What's Behind the Wolves' Culture Shift This Year?

Photo: Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn (USA TODAY Sports)

You can consider many different qualities when trying to pinpoint the core values of each professional basketball franchise. But the word that keeps coming back to me is “culture.” In the NBA, culture is seemingly so essential and yet so hard to define. It is categorized by work ethic, collective vision, general vibe, etc. Most of these defining factors are qualitative and ethereal. That’s why I like to think about culture like an artist’s collection.

Every great work of art began as a blank canvas, a block of marble, or a pile of scrap metal. For the artist, this is the foundation on which their vision is built. I once had my portrait taken in three hours. The artist told me that the finished portraits she sells for hundreds or thousands of dollars usually take closer to 80 hours to complete. Greatness takes time.

In the NBA, the canvas lies 94 feet from baseline to baseline. The hardwood is where the NBA artists craft their masterworks. Each dribble, pass, shot, and thunderous dunk creates the beautiful image of NBA basketball. Each moment a brushstroke, each game a painting, each season a gallery. Every team in the league has its own unique technique and perspective. The core values of each NBA team can be seen on the court just like one can see into an artist’s soul through their work. You get a collection of an artist’s pieces together, and you can really start to understand who they are.

For the Minnesota Timberwolves, their collection has been substandard. Over the years, their artwork looks less like a masterful painting and more like a print your mom would get from Patina.

This season the Wolves seem determined to try a new technique to see if they can create something worthwhile. There is a new energy about the Target Center as the Wolves shape themselves into something that the fanbase can get behind. But what, exactly, are the Wolves doing to create this new culture?

One player can’t curate a team’s culture alone, but Patrick Beverley is a huge piece of the puzzle. His energy, intensity, and veteran leadership have brought both a boisterous on-court presence and an inspiring voice in the locker room. Karl-Anthony Towns has bounced back after an up-and-down season last year. D’Angelo Russell is stepping up in a big way.

But personnel can only do so much to form culture. Words, ideas, and philosophies have to translate to winning games. As the Wolves rode their five-game winning streak, their newfound identity is clearer than ever. The Wolves are a team built on relentless defense and a collective effort from every member of the team. We saw just how good the Wolves can be when they stand by these tenets Wednesday night when they won their fifth game in a row against the Miami Heat.

Aside from the bad blood between the state of Minnesota and Heat star Jimmy Butler, there is no better franchise for the Wolves to have secured such an iconic victory. Since Pat Riley joined the Heat organization as head coach in 1995, they have only missed the playoffs six times. Miami has been a beacon of organizational stability for over two decades. They have managed to create a culture of success through clever drafting, excellent player development, and exceedingly high standards for the players on their roster.

During the time Riley has been with the team as coach and executive, the Heat have only had six lottery picks. With those picks, they selected Caron Butler (10), Dwyane Wade (5), Michael Beasley (2), Justise Winslow (10), Bam Adebayo (14), and Tyler Herro (13). That’s a 67% hit rate on lottery picks, which is crucial for an organization that rarely gets a pick.

As for their misses, they were able to trade Winslow for Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala, critical members of the team that faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2020 Bubble finals. Beasley was quickly traded to the Timberwolves for a pair of second-round picks, and we all know how that went. The Timberwolves have been in the lottery 16 times during the 26 years that Riley has been with the Heat.

These two franchises have been polar opposites since they entered the league in 1989. The frigid winter in Minnesota versus the beaches and sunshine in beautiful Miami, Fla. But the Wolves wanted to send a message to the Heat and the rest of the league:

“We da ones, Jack.”

No player is more important to the culture shift of the Minnesota Timberwolves budding superstar Anthony Edwards. No player in Minnesota has given Wolves fans this tantalizing combination of quotable moments and more jaw-dropping feats of athleticism. Before our eyes, he has transformed from an unpolished player who “doesn’t care about basketball” to an unabashed candidate for the most confident guy in the league. He woke the league up last season with his dunk over Yuta Watanabe, but at the time, his statistical performance didn’t quite back up his flash.

He put the NBA on notice once again Wednesday with his earth-shaking jam over Miami’s Gabe Vincent, but this time he does have the stats. He’s averaging 22.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.4 assists to start his sophomore season. He’s also showing the ability to show up in big moments. He played 43 minutes on Tuesday, making huge plays down the stretch. He had five points, four rebounds, two assists, two steals, and a block in the fourth quarter alone.

The Target Center was frenetic as Edwards made big play after big play. He sauntered around the court like he owned the place, waving his arms in the air to see if the crowd could get even louder.

But it’s not just about Ant. The bench was up on their feet, waving goodbye to Kyle Lowry after he fouled out, shouting out advice to their teammates on the court, and talking a lot of s—. It’s like the entire Wolves team can see how much potential they have and they are buying in. Everybody is buying in.

A few weeks ago after a tough pair of tough losses to the Clippers at home, he was asked about maintaining a winning mentality when things weren’t going the Wolves’ way. Rather than talking about himself, he made note that DLo had been out as well as Pat Bev. His refrain was, “We need everybody. We need everybody from 1-15. We need everybody.”

Of course, the Wolves can’t have everybody every night. Patrick Beverley is going to be out of the lineup for at least a couple of weeks.

With Beverley out, the Wolves floundered against the Charlotte Hornets. The 133-115 was a strange reversal from what we’ve seen from the team the last couple of weeks. The defense was flat and Charlotte was creating open look after open look. With one man down, will the Wolves’ newfound identity falter? Was their five-game run a flash of brilliance or did they find something that they can sustain?

The Timberwolves have a shot at creating something great as a team. Dribble by dribble, shot by shot the Wolves have they can craft a work of art. I’m not just talking about a playoff berth. I’m talking about a collection of brilliant art and sustained success.

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Photo: Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn (USA TODAY Sports)

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