Anthony Edwards is the kind of player who makes fans lose their minds. He’s a showman, a player who revels in the spotlight. He shined in the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies last year, and he knows he has Target Center on a string when he’s at his best. Edwards beams when he hits a clutch three or throws down a backboard-shattering dunk. Then, to top it off, he’ll try to say something memorable at the podium after the game.
He commands your attention. It fuels him.
There aren’t many positives that come from a team losing one of their $30-plus million players to injury. However, if there’s a silver lining, the Minnesota Timberwolves saw what their core looks like without Rudy Gobert early in the season and sans Karl-Anthony Towns for at least a month. It was hard not to notice that the offense felt more fluid, and Edwards benefitted from having room to work.
Gobert missed a Nov. 5 win over the Houston Rockets and Nov. 7 loss to the New York Knicks. After the Wolves beat Houston 129-117, Chris Finch hesitated to suggest that the team played better without Gobert. The reasons for that are pretty obvious. Pundits have pilloried Tim Connelly and the front office for the haul they gave up for Gobert. It was too early to give up on the two-big experiment.
Losing to old friend Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks 120-107 two days later put some of the positive narratives to rest. But it’s hard to ignore Edwards when he says he plays better with more space, especially when that notion passes the eye test. D’Angelo Russell hasn’t really gotten the pick-and-roll going with Gobert, and the offense has been clunky to start the season. That’s disappointing after a year where they could blow out inferior opponents and often played fluid, modern basketball.
Towns’ injury creates a similar but meaningfully different absence. Like Gobert, he’s a big. But Towns is the yin to Gobert’s yang, a 7-foot sharpshooter who’s porous defensively. In Minnesota’s first two games after Towns’ calf injury, they beat the Grizzlies and lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder. In both games, the offense was more visually appealing.
Points were hard to come by in the Memphis game, and they had to come back in the second half. But they pulled off the victory despite being outrebounded 59 to 29, partly because they forced 27 turnovers. Edwards started slow but finished with 29 points, five steals, and three blocks. There was palpable catharsis in the crowd when it became clear the Timberwolves would beat the team that eliminated them from the playoffs last year.
The sound in the building reached a fever pitch when the officials ejected Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant. Brooks had hounded Edwards all game, and the crowd giddily turned up the decibels when Edwards faced them and waved his hands in the air. After the officials removed Morant, Edwards turned to Morant’s dad, sitting courtside next to Towns’ father, pointed to himself, and repeatedly said, “I’m the truth.” Justin Jefferson and K.J. Osborn, two Minnesota Vikings receivers, sat a few seats down and witnessed the entire interaction.
The Target Center felt alive again.
Saturday’s game against Oklahoma City felt completely different, of course. The Wolves fell apart late against the Thunder, losing 135-128. They should have given a 48-minute effort in a game they played after two days’ rest, but there were some mitigating circumstances. The officials removed Gobert from the game after he tripped Kenrich Williams. And referee Jacyn Goble became a household name after he assessed five technical fouls to Minnesota – including some ticky-tack calls.
Still, Minnesota’s offense hummed in the loss. Russell paced them with 27 points, but Edwards had 26, and Jaylen Nowell contributed 21 off the bench. That shouldn’t be surprising. The Wolves can run a facsimile of Quin Snyder’s Utah Jazz offense with Towns out. Furthermore, the Timberwolves have returned to their chaotic, high-wall defense from last year. They have the makings of a fun, potentially surprisingly effective team with Towns out.
But therein lies the problem. The Wolves are shelling out over $70 million to Towns and Gobert; they can’t play only one at a time. If Gobert can’t be productive as part of the modern Twin Towers experiment, they can functionally undo the trade – but at a cost. They’d have to deal him for cents on the dollar. The same goes for Towns, and few teams get fair value when they move the best player in a trade.
The Timberwolves weren’t going to recapture the magic from last year. Patrick Beverley’s antics and confrontational leadership style would have eventually worn on the rest of the roster. Jarred Vanderbilt doesn’t offer much offensively, and Malik Beasley’s off-court issues made him a liability. The cardinal sin wasn’t trading those guys. It was mortgaging the future for a player who wasn’t the final puzzle piece.
Minnesota won’t contend until Edwards is definitively their best player, and Edwards isn’t consistent enough to be that right now. Until he is, they’ll probably be stuck in basketball purgatory – .500 in a loaded Western Conference. That’s an improvement from what the Wolves traditionally have been, but it’s hardly enough to get the entire city behind them. At his best, Edwards is the kind of transcendent player who fills an arena. But it’s hard to see him playing at his best with two bigs on the floor.