The Minnesota Timberwolves are not tanking. On Sunday night, we got to see what a tanking team really looks like as the Wolves blew out the Orlando Magic, 126-96.
The Tragic Magic team that took the floor was an affront to NBA basketball, but I get it. A team with Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac as the pillars of their future needs to do everything they can to get top-tier talent on their roster.
The win put the Timberwolves record at 21-47. They are 14-18 since the All-Star break, yet tied for the fourth-worst record in the NBA with Orlando and the Cleveland Cavaliers on the season. Since Cleveland and Orlando have no incentive to win, it looks like the Wolves will end up with the sixth-worst record in the league.
As Dylan Carlson wrote back in April, this is a prime lottery position. If the Wolves can maintain this position, they will have a 27.6% chance at keeping their pick this year while giving the Golden State Warriors a 9.6% chance at picks Nos. 4 or 5. In a “five-player draft,” this is good for Minnesota.
Even if the Wolves don’t keep their pick, they’ve got Leandro Bolmaro coming stateside next season. Bolmaro is a 6’6” guard/forward with a sweet shooting stroke and impressive playmaking ability. He may not be the high-level prospect that Cade Cunningham is, but his talent is tantalizing, and even though he’s being coy about it, Gersson Rosas seems to be really excited about him.
The Wolves have been playing well. So well that I think there is a legitimate shot for this team to make the playoffs next year, even in a Western Conference that feels more difficult than the Earthrealm tournament in Mortal Kombat. Bolmaro will be joining the team, adding another guard/forward tweener to a roster that already seems full of tweeners. I’m curious to see how the rotations pan out. Four of the five starting spots seem set: D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Conventional wisdom says that Malik Beasley will fill that fifth spot. Still, with all the offensive firepower in the starting line, I think it’s more likely Chris Finch will go with one of the two guys he’s been starting during Beasley’s absence: Josh Okogie and Jarred Vanderbilt.
Okogie and Vanderbilt are similar players in a lot of ways. They are both high-energy fan favorites who bring it every night on the defensive end. They are also incredibly limited offensive players. The Wolves need an infusion of defense with the starters, and Finch has managed to make the offense work as Minnesota has gone 9-7 over the last 16, with these two playing a healthy slate of minutes.
Part of the key to their success under Finch is pace. When we talk about the importance of having shooters and spacing on the floor, that conversation is generally in the context of half-court offense. Finch wants this team to push the ball in transition and get easy baskets. When you want to play fast, knock-down shooting becomes less important. What pace teams need are players who will commit to running the floor on offense and defense.
Watch this play by Vanderbilt against Golden State. As the Warriors get out on the break, the ball finds its way into the hands of Steph Curry. Vanderbilt hustles back in transition and gets in front of Curry before he can pull the trigger on the three. It’s a simple thing, but because of Vando’s effort, the Wolves can recover and get set in their half-court defense.[videopress TU344yT9]
It’s the little things. The hustle plays that make the difference, especially in close games. Here’s another play from Vando. It’s a tie game in the fourth quarter, Edwards puts up a 3, and Jarred hustles for the offensive rebound and feeds Naz for the bucket.[videopress b6kvERNO]
How about something as simple as boxing out? It seems like the Wolves lead the league in ball-watching after a shot rather than putting a body on someone and fighting for the rebound. Here, McDaniels falls down, which causes a defensive breakdown and leaves Ja Morant wide open for a 3. Okogie quickly finds the nearest man, Jonas Valanciunas, and boxes him out, leading to the rebound and the fastbreak opportunity. By the way, Valanciunas is seven inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than Okogie.
Okogie has been shooting 35% from 3, and Vanderbilt has been corralling an impressive seven rebounds per game over this 15-game stretch. For these two to stay in the lineup and possibly start next year, they need to sustain these numbers. Okogie is a 2-guard who can play up to the 3. He needs to be able to knock down shots from the perimeter. Vanderbilt is an undersized power forward who can’t and won’t shoot 3s. He’s got to rebound and defend the rim.
The energy is there for these two; it’s just about consistency.
One more note on Okogie. The Wolves are 4-1 when Josh plays more than 30 minutes this season. The one loss came in OT against the Boston Celtics after a fourth-quarter collapse. I don’t know if this means something, but it certainly doesn’t NOT mean something. There’s a new CnD pod out today! We talk Jimmy and Karl beef, the Orlando Tragic, and top-five Timberwolves Jerseys of all-time.