The Minnesota Timberwolves are, once again, bad. Fans are defeated. The expectation for this season was that the squad could take another step forward. Supporters were hopeful that this roster could become a top-10 seed in the Western Conference and compete for a spot in the play-in tournament. With a 5-14 record, the Wolves are the worst team in the west and third-worst in the NBA. There are reasons for Minnesota’s poor start to the season that go beyond the fact franchise big Karl-Anthony Towns has played four games. There are systematic issues that need addressing for the Wolves to turn it around.
Karl-Anthony Towns’ absence
Let’s get the obvious out the way. Karl-Anthony Towns is a big missing piece for the Timberwolves. Whilst his lack of appearances hasn’t been the only reason for the team’s misfortunes to start the season, it’s certainly one of the key ones. For his entire career, KAT has been a nightly double-double threat. At the age of 25, he has one of the highest total 20/20 games amongst all active NBA players. That’s production that cannot be filled by Naz Reid (who, to be fair, has actually been alright).
Having developed into arguably the best offensively-skilled center in the NBA today, Towns’ absence has contributed to the Wolves being dead-last in offensive rating. Furthermore, lead guard D’Angelo Russell hasn’t been incredible while KAT has been out. Though D’Lo is evidently better with his buddy on the court with him.
Good roster, bad system
Wolves GM Gersson Rosas has done a great job of acquiring a strong supporting cast that should be lifting a Towns – Russell duo to playoff contention. In all the transactions made by the front office since Rosas arrived in 2019, the Wolves have brought in Malik Beasley (a nearly 20 ppg scorer since landing in Minnesota) and Juancho Hernangomez, signed Ed Davis and brought back Ricky Rubio, as well as drafting Anthony Edwards first overall in the 2020 NBA Draft. Add Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver to the mix and you have a strong side that really should be better.
So what’s wrong?
When he joined to Minnesota Timberwolves, Rosas was coming off a stint with the Rockets that totalled 16 years. He worked as a trusted confidant of GM Daryl Morey and watched as “Morey-Ball”, and it’s numerous high-volume-shooting variants, swept across the league. He envisioned a Timberwolves offence of a similar style and trusted young coach Ryan Saunders to orchestrate it. For the first two games of the 2020/21 season, they did. Then it all fell away.
Whilst the Wolves offensive leaders are incredibly talented on that end of the floor, they can’t make just make shots over anybody. Each player has their strengths and weaknesses, yet the system Rosas and Saunders are trying to implement isn’t utilizing strengths. We know that D’Lo is a great scorer, he showed it with Golden State and at points this season with Minnesota, but he could be even better playing in a system that helped him.
This applies to many of the other offensive talents at the team’s disposal. Look at Rubio, he is currently having, arguably, the worst season of his 12-year career. He has excellent court-vision and excels when the ball is in his hands and he can create shots for his teammates. However, the Wolves have allocated Rubio an off-ball role. On most possessions, he waits outside the arc, ready to shoot whenever the ball lands in his hands.
To encourage more outside shooting, the Wolves are running more of a “read-and-react offense” than any sort of rigid system. The issue with this is that the roster is still very young and, for the most part, players don’t have the experience to look at an opponent’s defense and decide what they will do play-by-play. When they do try to run things, it’s very pick and roll-heavy. Nobody on the Wolves roster outside of KAT is really a reliable screener for any sort of pick- and-roll/pop scenario. With the team being last in the league in points-per-possession (1.02), these sets evidently aren’t working. The system is just not the right one for the guys on the roster. It doesn’t hide player weaknesses and is instead, evidently very uncomfortable to play in. It all adds up to just a poor offense and one that harms the team defensively too.
The defense doesn’t have a chance
With the high-volume of bad, early shots and the number of turnovers, opposing teams get the ball back very quickly. Minnesota’s defense doesn’t get the chance to set up properly and try to get some stops. When the team’s defensive abilities are already as bad as they are, this is late game suicide. It explains why the Wolves keep losing late leads. Even when some of the key components are playing developing as defenders, a defence with a bottom-five defensive rating isn’t something that can cope with a flailing offence that makes it harder. It all goes hand-in-hand. If the Wolves played more efficiently (or just better) on the offensive end, they might actually have a chance to play some defense.
Rosas and Saunders know that this team should have won more than five games by now. It is easy to blame the players and the fact the franchise has always struggled for the Wolves failings. This season though, the reasons for Minnesota’s early struggles lay firmly at the office doors of the GM and Head Coach. Changes need to be made for this team to climb up the conference.
(And having KAT back would be nice too…)