Wolves Thoughts: Big Picture After Another Series Split

The pair of back to back games in Oklahoma City featured the downtrodden Wolves against the injury decimated Thunder. Minnesota was coming off of one of the most disheartening losses of the season against San Antonio, and OKC was missing some of their best players in each game. This led to two close results with each team winning one. Here are our 3 “big picture” thoughts on where the Wolves go from here:

 

The development of the teams key young players seems to be going better than expected. That is not an inconsequential statement. We are not just leaning on hope for the future when we talk about how well the young players seem to be developing, especially the rookies. They are showing us right now. There is an argument to be made for Jaden McDaniels being the most valuable player from the 2 games against OKC, and Anthony Edwards has turned into a player that fans trust with the ball in a close game. Wolves fans have watched losing basketball for a long time. Without saying names, we know what it looks like and the feelings we get when a young player just does not flash the needed skills and confidence to be successful in the NBA. We can “hope,” but deep down you know it is a long shot that it will just click for that player. Edwards and McDaniels feel different, and we can see real development each game that offers proof.

A couple 2nd year players are on a similar track, although it is unlikely they will reach the same heights as the rookies. Naz Reid and Jaylen Nowell are two guys that continue to get better, and prove that they belong in NBA rotations. How long have Wolves fans wanted a scoring guard off the bench (who wasn’t in the twilight of their career like D-Rose and Jamal Crawford) to swing the momentum of games and get their shot off from anywhere on the court? Jaylen Nowell is that guy. Against opposing 2nd units, I feel comfortable allowing him to create for himself with the ball in his hands. He has proven adept at scoring at the rim, midrange area, and from the 3pt. line off of completely self-created chances. If he continues to get better, there could be 6th Man of the Year votes in his future. Naz Reid also continues to show that he never should have gone undrafted, and his contract is one of the most valuable in the league. Any center who can score 29 points in an NBA game has some special qualities, and when fully healthy the Wolves will be lucky enough to have that player coming off the bench for them.

With a record of 6–17, the Wolves have generally been bad for most of the season. What is shocking is the fact that their youngest players have often been their best players recently. It is very rare to be in a situation where you need to develop your young players AND they also offer the best chance at wins. That may be an indictment on the front office for the lack of quality veterans on the team, but they also need to be given credit for identifying and developing these young players.

 

For now, the organization should hold the status quo on the coaching staff. Now is not the time for personnel moves among the coaches. As many other Wolves writers and fans have asked, what would the organization hope to gain from a midseason coaching change? Many of the players have publicly backed Saunders throughout the losing, and it is not like the assistant coaches, Vanterpool and Prigioni, have shown an incredible ability to initiate an offensive or defensive system. If the team is serious about taking an enormous leap forward for next season, then they need to nail the coaching staff correctly and if there is a coach out there to get the most out of this roster, you will not find him/her during this season if you part ways with Saunders. That person will be hired through an exhaustive search after the season, and there could be a few high quality candidates on the market. Would-be first time head coaches include Charles Lee (Bucks assistant) or Wes Unseld Jr. (Nuggets assistant). Veteran coaches such as Kenny Atkinson or Brett Brown could also be options. Those hires can (and should) wait until after the season, with Saunders and co. getting the opportunity the finish the season.

If there is one aspect to this coaching staff that I trust, it is their ability to connect with and develop young players. We have seen the key young players on this team make strides under the current regime, and they need to receive that credit. We may not always agree with the in-game situations that players like Anthony Edwards are thrust into, but the ability to take these players aside and communicate needed improvements has been valuable and noticeable. Can that translate into a team winning enough basketball games to make the playoffs? Maybe not. But it may be the key to the next coach having the personnel to do so. The Wolves need to get the coaching hires right, and Saunders should be allowed to finish the season to see if he is the man for the job or not.

 

When Karl-Anthony Towns comes back, winning needs to be the #1 priority. With the record that the Wolves have in an ultra-competitive conference that statement sounds silly, but it is true. Regardless of your thoughts on the Russell for Wiggins swap, the fact is that the Wolves will likely lose their 2021 pick as a result of the trade. The most back-breaking scenario would be the Wolves tanking the season and ending with one of the worst records in the league, then losing the pick anyway because it did not land in the top 3. The draft lottery is unpredictable, and the “Lottery Gods” believe in karma and try not to reward blatant tanking. There is just no incentive to lose, and the Wolves should act like they need to win every game possible.

Of course, there will be more losing this season. The Wolves are likely not a really good team even with Towns, but they should not be the worst team in the league, or even close to that. Mainly fans just need to see Towns play consistently for the first time in over a year. It is so difficult to analyze the team’s true potential without seeing the star player along side the young guys. If he can return and play 40-ish games the rest of the way, we should have a good idea of the direction of the team heading into the offseason. If the team plays competitively, the Lottery Gods may just shine down on the Wolves and let them keep their pick this year. To establish the culture the front office has envisioned, the young Wolves will need to rally behind their star center to have a competitive finish to the season. Anything less will be another wasted season and an uncertain future.

 

-Jerry W.