Point-blank, Robert Covington said, “no” when asked if he has any concerns about how the (now-much-smaller) 2019-20 Minnesota Timberwolves are going to be able to match up with the bigger teams in the NBA. It’s a wildly important and fascinating existential question for a franchise in the midst of a makeover. And for two reasons of escalating importance, Covington has to be right:
- Taj Gibson and Dario Saric are no longer on the roster;
- This smaller, faster blueprint is the plan going forward, according to the new president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas and the new head coach Ryan Saunders.
Inherently, planning to play smaller — with Covington sliding up to the power forward position — places a greater need for Karl-Anthony Towns to be able to handle the night-to-night concerns that come with playing bigger opponents. And for the Wolves, they need to not only be able to survive when playing this thinner brand of ball, but they also have to unlock something greater. Again, even if it’s not for this season, this blueprint has to enact a meaningful change in the effectiveness. Without immense improvement from where this team has been, the Wolves can never become a true contender in this league. And if that is the goal, Towns not only has to be able to survive as the one true big man, but the team also needs to thrive in those situations.
“I don’t want to be leading the league again in contested shots at the rim,” Towns said at Monday’s Timberwolves Media Day. “I don’t want to be contesting that many shots. There’s no reason I should be doing that because we should be playing defense to a standard where I don’t have to contest that many shots and put myself in a position where everyone writes foul trouble, this and that.”
What Towns, who did lead the league in fouls last season, is saying here is not that he doesn’t want to defend the rim. He knows that’s a huge part of his job. He made that clear.
“I’ve got to protect the rim,” he continued. “That’s what my job is. I’m not just going to let a guy come in here and dunk and layup on us.”
Instead, what he is saying is that the reliance on him being the final line of defense needs to decrease. He’s implying that he needs help — and that the help he needs has to come from the perimeter. He believes the first line of defense being stout is what will make him a stronger backline defender.
“For me personally,” Towns said, “if RoCo is on the court, I know if RoCo is on that side on the wing, I don’t have to worry about a penetration coming into the paint. I don’t have to protect it.”
The extension of Covington’s logic of the team not needing bigger players is the notion that the Wolves need more players like Covington. Not necessarily All-NBA caliber defenders, but teammates who are fundamentally sound on that end. Defenders whose presence diminish Towns’ anxiety of needing to be there to help.
“Jarrett (Culver) has a sense of doing it. Wiggs (Andrew Wiggins) has a great sense of doing it, and that adds more depth to what we’re doing,” Covington explained. “We’ve got guys — Josh (Okogie), Treveon (Graham), Jake (Layman). All these other guys that can do the same exact thing.”
But still, in the shadow of Covington’s confidence lays a scary question: What if he is wrong? Sure, small-ball has unleashed teams like Golden State and Houston in recent years. But this year many contending teams have gotten bigger. Many of the great teams in the league look poised to not only outrun teams but also, now, have the capability to beat up their opponent.
Philadelphia added Al Horford to play alongside Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris. The Los Angeles Lakers added Anthony Davis, who can be paired with both LeBron James and Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee. Milwaukee didn’t add a starting big — but certainly doesn’t play small, sporting a Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez frontcourt. In Denver, Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap will bang inside, and they just added Jerami Grant for additional frontcourt finesse. There is also the Los Angeles Clippers, who may not be overwhelming on the block but will certainly weigh on opponents with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Yeah, maybe the Wolves aren’t competing with those teams this season. But someday they should be, right? When Towns, Covington and whoever is on the team when the Wolves are ready to compete are still emulating this smaller, faster blueprint, they need to be able to handle the level of physicality these contenders are bringing.
To be clear, it’s not that this plan can’t work. It’s just going to be fascinating to see if it does. It’s great news for Rosas and Saunders that Covington and Towns — the team’s two best players — appear to be fully bought in. Those two will come to define the success of the plan. The proof will be in the pudding, as they say.
And that’s the beauty of Media Day: the pudding has not yet set. So much is yet to be determined. But still, the foundation of the product is forming. And that formation comes from the players sharing their understanding of what they see each of their individual roles to be. As puzzle pieces of a grander plan, they may not even be on the roster to see the long view come to fruition.
The Wolves are rebuilding everything. And that construction begins with who is on the roster in addition to Covington and Towns. In their media availabilities, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague — the two other locks for starting lineup spots — shined a light on what it’s like to be one of those puzzle pieces. Here’s what they had to say.
