Do the Wolves Have Any Option Other Than To Run It back?

Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

On June 28 last year, Chris Finch said he was focused on internal development. The Minnesota Timberwolves were a week away from trading for Rudy Gobert. They had drafted Walker Kessler five days earlier. Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Malik Beasley were still under contract with the Wolves. Minnesota was coming off a 46-win season where they won over the fanbase’s heart, despite losing in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies. Their plan to take the next step? Build from within.

“We can talk about this draft class; we can talk about free agency,” Finch said. “But the one thing we know for sure is that the internal development of Ant and Jaden and Jaylen. Those three guys, in particular, will be the single biggest driver of how far we can go next year before we do anything else.”

In hindsight, we know that Anthony Edwards turned into a franchise player. Jaden McDaniels became a lockdown defender and added offense to his game. He punched a wall in Minnesota’s final game of the season, and the Timberwolves sorely missed him in the playoffs. Jaylen Nowell? He had moments where he scored at all three levels and gave the offense a jolt. But Nowell missed time at the end of the regular season and was ineffective in the playoffs. The Timberwolves got Nickeil Alexander-Walker in the Mike Conley deal, and he may have taken Nowell’s spot as the sixth man.

But it wasn’t internal development that kept the Timberwolves from building on their 2021-22 season. It was injuries and an ill-fated all-in trade for Gobert. Karl-Anthony Towns only played in 29 games; McDaniels and Naz Reid missed the playoffs. Minnesota also didn’t have an identity. They traded for their veteran leader, Mike Conley, at the deadline. Towns and Gobert missed training camp and parts of the early season. They were a different team without Towns. Everyone from Tim Connelly to Finch and the players said they believed in the team if they had stayed healthy.

“The goal was to be better than last year, and we weren’t, so certainly a sense of disappointment,” said Connelly.

I thought Finchy did a fantastic job facing a lot of adversity. Karl, not just his injury, but the illness part of the season, I never thought he really got on track, and he did a great job fighting back from a really tough injury. Obviously, a bunch of new faces, and I thought Finchy and his staff did a wonderful job kind of keeping us above water, and then the last third of the season, I was really proud of how we kind of started to figure things out. I thought it was a heck of an accomplishment to make the playoffs again for the second straight season.

“It felt like multiple seasons in one with all the things we were dealing with at any given time,” Finch said.

Reflecting throughout the season, we always try to take away the things we can build upon. I think going into the season, one of the things we were really kind of gauging our success on was the growth of Ant and Jaden, in particular, Naz as well. Those guys took major steps forward. Losing KAT for 50-some games and still finishing with a winning record and making the playoffs, while we had greater expectations, I think when you readjust for what missing KAT for that many games, I think you also have to realize that the team put another successful season together.

Notice how Finch swapped Reid and Nowell here. He’s not wrong. Nowell had an opportunity for playing time once they traded Beasley and didn’t finish well. But Reid may seek more playing time elsewhere because the Wolves have two bigs, and he may be able to start on another team. Conversely, Nowell and Alexander-Walker could complement each other as scorers off the bench. But that’s unlikely to happen because Nowell wasn’t an offensive spark at the end of the year, and Alexander-Walker is a better defensive player.

If they hadn’t traded for Gobert, the Wolves would have Conley at point guard, Edwards and McDaniels on the wings, and Towns and Kessler in the frontcourt. They could have afforded to pay Reid. Minnesota also would have had the option to trade Beasley or Vanderbilt for picks or role players to fill holes on the roster. They’d still have Alexander-Walker and Taurean Prince coming off the bench. It’s easy to envision what that team would be. But after trading for Gobert, it’s harder to imagine what they can become.

“I don’t have an idea, but I feel like we’d be a lot better,” Conley said when I asked him if he knows what this team could be if fully healthy.

But, that’s the name of the game in this league is health. You get to this point in the year, and you just look around, and a lot of the situations teams get into are because a guy is hurt. They get hurt during a series, and it changes a series. Denver this year, they’re healthy. Other years, they’ve been not as healthy, and guys have been out of the lineup. Milwaukee had some injuries this year. There’s just a lot that can go on that can change the direction of a franchise in a year.

Therein lies the issue, though. The Wolves made an all-in trade for Gobert, and it’s hard to know how good they can be. Part of that is injuries. Admittedly, Conley arrived at the trade deadline – he only played 24 games for Minnesota. But the 2021-22 Wolves weren’t that good, and they inspired fans who had given up on the team long ago to come out to Target Center. The entire fanbase embraced the “I Love Pat Bev” Wolves. But it is split on the two bigs version, and reasonably so.

Fortunately, Edwards seems happy in Minnesota. After winning Game 4 to stave off a sweep, he said that the Timberwolves put the right people around him in the summer and that he likes working with Finch. Last year, the Wolves said they’d develop internally and improve. This year, they’re saying that injuries held them back from improving upon last season. The truth is that they have to hope so because there aren’t many options other than trading Towns, their second-best player, for cents on the dollar.

The Wolves will probably run it back because they want to see what the Towns-Gobert team looks like fully healthy. But they also will because they don’t have many other options. They can’t trade Towns after he played poorly in two playoff games. They can’t trade picks because the league won’t let them. And they can’t blow it up because Edwards deserves to be on a winning team. This is the team Connelly has created, and unless they can turn back the clock to late June, it will be pretty hard to change it.

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Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

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