Wolves Go Streaking: 3 Big Picture Thoughts
That’s what they call a winning streak. It has not been seen around here in a few months, but it appears the Wolves remembered how to do it! If only they could play the Jazz every night. In all seriousness, there is something real going on with this Wolves team right now. Little micro-improvements are happening all over the roster, and the catalyst for all of it may be the new head coach who is finally able to get his feet under him in this unprecedented season. We are not ready to proclaim the Wolves as the “next big thing” in the NBA, but if any of these good vibes sustain through the end of the season it may portend big things for the coming years. Here are 3 thoughts on what it all means for the Wolves in the future:
The Wolves may finally have a “Core” to shape everything else around. Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, and Jaden McDaniels comprise the most high priority players for now and the future. KAT and DLo are obvious inclusions being the max contract players that are starting to become leaders, but Jaden and Ant have shown that they are not just intriguing young players to help down the road. Rather, they are contributors right now in their Young Pup stages and could develop into stars sooner than expected. One of the most encouraging developments of The Core is the hierarchy that is forming. KAT is the undisputed best player on the team, but it is no longer going to be just Karl dragging the Wolves to the finish line every night. On any given night the Wolves can get an enormous lift in the scoring department from DLo or Ant, or he can get some assistance on defense from the limitless-limbed Jaden McDaniels. So what does this all mean for the future? Well, we can likely count on internal development from those Core 4 as none of them are at their primes yet, but it also provides the front office with a better understanding of team needs to move forward. We will get to the offseason later, but essentially it allows a clear look at the strengths and weaknesses of a team. Great teams that develop from the ground up identify a Core early on. OKC in the Durant-Westbrook era, Denver, Utah, Golden State, and many other teams that drafted and developed their contending teams identified their future Core players and made every move after that with the purpose of maximizing that group. That is the opportunity that the Wolves front office has. They can take an earnest look at the 4 most important players on the team and make every decision in service to that entire group. The real team building can finally begin.
The new Head Coach is one of the most important acquisitions of the past calendar year. Chris Finch may be magic. Seriously, it is amazing to watch the change in execution and strategy over the past 30 games compared to the past several years of Wolves basketball. Going back to Sam Mitchell who was able to connect with the players and was a fine coach, but was not deemed as the right one to take them to the next level. Then Tom Thibodeau, who is proving his coaching chops in New York, took over but just never connected with the players in a way that is conducive to sustained effort and excellence. He was also exceptionally rigid in his schemes and was frustratingly too stubborn to try new things. Finally Ryan Saunders, who is so well-liked by everyone he meets, but was just not yet qualified to take over an NBA team. None of Finch’s recent predecessors seemed to have those basketball instincts to draw up just the right play at the right time, but he keeps doing it over and over again. Along with the X’s and O’s prowess, Chris Finch has quickly gained the trust and backing from the players in the locker room. To a man, they all speak about his knowledge of the game and the respect they seem to hold for his journey to becoming an NBA head coach is evident. Nothing demonstrates this more than the fact that D’Angelo Russell continues to come off the bench even though he is the team’s 2nd best player and should not have much of a minutes restriction any longer. Russell, a very smart and aware individual, seems to be bought in to the way Finch wants to run this team. If he wasn’t, there is no way he would be OK with coming off the bench. Especially when the starting lineup of Rubio, Ant, Okogie, McDaniels, and Towns continually finds themselves in holes to start the game. Russell and the rest of The Core trusts Chris Finch implicitly. Heading into the offseason, that is an enormous development. Each of these players will know exactly what their role is in the offense and defense, and should be well aware of the skills they need to develop to be prepared for next season. With a great coach in tow, there should not be a “feeling out” process beginning next season. If they can hit the ground running and hopefully get a jump on other teams in the league, Chris “Magic Man” Finch will be considered one of this team’s most valuable pieces.
With a Core in place and a solid coach leading the way, what needs to be done to take the next step? This is the $1 million question, and it is very difficult to answer without knowing the draft lottery results. If lady fortune grants the Wolves their top 3 pick it would seem there is plenty of young talent at the top of the draft to make a selection that could continue this team’s upward trajectory. Drafting any of Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, or Jalen Suggs fills a need on this team and fits into The Core so I would be all for selecting one of those guys. From there, they NEED to make sure the rest of the rotation is filled with real contributors towards winning because keeping the pick this year means losing it next season as it will be unprotected in 2022. The goal will need to be making the playoffs to make sure they are not handing GSW a decent pick. Now, odds are that the Wolves will lose their 2021 draft pick. If they continue winning a few more games, they may hand over the 6th-8th pick. Not the end of the world, AND we are past the looming dread of handing a golden asset to Golden State and would then have a full stable of picks moving forward. While the Wolves miss out on the top of the draft, they do gain a smidge of flexibility in terms of trading future picks. I am not advocating for an “all in” move a la James Harden to Brooklyn, but if there is a deal to be made to immediately improve The Core by attaching a future 1st to Malik Beasley or another rotation player then the Wolves have that option available to them. I am certainly on the record along with many others as stating that a rim protecting center could be an exponentially valuable acquisition to bolster the defense and add rim pressure on offense. Could a major move for Myles Turner be on the to-do list? Or perhaps a more minor signing of Daniel Theis could help keep the arsenal of picks intact. Either way, I believe the Wolves recent play is showing that both Towns and Naz Reid can play together or alongside another big man, and that should be a priority for the Wolves to acquire in the offseason. That type of move would also slide Jaden McDaniels to a wing position where I believe his length and defensive capabilities are more valuable and he provides additional wing depth which every team needs. That leaves the other major question on the roster: Who will be the backup point guard assuming DLo resumes his spot as the starter? Ricky Rubio’s expiring contract for next year is the elephant in the room. He has had a mostly down season with a few exceptions, and $17 million is a lot to pay a backup point guard that may not fit well with The Core. What kind of trade value does The Spanish Unicorn have? Could he simply be swapped for another player on an expiring contract who may be better suited to play on the Wolves? Or is his veteran leadership more valuable to this team than something a different player could provide on the court. There are likely more questions than answers with Ricky, but I would certainly not guarantee he will be on the team when next season begins. As always, there are more questions than answers for the Wolves to build around their Core, but the encouraging thing about these final games of the 20–21 season is that we are able to get a clear idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the future of this team so the front office can get a head start on addressing them.