Minnesota has a gaudy collection of young talent, but things haven’t clicked in the Twin Cities. With things looking desperate, it’s going to be one hell of an ask to get the franchise back on track.
When Gersson Rosas took over as general manager for the Minnesota Timberwolves in April 2019, the franchise was still reeling from the fallout of the Jimmy Butler supernova and Tom Thibodeau’s contentious ousting as head coach. That being said, there was a roadmap forward, and Rosas had both resources and talent at his disposal.
If you had told him then that in February 2021 his roster would be built around a pair of 25-year-olds with three All-Star appearances between them, a sophomore sixth overall pick, a rookie first overall pick and a slew of savvy bargain bin pickups, Rosas would have almost certainly jumped in. That’s essentially the makeup of the Wolves’ roster, yet the team has consistently been less than the sum of their parts.
It starts with Minnesota’s franchise big man, Karl Anthony Towns. Amid a period of almost unimaginable human tragedy, Towns is understandably not mentally engaged and has admitted as much himself. A wrist injury and COVID-19 diagnosis have limited him to just five games so far this season, but his on-court issues extend back to last season. The sweet-shooting centre is among the most deadly offensive weapons in the NBA but has never graded out as more than a marginal defender, despite flashes of elite play on that end of the court.
In 2019/20, the Wolves were 6.2 points per 100 possessions worse on defence with Towns on the floor, good for the 9th percentile among bigs league-wide, per Cleaning the Glass.
D’Angelo Russell — Rosas’ first big swing as a general manager — only compounds Towns’ defensive shortcomings.
Russell is a poor defender, not quick enough to guard point guards, not agile enough to fly around screens tailing shooters and not physically imposing enough to match up against most shooting guards. Like Towns, he’s a super offensive talent when he’s firing, but paying both players a combined $58 million means that in order to have any sort of return on investment, the Wolves have to play at least two bad defenders at any one time.
That is not the recipe for regular-season success, let alone playoff success.
It leaves the team with only one option; try to sandwich three elite defenders between Russell and Towns in the hope that they will be able to cover for their stars. So far, Minnesota hasn’t been able to strike that balance.
Aside from Towns and Russell, the Wolves’ most heavily used players this season are Malik Beasley, Ricky Rubio, Josh Okogie and number one overall pick Anthony Edwards.
Beasley struggles from the same affliction as Russell, while Rubio’s defensive stability struggles to compensate for his lingering offensive limitations. Okogie is theoretically a plus defender but is so bad offensively as to hamstring any lineup he’s a part of. And as for Edwards, he’s young, and he’s shown a lot of promise, but right now he’s a categorically bad NBA player, posting a 9.7 PER.
Teams with young stars locked up long term have flexibility, however, and should, in theory, be able to weather a down season like this, where injury and personal circumstances have rendered their leader unavailable.
In an ideal world, the Wolves would absorb this hit, cash in a high draft pick and move onto next season with verve and optimism. The fly in the ointment, however, is that to snare Russell from the Warriors and dump Andrew Wiggins’ contract in the process, Minnesota parted with a top-three-protected 2021 draft pick, which becomes unprotected in 2022. The team’s best asset moving forwards is in enemy hands.
The conventional wisdom surrounding this pick is that the Timberwolves would not make the playoffs, and the pick would convey in 2021, somewhere in the mid-lottery. That scenario might still come to fruition, but the Wolves have been so bad that they’re in real danger of finishing with a bottom-three record, and drastically increasing their chances of keeping the pick this year, and sending it to Golden State unprotected in 2022, the long-rumoured double draft.
This year’s draft is loaded at the top, so a high pick will be useful for the franchise, but highly drafted youngsters are not something Minnesota is lacking. They have four players under twenty-five who were drafted in the top six, with Towns, Russell, Edwards and last year’s draftee Jarrett Culver.
This team has enough drafted talent to suffice, but the total impression they’ve left is less than positive, which might incentivise exploring free-agency and trade market options. Minnesota faces the small-market struggle to attract prestige free agents, and the team is pressed up against the cap next season, so that option is off the table. That leaves the trade market as the only feasible method of improving the team quickly.
Towns is untouchable, and considering that Russell was brought in at Towns’ behest, he would appear to join his friend in that category. That leaves Rubio, Beasley, Edwards and Culver as the team’s most enticing assets.
It’s definitely too early to think about moving Edwards; the Wolves made him the number one pick only a few months ago. Culver had a disastrous rookie season as a combo guard and then saw Edwards drafted, Rubio acquired by trade and Beasley handed a big contract. As a result, Culver has been forced off the ball and has struggled mightily. He might have some value around the league from teams looking to buy low, but nothing commensurate with the sixth pick they used on him in 2020, or the assets they gave up to trade up to that spot. Moving on from him so soon after trading up for him would look like a lot of omelette on management’s face, so that seems unlikely.
That leaves Rubio, who’s value has steadily declined and is averaging 6.1 points per game on 35 percent from the field, and Beasley, who has played extremely well but has a lengthy suspension predicted to come down the pipeline this season. In short, there’s not a lot of interesting pieces that would fetch a difference-making veteran for this squad.
Free agency and the trade market seem to have shut the Wolves out, meaning the franchise has only one real option; patience. Coach Ryan Saunders — son of the late Timberwolves heavy-hitter Flip Saunders — seems certain to be fired after the season, and the on-court issues, combined with a lack of roster flexibility may conspire to take Rosas down, too.
This team can’t wait for Edwards to develop into a star, and we’re seeing the limits of a Russell-led squad. All the Wolves can do is hope that Towns comes in off injury, COVID-19 infection and personal tragedy and lifts his team to a previously unseen level; it’s painful for Wolves fans, but this scenario seems unlikely.
The Wolves are many things at once; a win-now team that isn’t winning, a youthful roster of underwhelming draftees and victims of the treadmill of mediocrity. There doesn’t seem to be much light at the end of their tunnel, save for Towns’ return, but it’s becoming clear not even that can save this season — and perhaps their future — for them.