The Minnesota Timberwolves sit at 2-2 after four games. Aside from the commanding win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night, these games have been a far cry from the comfortable expectations that swirled around the collective conscience of the Wolves fanbase before the season. To put it lightly, the Timberwolves have been awful. The contests have been nervy and tight, playing into the Timberwolves trope from last year of letting the games go in the third quarter after they were all but tucked thanks to dominance in the first half. The Wolves should run away with these games because they’re more talented. Many thought the team would be sitting at a cool 5-0 heading into a matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers, but this rudderless team cannot find a way to pick itself up out of this rut.
The mythical “old Wolves” tend to rear their head with these third quarter collapses. It is an emblematic identity that has yet to be shaken during the Karl-Anthony Towns era. Each game this year has seen a notable collapse over the second and third quarters after strong showings in the first (not including last night’s traumatizing loss to the San Antonio Spurs). Last season, the team challenged this narrative as veterans, especially Patrick Beverley, willed the young Timberwolves to victory in games they would ordinarily throw away. So far, the team has regressed to the old trope with a string of uninspiring performances in the first four games of the season.
Many are pointing fingers trying to figure out what is wrong with this team. Towns’ play has garnered a lot of attention because he has been lackluster and typically adolescent in the early throes of the season. His on-court antics have not subsided, and his constant barrage of complaining continues to leave a sour taste for Minnesota fans and players alike. The degree to which head coach Chris Finch has been optically disgusted with Towns’ decision-making says a lot about a player who is not setting an example that lives up to his massive contract extension.
These were responsibilities that did not fall on Towns’ shoulders last season. Truthfully, Towns has never showcased the ability to handle a leadership role anyway. That is no slight on him as an individual, but the team has never truly felt like “his” over his eight years in Minnesota. Most recently, the team’s identity was forged by the grit of players like Beverley, willfully accompanied by Anthony Edwards‘ youthful exuberance. It was the perfect formula for a young and plucky team that greatly exceeded expectations en route to a playoff berth.
A year later, the expectations are higher, and the team lacks an identity. Beverley, the team’s unquestioned cultural leader, is gone. Nobody has stepped up to fulfill that role, and the team appears to be paying for it dearly.
Edwards would logically step into this role. He is, or at least was positioned to be, the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future. However, his decisions this offseason have temporarily delayed that timeline as he looks to rehab his image and stay on the down low. Edwards was great against the Thunder on Sunday, but it remains to be seen whether he can sustain this impact against a tougher opponent. His frustrated exit into the tunnel during the loss to the Spurs suggests he is still an immature young player with a ton of growing to do.
Rudy Gobert is a great candidate to be the vocal leader, but he is still too new on this team to completely take it over, even though he is the best player. D’Angelo Russell leads by example, but his quiet and nonchalant demeanor isn’t enough to dredge Minnesota out of the doldrums when adversity occurs. Russell’s propensity for horrific defensive showings also belie a player that others shouldn’t look up to. The Timberwolves are in a difficult predicament.
Despite the fact that it’s early in the season, something about these losses suggest a team that is on the verge of a complete internal meltdown. Losing is a familiar feeling to this franchise, so when the chakras change from tradition to something sinister, it is apparent.
Initial results show the need for someone who can get the team on board and regain its composure. Leadership is unfortunately one of those intangibles that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. Still, it is fair to wonder if the Wolves would have continued their dominant performances in these early matchups if they still had an unquestioned leader like Beverley. Even in the comfortable win against the OKC on Sunday, the team conceded an 18-point lead. OKC made it a four-point game before it ballooned to a comfortable victory. It makes more of a difference than most would let on, as evidenced by the historical meltdown the following night against the Spurs. Not great, Bob.
These early games are a great opportunity for Minnesota to find out who the cultural leader of the team is. This will be a necessary role to solidify in the early throes of the season before the going gets tough and the schedule gets tougher. Edwards and Gobert are poised to be those guys, so they will need to embrace the pressure being put on their shoulders. Without that, this team may continue to look rudderless in this first year of the double-big experiment. The onus is on the players to get the hierarchy figured out.