5 Success Factors for the Timberwolves
The 21–22 NBA season is shaping up to be a pivotal one for the Timberwolves. While I do not necessarily buy the idea that this is a make-or-break year, I do think that if the squad does not show clear signs of improvement and competitiveness in the conference then we could be headed for some significant personnel changes. Because of this, we need to clearly understand how this team will find success. Let’s look at the 5 most important factors affecting the Wolves reaching their goals.
The Health of Karl-Anthony Towns
“Health” is a general term. Physical, mental, and emotional health are all components to a person’s happiness and ability to perform their job. While I do not know him personally, I think it is safe to surmise at no point during last season was Karl-Anthony Towns in peak physical, mental, or emotional form.
How could he be? The previous offseason he lost his mother, his biggest fan and family pillar, to complications of COVID-19. Getting better at basketball was not likely in his top 10 priorities and that is completely understandable and warranted. After all, he could be a great basketball player in his sleep. To add to a difficult time in his life, he injured his left wrist 2 games into the season and missed a few contests, then he returned only to contract COVID and miss another large chunk of time. What a brutal stretch.
KAT was back in the lineup following his bout with COVID in the season’s 25th game and played all but 2 of the rest of the season’s games with a wrist that was nowhere close to 100%. All he did in that time was average 25 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists while shooting 48% from the field and 38% from 3. Like… what the heck? That is how gifted the Wolves centerpiece is. Coming off of the worst time of his life in terms of physical, mental, and emotional health and he played like one of the best players in the league. Still, it was his least efficient season since his rookie year. What a talent.
The fact that he attained those numbers only enhances my confidence that an enormous season is coming from KAT. By all accounts, this offseason has finally been one of focus and improvement for the big man. With his wrist likely healed and what seems to be a great support system of friends and family (if you follow him on Instagram you’ve seen his numerous posts with friends & girlfriend), it seems like KAT is ready to dive head first into making this Timberwolves team better. The last time he did that was following the season Jimmy Butler was traded.
Beginning the 19–20 season he led a team mostly devoid of talent and depth to a 10–8 start. Prior to his injury after the season’s 23rd game, Towns was averaging 26.5 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 4.4 assists while shooting 51% from the field and 41% on his 8 3’s per game. He was a certified killer on offense even with very little talent surrounding him.
I anticipate this season starting similarly to that 19–20 season for KAT. He has watched centers who were considered to be in his same tier in Jokić and Embiid become MVP candidates/winners and All-NBA team mainstays. Towns has been left behind in the eyes of many, and he will be out to prove those narratives wrong. With players surrounding him that complement his talents as well as any team he’s ever had and a coach that wants to get him the ball in his spots, KAT is ready to catapult back into the “Top Center” conversation. If he is able to do so, that will be the biggest factor that could affect the Wolves having a successful season.
Anthony Edwards’ Scoring Efficiency
I truly believe Anthony Edwards is a future scoring superstar. He seems to have the athleticism, skills, and mentality necessary to be at the top of the scoring ranks in the regular season and playoffs every year later in his career. Do I believe he will get there this season? Not quite yet. I think the goal for Ant to make this team immediately successful hinges more on his efficiency than his volume and raw scoring numbers.
This team will not roll the ball out and run a heliocentric offense where Ant does the Luka or Harden isolation dance. He is not likely ready to lead a successful team using that model. No, the Wolves need Ant to continue his leap that he was making at the end of last season by stepping up his solid post All-Star efficiency even further.
We all know the numbers for Anthony Edwards’ rookie year. Pre All-Star break the young Wolf was shooting just 37% from the field and 30% from 3. His shot selection was woeful and he showed precious few flashes of superstardom. With a new coach and changed mindset in the season’s 2nd half Ant’s FG% jumped to 45% and his 3pt% was 35% while doubling his free throw attempts. Overall he became a high volume scorer at 24 points per game with about league average efficiency. That’s a valuable player! But not quite one that can lead a great team.
The Wolves will not necessarily need more shots from Ant. He was able to get 24 points per game on decent efficiency with the amount of shots he was taking. What they need is for the coaching staff to scheme up better shots and for Ant to take the right ones when it is left up to him in PNR/Isolation situations. Ideally this should be easier with better players around him, and as of now it appears he will have a healthy KAT and DLo flanking him with depth pieces like Jaden McDaniels, Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Taurean Prince, and Naz Reid seeing significant minutes next to A1 as well. More floor spacing should lead to easier shots at the rim (in theory).
Simple internal development should improve his scoring efficiency as well. While Ant did not shoot often from floater range and the midrange, his shooting percentages in those areas were dreadful. He shot 31% from floater range (3–10 feet) and around 25% from the deeper midrange. There is so much room for improvement in those numbers. Developing even a somewhat consistent floater could immediately boost him to above average efficiency levels.
