Wolves Split: 8 Thoughts from a Series with the Cavs

The NBA’s condensed schedule in the 20–21 season has led to teams playing one another consecutively more often than in past years. On Sunday and Monday, the Wolves and Cavs squared off in a mini-series where each team won their home game to finish with an even series split. Here are 8 thoughts from the 2 Wolves vs. Cavs games.

 

  1. An ode to Ed Davis. Ed has been in a tough spot over the past few games. He has been forced into duty earlier than expected with the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns for most of the season, then with Naz Reid missing two games and being limited in a third game, Davis has essentially been the only Wolves player capable of playing Center in the NBA. Unfortunately for Ed, the two games that Reid missed happened to come against Joel Embiid for the 76er’s and Andre Drummond for the Cavaliers. Those are two absolutely enormous centers that use brute strength to dominate opponents. Ole Ed is already undersized for a center, and he certainly did not envision himself as the main defender for those two behemoths when he was traded to the Wolves in the offseason. In the most recent game Ed had to face off against Cavs big man Jarrett Allen, who is not much bigger than Davis but is younger and more athletic. Ed Davis started the season looking like he may be on his last legs in the NBA, but these past few games showed that he could be a valuable emergency big man against some of the giants around the league. Let’s hope Towns returns soon and Ed can get some well-deserved rest.
  2. The Wolves starting backcourt decided both games, for better and for worse. In the Wolves win on Sunday, D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley combined for 42 points, including 10 made three pointers on 21 attempts. When they are firing from the three point line with that type of accuracy and volume, Beasley and Russell are tough to stop. Russell was especially valuable in the 4th quarter hitting several three pointers to close out a win. In Towns’ absence, the Wolves need those two to perform like that to win games. Unfortunately when they do not register those stat lines, the team will likely lose as they did on Monday. In the loss the Wolves starting backcourt scored only 28 points combined and needed 33 shot attempts to get there. They also only converted on 3/15 from the three point line. That type of inefficiency is nearly impossible for this version of the Wolves to overcome. The return of the team’s best player, Karl-Anthony Towns, should allow those two guards to find some consistency and alleviate the scoring burden, but for this team to take a step towards the playoffs in the future the Wolves will need Russell and Beasley to score well on a nightly basis.
  3. The ‘Ant Man’ is not just a superhero in Marvel movies. Anthony Edwards is quickly becoming one of the most fun Wolves players to watch. As a 19 year old, he was already vivacious and easy to root for, but now his potential is starting to manifest on the court. In the win on Sunday he showed off his complete repertoire of NBA skills by registering 23 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists in 30 minutes. Ant was able to score in a multitude of ways including pull up jump shots, spot up three point shots, and drives to the rim that including a perfect blend of power and finesse. He showed the rare mix of physicality and skill that will make him a nightmare to defend for opposing teams. By the end of the game, many Wolves fans likely felt confident in Ant handling the ball and driving to score or pass to close the game. In the loss on Monday, Ant was still showing the awesome abilities from the night before, but the offense was bogged down throughout the night and they could not consistently get him the ball where he is comfortable driving and distributing. He ended the loss with a stat line of 13 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. His teammates shooting woes likely stole a few other assists from him during this game. While the return of Karl-Anthony Towns will be a boon for the whole team, Wolves fans should be especially excited about Ant’s potential with a 7ft. sniper on the court with him. Those days should be upon us soon.
  4. Oh by the way, that other Wolves rookies is pretty good too. I think it is is becoming fairly clear that Jaden McDaniels is not just some feel-good story for the Wolves; he is a legitimate NBA player with real skills to play right now. It is a mystery how this kid did not stand out more in his lone season at the University of Washington, but his game is clearly translating to the NBA. Offensively he is still a raw player with flashy skills that will ultimately need more time to develop in the Wolves system, but he is certainly earning his minutes right now on defense. McDaniels registered a steal and 3 blocks in 20 minutes during the win on Sunday, and he was able to help to slow Andre Drummond post up plays by using his length and athleticism to defend the rim. In the loss on Monday he spent more time switching out on to perimeter players like Darius Garland and Collin Sexton and was able to slide his feet to bother their shots very well. When have the “post KG” Wolves ever had a guy with these kinds of tools at 6’9″? The length of McDaniels mixed with his smooth athleticism is already making him an asset on defense, and he should only improve as his knowledge of his responsibilities and the system grows.
