Once it was clear that the Memphis Grizzlies would beat the Minnesota Timberwolves and advance to the second round, Ja Morant gave Anthony Edwards a one-armed hug. Morant appeared to be congratulating and consoling Edwards simultaneously, attempting to get Edwards to accept his fate. The game was over. Memphis had won.
But Edwards wasn’t having it. He wore a blank expression on his face. He wasn’t going to be satisfied with taking the Grizzlies to six games. It didn’t matter that the Wolves used to be perennial losers or that this was just their second playoff series since Minnesota traded Kevin Garnett. He expected to win.
The Timberwolves were up double-digits on the Grizzlies three times in this series. They lost in six games. They could have won it in five, but they blew two 20-plus point leads in Game 3 and a 99-88 lead with seven minutes to go in Game 5. There shouldn’t have been a Game 6, but they also lost that game despite being up double-digits in the fourth. Memphis moves on. Minnesota has some difficult decisions to make.
In some ways, the Wolves are a victim of their own success. They were the No. 7 seed taking on the No. 2-seeded Grizzlies. Memphis isn’t a contender; the No. 3-seeded Golden State Warriors are more likely to win a championship. But the Grizzlies are a 56-win team with a transcendent superstar. Still, the Wolves held Morant in check for most of the series, and Edwards established himself as a superstar. It wasn’t all bad.
But Minnesota needs to establish something before going into the offseason. Otherwise, they will suffer the same fate every year. Edwards is their superstar, and they must build the team around him. He was ready for all of this. The play-in game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Game 1 in Memphis. Game 6 in front of anxious, frustrated fans. Towns is the Robin to his Batman. If they got into the offseason with that approach, they can avoid a vicious cycle of being a perennial playoff disappointment. If they don’t, they will be sentenced to relive the same failures over and over again.
Hierarchy matters in the NBA. It’s why Patrick Beverley sat everyone down and asked them what their role was when they were struggling in the season. Edwards needs to be moving downhill to score, and he needs stretchy, defensive wings surrounding him. He should not be playing with a shoot-first point guard who’s a defensive liability. That means the Wolves can’t max out D’Angelo Russell and may need to move on from him.
If this was Towns’ team, they should keep Russell because he’s a dear friend and pick-and-roll partner. But if they treat this like Edwards’ team, they can pair him with a league-average point guard who passes well, defends, and can hit an open shot. Russell can be part of the equation if they feel he’s a vital part of team chemistry. But he can’t be a max player. Why pay Russell $40 million when you can pay two reliable 3-and-D players $20 million? Why make a shoot-first point guard one of your max players when he’d be taking away shots from Edwards?
Edwards should also be the focal point of designed plays in high-leverage situations. In his postgame press conference, coach Chris Finch noted that everyone has room to grow, including him. He led the team to 46 wins and took the Grizzlies to six games, but he needs to take control of games effectively. That means calling timeouts during runs and designing plays in crucial situations to shift momentum.
Edwards needs to be the focal point of these designed plays, with Towns as a secondary option. Edwards hit a corner three to tie Game 5 109-109 before ceding the game-winning shot to Morant. Had the Wolves won, we would have seen that as a moment of growth for Edwards and Finch. Edwards delivered in a big playoff moment. Finch drew up the play for him to do so.
Our perspective on that play shouldn’t change because they lost. Kudos to Edwards for demanding to defend Morant on the final play. But if the Wolves had a defense-savvy point guard, it’s easier to tell Edwards that Morant is not his defensive assignment. Edwards has improved substantially as a defensive player this year, but Morant is a tough matchup – especially late in the game after Edwards had made a game-changing play.
Roster construction matters. But it can only be done correctly if a team correctly identifies their best player and builds around him correctly. If other teams treat Edwards as Minnesota’s primary threat, it opens things up for Towns. He should be more open on the perimeter for drive-and-kick threes. Finch could use Edwards as a decoy on designed plays to allow Towns to score inside. His 3-point shooting ability will create space for Edwards to slash to the basket, and his pick-and-roll capabilities should make the pair a formidable offensive threat.
However, an Edwards-centric team only works if everyone accepts their spot in the hierarchy. Edwards becomes culpable if he plays poorly and the team loses. Towns needs to be a reliable No. 2. Avoid poor fouls, play adequate defense, and score when he’s open. It is the proper role for both players. But they can only fully optimize Edwards’ and Towns’ abilities if they correctly assess who drives winning and who supports it. Edwards expects to win. He’s capable of winning. And the Wolves need to acknowledge that fully.