Another facet to offensive efficiency is the ability to create easy shots for teammates. While it is difficult to calculate in numbers, it was very easy to see that when Ant was struggling from the field early in his rookie year he was also not able to create many good shots for teammates. Defenses did not respect his scoring gravity, and therefore would not leave his teammates open when Ant had the ball.
Flash forward to this season. Ant has a reputation now as a rim pressuring menace and a threat to blow by defenders at any time. Teams will choose to leave shooters to pack the paint and make him find open men. That will be a key to Ant’s development. Teams will make him prove that he can make those kick-out passes. If he is able to, the team finally has a bevy of shooters ranging from capable to elite in making defenses pay. If Edwards starts creating open corner 3’s (a wildly efficient shot) it will lead to direct success for the team. Whether it is through scoring or facilitating, Ant’s ability to create efficient shots in the offense will greatly impact the team’s success.
3 Point Shooting from the Snipers
For our purposes, we have the “Snipers” narrowed down to be D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley. The season’s success hinges most importantly on Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards being maximized. Maximizing those two will require real weapons surrounding them, and in Russell and Beasley the Wolves have plenty of ammunition.
Beginning with Russell. He is not generally what NBA fans think of when they think “3pt. Snipers.” After all, he is only a 36% career 3pt. shooter and has never been considered an efficient player. Along with that, he can do so much more offensively than just shoot 3’s like create his own shot and make passes that few point guards would attempt. The Wolves need him to continue to do those things no doubt, but they also need him to be the 3pt. marksman that he was last season.
It flies under the radar because of a poor team record, but DLo actually had a high-level 3pt. shooting season last year. He made 38.7% of his 3’s on 7.4 attempts per game. Of players who averaged 7.4 or more attempts per game, only 12 players finished with a higher percentage of makes. The guys on that list include some of the best pure shooters in the league like Curry, Lillard, Hield, Robinson, and LaVine. Those sort of shooters have incredible gravity beyond the 3pt. line. Based on his season last year, Russell is not far off from making that type of impact beyond the 3pt. line.
Wolves fans who watched the beginning of the season also know that DLo did not exactly have wide open catch & shoot 3’s consistently. He was often creating his own shot, shooting step back 3’s, and was constantly contested. The fact that he was able to shoot nearly 39% on 3’s took an incredibly high caliber of skill. With a combination of better teammates and a creative offensive coach, it feels safe to say Russell will have easier shots from beyond the arc that take less of his energy to generate leading too potentially even a higher percentage of makes than last year. (Caveat to this: DLo actually shot a little worse % from 3 when he came back from injury and played under Finch. Could just be small sample size noise, but it’s worth noting!)
On to Malik Beasley! He is much more of the traditional 3pt. sniper that the Wolves’ stars need in a supporting role. Last season Beasley ended up shooting 39.9% on 8.7 attempts per game from 3. That is ELITE. Only 2 players shot more 3’s and had a higher percentage: Steph Curry and CJ McCollum.
Another good way to think about Malik’s 3pt. proclivity is that he was basically Duncan Robinson from beyond the arc. Robinson shot 8.5 3’s per game and made 40% of them. Essentially the same volume and percentage as Malik, and both players make their money by flying around off the ball to find catch & shoot opportunities. The major difference was Robinson playing all 72 games, while Malik’s season was shortened with injury and suspension.
So what do we need from Beasley to make this season a success? Well, really he just needs to keep doing what he did last year, besides the whole suspension thing. With some roster additions and revelations from last season, I would prefer Beasley comes off the bench instead of being one of the starters. That likely drives down his 3pt. attempts a bit as his minutes would likely decrease, BUT he should have many more offensive weapons that can get him the ball in advantageous spots this season with the rising stardom of Ant mixed in with a healthy KAT and DLo. Malik shooting over 40% on 6–7 attempts per game is certainly not out of the question for me. If he does that, the offense opens up in a way that few teams can match.
Ultimately the return of superstar KAT and emergence of rising star Ant need to happen to free up guys like Beasley and Russell. Once the main guys get up and running it is safe to say Malik and DLo are going to have an open range on which to shoot. If the snipers shoot like they are supposed to, the Wolves could field a devastating offense for the 21–22 season.
Consistency from the Depth Players
After only adding 2 new players this offseason, somehow the lineup on opening night will look drastically different than the 2020 group. There could be up to 3 different starters than last year’s opening starting lineup, and all 3 of them (Ant, Vanderbilt, McDaniels) were on the team last season.
Throughout a terrible season record-wise, the Wolves were able to unearth some real diamonds, or at least gems, in the rough. McDaniels and Vanderbilt combining with newcomers Taurean Prince and Patrick Beverley and reserve holdovers like Naz Reid, Jaylen Nowell, Jordan McLaughlin and Josh Okogie add up to form one of the Wolves’ deepest teams in recent years.
