The Optimist & The Pessimist: Thoughts From the Wolves Losing Streak
It is becoming painfully obvious that the Towns-less version of the Timberwolves has a clear ceiling. A good game for them means playing competitively for most of a contest against a decent team like the Denver Nuggets. They accomplished that feat twice, while suffering tough blowout losses in their four other games of this losing streak. Karl-Anthony Towns is clearly the center of this team’s solar system, but there are far deeper issues that are causing this slide. But all is not lost, there are other ways to frame this stretch of Wolves play including some encouraging views towards the future. Here are the pessimistic and optimistic thoughts on the streak.
The Pessimist’s View
Without Towns, the Wolves rotation of big men is among the worst in the league. When a team loses the superstar player that they are built around, it typically leads to poor outcomes. If a team lacks any solid replacement options, it becomes a disaster. The Wolves are a team built around the idea of Towns playing the center position for 34 minutes per night, so they have not devoted significant resources to reserve big men because ideally they would only play 12–14 minutes per night. This is a logical way to build a roster in a perfect world, but Timberwolves-land is never perfect. Towns’ injury creates a 48 minute void each night that needs to be filled by Naz Reid, Ed Davis, and Jarred Vanderbilt. Reid is 21 years old and shows flashes of solid play on offense, but he is inconsistent and under-sized against the monster centers he faces on a nightly basis. Ed Davis is beginning to round into form defensively, but is only a screen-setter on offense and almost never looks at the basket. Vanderbilt has shown to be a live-wire athlete with a non-stop motor. He has quickly become a fan favorite, but he is far too small to be a viable option for heavy minutes against Western Conference centers. Any of these options could be serviceable in a minuscule role off of the bench behind Towns, but without their superstar center each of these players is being stretched far beyond their capabilities. Unfortunately, there is not likely a remedy for this issue barring a major trade. Fans may need to grit their teeth through the center issues until Towns returns.
Ricky Rubio can be a catalyst for the Wolves success, but right now he is not providing that type of value. Rubio has been a good NBA player and great teammate for the balance of his long career. He is still a fan favorite, and there was much rejoicing when he was brought in on draft night for a very fair price. Most fans did not expect a ton from the “Spanish Unicorn” in his return to Minnesota. We looked for him to provide excellent leadership to a young team off the court, and stabilization to a long-suffering Wolves bench unit on the court. By all accounts, Ricky has filled the role of a great teammate and mentor, but his on court production has been not been up to his usual standards. His shooting woes are well documented (under 40% overall and 27% from 3pt so far this season), but the eye test also tells us that he has not yet been able to master the offensive system and is likely pressing too much causing unsteady play. Rubio has always been prone to turning the ball over, but typically it comes along with him handling the ball and probing the defense to find easy buckets for scorers. That player has not been seen enough this season. We can speculate that it is because he is not as comfortable in a bench role, or because he is playing with less talent than he has in the past couple of years. Either way, a player who is relied on as a steadying presence has not provided that yet, and until he does we may see some of the same sub-par team play during his minutes.
Something needs to change, and it may have to happen in the coaching staff. As many Wolves fans have noted, facing a 30 point deficit in half of your games is a bad thing. A lot of teams in the NBA are bad. Some are built intentionally poorly to tank (think process-era 76ers) and some face insurmountable injuries (this season’s Grizzlies), but are still able to be competitive in games even when the talent disparity is evident. This season’s Wolves have both injuries and personnel issues, and they are continuously being knocked out of games early. It can be hard to blame Ryan Saunders with the perceived lack of continuity and roster talent over the past 1.5 years, but the current status quo is not acceptable. The Wolves seemed either unwilling or unable to execute any type of defensive game plan against Portland. The issue was either the players maintaining a poor effort, or the defensive scheme was not effectively communicated with them. Both of those options are a bad look on the coaching staff. It is far too early to call for coach firings, and I do not think anything positive would come from that, but something needs to change in the way things are communicated to the players and the way they are held accountable. Anything less may keep the Wolves on this same downward spiral.
