With only 16 wins (and 37 losses) coming out of the All-Star break, the Minnesota Timberwolves are on pace to finish this season with a record of 25-57. That this team is tracking toward winning 10 fewer games than even the most skeptical person would have guessed while simultaneously hitting its peak in terms of popularity is the most Timberwolves-y thing ever. Still, that all feels true. D’Angelo Russell is in Minnesota and, well, that’s pretty interesting.
Everything is new.
What Karl-Anthony Towns and Russell can show in tandem during these final 29 games is big; it will be critical in assessing what this team needs to build those two moving forward. With a defensive rating of 139.7 with those two on the floor since the trade, what they appear to need around them is a moat. But there’s plenty of time left this season to prove otherwise.
Towns and Russell aren’t the only elements of this new group worth monitoring. The other new pieces, namely Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, have to make their case to be a part of the big picture. And so does everyone else. How all of the pieces meld — or don’t — is going to provide critical context.
To look at a few of those pieces of context, let’s dig into some mailbag questions. Including: What are reasonable expectations for the final 29 games? … How might players be assessed individually? … Where can Towns help stabilize the defense? … Who is Jarrett Culver in the context of this new group?
Question: If the season started today, what would be a reasonable expectation in terms of record for the last 29 games? — Nick Naseth
There are a few ways to look at this, right? One is to just pretend it’s a new season and ask: Would this be a team with a .500 record?
It’s certainly possible to make an argument that this roster is better than the preseason group that was pegged at 35.5 wins by Vegas. As always though, assessing talent lies in the eyes of the beholder. Subtracting Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins and Robert Covington from the starting lineup and replacing them with Russell, Beasley and Hernangomez just isn’t a talent sea change one way or the other — so we’re talking about something close to a 35-win type of team in terms of talent.
What is more cut and dry is the notion that this new group better fits the style of play — THE SYSTEM! — that Ryan Saunders (and Gersson Rosas) have implemented. That said, if we’ve learned anything this season it’s that a blind commitment to the system, at least in the learning stages, is more about creating habits than it is about creating wins. Maybe this better fitting roster stops suffocating wins, but it doesn’t necessarily produce them. That all factors in to reasonable expectations.
Separately, there is the whole question of how much this team is going to put their best foot forward for the rest of the season. Shades of tanking need to be taken into consideration. There all sorts of different strides that can be taken to put this team in a better place for next season, and I’d bet on them being taken. That will impact wins. One of those strides could be prioritizing playing time for rookies Jarrett Culver, Jaylen Nowell and Naz Reid in the name of development, likely hurting win potential. It could also mean being very cautious with injuries. It’s safe to assume that Towns and Jake Layman will not play until they are all the way recovered from their injuries. And for anyone else on the roster that suffers something more than a bump or bruise, they’re likely to be managed very cautiously, too. That also likely hurts win potential.
Even if you believe the talent on this roster suggests that it should be a .500 team, there are just going to be a number of things that chip away at its potential. Along those lines, a reasonable expectation for wins feels like something close to what has played out since the trade: one win for every three games played. Maybe, then, something like 10-19 is a reasonable expectation for the final 29 games. Ten more wins would lead to a 26-56 when the season is said and done. (Last season, that would have been good for the fifth-worst record in the league, which comes with a 10.5% chance of winning the lottery.)
Would that be a strong finish to the season? No, but it’s what I’m expecting: actions that lead to losses in the name of growth. At this juncture of the year, it would make sense to put more focus on assessing the progress of individuals rather than wins and losses. So I guess what I’m saying is don’t get your hopes up that this is going to be a winning team.
Question: Besides 3-point shooting what will Saunders and Rosas value most when analyzing players during this stretch? — Blake Baja
Again, if we know anything about this Timberwolves team, we know there is a specific way that they want to play. But it’s important to note that this style isn’t just “bomb a bunch of 3s.” There are a bunch of small, defining characteristics that pile up comprising the style of play, and all of those can and will be assessed for the rest of the year.
That said, let’s give shooting its due. Shot selection is a big part of the system after all. But even shot selection has small subplots. Yes, shooting is a result-oriented business, but the quality of the shots each player shoots is also something that can be measured and assessed.
