A favorable schedule during the first few weeks of the 2022-23 NBA season was supposed to give the Minnesota Timberwolves a grace period while the team accommodated a seismic identity change with the acquisition of stalwart big man Rudy Gobert to pair with fellow All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns.
But the Wolves quickly proved that they were disinterested in grace in all its manifestations. Their lackluster start to the season shirked the learning curve and squandered any perceived advantages that could help pave their way. Consequently, despite playing the third-easiest schedule thus far (per basketball-reference.com), the Wolves find themselves with a won-lost record of 6-8, 10th in the 15-team Western Conference.
It has been mostly ugly, disheartening basketball to start the season for a team that was expected to compete for home court advantage in the playoffs. The fit between KAT and Gobert has been hit-and-miss, the backcourt of Anthony Edwards and especially point guard D’Angelo Russell has been mostly underwhelming at both ends of the court, the three-point shooting has been surprisingly anemic, and the improvement in defensive rebounding has fallen below expectations.
The most glaring and damning flaw has been the frequent lack of effort and energy that has postponed measurable progress by not putting various schemes and strategies to a legitimate test.
Having vented on all of these aspects in recent columns, I figured it was time to give readers a chance to weigh in with their questions, the first of a few mailbags that will occur throughout the season.
As usual, your feedback was plentiful, often smart, and always appreciated. I’ve culled questions from your comments after my most recent column and your responses on my Twitter feed, choosing subjects that go beyond rants and frustration to things that might clarify and further the discourse about what this team can and should do to improve – and what simply needs time and patience to determine.
The biggest issue for this team has been effort/energy. They are playing like a team that wants to get its coach fired, which I doubt. That leaves personality clashes. Something is amiss among the players and to a degree they can hide a lot of that. Do you know what’s going on? @winstonoboogie18
It’s always great to start your first answer to a mailbag with, “No I don’t know what’s going on.”
By that I mean I am personally unaware of any petty jealousies, seething resentments, spats over pecking-order or role-assumption issues, or any other negative “inside dope” on this team. There may indeed be some – 15-player rosters are rarely a unanimously happy family for an entire season – but as you say, it can easily be hidden from the media and the public. It can also be the source of dis- and misinformation from gossip mongers and clickbait-oriented outlets that know even less than I do.
More to the point, I don’t think this is why effort and energy have been lacking. At the beginning of the season there has simply been too much at stake for the major players to sabotage it by being maliciously petty.
On the contrary, I think the roster is missing the kind of leadership that can boldly assert accountability and inspire through sweat equity. It’s obvious that they miss both the bark and fierce loyalty of Patrick Beverley and the nonstop hustle of Jarred Vanderbilt, both crucial to the identity of last year’s team. The most vocal leaders like Taurean Prince and Austin Rivers don’t play enough to be truly alpha figures, Gobert just arrived on the scene, and other roster members each have one or more missing ingredients for that type of leadership.
This leadership void matters because many parts of this revamped roster don’t naturally fit, to an extent that was underestimated coming into the season. The Wolves were – and are – under a pressure rare to them to immediately meet heightened expectations. They’ve been stunned, flummoxed, and, most critically, enervated, by their failure thus far. Concerns about the lack of resilience in the makeup of this team, which is laden with supposed “underachievers” with “something to prove,” are being ratified.
So, no soap operatic revelations here. Bottom line, I’d guess inexperience plus initial disappointment has more potential to eventually create corrosive chemistry than vice-versa.
DLo’s been bad and I’ve disliked his game since he got here. However, is he being scapegoated the same way (many others) were before him; where, yes, they weren’t performing but removing them changed nothing and a new scapegoat quickly took their place? –@jordanmcnea
I chose this question from among the dozens of anti-DLo screeds because it answers many of them: Assuming you’re right and DLo stinks, what then? Is there an obvious and easy path to an upgrade? After the bloodlust of removing him as a source of frustration has been sated via demotion or trade, will the team be better suited to pursue its lofty goals this season?
I love the pace and savvy that backup point guard Jordan McLaughlin puts into the game – he is a perfect fit for the type of ball-movement offense coach Chris Finch likes to deploy. But as the departed Josh Okogie can attest, Finch also prioritizes reliable shooting, and that ain’t J-Mac. His three-point accuracy has declined every year he’s been in the NBA – after making only 27-for-85 (31.8%) last season, he is a dreadful 2-for-19 (10.5%) thus far this year. J-Mac can also be bullied off the bounce on defense. Both of those flaws would be hammered if he were the starter in the crucible of the playoffs.