Andrew Wiggins: ‘I gotta Do better’
Wiggins himself is an existential question. If this new blueprint is going to work, he has to acclimate or he has to no longer be a part of the plan. The crisis of sorts is that Wiggins’ previous style of play and effectiveness in that style has not been up to par, yet he is on the books for four more years at max money. He made it known at Media Day that he is aware of the need for change. He hears the critique and doesn’t disagree.
“People will critique you a lot of the time because they think you can do better,” said Wiggins. “So, I use that as motivation to be like, ‘Yep, you guys are right, I gotta do better.’ So I’m going to keep growing, keep learning and keep adding to my game.”
The additions to his game are going to be “limiting the longer 2s and the midrange shots. And trying to get a higher percentage shot, which is a 3 and a layup,” he said. Rosas and Saunders have made it clear to him that making those adjustments are not optional.
“I really feel like the things we’re talking about are tangible,” Rosas said of his conversations with Wiggins. “And he’s committed to it. The good thing for him and the good thing for us is that our goals are correlated… But you have to those conversations, you have to give him the understanding of what those expectations are and then we’ve got to live through it together and see what we need to move going forward.”
In other words, to be part of this pie going forward, Wiggins not only has to change, but he also has to fit into the plan. For now, he’s is one of the biggest pieces of the team that will make the offense around Towns go, and on defense, he is the strongside linebacker to Covington’s weakside status.
Jeff Teague: ‘Switch everything’
Teague is a fascinating piece of the Timberwolves’ story. Through Tom Thibodeau’s affinity for Teague and Teague’s allegiances to Jimmy Butler, he is such a defining character of the past. Yet he remains a critical puzzle piece of the present, and perhaps even the future.
Ironically, everything Rosas and Saunders have preached pertaining to style of play shifts, Teague has spoken candidly about wanting ever since he came to Minnesota. He was never afraid to contradict Thibodeau. In the playoffs two years ago, when Thibodeau was telling Towns he needed to “trust the pass,” Teague, on the record, disagreed — suggesting the team needed to focus on feeding Towns more. And last season, Teague was initially befuddled by the lack of defensive switching and then publicly elated when it became part of the strategy once Covington was aboard. He stuck to his guns at Media Day.
“Going against those defenses is a lot tougher,” said Teague. “So I was saying, if it’s tough for us, we should make it tough for the other guys.”
“I think that style (of defense) takes you out of your offense,” he continued. “You have to play one-on-one more instead of more flowing offense. When you switch everything, eventually someone has to try to beat someone off the dribble or try to force it into the post.”
If playing faster on offense and switching on defense is going to define the Wolves now and into the future, Teague is a huge part of testing the hypothesis.
How “big” the Wolves go with the fifth starter is to be determined. But no matter what they do there, the Wolves won’t be confused with a team that can thump with the contenders, like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Denver or either of the Los Angeles teams. And that’s just a really interesting place to begin a rebuild. It so deeply speaks to Rosas’ belief in needing to be different.
Can it work? Covington, Towns, Rosas and Saunders certainly think so. Just as fair as it is to question their logic, it is fair to believe those four know what they’re talking about. Covington is an All-NBA defender — who succeeded playing a good amount of small-ball four in Philadelphia. Towns knows going big didn’t work with Gibson, Saric or Gorgui Dieng — the Wolves were an objectively awful team defense when those players were his main pairing. Rosas saw a do-the-opposite strategy not only have success but thrive in Houston — the Rockets were as much of a revelation as any team in NBA history. And Saunders was on the bench the past three seasons — with a first-hand view of witnessing the Thibodeau System hit a glass ceiling and fall apart.
Is it known that what the Wolves are building will work? Of course not. Is it perhaps a little overzealous to have no concerns about the countercultural style they are implementing? Probably. Can it still work? Of course.
Sometimes Media Day creates more questions than answers. And sometimes that’s OK. What is known is that the Wolves are not a big team and that they’re cool with that. They have a small roster that wants to play offense and defense in a matter that is unique to them. At a minimum, that represents a direction. In sports, sometimes that’s all you can ask for. Questions live in the present and answers live in the future. With Media Day in the books, the Wolves have officially begun inching towards those answers.