Even though he’s no longer on the roster, Covington is a good example here. Covington only made 34.6% of his 3-point attempts in Minnesota this year. But anyone who actually watched Covington play here knows that many of his looks were highly-contested. If assessing Covington mattered, assessing the quality of looks he got would provide important context. For example, according to NBA.com, when Covington was in Minnesota he attempted 81 shots from deep when a defender was defending him “tight.” Conversely, he only took 58 “wide-open” 3s. Unsurprisingly, this led to making only 29.6% of the tightly contested 3s and 36.2% of the wide-open ones.
If Covington were still on the team, and if Rosas and Saunders wanted to assess how he might fit in to what should be a cleaner offensive system next season, they would concern themselves more with Covington’s ability to make open 3s, dismissing some of the poor numbers connected to his tougher looks.
Another shooting subplot to assess is a player’s ability to create 3-point looks for others. Traditionally, we think of this in the penetrate and kick sense. Jordan McLaughlin thrives here; he does a good job of freeing his teammates with the threat of his ability to penetrate. Notice on this play how McLaughlin feints penetration enough to get James Johnson‘s defender to step into the lane, which frees space for Johnson to raise up for a clean look. The timing is all around perfect by McLaughlin.
In addition to that though, clean 3-point looks can be created without penetration. This can be done by decisively making passes. McLaughlin is also a decisive passer. He’s a “one more pass” guy.
At the end of the day, assessing any player’s impact on 3-point shooting should be about how the team shoots 3s while they’re on the floor — in terms of both hit rate and shots created. The context will matter.
Outside of 3-point shooting and shot selection on the offensive end, Rosas and Saunders will be conducting an inverted assessment on the defensive end. Something along the lines of: Does Player X contribute to limiting the opponent from taking high-value shots?
The Wolves’ defensive system asks players to limit shots at both the rim and from the corners, preferably forcing opponents to take contested shots from the midrange and above-the-break. Very broadly, there are three types of defensive roles a player can hold within the scheme to impact these shots: rim defender, point-of-attack defender and help defender.
Given Towns and Russell’s defensive shortcomings as a rim defender and point-of-attack defender, respectively, how the others mitigate those issues will be a critical part of their assessment. Because the role of the point-of-attack defender connects to both Towns and Russell — in that Russell needs to be moved off the point and that Towns’ duties a rim defender are tied directly to the point of attack — the role of the primary on-ball defender is arguably the most important to assess going forward.
If the first three games since the trade are any indication, Josh Okogie and Culver are the two who will receive the most reps in this role. Assessing how they handle those duties, specifically connected to Towns and Russell, will provide important context for constructing a roster beyond this season. In other words, Rosas needs to learn if Okogie and/or Culver can be the guy here or if this is a position that needs to be addressed in the offseason.
The point of attack defender needs to do everything they can to avoid being knocked off by a screen at the top of the key. It all starts there. This play is a good example of Okogie surviving the screen and re-attaching himself to the ball handler’s hip.
That play, a 3-point make, is a good example of an instance where Okogie (and Towns, too) should receive positive credit from Saunders and Rosas for the technically sound work done, even though the play ends in a made 3. (That 3 going down is Russell’s fault.)
Conversely, poor point-of-attack coverage should not be rewarded in the assessment process simply because the shot is missed. It’s about the process, not the results. This defensive play by Culver, for example, should not receive positive marks simply because Dwayne Bacon loses his mind on the drive. Culver gets lost on the high side of the screen, removing himself from being able to positively impact the play.
There are plenty of things to assess each player on going forward. But on a simple level, that assessment should be about how each individual creates profitable situations for the Wolves’ offense and how they minimize those valuable looks when playing team defense. Earn positive marks on both ends and you create a case for being a part of next season’s rotation.
Question: Zach Lowe mentioned in his column last week that the defensive rating with Towns on the floor is mostly from opponents shooting 41% from 3 compared to 32% when Gorgui Dieng played. How much can he actually be blamed defensively with that in mind? — Greg Kerkvliet
The defensive rating numbers with Towns on the floor versus when he’s off have been the stat used to condemn Towns’ defense this season. It’s definitely egregious. When Towns has played this season, the Wolves have surrendered 115.4 points per 100 possessions and 104.3 when he sits. Like most egregious stats, there’s probably some unjust noise in there. While it feels fair to say that the Wolves are worse at defense when Towns plays than he sits, it’s also probably unfair to say they are this much worse. So Lowe was wise to try and point out some of that noise with a typically noisy stat like 3-point shooting.
