It hasn’t been pretty, but the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 4-2 record is better than many naysayers (myself included) would indicate. The two losses against the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder look bad, but those teams are playing excellent basketball and have consistently beaten good teams. Minnesota has already surpassed its win total from last season’s 3-7 start. Tough upcoming slate aside, there is yet plenty of reason for optimism.
Of course, the rough adjustment to the sweeping roster changes has been apparent. This is a Timberwolves team that is not without a wide swath of issues, many of which will need to be resolved if this team wants a chance to win a playoff series. Despite the wins, the Wolves are missing a leader, the defense has been a mess, and head coach Chris Finch has yet to find an effective way to ensure all of the stars are getting their fair share of the ball.
Optically, defensive rebounding is one of the most significant issues plaguing the team. It was widely assumed that adding Rudy Gobert would cure any rebounding issues for Minnesota. Gobert is currently averaging a career and league-best 15.2 rebounds per game, but the eye test belies a team that has struggled to rebound the ball outside the paint. This has led to second-chance opportunities for opponents and has helped pave the way for the onslaught of open three-point looks that teams are getting against the Timberwolves.
The statistics back this up as well. On the surface, it looks as though Minnesota is grabbing a ton of rebounds, which would ordinarily be a good thing. Per Basketball Reference, the Wolves are 3rd in the league in defensive and total rebounds after 6 games, with 37.8 and 49.7 per game, respectively. That helps support the massive number of boards that Gobert is gobbling up, but having this many rebounds to go around indicates a bigger problem for the team.
Minnesota’s defensive rebound percentage sits at a paltry 72.5% percent, 24th in the league. That means the team is only grabbing 72.5% of available defensive rebounds — also known as missed shots. The remaining 27.5% is divvied between balls that either go out of bounds or are rebounded by the offensive team. StatMuse shows that the Wolves have given up 89 offensive rebounds after 6 games, an average of 14.8 per game, and good for 29th in the league. The team’s net rank on offensive rebounding is -15 and 26th league-wide.
That’s certainly not a formula for success, and it is a far cry from the expectations hovering over this squad. One would think that a large chunk of the theoretical production stemming from the “Northern Heights” pairing would be complete dominance in every facet of rebounding. The counting totals are there, but only because there are clear deficiencies in other areas. There are myriad reasons for this.
The first is that Karl-Anthony Towns is still adjusting to his new position. A few days ago, Finch said: “There’s no other All-NBA player who is being asked to play a completely different position.” As Towns transitions to power forward, there are still plenty of center-esque habits contributing to his rebounding problems. We often see Towns occupying the same space as Gobert, fighting for rebounds with him and therefore exposing the perimeter. This leaves the onus on the other three players on the court to pick up the slack. So far this season, the backcourt has not been able to handle this workload.
Expecting a backcourt led by a nonchalant D’Angelo Russell to rebound effectively is a pipe dream at best. The loss of Patrick Beverley removed any fire that these players may have had, but it sure isn’t being continued by anyone not named Anthony Edwards to start the season. Russell is back to his listless self, and Edwards is still too much of a defensive development to be relied upon to grab rebounds consistently. That leaves all 185 pounds of Jaden McDaniels to gather the long rebounds, a recipe for disaster.
Things will likely come together with time, which has been the theme with this Timberwolves team this year. The rebounding issue is tethered to Towns’ transition, which is not something that is going to change overnight. Coupling that fact with the notion that Towns may still be working into game shape after his offseason illness and hospitalization only emphasize that this chemistry will be a work in progress. If Towns can develop that agility and game sense to operate as a true 4 while on the floor with Gobert, these ghastly team-rebounding numbers should start to ascend to where many thought they would be before the season.