enough to re-familiarize defenders with its flow and principles would cut into Gobert’s effectiveness as an elite rim protector. This is why Finch talked last week about feeling like the team is constantly trying to patch leaks in a dike. Comprehensive solutions are elusive.
Similar fit issues are evident on offense. The sort of offense Finch likes to run, with rapid ball movement and continue player movement away from the ball, is at odds with DLo’s more deliberate, cerebral, cat-and-mouse dissection of the defensive schemes. To his credit, after a terrible start, DLo has consciously worked to up his pace and get engaged earlier in the half-court machinations. But it is not his natural rhythm.
Then there is Gobert, who, similar to his defense but to an even greater extreme, is elite at a thing or two but very sketchy otherwise. On offense, he is elite at finishing off a classic pick-and-roll, especially if it contains a high lob, and at cleaning up the offensive boards with putbacks and tip-ins. He is good enough at these things to be the all-time historical leader in true shooting percentage, precisely because he is rarely called upon to handle the ball in traffic or shoot from beyond the length of his arms. How to fully utilize this elite but very specific skill set while getting the right amount of touches and situations for phenomenal scorers like KAT and Ant is a juggling act, even when you have a point guard like DLo, who frequently likes to get himself going first, or a fifth option whose offense has blossomed beyond mere catch-and-shoot threes, like Jaden McDaniels.
Something to prove
All of these fit issues are eventually able to be finessed, if not “solved,” so long as the players genuinely buy in to making it work. Unfortunately, this might be the most difficult hurdle for Finch to surmount.
It is possible that the roster is comprised of players who collectively have experienced a level of success and failure that is not conducive to team chemistry.
Start with Gobert. He spent nine successful years in Utah honing his skills to the point where the team made the playoffs his last six seasons, winning well over 60% of its games during that span while he earned Defensive Player of the Year status three times. But the narrative is that he gets played off the floor in the playoffs and can’t take his team to the next level. Joining a talented Wolves team provides him with a golden opportunity to rebut that criticism. But the team is not familiar nor adept at the defensive system that was honed to maximize his elite skills enough to place it reliably in the top ten of the NBA.
Then there is KAT, Ant and DLo, who all found the high wall defensive scheme to be near-perfect fits for their skills and temperament while helping spur the Wolves to their best defensive efficiency since the tenure of coach Rick Adelman. After spending most of his career floundering in a classic drop scheme, KAT reshaped his defensive identity – and ratified his claims about being able to play well in space – using the high wall. That scrambling aggression also catered to Ant’s youthful exuberance and athletic anticipation, and to DLo’s cerebral approach that enabled him to suss out opponents’ play types and communicate strategies that further catalyzed the chaos the Wolves were trying to generate.
Now, because Gobert is necessarily the straw that stirs any defensive drink, KAT has got to burn leather on his size 24 shoes chasing quicker opponents slinging and shooting on the perimeter, while DLo and Ant have to stay disciplined and battle through screens to make the system work.
Flip the script to the offense. Last season the dunker spot belonged to Vando, who finally gained a foothold above scrub status via sweat equity and a thirst for dirty work that didn’t require play calls or touches. Now the dunker spot is helmed by a player with the best damn true shooting percentage in NBA history, whose defensive acumen alone mandates that he be rewarded and fed when open down low at his lesser end of the court.
Meanwhile, DLo is fighting for a contract at a time when his stock is volatile despite being in the prime of his career. Ant has spent the summer hearing from prominent executives and pundits far beyond his entourage that he perhaps the likeliest candidate for the great leap into semi-permanent All Star status and beyond. And as usual, KAT is simultaneously trying to please people and be appropriately appreciated, taking pains to feed Gobert and his other high-powered teammates even as his defensive fit is diminished and his ever-reliable shot isn’t falling from distance.
And know that, even more than Gobert, KAT, DLo and Ant haven’t accomplished anything of real consequence yet.
Jekyll or Hyde?
At the end of the day, what you have out of all this are some very talented players who see and understand how and why they could be special together, who get the concept, but may not have enough interior ammunition to execute it properly.
The quartet at the top of the pecking order play as if they trust each other purposefully but not implicitly – the buy-in is with their heads more than their hearts. And that difference affects the team’s resilience. It is not a coincidence that even when they were stacking five wins in a row, the Wolves were making a habit of turning blow-outs into tight contests, even against teams that due to injuries or roster construction were clearly inferior that evening. Conversely, that threadbare resilience is why bad habits like turnovers and fouls and insufficient ball-containment snowball, turning theoretically tight contests into blowouts on way too many occasions thus far this season. The garish, faux-comebacks once the game is effectively beyond their reach is a damning indictment of their immaturity and lack of understanding about what it really takes to win in the NBA.
With 20/20 hindsight, we see how much the support systems that might have fashioned a bridge to resilience were necessarily sacrificed in the trade. Yes, the outside shooting of Malik Beasley is sorely missed. Ditto the inspirational hustle of Vando and the spine-injecting belligerence of Patrick Beverley. At the same time, the margin of error is now so thin that losing crucial role players like McDaniels, J-Mac, and Prince probably matters more than it should.
You can put on the rose glasses and note that the season is still young, the roster is still talented and relatively unfamiliar with each other, and that the investment in this new status quo is significant enough that all potential remedies will be scoured, honed and calibrated for maximum benefit. I happen to think Chris Finch is an excellent coach and I respect the pedigree of new president of basketball operations Tim Connelly. Wolves fans know how much there is to like about folks on this roster.
Less than a week ago, the Wolves cracked the safe and overwhelmed a very capable Indiana Pacers opponent with a frequently beautiful display of basketball. This is what we look forward to cherishing every season we watch. Let it happen more often under the unrelenting scrutiny of a Wolves franchise going for broke for a change, and struggling to feel as well as figure it out.