Otherwise, Rivers is a tenacious defender with mediocre court vision and a step-slow athleticism in his advancing years. Bryn Forbes is a deadly long-range shooter but an otherwise woeful candidate to play the point at either end of the court. Forward Kyle Anderson is a wonderful playmaker for his size but strictly a novelty act as a working point guard.
Trading DLo requires another team willing to take on his $30 million salary and forfeit $30 million of their talent in return. It requires the Wolves being so disenchanted that they sell low and at a risk that they can’t recoup enough value to justify losing DLo’s salary slot – keeping the slot is probably their best avenue toward spending into the luxury tax to improve the team during this four-year KAT-Gobert experiment.
Demoting DLo would risk his alienation. Running the second unit in a contract year after having first Ricky Rubio then PatBev cut into his core duties at the point his previous two seasons would not be greeted with enthusiasm.
Clearly, DLo is the most blatant factor in the Wolves wretched start to the season. He’s doesn’t get the team into its offense rapidly enough, his shooting has been brutal, his defense remains porous and indifferent and his decision-making has been sketchy. Sooner or later, change may be necessary. But his performance in the Sunday night win in Cleveland is a timely reminder that DLo has the highest ceiling of any point guard on the roster (he is a mere five weeks older than J-Mac) and thus probably gives the Wolves the best chance of returning to the playoffs. It is not ideal. What the Wolves must decide is, is it workable.
Do you think that Finch can be humble enough to move away from his preferred style of offense to try a scheme that may better fit the personnel that we have on this current roster? I fear that if he is too proud to adapt it may ultimately cost him his job and I’m not sure who else is out there that you can bring in and immediately turn this around if he were to be let go. – Daniel Burrer
Yes, I believe Finch can be flexible. And while I do not think he is remotely close to losing his job (a subject of a half-dozen or more questions) I am sure nobody else would “immediately turn this around” if he were replaced.
Finch has frequently stated when matters are in the realm of his responsibility. He tags questions about the loss of PatBev and other leadership issues by noting that if the players falter, it is up to him and his staff to fill the void. Similarly, he has noted that if the players prove they can’t thrive under the schemes devised, then it is up to him change the schemes.
In that context, I would say that Finch is more culpable for a lack of accountability than for not devising, or rapidly adjusting, his schemes. When Finch says the ball movement is “sticky” on offense, or that the team “lacks physicality” fighting through screens and corralling long defensive rebounds, what he is saying is that they are being selfish and unmotivated. The problem is that he has said it a lot already in this young season without discernible improvement. In a similar vein, the Wolves’ chronic lethargy coming out after halftime is an indictment of his coaching.
In terms of scheme, Finch has already abandoned, at least temporarily, the “high wall” defensive style the Wolves used almost exclusively last season. It is a not a practice option when you have a classic “drop coverage” center like Gobert protecting the rim, and the switch from drop to high-wall was creating confusion when Gobert went to the bench and KAT became center. Increasing the amount of switches and zone coverages on defense as the primary alternatives to drop coverage is a huge compromise is his plans, and in his hopes to retain the “fly around” energy that the high-wall concept generated last season.
On offense, I have always disagreed with Finch’s desire to get Gobert more active as a playmaker beyond setting screens, finishing pick-and-rolls and executing put-backs from offensive rebounds. I don’t want to emphasize his post-ups or deliberately make him a passer outside the paint. And I would put Ant on the ball more purposefully and frequently than does Finch.
But Finch has a good track record meshing two big men in the same offense, having done it successfully with first (albeit briefly) Nikola Jokic and Yusuf Nurkic in Denver and then Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins in New Orleans. And I agree with his desire for KAT to shoot more frequently from outside. I think he is right to be stubborn about emphasizing both ball movement and movement without the ball as his first principles on offense.
The Wolves rank 19th in offensive efficiency (as of Tuesday morning) partly because their initiator, DLo, is off to a horrid start, partly because the size and shape of Gobert’s fit on offense is still in flux, and partly because they are collectively shooting poorly from three-point range. But their low-wattage offense is mostly due to their low-wattage energy and low-wattage commitment to the fundamentals of ball movement, movement without the ball, and smart transitioning back and forth between offense and defense.
One way to enforce more accountability may be to impose more structure on the offense, so that the passing and player movement is mandated more than optional. That too would be a compromise from Finch’s preferred method of devising schemes around proven tendencies that the players collectively develop themselves. In any case, until either Finch or the players exhibit better discipline and accountability – and the past two or three games have been hopeful in that regard – there is no reliable way to measure the fit of the schemes.
