Were Our Timberwolves Offseason Takes Justified?
Now that we are 12 games into the Timberwolves regular season, we have a large enough sample size to start making some fair analysis. Fans spent the offseason wondering if the team was going to address certain weak points and speculating what the rotations would like like, so it is now time to judge our accuracy on some offseason takes. Let’s find out if they were justified!
Offseason Take 1: The power forward position was not addressed very well and will be a weak point.
Was this take correct?: Yes, very much so
During the brief offseason Timberwolves fans continued to ask who will play in the front court next to KAT. We debated over which type of player would be the best fit and whether the Wolves would need to sign someone in agency, draft a player, or find the player on the roster to address that position. As the draft came and went, we still had no answers. In fact they further weakened the position by trading away James Johnson who was likely the best option on the roster at the time. Then free agency began and the Wolves were reportedly interested in several options at the power forward position including Derrick Jones Jr, Jerami Grant, and others. None of those deals came to fruition, and instead the Wolves front office resigned Juancho Hernangomez. Wolves fans were disappointed at the lack of attention given to this position, but we tried to convince ourselves that it would not be important in today’s NBA, all the while harboring a gut feeling that the position was not addressed well enough. So far in the 20–21 season our fears were justified.
Jake Layman, who was initially projected to be the backup to Hernangomez, severely outplayed Juancho in the preseason leading to a strong belief that Layman could thrive in a starting role next to Towns. Once the season started, fans learned very quickly that he is not an option at that position as a starter, and maybe not even as a backup. Through 9 games played, Layman is averaging under 5 points per game, less than 1 rebound per game, and 0 offensive rebounds total in 14 minutes per game. That type of production is just not going to offer any type of competitiveness against opposing big men. Layman finds himself nearly out of the rotation at this point, although some of that is due to his baby recently being born (congrats to Jake!).
Because of Layman’s ineffectiveness, Juancho Hernangomez was plugged into the starting lineup in game 6 against Denver and has started each game that he has been active since that point. Through his first 5 games coming off the bench, he was averaging less than 3 points per game and shooting 25% from the field, but they gave him a try as a starter anyway. Juancho has seen an uptick in production since being moved to the starting lineup, including a 25 point game against Denver in his 2nd start, but has largely been ineffective as a rebounder and defender. Everything Wolves fans feared about the lack of attention paid to the power forward position next to their superstar center has come to fruition.
The one silver-lining of the abysmal play of Hernangomez and Layman has been the emergence of 3rd year forward Jarred Vanderbilt. He has been a breath of fresh air for Wolves fans as a long and athletic forward who is strong and athletic enough to defend and rebound against other big men. He currently does not offer the floor spacing that Hernangomez possesses on offense, but he has an interesting skillset that he can maximize as a lob threat and rebounder. During the long losing streak, the Wolves were clearly more competitive with Jarred in the game, and he has worked his way into the rotation for the foreseeable future. The front office seems to have found a hidden gem in Vanderbilt, but the team would be better off as a whole if they would have been able to add more talent to the power forward position prior to the season.
Offseason Take 2: The defense is going to be terrible, but the offense should be good enough to lead to wins.
Was this take correct?: Mostly, but not in a good way
The first part of that statement is certainly correct. The general sentiment from Wolves fans during the offseason was that the offense would be elite with D’Angelo Russell pairing with Karl-Anthony Towns and the shooting prowess of Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez. Then the prodigal son Ricky Rubio would come off the bench with 1st overall pick Anthony Edwards to dominate opposing bench units. It was all lining up to be a team that would need to win shootouts with a great offense and terrible defense. Unfortunately the defense has been as bad as expected with the offense not fairing much better. The massive disclaimer for this take is that the team’s best player, Karl-Anthony Towns, has only played 3 games as of writing this article and is set to miss more after a positive COVID diagnosis (get well soon, Karl!). Without him, the team has fared terribly on both ends.
