Timberwolves

Timberwolves Mailbag: Why Should We Care About the Timberwolves?

Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

During a week that will forever feel defined by the loss of Kobe Bryant, the Minnesota Timberwolves suffered a superficial — in the sense that it was just a game — but nonetheless meaningful loss of their own.

The timing of an epic, 27-point collapse at home against the Sacramento Kings couldn’t have been worse. At a time when the hometown team desperately needed a win to snap a nine-game losing streak and when watching basketball might be the best therapy for those grieving the loss of Bryant, the Wolves were as unwatchable as ever. And that’s an existential bummer.

In the hundreds of questions I received for this week’s mailbag (thank you!), there was a clear theme in so many of the inquisitions: Why should I care?

For me, the answer to that is easy: It’s still basketball, and it’s just basketball. It’s my belief that there is beauty in every game. To me, they’re all fun to watch. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing. But that’s just me. If this team is making you angry, go ahead, turn it off. Take a break if it’s costing you happiness.

On our Monday podcast, my colleague, Britt Robson, used the word “enervating” to describe how this team may be making fans feel these days. Don’t worry, I didn’t know what that meant, either.

“They’re enervating is the word I would use. They are energy-sapping, in other words,” said Britt. “They are the kind of team that — if you are investing yourself in the Timberwolves right now — you are probably giving them more than they are giving you. Which is a horrible thing to feel as a fan.”

While I don’t disagree with that, my challenge would be to come back as soon as you feel like you can. I think you’ve made it this far with the franchise, uniquely fashioning yourself with a special sort of mettle for basketball lows. This thing is like a jump rope: up, down, up, down. Yes, there are more downs, but the ups are fun, too. I’d bet there are more of those to come.

I always find solace in looking forward — asking myself what the future has to hold. Sometimes that can be as intellectually stimulating as the losses can be dimming, in my opinion. With that, for this week’s mailbag, I chose to answer the leading questions that were forward-looking. Now, that doesn’t mean you’ll find nothing but roses and candy canes in my answers — largely the opposite this week, actually — but maybe you’ll find some of that intellectual stimulation. Maybe some basketball fun in one of the least fun basketball weeks I can ever remember.

Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Question: How confident are YOU in this process? I, for one, am actually still confident despite short term failures — just in the front office’s approach of “being smart” and creating flexibility, establishing a more modern system, etc. But I don’t often hear from a beat writer’s perspective how one feels about the long term Gersson Rosas process. — Chris Stehn

My take on what I understand this front office’s process to be has always had two, perhaps conflicting, parts to it:

  1. Patience Makes Sense — I find it to be logical to create a long-term vision that includes the pursuit of roster flexibility (so as to, eventually, increase the talent sum) and the development of a style of play that maximizes the talent on the roster (so as to, eventually, win at a higher clip).
  2. Is There Enough Time? — I have concerns about how long they can afford to be patient. This concern connects to Karl-Anthony Towns and his five-year contract and also to a fanbase that I fear may not be willing to be patient.

I’ve expressed the latter portion of that concern to Rosas in one-on-one conversations. Being around the team for a while now, and thus the fanbase, I sense an almost poisonous amount of apathy. Not every fan, but it is my sense that the majority of the fanbase is a long way away from backing the team in any sort of meaningful way — ticket and merchandise sales, engagement through contact (watching and consuming the team) and in pride.

I have a concern that this process might be a slow drip before the cup overflows (if that ever happens). How a fading (and perhaps poisoned) fanbase then connects to the eventual free agency of KAT — or more pressing, his pre-agency — is a delicate balance. With endless time, I do believe the front office “being smart” would eventually lead to success. I believe that because I do, in fact, believe they are one of the sharper groups around the league.

I felt that way about the Philadelphia 76ers during their Process, too, though. Eventually, what did in then-general manager Sam Hinkie and his lead executive, Sachin Gupta (now in the Wolves’ front office), was a fanbase that didn’t want to wait for the longest view in the room to come into focus. I do wonder if an already battered Timberwolves fanbase has the patience for a long view. And I wonder how the Timberwolves ownership could eventually respond to that theoretical impatience.

I believe in this process. I just think time is of the essence.

Question: Setting aside the roster, how would you grade Ryan Saunders’ first year as head coach? — Jay Carl

For those concerned about the time that remains in Towns’ window, it’s only natural to question whether or not the team’s current head coach is the right man to maximize the roster(s) KAT is on. The one-of-a-kind loss the Wolves suffered Monday against Sacramento harshens the focus on his current coach.

Ryan Saunders does hold a good chunk of the blame for his team blowing a 27-point third quarter lead. He would tell you that. A lack of execution down the stretch reflects poorly on the coach. Period. Subbing out the starters before Sacramento waved the white flag was a bad move. Questionable timeout management and a blown box-out on an end-of-game free throw all burn Saunders.

It is my opinion, though, that an indictment cannot come from one bad game, particularly for a coach. Saunders should be judged on the bigger picture. That picture isn’t great either. Including last season, the Wolves are now 32-57 under Saunders. But that picture is also definitively hazy with context.

Later this week, I’ll write more extensively about the offensive and defensive system the Wolves are running this season. To paraphrase what I have gathered, it is clear that this team has implemented a style of play that is egregiously ill-fitting to the current roster. Their style of play is in ways crippling, leaving them to fight with an arm behind their backs.