That said, it’s not all noise. When Dieng played for the Wolves this season, the defense inarguably played more under control. Dieng’s wherewithal and effective communication provided a calming defensive presence. Those things usually help deter 3s from going in. Towns’ defensive play is largely the opposite; he’s not as cognizant of the other pieces on the floor and his communication is often non-existent or late. Those things usually allow cleaner 3s to be attempted. That the Wolves’ 3-point defense is noticeably worse with Towns on the floor than when Dieng was on is not a surprise, in my opinion.
One thing KAT struggles with is the times he should be up versus back. In this play, for example, there’s no real threat for penetration so Towns does not need to be back, expressing concern with defending the rim. There’s no reason he couldn’t have been up more, so as to have gotten a hand out on Kawhi Leonard‘s shot.
Conversely, in this play, Towns overcommits to the perimeter. He’s boldly going for an interception of the pass to Montrezl Harrell when he doesn’t have to. If Harrell catches the ball here, as a non-shooter, he’s no threat. Towns could have been under control and simply squared up with Harrell. Instead, flying by allows Harrell to penetrate and find an open Patrick Beverley in the corner. Beverley misses this one, but he’s a 40% shooter from the corners this season. That stuff eventually haunts.
Dieng is more disciplined in playing back and timing his contests out onto the perimeter.
Conversely, in a similar action, Towns appears to call for Okogie to ice the screen on this play but does not close off Lou Williams‘ driving lane to the hole (his job in ice coverage). If ice was the coverage here, it’s Towns’ job to eat up this drive — leaving Williams nowhere to go. Instead, Williams is able to find Leonard in the corner. Another eventually haunting end result even if this specific play didn’t lead to three points.
Maybe the difference of opponents shooting 41% from 3 with Towns on the floor versus 32% with Dieng on the floor is somewhat unfair in its noise, but it’s not all noise. There’s a compounding positive impact of being solid (like Dieng), where teammates grow to trust that their big has their back. And if you’re consistently erratic (like Towns), there can be a compounding negative impact.
I will say, Towns has been more committed to solidarity on the defensive end since the trade deadline. Consistently doing that is how his on/off numbers begin to balance out. Towns can help mute the noise.
Question: What’s the best-case scenario for Jarrett Culver being a Wolf? — Mitchell Volk
For the rest of the season, it’s important to be able to see things from the new guys. They need to see what the KAT-DLo pairing looks like. And seeing how Beasley and Hernangomez fit in will determine whether or not they’re brought back next season. Yes, those things are all important. But what Culver does over these final 29 games is also important. The sixth overall pick in this past draft needs to prove he fits next to Towns.
Since Towns returned from his knee injury 13 games ago, Culver has largely been missing in action. He’s played 321 minutes and only scored 103 points. Twenty-six of those points came in one game. Take out that game and Culver is averaging just over six points per game.
It’s definitely not all about offense with Culver. After trading out Covington and bringing in Russell, they need Culver’s defense more than ever. But we’re way into Culver’s rookie season and his shooting numbers have not stabilized. Culver has made 28% of his 3s, 46% of his 2s (the majority of which come at the rim) and he’s only made 46% of his free throws. He’s objectively been an awful shooter that individually produces less when the team’s best player shares the floor with him. That’s concerning.
There is one encouraging Culver stat that connects to Towns, and it’s an important one: Of the 12 players Towns has shared the floor with for over 100 minutes this season, he only has a positive net rating with three of them — Jordan Bell (+8.9), Layman (+6.3) and Culver (+1.5). Being as Towns’ stints with Layman are exclusively from the beginning of the season (when things were good) and that his run with Bell was very sporadic, this is an important positive note for Culver. He has to have a positive impact on Towns. Everyone does.
Being as Culver can’t shoot — for now, maybe forever — he has to impact the game positively in all of the other little ways. To be honest, it’s hard to name what those little ways have been thus far, but those positive net ratings suggest they’re out there.
Culver proving his worth next to Towns is very important down the stretch of the season. If that doesn’t happen, his fit in Minnesota long-term has to come into question. If the trade deadline taught us anything, it was that if you don’t fit Towns and don’t fit the system you’re expendable. Culver needs to prove he’s not expendable. The jury is currently out on that.
So yeah, that’s Culver’s best-case scenario: proving he belongs. He’s done very little this season — particularly of late — to suggest that he does.