Why it could be time to take Timberwolves seriously: Taking temperature on Minnesota’s 2021-22 campaign

The easy thing to do is to dismiss the Minnesota Timberwolves. Historically speaking, dismissing them is the smart thing to do. They’ve made the playoffs just once since Kevin Garnett played point guard in the 2004 Western Conference finals, and that playoff appearance, in 2018, was the product of the franchise’s doomed partnership with Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler.

Karl-Anthony Towns is the lone Wolf who remains from that iteration of the team. Backup wing Josh Okogie is the only other holdover from the Thibodeau era. Last season, team president Gersson Rosas fired coach Ryan Saunders 31 games into the season and replaced him with Chris Finch, hired away from the Toronto Raptors. A few days before this season’s Media Day, the Timberwolves fired Rosas and promoted Sachin Gupta to the top spot. Rosas reportedly had an inappropriate relationship with an employee. Towns said you can “just add it to the list.”

If you are looking for reasons to take the Wolves seriously, though, start with Towns. After going through hell, he seems primed to reestablish himself as an All-NBA player, with the help of a coach who will give him as much freedom as he can handle offensively and is in the process of overhauling the defense to cater to his strengths.

There is also Anthony Edwards. No one improved more over the course of last season than the 2020 No. 1 pick, and he’s apparently 6-foot-6 now. There is D’Angelo Russell, healthy and with a lot to prove. There is Jaden McDaniels, and all of the possibility that he represents. Patrick Beverley has arrived to get stops, Malik Beasley has returned to get buckets and there’s a decent chance that Jarred Vanderbilt is the best role player you don’t know about. 

And then there is the Ben Simmons stuff. Looming over the Rosas firing and the season that is about to start is an unavoidable truth: Towns and Simmons are perfect for each other, and Minnesota’s reported interest in the disgruntled Sixers star makes all the sense in the world. 

One of the many reasons a trade hasn’t materialized yet, though, is that Gupta’s front office has an intriguing roster as-is. External expectations are low, but the Wolves have the talent to be one of the better offensive teams in the league. Maybe this is finally the start of something. 

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Minnesota Timberwolves roster

Malik Beasley Patrick Beverley Leandro Bolmaro Brian Bowen II Ed Davis Anthony Edwards Nathan Knight Jake Layman Matt Lewis Jaden McDaniels Jordan McLaughlin Isaiah Miller Jaylen Nowell Josh Okogie Taurean Prince Naz Reid D’Angelo Russell Chris Silva Karl-Anthony Towns Jarred Vanderbilt McKinley Wright IV

Taking the temperature

Timberwolves believer: I’m ready for the Wolves to show everybody what they’ve been building for a while. It’s been obscured by injuries and drama, but they’ve done a lot of good stuff since pairing KAT with his buddy D-Lo: The Edwards pick, the McDaniels pick, the Finch hiring and now the Beverley trade. People are going to be shocked when this is simply a competent team.

Timberwolves skeptic: I admit they could be pretty good offensively. But we say that every year, and inevitably everything goes wrong. This time we didn’t even need to wait for the season to start for things to start falling apart! Rosas was supposed to be the guy who brought the franchise stability. 

Timberwolves believer: I don’t see what Rosas’ departure has to do with what’s about to happen on the court. If anything, I’m psyched that Sachin Gupta is in charge now — he sounds like both a genius and a good dude. You’re aware that the Wolves scored 120.9 points per 100 possessions with KAT, D-Lo and Ant on the court last season, right?

Timberwolves skeptic: I am aware. But I don’t think this particular sample, almost entirely near the end of a miserable season, is particularly meaningful. It’s good that the team was better when its three most important players played together, I guess, but you’re leaving out the fact that their defense was awful during those minutes. At some point one or two of these guys needs to become a decent defender, or there needs to be a trade. (I hear there’s a guy in Philly who wants out.)

Timberwolves believer: I mean, I’ve seen Towns play decent defense. I’ve seen flashes from Edwards, too, and he definitely has the physical attributes to develop into a top-tier defender. The last time Russell was healthy for a full season was his final year in Brooklyn, and those Nets were average on defense and better than that with him on the court. He’s not a stopper, but he can be fine. I like that Finch is going with a more aggressive, Denver-like pick-and-roll coverage, and, between McDaniels, Beverley, Vanderbilt and Okogie, there should always be enough support for the weaker defenders. 

Timberwolves skeptic: If the Wolves are going to follow the Nuggets’ blueprint, they need Towns to play like an MVP. I actually think he could put up Jokic-esque numbers, but I highly doubt he can elevate his team to similar heights. The supporting cast is just weird! I expect nothing out of Russell, Edwards or Beasley defensively. I don’t expect much out of McDaniels, Vanderbilt or Okogie offensively. Do you think Taurean Prince is going to suddenly start defending like he did when he came into the league? Do you think Naz Reid, Jake Layman and Jordan McLaughlin are reliable rotation pieces? I wish there were more depth here. 

Timberwolves believer: There will be some shooting vs. defense decisions to be made, sure, but McDaniels made 41 percent of his corner 3s last year. Reid is sort of stretchy, too, and Finch can experiment with big, physical, versatile lineups. The Wolves might not have the deepest roster in the league, but if the end of last season is any indication, they have a coach who knows what he’s doing. Playoffs, play-in, whatever — I haven’t felt this good about the team since they traded for Jimmy Butler. 

Timberwolves skeptic: And that worked out extremely well for everybody, didn’t it? But seriously, while I can’t say I share your faith in Finch, I do think he’s an important variable. He doesn’t have an obvious starting or closing lineup. He doesn’t have an abundance of two-way players. The type of problem-solving that usually isn’t that important until the playoffs will be an every-night thing. If the Wolves are going to sneak into the play-in, we’ll be talking about Finchy. 

Eye on: Jaden McDaniels

McDaniels should have made All-Rookie last year, and it’s easy to see why everyone in Minnesota is so enamored with him. He already has good anticipation as a weak side shot-blocker, and he glides around the court like a wing. Despite standing 6-foot-10, he played 58 percent of his minutes at small forward last season, per Cleaning The Glass, and he might start there in Year 2.

Regardless of whether or not he starts and what position he plays, he’ll be expected to defend star players of all sizes, wreak havoc in transition and generally do winning-player stuff at the age of 21. We know he’ll find some scoring opportunities just by cutting hard when Towns has the ball. We know he’ll at least take corner 3s when they’re open. I want to see him shoot more 3s and shoot more accurately above the break (he made 33 percent of his non-corner 3s last season), if only because I want to see him make plays when defenders close out. 


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