The Minnesota Timberwolves season has come to a close. What a year it has been. Over the next few weeks, I hope to capture the essence of this season. I want to look at not only how this year went but what we can expect from next year. I want to take some time and spell out my thoughts on this team and understand who they are. There are a lot of young players on the Wolves, and the roster is brimming with talent. Which players will be a part of the next great Wolves team? Who is a part of the core moving forward? First, though, a look at this Memphis Grizzlies series and the outlook that the players and coaches have for next year.
To many, this playoff loss feels like an epic collapse. Minnesota held the lead for some 80% of the series, so there’s no doubt that the Wolves were in position to advance to the second round. No team in NBA history has ever let three double-digit fourth-quarter leads slip away in a single playoffs. After the Game 6 loss, Chris Finch seemed proud of what his team was able to accomplish this year. This is just the beginning, and he realizes that.
“Hell of a season,” said Finch. “Particularly the second half. This is just a — provides us with a foundation to keep moving forward. We know what this experience can do for us heading into the offseason — what we have to do better, our habits, our roster — everything.”
Let’s not forget that Minnesota was a seventh seed that was one of the worst teams in the NBA last season. A structure that has yet to be built cannot collapse, and the Timberwolves are still very much a work in progress. This year’s team and the Memphis series are just the first steps toward ultimate contention. Malik Beasley once said that “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and the blueprint for this current iteration of the Wolves is already a few years in the making. This is the long-awaited rebuild from the Jimmy Butler fallout. Many teams who trade their star player wallow in mediocrity for years. See the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2006-17 for evidence of that. This team was able to turn around in just four years and build, as Finch said, a foundation.
Finch continued, saying that Memphis is a “Really, really good team … they don’t beat themselves. We don’t have that in us yet. But that’s ok. … We’re still learning. Playing in these high-leverage situations is huge for us. I thought, composure-wise, again, we showed it in our shot selection in the fourth.
“It’s baked in our DNA right now. And we know we have to learn from this. We’re not all just gonna be able to save the day. But, moving forward, we’ll learn and we’ll have hopefully grown from it.”
Memphis is a step ahead of the Wolves on the growth curve, but they were in Minnesota’s position just last year: a surprising young team trying to upset a Western Conference powerhouse. The Grizzlies’ jump from up-and-comers to second-best team in the league should give the Timberwolves extra motivation headed into the offseason. Sure, nothing is guaranteed, but Minnesota was a handful of possessions from beating the Grizz.
There are obvious questions heading into this offseason, the largest of which is of course about D’Angelo Russell. His performance this series was beyond lackluster and has left a lot of Timberwolves fans seriously questioning his long-term viability as the starting point guard. He was so bad in the final game that Finch opted to bench him in favor of Jordan McLaughlin. Russell, who is on a maximum contract, cannot be outplayed by J-Mac, who was the Wolves’ third-string guard for much of the year. That is untenable.
Although Russell had a poor performance this postseason, that doesn’t account for everything he brought to the team during the regular season. For much of the year, DLo brought maturity and steadiness to the Timberwolves’ offense — not to mention all the clutch performances he had this season. The Wolves were 3.2 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court during the regular season. Despite his performance, that number increased during this series against the Grizzlies to +5.4 points per 100 possessions. Any way you slice it, Russell has been key to Minnesota’s success.
Secondly, Karl-Anthony Towns left much to be desired in this postseason appearance as well. His performance was akin to the crowd at Target Center doing the wave. It was very up and down. A familiar chorus of “trade KAT” resurfaced during the series. It seems that when the Wolves struggle, much of the blame falls on Towns’ shoulders. Granted, he is the leader of this team — a responsibility that he owns. When he was asked about his leadership role this past Saturday, he said:
“I was given more responsibility and I had a lot of fun doing it. I was doing it my own way. I’m just really happy that I had this group of guys in the locker room that respected me and gave me the trust to lead them. As a man, my leadership style is more be me and just help them not only on the court, but off the court. That’s why when I said yesterday I’m very honored that I had such life lessons where I was able to help them not only on the court, but off the court as men. In a way, that’s what true leadership is, it’s making them better all around, not just as a basketball player.”
A step back shows that Towns had an efficient series overall. He shot 45.5% from 3-point range and took an impressive 8.3 free throw attempts per game. His dominance ebbed and flowed, but it was clear that he was one of the best players on the court all series long. An even wider view reminds us that Towns is a top-five player at this position and, with a likely All-NBA berth heading his way, KAT has proven this season that he is a star.
Even if the All-NBA honor doesn’t come to fruition, trading Towns is likely a non-starter for Minnesota. He is too good and is a pillar for a franchise that is far too familiar with the narrative of its homegrown big men leading to disappointment. In the end, Towns may not be the best player on the next great Timberwolves squad, but right now he’s the best player on a pretty damn good one.
Ultimately, the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves lies in the hands of Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels. In the biggest game of the year, the two young Wolves led the team in scoring. For McDaniels specifically, this was a huge showing. Not only was his 24 points in Game 6 second on the Timberwolves in scoring that night, that was a career high for McDaniels. His defense has come before his offense, but the flashes he shows offensively are tantalizing.
“I think I’m gonna have Jaden with me a little bit this summer,” said Beverley. “Ant’s gonna do his thing, work on his craft. But I’m gonna have Jaden with me a lot. Me, him, Kawhi, let him see how real pros work consistently every day. And to bring all of that with the new experience, to bring all that back to training camp to try and get something going.”
We shouldn’t expect Jaden to come back next season and be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate like Leonard. He’s got a long way to go for that to happen. As much flash as Jaden has shown defensively, it’s been just that — flash. He’s struggled to stay disciplined on the defensive end, getting caught out of position and committing silly fouls. But he’s got all the tools and instincts necessary to become a top-tier defender. Edwards fully believes in McDaniels’ potential to break out.
“That’s my dawg,” Ant said about McDaniels during Saturday’s end-of-season media availability. “We both came in the same year. He’s just nice. A lot of people don’t know it. He’s just nice. He can do everything. Once his confidence gets like mine, it’s going to be trouble, for sure.”
As for Ant, he’s “gonna do his thing,” like Bev said. Last season, he said he was going to disappear like Houdini. Edwards returned as an impact defender with a more complete offensive game. The sky is the limit for Edwards, and we should expect that he will continue to progress as a basketball player this offseason. He wants to be MVP and he wants McDaniels right by his side. The foundation is set. Now lets see what the Wolves can build on it. The good news is that the two sophomores are as excited about playing with each other over the next decade as we are.