This sounds like another indictment of the coach. But we know that Saunders is operating with an imperative sent down from above to coach a team within the construct of what Rosas believes the next good Timberwolves team will play with, somewhat ignorant of what maximizes this group. Think what you want of that tactic, but acknowledge that it is clouding our assessment of what type of coach Saunders is. You’re entitled to your opinion, I’m entitled to provide context.

My best guess would be that Saunders, at a minimum, receives another year beyond this one. In theory, next season’s roster will better fit this desired style of play, and with that would come a cleaner assessment process. But that brings us back to the time issue. If Saunders turns out not to be the right man for the job, what is the opportunity cost of having given him the chance? A concerning question for a cynic. I’m not quite there yet. There are a lot of red marks on his report card, but the grade remains “incomplete,” in my opinion.

Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Question: Given our new management, system, and culture the organization is trying to implement, the key is KAT’s commitment to the long term strategy. If he becomes discontent/disconnected we’ll be in a bad place. How true to the “process” do you perceive he is? What’s the timeline before discontent? — Fandellobos

Towns is already pretty clearly upset. But that shouldn’t sound all of the alarm bells.

Rosas joined Henry Lake and me on the Timberwolves postgame show after the loss to Sacramento, and I thought this answer Rosas gave on the state of the locker room was fair and accurate, particularly as it pertains to Towns:

“I’d be very disappointed if our locker room was a happy place right now. Guys are disappointed, guys don’t want to lose, and we’re losing games right now. By no means do I feel like we have drama or we have negative situations, we’re just not playing well enough to win games.”

My sense with Towns is that he had far higher expectations for the season than what has ultimately transpired. I go back to Media Day before the season began and think of how both Rosas and Saunders said this season would be measured by growth and development while Towns said this season would be measured by wins and losses. Even if the roster wasn’t ready to compete at a playoff level, Towns was.

Perhaps irresponsibly, Towns then doubled-down on that bravado by saying “the Bahamas was not a joke” and by going at Kendrick Perkins on Twitter after Perkins said he was still “sleeping on the Timberwolves.” I’d imagine Towns feels some embarrassment about his team losing 32 of the 44 games since he tweeted this when his team was 3-0:

The hope is that whatever frustrated emotions Towns does have right now do not sink into true discontent. Instead, the hope should be that Towns steps up. He could lead. He could help the Wolves play well enough to win games. If that is what is keeping him up at night, he could do something about it.

At the end of the day, the Timberwolves have lost the past 14 games Towns has played in. And over that stretch, it’s almost impossible to argue that he hasn’t had a glaring adverse effect on the team’s defense. The last time the Wolves won a game Towns played in was the day before Thanksgiving. Since that game in San Antonio, the Wolves have surrendered an astounding 17.8 more points per 100 possessions in the 477 minutes with Towns on the floor than in the 940 minutes with him off the floor, per NBA.com. That’s not a small sample size and thus a terrific indictment on the level of execution Towns has brought to the defensive end of the floor.

Any discontentment he has with the team or the speed in which it’s progressing requires a harsh look in the mirror.

When asked at practice on Tuesday what the team needs to do to get things going in the right direction, Towns said: “We just all got to be committed to this and then go from there.”

Asked if he thinks everyone is committed?

“I do. I do. I think everyone’s committed. We’ve got to be smarter. We’ve got to be smarter all around.”

Smarter all around is right, including him.

Question: Is this all going to be worth it? Are we going to be a good team next season or am I being too hopeful? — Scottish Wolves

I look at the 2021-22 season as the first season that has real potential for the Timberwolves “to be a good team.” The 2021 summer will be critical for the Wolves, just as it will for many other teams. With many of the best players in the league having their contracts expire after 2020, the tectonic plates of the league will again shift that summer — similarly to how they shifted this past summer.

For the Wolves, they currently have $90.6 million in guaranteed salaries committed for the 2021-22 season to six players — assuming they pick up the rookie options on Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie. The bloated contracts of Allen Crabbe and Gorgui Dieng will have expired by then. But I wouldn’t get too married to that $90 million number that sits nearly $35 million below the projected salary cap for that season. Rosas and company will surely make more changes to the roster by then that will shift the balance sheets.

The thing to latch onto is that 2021 will be the first time this franchise will have a clear path to financial flexibility. As I said, Crabbe and Dieng — who are combining to earn $34.7 million this season — will have expired by then. If Robert Covington is still on the team then, he will be in the final year of his deal, earning $13.0 million. And Andrew Wiggins will “only” have two years and $65.2 million left on his deal. What bogs down the Wolves books now — bad money and long-term money — will be gone or less onerous given the shortened term. It’s the first time you can paint a realistic picture of the Wolves going out onto the market to sign meaningful talent.

Next season (2020-21) is less likely for the Wolves to add that type of meaningful talent, at least in free agency. With $100.5 million in guaranteed salary committed to seven players for next season, Rosas will not have much wiggle room under the salary cap. It’s likely their spending power will be restricted to about $10 million, or the mid-level exception. With that, they’re probably only adding a role player.

Could they be aggressive outside of the free-agent market? Certainly. If this front office is constantly looking to upgrade this roster, as they consistently say they are, then it’s possible they repurpose the assets they do have — all their own draft picks, Culver, Okogie, etc — into a player that better aligns with the timeline of Towns. It would be a tall task, though, to be “a good team next season” by making those types of moves without completely mortgaging the future. In other words, they’d likely need to make another Jimmy Butler for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen-type of trade. That seems unlikely.

Again, patience is likely the path of least resistance. How patient they will be given the evolving factors of this season will be a fascinating development to follow.

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Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

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