The offensive side of the court was where the Wolves were supposed to be able to hang their hats. Even without Towns, the team felt confident that their system and skill players could carry them, and fans would have mostly agreed. So far we have been proven completely wrong. The offense ranks 26th in offensive rating scoring only 105 points per 100 possessions. For reference the 15th ranked team scores 110 PP/100 and the 1st ranked team scores 118 PP/100. There are certainly offensive stars on the team in D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley, with other capable shooters surrounding them such as Juancho Hernangomez and Naz Reid. Ricky Rubio also comes off the bench and ideally could provide offensive structure to the 2nd unit. Alas, none of that is adding up to an efficient offense without the star center in the mix. Maybe the issue is poor shooting as the Wolves rank 26th in the league in shooting percentage, or maybe the offensive system is imperfect for their personnel as many fans have suggested. Regardless of their current offensive problems, Karl-Anthony Towns likely boosts them up to a top half of the league offense, and could hide team deficiencies on that side of the ball.
Defensively the team is right about where Wolves fans and media assumed they would be. While Karl-Anthony Towns was playing engaged and enthusiastically on that end, the team was still likely headed for a bottom half defense. Without KAT, they are suddenly a bottom-two defense. The only team worse at giving up points on defense than the Wolves is the Sacramento Kings (121.8 points per 100 possessions given up!!!). The Wolves currently offer up 114.9 points per 100 possessions. While they have shown signs of improvement defensively with the emergence of Jarred Vanderbilt and Josh Okogie returning to health, the team clearly lacks sufficient personnel to excel on that end of the court. They were never built to be a dominant defensive team. They were built to be “below average” on defense while beating teams with great offense. So far during the 20–21 season, the Wolves have only made good on one of those promises.
Offseason Take 3: Ricky Rubio will unlock D’Angelo Russell’s scoring like he did with Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell.
Was this take correct?: No, not yet anyway
The potential partnership of Ricky Rubio and D’Angelo Russell, two beloved point guards with differing skillsets, was a hot topic of conversation in the offseason. Rubio had spent the last 3 seasons playing with great scorers in Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker in Utah and Phoenix respectively. This led to speculation that he could pair well with another scoring guard in D’Angelo Russell to maximize Russell’s ability to score on and off the ball (The Athletic’s Britt Robson was all over this early, doubting the potential of the partnership). In a relatively small sample size, so far that has not been the case. The fit between the two point guards has been awkward at best.
Unlike Booker and Mitchell, Russell is most effective when the offense runs completely through him. He is best with a spread floor and a big man setting a screen for him and rolling to the rim. Then he can utilize his superior shooting and playmaking skills to create a scoring play. If the team is structured to maximize Russell, they can muster a successful offense. However if he is not the focal point he has not shown a great ability to move off the ball while another point guard handles, which would be necessary when sharing the floor with Ricky Rubio. Ricky is best when he is also able to control the ball and probe into the lane looking to hit cutters or shooters for easy shots. It is a more patient type of approach to find the best shot possible. Unfortunately Ricky cannot threaten the defense with an ability to score at the rim or shoot from distance, so he needs quality off-ball players around him to maximize his style of play. D’Angelo Russell is currently not that type of player.
The jury is still out on the pairing of Russell and Rubio. They have had some quality moments while sharing the court, including closing out their most recent win against San Antonio. It was very beneficial to have two primary ball handlers and great free throw shooters to ease the pressure on one another. This type of situation may be their future as a duo. They will likely not thrive sharing heavy minutes on the floor together, but during certain conditions it will be great to have them both, even Rubio does not necessarily maximize Russell as fans expected.
Offseason Take 4: It will take a while for Anthony Edwards to contribute to winning basketball.
