Going into this upcoming season, the Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves in a position they have not been familiar with in a long time. They have the opportunity to be a winning franchise. Typically, the Wolves have found themselves attempting to build upon a lousy win-loss record. But this year, they are coming off a playoff berth rather than a bottom-10 finish. Therefore, there is unfamiliar pressure on everyone in the franchise from top to bottom to succeed and become a playoff staple.
The Wolves don’t want to suffer the same fate as the Atlanta Hawks. In 2020-21, Atlanta went from a 20-win team to a 41-31 Cinderella that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. However, they finished as the 9th seed last year, and the Miami Heat dispatched them in five games. The Hawks now find themselves quickly trying to rebuild around their core to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Atlanta’s regression had to be one of the larger lingering reasons for the Wolves to go out and trade for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, finally feeling comfortable going all in with draft assets to secure a potential franchise-changing player. The Timberwolves did not want to find themselves in the same predicament as the Hawks, relying entirely on internal development. Atlanta did not factor in that the East would get better; the Wolves wisely didn’t make the same mistake with the West.
Minnesota’s big offseason not only puts pressure on them to improve internally, but they also have to be good for a while. They essentially gave up five first-round selections, veteran Patrick Beverley, sixth-man Malik Beasley, and versatile defender Jarred Vanderbilt. Their departures put pressure on some of their younger players. Jaylen Nowell will become the sixth man; Jaden McDaniels will fill the versatile defender hole. They also need someone to step up as a leader and a veteran presence.
Luckily for the Wolves, they can coalesce to bring each other up and exceed these high expectations. It’s only natural to compare the Wolves to the many improving teams in the West. Denver Nuggets will get Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back, and Zion Williamson will return to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Los Angeles Clippers should have a healthy Kawhi Leonard, and Damian Lillard will rejoin the Portland Trail Blazers. However, the Wolves can only control their internal improvement.
Many of Minnesota’s current players struggled against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs. KAT continued to be inconsistent from game to game. Foul trouble limited his minutes, and he only scored eight points in Game 3. D’Angelo Russell could not find his rhythm, averaging only 12 points per game on 33.3/38.7/75.0 splits.
Rudy Gobert also had a difficult situation. The Utah Jazz lacked perimeter defense, forcing him to guard multiple attackers and allowing the offense to kick out to shooters off dribble-drives easily. Utah’s leaky defense became their Achilles Heel, and many fans and experts wondered what Gobert’s actual impact was. However, the Jazz teams that had better perimeter defense were stout top-5 defenses.
Gobert will have better success on a team with more athleticism, switchability, and a new scheme around him. Last year’s Jazz team featured Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic, two of the league’s worst perimeter defenders.
Add it up, and all of Minnesota’s core players will face pressure next season. Fortunately, they can simultaneously collaborate to achieve many individual goals and team success.
DLo and Gobert should become one of the league’s better pick-and-roll tandems, which should facilitate better use of Rudy in the offense. Vanderbilt was limited as a screener and in the dunker spot and had bad hands on passes, and the Wolves found ways to work around his offensive shortcomings. Russell can create more separation off the dribble, be a lob threat, and better attack the space around the rim like he did with Jarrett Allen in Brooklyn.
McDaniels will be able to stick to the perimeter, allowing him to avoid fouls closer to the basket. The majority of his fouls came at the rim last year. Limiting him to developing in higher-pressure situations on the perimeter will facilitate his development. McDaniels may experience a lot of growing pains because he’s a third-year player who’s still working on his perimeter defense. But putting Jaden in a more favorable position to succeed will only help the defensive unit.
Jaylen Nowell had good shooting splits(47.5/39.4/78.3) last year, but it was a smaller sample size. Luckily for the Wolves, he was already used to a large chunk of offensive duties on the floor and can create off the dribble. To unlock him fully and fill the void left by Beasley, he will have to develop enough to take a higher volume of three-point shots.
Ironing out these individual goals will be critical to the Wolves finding themselves in an advantageous playoff seed this season. While expectations are high, there are plenty of scenarios where the Wolves can reach those goals and become a regular playoff team.