The Optimist’s View
The real-time developmental reps for the Timberwolves young players will pay off tremendously down the road. Heading into the 20–21 NBA season, Wolves fans were mostly excited about the team depth when everyone is healthy. We were almost disappointed that we would not be able to see future prospects such as Jarred Vanderbilt, Jaden McDaniels, and Jaylen Nowell, and with the uncertain G-League season it was unclear how much game time each player would see. Fast forward through the first 8 games and we have seen plenty of Vanderbilt in real rotation minutes and McDaniels has been able to see a lot of garbage time. Anthony Edwards has also been allotted a larger responsibility during the blowouts with the game out of hand. In the long term, these real repetitions can be very valuable for young players. Anthony Edwards specifically was always going to have a smaller offensive role with a fully healthy and competitive team, but he is being asked to carry the bench unit more often, and he is getting complete control of the offense for entire 4th quarters because of the blowout scores. The box scores do not mean much, but the opportunity to handle the ball in competitive settings will invite incremental improvement from Edwards and McDaniels. The Wolves have also been able to catch a glimpse of Jarred Vanderbilt against the best center in the NBA, Nikola Jokic, and a behemoth yet skilled center in Jusuf Nurkic. He has been able to show plenty of qualities that will make him a solid rotational NBA player moving forward, and may even portend to his ability to slot in next to Karl-Anthony Towns in the future. Wolves fans are tired of waiting for a competitive team, but the young players are getting a chance to show that they can be a part of a quality team sooner rather than later.
D’Angelo Russell has been able to run the offense very well recently, and getting him going could pay huge dividends when Towns returns. Russell was mostly a negative player during the first few games of Towns’ absence, but recently there has been a clear offensive strategy change to better suit his style. He is a player that is most comfortable operating with the ball in his hands and running high pick and rolls. It works smoothly when he is able to run it with Ed Davis or Jarred Vanderbilt as his screen setter and roller. Russell has shown the ability to get the Wolves offense on a roll by himself in these actions, and is a good enough playmaker to sling passes to the shooters around him. When Towns returns, Russell will need to change back to the “Towns-centric” offense they ran early in the year which may take some time to regain its rhythm. This will involve more pick and pop plays with Towns and off-ball movement when KAT has the ball. Russell can also be staggered as much as possible with Towns so the offense always has a go-to scorer on the court. The offense can flow through Towns when he is playing, then Russell can be paired with either Vanderbilt or Davis to run high pick and roll against opposing teams’ bench units. The most successful offenses are those who can be multiple in the ways they can attack the defense, and a point guard like Russell who has found a rhythm paired with a generational big man like KAT will form a dangerous offense.
Something is going to change, and it will likely happen with the team’s personnel. The current status-quo will not be maintained. NBA teams do not sustain losing at this level for long. Most Wolves fans know their front office well enough by now to assume that something has to give regarding personnel changes. In the 19–20 season, the Wolves hit a low point by blowing a late double digit lead to the Sacramento Kings. Soon after that came a complete overhaul and rebalancing of the roster via a massive four-team trade. The roster talent is not as dire this season as it was during that swoon early in 2020 that led to the trades, but fans have a similar feeling that something may be coming. Once again the roster is imbalanced with a plethora of young guards and wings but very little depth in the front court and at the forward positions. Gersson Rosas is one of the most aggressive executives in the league, and he works tirelessly to improve the roster. Fans can be assured that he is searching all avenues for solutions. Maybe that is getting in on the future James Harden trade to snag PJ Tucker out of the deal, or striking a deal with Cleveland or Orlando for Larry Nance or Aaron Gordon respectively. He could also be biding his time for a larger deal for a star such as John Collins or even Ben Simmons. Those are unlikely deals, but everything needs to be considered with Rosas at the helm. While the current state of the team has Wolves fans longing for better days, they can have the confidence to know that personnel changes are likely on the horizon.