Timberwolves

Will Minnesota's Big Three Pick Things Up Where The Left Off?

Photo Credit: David Berding (USA TODAY Sports)

The concept of the “Big Three” is constantly evolving in the NBA.

It began out of necessity when there were only eight teams in the league, and the Boston Celtics could trot out lineups that included Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, and several other Hall of Famers. It evolved in the ’80s when GMs had no idea what they were doing. The reigning-champion Los Angeles Lakers, who already employed Magic Johnson and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, selected James Worthy first in the 1982 draft and morphed into the “Showtime Lakers.” The Boston Celtics moved things along in 2007 when they paired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett with Paul Pierce and immediately won a championship.

And finally, LeBron James broke the mold when he teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to win not one but two championships with the Miami Heat.

Minnesota’s current big three, if that’s what you want to call Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and D’Angelo Russell, came together almost by accident. KAT was already a two-time All-Star when former president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas delivered his signature move by trading Andrew Wiggins and a 2021 first-round pick to the Golden State Warriors for Russell. He united the longtime friends in what was supposed to be a dynamic big two meant to turn things around.

Instead, Towns and Russell played in one game together before Towns got hurt and the pandemic hit. The Wolves cratered to the first pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, where they took Edwards first overall, and things remained largely the same. Edwards struggled at the start of his career, Towns missed time with injuries and COVID, and Russell lost most of his season to a knee injury. The Wolves tanked, and Chris Finch replaced Ryan Saunders. It looked like the Wolves had no way out of the doldrums of mediocrity they’ve been living in since Spiderman 2 hit theaters.

But the three core pieces of the Prosas finally hit the court for extended time together when DLo returned at the end of last season. Wolves fans finally felt an emotion that books once mentioned, but we’ve long forgotten. Hope. In the 24 games all three played together, the Timberwolves were 13-11 with a plus-4.9 net rating.

That success has continued this season. Fans finally had the bonafide big three they’ve been craving since Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell, and Latrell Sprewell made the Western Conference Finals in 2004. The Wolves are right where most hoped they would be through the first 34 games of the season. Minnesota sits at 16-18 and in ninth place in the Western Conference standings. Towns, Edwards, and Russell have only played in 22 of 34 games together, thanks mainly to COVID protocols. But when they have played together, the Wolves are 13-9 and have a plus-13.6 net rating.

We can officially say that Minnesota’s big three are good. Contrary to some beliefs, this is working.

Towns is playing some of the best and calmest basketball of his career, Edwards is six months away from becoming a global superstar, and Russell is playing close to his All-Star breakout in 2018-19 when he was with the Brooklyn Nets. A 13-9 record extrapolated over a full 82-game season amounts to a 48-34 record. Winning 59 percent of their games would place the Wolves firmly in the fifth seed this year in the West and give them a fighting chance to wrestle home-court advantage away from the Memphis Grizzlies. It’s still not as big of a sample size as Wolves fans would like, but this is the core that Sachin Gupta and Finch can build a playoff contender around.

The biggest surprise isn’t that they’re good. It’s that the Wolves are doing it primarily on the defensive end. The Timberwolves have the 10th-best defense in the league giving up 107.8 points per 100 possessions. When the big three is on the court, Minnesota only gives up 98.9 points per 100 possessions, which would easily be the stingiest team defense in the NBA. Towns and the Wolves have begun to aggressively switch on screens instead of allowing a layup line in their usual drop coverage scheme. Russell is engaged and taking on more responsibility as a defensive leader. And Edwards is using his physical gifts to invade passing lanes and wreak havoc in transition.

It surely helps when Jarred Vanderbilt is having a First-Team All-Defense type season, Patrick Beverley sets the tone, and Jaden McDaniels is learning how to contribute across the board. But the majority of Minnesota’s success this season comes down to its three top-billed stars. Availability is the biggest issue that keeps surfacing with this group. So far this season Towns has missed four games, Ant’s missed six, and Russell has missed seven.

With Towns and Russell still in the league’s COVID protocols, that number will keep growing.

The Wolves will either make the playoffs for the second time in 18 years on the backs of their big three or fall back into same-old losing ways if Ant, KAT, and DLo keep missing games. This trio has proven this season that they can be the backbone of a mid-tier NBA playoff team when healthy, which is more than Wolves fans could ever ask for.

The hope is to always get better. But for the Wolves, that will come with getting its three best players on the court for the playoff push. It won’t be because they went all-in on a trade before the deadline. No matter what chatter you hear from national pundits (if they remember the Wolves even exist), Minnesota’s big three has been damn good to start the season. Wolves fans should be hopeful they can finally build some consistency in 2022.

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Photo Credit: David Berding (USA TODAY Sports)

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