Minnesota’s coaching staff, especially head coach Chris Finch, have not made it a secret that the offense intends to flow through tentpole stars like Towns, Russell, and Ant. This team will have a clear hierarchy on the offensive end, which makes it even more important for the supporting players to find their role and play it well.
Luckily the 2 newcomers, Prince & Beverley, are veterans in this league. It is unlikely that they have visions of taking over the offense or becoming one of this team’s best players. Both players have been paid handsomely so far in their careers by playing a role, and with expiring contracts and valuable skillsets it seems they would be willing to continue their respective styles.
Patrick Beverley has provided near-elite point of attack defense throughout his 9 year NBA career and has complemented his defense by becoming an incredibly consistent and reliable 3pt. shooter. ANY Wolves fan who has watched this team recently knows how valuable that will be to this team.
Taurean Prince has had an up-and-down 5 year career, but recently established a role in Cleveland as a big wing/forward that can space the floor offensively and provide some resistance defensively. A star player? No, but as a bench piece to complement the team’s ball handlers he is absolutely a useful NBA player.
As a staunch Jaden McDaniels believer, I expect an enormous leap for him in year 2. I wrote about him here a few months back so I won’t dive too deep right now. Basically I expect the combination of McDaniels along with Vanderbilt to be incredibly important to keeping this Wolves defense afloat. When was the last time the Wolves started versatile, tall, and long defense-first at BOTH forward positions?
The two of them together can wreak havoc on opposing offenses with their activity, switch-ability, and general knack for poking the ball away from the offense. McDaniels showed useful complementary offensive skills albeit in a very low-usage role last season, and a leap from him in shooting efficiency should be expected. Anything Vanderbilt can offer in terms of offensive improvement over last season will be icing on the cake.
Naz Reid is often an unsung hero on this team. Picked up off the undrafted list in 2019, he has been thrust into starting 24 games over his 2 seasons. It is hard to believe he is barely 22 years old after everything he has endured during his short Wolves tenure. This season, maybe, hopefully, he can find some stability in his role in the Wolves’ rotation.
As one of the better backup centers in the league he deserves more playing time that the 12–16 mins per game that Towns will not play, so his versatility on both ends of the court should offer him opportunities to play next to KAT in most games. He finished last season averaging just under 20 mins per game and I think that is a solid amount of playing time for him. Any improvement from Naz is welcomed, but if he keeps doing what he has been then the Wolves’ big man rotation will be very solid.
Of all of the reserve pieces mentioned here, not one of them NEEDS to be a star. A couple of the younger guys could certainly develop closer to stardom, but for this season’s purposes each of these players needs to find their role and buy into it. In past seasons without as clear of a hierarchy, it can be difficult for players to find where they fit in. That should not be a problem this season with entrenched stars and (seemingly) unselfish depth players. If they do so, it will be key to the Wolves’ success in 21–22.
Chris Finch Making it All Work
Just in case this is your first time reading a Ball Eyes North article, I am an enormous Chris Finch fan. If you want to see how smart and creative he is as a play designer, subscribe to Jake Paynting’s Substack. While others do a great job of outlining Finch’s play design and basketball experience, I am a fan largely because of his ability to immediately establish credibility with this team. Professional athletes can sniff out a “BS-er” very quickly. Finch came into a locker room in the middle of a terrible season and was able to simultaneously establish the trust of his players while changing basically everything they were doing on the court.
Heading into year 2 with nearly the same roster and a few extra depth pieces added should only serve to benefit Finch in his quest to turn the Wolves into winners. A smart coach has now had an entire offseason to figure out the best ways to maximize KAT, Ant, and DLo on offense while also cobbling together a decent defense.
One of the biggest reasons I trust Finch to make a 5 Star meal with the ingredients he has at his disposal is because of the lineups and rotations he will try to stick to. Winning in the regular season can sometimes be boiled down to whether or not a team is able to avoid giving up huge runs from the other team. Too often in the early going last season the Wolves would hang around just long enough for the opponent to go on a 20–3 3rd quarter run and put them away. This happened because eventually lineups would get trotted onto the court that had no business playing together. You cannot play lineups that are going to get smoked. Too simple? Probably, but it still happened way too often!
Finch is not going to allow that, much in the way Thibodeau (Thibs was a solid coach!) did not. If something is going awry on the court, I trust Finch to identify it immediately and make adjustments. Will that lead to more minutes from the best players on the team? Probably. But those few minutes can be the difference between wins and losses. Wins are good!
Overall it just feels like the coach will not be an active detriment to winning games. A common refrain heard in the NBA is that there are a small handful of good coaches, a few bad coaches, and the rest are all about the same. Maybe Finch will not reach the heights of one of the “good” coaches, but I think it is safe to say after just 1 half season that he is not in that “bad” category. That alone is enough to offer confidence that this team can win some games under his leadership.