I’d love to know how Finchy and the coaching staff can get KAT’s point of difference back on the offensive end. I’m not sure if he has looked below his best because of the position change or the lingering aspects of his preseason illness and conditioning. –Scott O’Donnell
There were also a lot of questions skeptical of KAT’s leadership and disdainful of his ongoing immaturity. These are staple criticisms of KAT that wax and wane in terms of relevance and are inevitably addressed in a column or three throughout the course of any given season.
I like Scott O’Donnell’s tack because it helps to highlight KAT’s idiosyncratic strengths as well as his more notorious idiosyncratic weaknesses.
If there is anyone on the team who could be forgiven for ignoring Finch’s ball movement and movement without the ball principles, it would be KAT. He is a historically accurate shooter for a big man, capable of hunting buckets by exposing mismatches anywhere on the court. He is the best long-range shooter on the roster (only Forbes comes close), and quite possibly the best finisher off dribble penetration.
But with the Gobert acquisition drawing a lot of ballyhoo and scrutiny on to the fit between the two bigs, KAT has decided that he will “unlock” Gobert’s offensive potential and otherwise accommodate his new teammate with ostentatious unselfishness. What this means is doling out more dimes so that Rudy and his teammates can feast. It also means fewer shots from one of the NBA’s most efficient scorers.
Nobody has provided more assists to Gobert this season than KAT. Meanwhile he is shooting less frequently than in any of his previous seven seasons, save the playoff year under Tom Thibodeau when Jimmy Butler ran the show. He’s been a little less accurate on three-pointers, a little more accurate on two-pointers and free throws, so his true shooting percentage remains elite – 63.6%–but his points-per-game is the lowest since, again, that 2017-18 season with Thibs and Jimmy, while still leading the team. He is also dishing out a career-high 5.2 assists per game, second only to DLo’s 6.2 on the team.
In other words, KAT’s “point of difference” is still notably marked, just arrayed differently. He could probably become a little bit more of a scorer, and thus more valuable. But when it comes to playing offense, probably better to let KAT be KAT and harp more on the still-terrible screens he sets, and the unhelpful gesticulations through which he baits and jousts with refs and opponents.
I want to know how the front office handles (president of basketball operations Tim) Connelly. They gave him huge dollars, he mortgages the future and the team has gotten worse. Will they trust him to fix it? How do they move forward now? –@MNrealist, @bigmikedubs34
Compared to (past front office leadership), has (the current leadership) been more insulated from the media? @connor_is
As with demoting/trading DLo, firing Finch, or trading KAT, dumping Tim Connelly or otherwise passing judgment on his 14-game tenure here is an knee-jerk reaction borne of understandable disenchantment with the Wolves miserable start. Wolves fans have earned their right to latent cynicism – it would have been difficult to survive for the past decade or more without it.
All that said, it is true that there was widespread skepticism around the NBA about the fit between KAT and Gobert at a time when the modern NBA is trending toward quickness and outside shooting. (It is revealing that most of the beat writers, including yours truly, leaned into optimism and had the Wolves finishing in the vicinity of 50 wins this season. I’ll blame the sugar-high from the delicious 2021-22 campaign.)
It is of course too soon to pronounce anyone wrong or right. Context matters here. The Wolves didn’t take a flyer on this experiment. They traded a raft of draft picks and regular rotation players for Gobert when he had four years left on his contract, then re-signed KAT to four-year extension at the lucrative super-max rate.
If they don’t get it right the first time, there will be tweaks – and more tweaks and more tweaks. The investment in time and treasure is simply too great to abandon.
That is why the fears are raised as well as the stakes. Early returns are not positive, but the current evidence amounts to election results after just 2% of the votes have been counted.
The specific answers to the questions above are that Connelly is “the front office” and so he will handle himself just the way he wants to. Those who could threaten his tenure come down to soon-to-be majority owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez, who are even more heavily invested in Connelly’s success than Connelly himself, who at least has a track record to fall back on. So, Tim Connelly isn’t going anywhere, and if he has made a mess, he will be entrusted to fix it.
To speak to Connelly’s relative silence, there are two easy responses. One is that even when he has been in the spotlight – specifically when he was hired, on draft night, and in announcing the Gobert trade and KAT’s extension – he has preferred humility and self-effacement. And those were in the good times.
The other easy answer is the ongoing theme of this mailbag – we have to wait and see which of our hopes and fears are realized. Patience may not be a virtue but it is the only common-sense approach to adopt 14 desultory games into a grand four-year gambit.
“How do they move forward now?” Hopefully with a little more dedication from the players, a little more internal review from the front office and the coaching staff, and a little more “trust but verify” accountability from all concerned.