Was this take correct?: Definitely
When the Wolves selected Anthony Edwards as the #1 overall pick on November 18th, 2020 the front office preached patience on his developmental journey. It was understood by nearly all Wolves fans that the recently turned 19 year old would need time and molding to reach his limitless potential. We knew he would likely come off the bench to start the season, and would have a hard time contributing to winning basketball so early in his NBA career. While Edwards has shown some intriguing skills and qualities, it is very clear he will need plenty of time and developmental reps prior to becoming the star player that the Wolves envisioned.
In his first two games, both Timberwolves wins, Anthony Edwards looked like he could help the team immediately. He scored 15 and 18 points respectively, and flashed all of the attributes that made him the #1 overall pick in the draft. Suddenly the expectations of fans shifted to assume he would be a key cog on a competitive team immediately. The inverse has actually happened. Since those two wins, the Wolves have a record of 1–9 and Edwards has certainly contributed to the losing. In the past 10 games he is averaging under 12 points per game and shooting just 34% from the field. Edwards is also not contributing much in other facets of the game with only 3 rebound per game and under 2 assists per game. Unfortunately, his defense has been even worse than the offense has he is consistently lost off the ball. That all seems negative for a player who will be counted on for the future of the franchise, but this should all be expected.
Wolves fans always knew the selection of Anthony Edwards was not a short-term move. It was with an eye towards the future. He is a big guard with ball handling and scoring ability that could make him incredibly valuable in the NBA as as he nears the peak of his talent. Anthony was selected for his physical tools and mental makeup, not because his skills are NBA ready right now. Other players that are his same age are in their freshman season in college right now, and Edwards is being asked to learn on the fly for a losing team. This does not confirm his future as a bust or a mediocre player, rather that fans were correct in the offseason when we assumed it would take him time to become a winning basketball player. He likely has a long and successful road in front of him as an NBA player.
Offseason Take 5: The trade to bring in D’Angelo Russell was a win for the Wolves.
Was this take correct?: Trending poorly so far…
First off the trade swapping Andrew Wiggins and a top 3 protected 2021 1st round pick for D’Angelo Russell needs to be viewed with heaps of context. Andrew Wiggins is absolutely not a bad basketball player. He had stretches of play with the Wolves where he was actually pretty valuable, but it just was not going to work and almost every Wolves fan knew that. Wiggins and Towns did not maximize one another’s on-court abilities. The trade for Russell allowed a reallocation of resources to potentially maximize the team’s best player on AND off the court. It cannot be overstated how important Russell may be in the future to keep Towns’ loyalty with the Timberwolves franchise. With all of that context provided, we can now accurately assess how the trade looks at this time.
Wolves fans were very excited to bring in the former All Star point guard, D’Angelo Russell. It seemed a new age of Wolves basketball was dawning. We felt like the only real way for the Wolves to “lose” this trade was poor play from Russell and a bad Wolves team that would hand over a pick somewhere between 4–10 in the 2021 draft. However it was hard to envision that scenario with a fully healthy Towns returning to lead the team to a respectable record. Many fans assumed the Wolves may miss the playoffs and Golden State would receive a pick somewhere between 10–14 which would be a small price to pay to have swapped Wiggins for Russell.
Unfortunately, Towns’ injury and subsequent COVID diagnosis has thrown the future pick into flux. It is now realistic that the Wolves could potentially finish with a bottom-5 record in the NBA, and the draft lottery Gods would decide their pick’s fate. The scenario does exist where the Wolves retain their pick in the top 3 of the 2021 draft that is reportedly loaded with elite prospects and are able to stack another building block for the future. In this case I believe the Warriors would receive the Wolves’ unprotected 2022 1st round pick. They would then need to hope for a competitive season next year to make sure they do not offer up a high draft pick in 2022 to GSW.
Without Towns, Russell has tried to carry the load scoring 25 points or more in half of this season’s games, but the overall talent on the team has not been enough to lead to wins. From my view Russell has been a more impressive player than Wiggins so far this season, but that may not be enough to offset the loss of a high draft pick in the loaded 2021 draft pick, thus cementing the trade as a loss. However there are still a lot of games left to determine the outcome of this deal.