Oh, to be a Minnesota Timberwolves fan. Just as I set down my celebratory glass of champagne following the Wolves’ win against the Miami Heat, I found myself watching the Los Angeles Clippers absolutely eviscerate Minnesota this weekend. The final score of 124-105 doesn’t do justice to how much of a smackdown this game was.
The Clippers led by 38 points at one point.
Beyond that terrible loss — not to mention the 30- and 25-point losses to the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks last week — there is hope on the horizon. The Timberwolves continue to creep closer toward a healthy roster. Although Malik Beasley’s hamstring injury could have him sidelined for the rest of the season, we’ve now seen 10 games this season with star-crossed ballers Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell on the floor.
The results thus far have been encouraging. After the loss to the Clippers, the Wolves are now 5-5 when Towns and Russell have played together this season. The current ninth seed Golden State Warriors are 28-29. This suggests to me a healthy Timberwolves team would be in the play-in tournament.
Of course, it’s impossible to predict what the Wolves’ record would have been if the players would’ve been relatively healthy this season. Going down that rabbit hole leads to a bunch of other “what-if” scenarios. Most notably, if the Wolves had been healthy this season, would R*an S*unders still be the head coach of this team?
Let’s not think about that. I wanted to dive a little deeper into how KAT and DLo have performed when they’ve played together. Since four of those games were in the S*unders era, I won’t be considering those games in any stats that I use here. Under Chris Finch, this is a much different team. I also won’t be using any stats from Sunday night’s abomination either, as it was a bad game for everyone except “Garbage Time Michael Jordan,” a.k.a. Anthony Edwards.
In the five games against the Sacramento Kings, Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, and Miami Heat, the box score for Towns and Russell has looked promising:
Combined, that’s about 49 points and 10 assists per game. That means those two scored or created roughly 70-80 points every night. If Finch can get that type of production from this pair consistently, the Timberwolves could have a top-10 offense. In fact, over these five games, the Wolves offense scored 123.4 points per game, which would be the top mark in the league by a mile.
On the flip side, the Wolves also gave up 119.8 points on the defensive end. That’s worse than their season average and would put them in dead last. However, that five-game net rating of plus-3.6 is leagues ahead of their minus-7.7 net rating over the whole season. And that’s the rub with Russell and Towns together. The hope has always been that with Towns, Russell and Beasley, the Timberwolves should have the offensive firepower to hang with anyone in the league. The question remains, will their defense be good enough for that to matter? If the Wolves can’t stop anyone, I find it hard to imagine how they can be more than a .500 team.
Here is a play from last week’s game against the Bulls. I think it really highlights the importance of Towns and Russell playing together. It starts with Edwards failing to inbound the ball to Russell. Then you’ll see Josh Okogie walk over from the top of the screen, arms out, yelling at Russell to inbound the ball. Now, we’ve got Russell passing into Towns, and Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic are worried. LaVine tries to cut off the baseline cut, but DLo passes to Towns and heads right to the corner, leaving LaVine to be caught by a Towns screen. As the play ends, you see Josh Okogie running down the court, arms out again, as if he’s saying, “I told you so.”
I highlight this because Okogie knows that KAT and DLo are a force on offense. He knows that with those two playing at their best, opposing defenses should be worried. Every team needs a go-to offense. Towns and Russell’s two-man game is a damn good go-to option.
The vision that Rosas had when he built this roster is beginning to shine through. I can see the brilliance that Towns and Russell can bring to the offense. Just like last year, this season, although miserable, is giving me hope for what this team can be next year. The pieces of a competitive team are in place. Now it’s a matter of health and defensive commitment.