  5. The Cavs could be building something special with their young core. The acquisition of Jarrett Allen for the Cavs improves the future potential of their young core exponentially. On their own, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland seemed to be an ill-fitting backcourt of a couple of scorers that cannot defend. Allen is turning into an elite rim protector, so his mere presence mostly mitigates the deficiencies of Garland and Sexton. Drafting Isaac Okoro in the 2020 draft will also help their perimeter defense, and he should improve offensively. Over the next couple of years the Cavs will likely shed Andre Drummond and will have the flexibility to reshape the team around their young players. If they get it right around the margins of the roster, they could be a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference sooner than expected.
  6. These games gave us a hint at what the big man rotation will look like when Towns returns. While we have all appreciated Ed Davis’ yeoman’s work over the past few games, he is likely headed for some DNP’s when Karl-Anthony Towns returns to the lineup (although we are not certain when that will be). Davis and Vanderbilt largely split the Towns minutes in the loss on Monday, with Naz Reid as their “backup” in his return from injury. With Towns back, he will replace Davis as the starter and play big minutes, with Naz as his primary backup. Between the two of them, there will not be any center minutes left for Vanderbilt, which moves him to exclusively play PF. In my opinion, he should start at PF next to Towns, and split the minutes at that position with Jaden McDaniels, who has proven that he is going to need to stay in the rotation. Even with Juancho Hernangomez returning from health & safety protocols, McDaniels needs to play. The coaching staff clearly feels that McDaniels is ready to contribute, as they inserted him into the closing lineup in a tight game on Monday. That is a strong hint that he is here to stay and has the trust of the coaches. Juancho may need to resort to a deep bench role in case of injury or ineffectiveness from either of the young players ahead of him in the rotation. This path seems to be the best balance of developing young players while still having a chance to win games.
  7. Jaylen Nowell could be on his way to solidifying a bench scorer role. Nowell has been a bit of a mystery in his time with the Wolves. He dominated as a scorer in the G League last season, but was largely disappointing when he received a chance with the NBA squad. Jaylen has always seemed like the type of player that just needs an opportunity to play consistently, and he has gotten that chance over the past few games. In the two games against Cleveland he averaged 18 mins per game, and was the primary scoring option off the bench. In fact, he was really the only scoring option as a ball handler in the 2nd unit. With D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Anthony Edwards all starting together, Nowell was left to run the show and he took full advantage of his opportunity. Like a true scorer, he was able to hoist 13 shot attempts in each game. Even with the defense mostly focusing on him during his minutes on the court, he was still often able to weave his way into the paint and use superior touch and craft to convert difficult shots. Jaylen has made 59% of his 2pt. attempts so far this season, but only 27% of his 3pt. attempts. If he can bring his 3pt. percentage to at least league average levels (he shot 44% from 3 in the G League last season) then his overall effectiveness will skyrocket, and it will be impossible to keep him out of the rotation. As of now, he is turning into the exact type of bench scorer that the Wolves need.
  8. When Towns returns, it will be time to put the pedal to the metal. Much to the chagrin of some Wolves fans, the team is not going to (purposely) tank if Karl-Anthony Towns is available for the majority of the rest of the season. There is no logical reason to forego trying to get the best record possible when you have a healthy team. The difference in percent chance to win the draft lottery when you have the worst record as opposed to the 8th worst record is not enough incentive to tank. They need to play it out as best as they can, and let the draft lottery Gods (who respect Karma) determine whether the Wolves will keep their pick this season or not. I am not advocating for a “win now” trade, but they certainly need to identify their best rotation and stick to it as long as they are healthy. The Wolves are in a unique situation where some of their youngest players are proving to be some of their best players, so they can develop for the future while playing for wins now. That should be the culture moving forward. The highest performing players should play without total adherence to contractual obligations or “system fits.” It will foster the right type of culture moving forward for these young players. If they prove that they can sustain this level of play, and even improve, it will only benefit the team now and in the long run.
 

-Jerry W.