What Is Minnesota's Identity This Year?

Photo Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

When I was in college, I went on quite a journey to figure out who I wanted to be. I had no idea what I wanted to invest my time in, so I found myself saying “yes” to everything. I took education classes, music classes, theater, dance, religion, dance-religion hybrid classes (“Interpreting the Bible Through Movement,” very cool class), and even a course on meteorology. It was a whirlwind of dipping my toes in every pool without ever fully immersing myself in any of them. The end result was three years of searching for something I never found. I left school with no degree and no idea where I was heading.

It’s not a good feeling to be searching for an identity. The big questions of “Who am I?” and “What do I want to do?” still rattle around in my head to this day. But for the most part, nearly 10 years after my bizarre college experience, I do know who I am. I have taken the time to craft my identity and understand it.

Of course, a large part of my identity is that I am a Minnesota Timberwolves fan. The Wolves, much like the burgeoning, young Chelanga, are desperately in search of an identity as a basketball team. As I watched the Wolves fight their way back from a 20-point deficit against the Houston Rockets last night, I kept asking myself, “What is this team trying to do?”

Some of what the identity of this team is meant to be is obscured by injury. Karl-Anthony Towns has missed about half the season to date, and that must be taken into account. So, as I often do, I turned to my people to help answer this question — the lovely people of Twitter. However, it appears that they are just as confused as I am.

Heading into the season, the Wolves signaled that they wanted to rely on their size as a core facet of their identity. They were going to push teams to play big against their two-center lineup, with Towns and Rudy Gobert at the 4 and 5 positions. But teams have often opted to guard Towns with smaller players throughout his career. Gobert has never been the dominant force who really dictated the style of play on the court outside of the restricted area. He has been one of the best rim protectors in the league, but teams aren’t changing their attack this year because of his dominance in the paint.

Even with KAT injured, the Wolves could still try to lean into the two-big theory. They’ve filled five roster spots with centers. While none of the centers off the bench can mimic what Gobert can do while he’s on the court, Naz Reid, Luka Garza, and Nathan Knight are all halfway-decent-ish facsimiles of Karl-Anthony Towns. Obviously, there is only one Karl-Anthony Towns. His unique skillset has made him an All-NBA-caliber player in this league. But the three young centers behind him can all shoot and dribble at a level above what we might consider a more typical center.

But the center depth has not factored into Minnesota’s identity since Towns was hurt. Before his injury, Towns and Gobert shared the floor in 19 games for a total of 401 minutes. That’s about 21 minutes per game, meaning the two big men played just under half of every game on the court together. Other two big lineups have been a rarity for the Wolves. There have only been 225 minutes that two bigs have played together for the Wolves, aside from the Gobert and Towns pairing. The Wolves have yet to commit to their big identity on the court even though the front office constructed their roster to sustain that approach, even through injuries.

I dove into some stats to see if the Wolves are dominating any areas of play. Since they abandoned their two-big approach in the wake of Towns’ injury, maybe there is something that they are doing really well. The first thing that jumped out at me is Minnesota’s pace of play. They are ranked fifth in the NBA in pace this season. Watching the games, though, the speed at which they play doesn’t pop off the screen. This is partly because, while they play a high-possession game, they don’t take advantage of transition opportunities. The Wolves are 12th in the league in fast-break scoring. So while they get up the court quickly, they are not performing as well in typically “easy” pace of play opportunities.

For more context on Minnesota’s transition performance, Cleaning the Glass has a Points Added per 100 Possessions metric. It weighs a team’s frequency and efficiency in transition against their expected half-court output. The Wolves rank 29th in the league, adding just 1.3 points per 100 possessions in transition, ahead of only the Dallas Mavericks. And Dallas plays Luka ball, and Luka ball is, um, not fast. The Mavs rank last or next to last in almost every transition metric on Cleaning the Glass.

The Wolves don’t rebound particularly well. They’re ranked 28th and 24th in defensive and offensive frequency, respectively. They don’t shoot a lot of three-pointers. They’re 20th in attempts and percentage. There aren’t many categories in which this team ranks in the top half of the league. They steal the ball eight times per contest, which ranks in the top-10. But again, they don’t take advantage of those steals by scoring at a high rate in transition.

The only thing I can point to as a staple of Minnesota’s game this season is their play in the paint. The rebounding has been an issue, but they dominate the rim offensively. The Wolves are shooting 69.5% at the rim using the garbage-time filter at Cleaning the Glass. On the other end, opponents are shooting only 62.9% against the Wolves at the rim. They are dominating the easy buckets and winning the battle within four feet of the cup.

As it stands, the Timberwolves don’t do many things consistently well. Their patchwork identity consists mainly of mistakes and inconsistency at this point in the season. The Wolves need something to hang their hat on if they want to be serious playoff contenders. Currently, they are best at the game closest to the rim. But they can’t truly dominate the restricted area if they can’t rebound the ball. Whatever they do, they’ve got to figure it out now while they’re in a soft part of their schedule. Over Minnesota’s next eight games, only two of their opponents are currently above .500. The schedule gets much more difficult after that. Once Towns returns, we should hopefully start to see what type of team the Wolves want to be. But right now, I, like so many others, stand confused.

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Photo Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

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