The Minnesota Timberwolves’ big three have been a giant basked in slumber, waiting to wake up and try to terrify the NBA. Between Injuries and a global pandemic, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards have not played together as much as we would hope. Last season the trio tallied only 327 minutes together, a number which they’ve already surpassed halfway through this season (503 minutes).
However, now that they are getting time to play together, the group is starting to blossom into the dominant force we hoped it would be. The Timberwolves have a 16-9 record and a 17.2 net rating in the 25 games that KAT, DLo, and Ant have played together this year — an auspicious development for a hungry young team seeking a playoff berth.
Even more promising is that the team’s ball movement and chemistry have improved a lot since the beginning of the season. In Minnesota’s Jan. 7 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, they had 39 assists on 50 made shots. Russell noted after the game, “You gotta pass [the ball] and generate quality shots, and that’s what we did. It seems like we trusted each other at a higher level than we have been.”
It’s great to hear DLo say that a deeper trust is developing because sometimes that’s what’s needed for a team to click fully. At the beginning of the season, it often felt like Minnesota’s halfcourt offense was primarily predicated on one of the big three getting the ball in isolation and trying to score by themselves. Now the ball seems to be flowing around the court with ease.
While ball movement is one form of tangible evidence that team chemistry and trust positively affect a team’s play, there are other more abstract ways that they are beneficial too. Russell stated that his teammates are “a great group of guys” who help him forget that basketball is a job because of how much fun they are having. It’s heartwarming to hear because the Timberwolves have not had many opportunities for fun since the Wolves traded Kevin Garnett in 2007.
Outside observers may discount that a toxic workplace environment can heavily affect someone’s play in a game, just like it can affect your work performance in any other job. Similarly, when you enjoy the people you work with, you are much more likely to try to go above and beyond what is asked of you. It seems like the Timberwolves are finally starting to build the fabled “culture” that has been hallmarks of the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat for years.
Other players around the league have echoed the sentiment that good team relationships lead to a good work environment. In an interview after the Milwaukee Bucks won the championship last year, Khris Middleton praised his team’s chemistry saying, “It means everything that they have trust in me.” Later he said that “It’s easy to come into work with guys like this. All they wanna do is compete, hoop, and play.”
Developing good team chemistry doesn’t guarantee that Minnesota will win a championship with this core. However, it is a crucial step in the right direction. And even if it may be hard to quantify how much good chemistry affects winning, it isn’t that hard to point to situations where bad chemistry negatively affects teams. Ben Simmons still hasn’t played a game for the Philadelphia 76ers since Joel Embiid suggested that the turning point of their loss to the Hawks in the playoffs was Simmons passing on an open dunk. The Boston Celtics are in 10th place in the East and are underperforming this year. Since the beginning of the season of tension in the locker room, there have been many reports, including Marcus Smart calling out Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for not passing enough.
Additionally, having an established team culture is vital for a mid-market team like the Timberwolves and their future success. Free agents are generally not attracted to Minnesota. We can’t change the fact that it’s cold in the Twin Cities for most of the NBA season, which may forever be a deterrent for some prospective players. However, having the franchise be known as something other than a colossal mess would help encourage a few more players to consider the Timberwolves as an option.
It takes a collective effort to change the culture of a franchise. If the positive direction we are moving in continues, then we will have not only the big three to thank but also leaders like Chris Finch and Patrick Beverley. Their contributions to Minnesota’s change of attitude may be the largest on the team. Let’s hope for more positive vibes throughout the new year and beyond.