The Wolves Will Be Balancing Continuity and Urgency This Offseason

Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Without Karl-Anthony Townsmonster game, the Minnesota Timberwolves wouldn’t have beaten the Denver Nuggets in Game 7. He went 8 of 14 from the field (57.1%) while defending Nikola Jokic in Minnesota’s 98-90 win. However, the Wolves needed more from Towns against the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. Dallas held him to 37.9% from the field and 24.2% from three in the series. Towns missed many open shots, including threes, and frequently ran into foul trouble.

The Wolves owe Towns $49.35 million next season, the first of his four-year, $221 million extension. In a vacuum, he’s on a reasonable contract. Minnesota drafted Towns, 29, first overall in 2015. He’s a prototypical stretch big who can shoot from the outside, grab boards, and defend players like Jokic. When he’s playing well offensively, he spaces the floor with his shooting and takes defensive pressure off Anthony Edwards.

However, the Timberwolves need him to play like a max player to justify his salary. Minnesota has $273.6 million in cap allocations next year, the most in the league. That means they are $132.6 million above the salary cap and $6.5 million into the second apron. Unless the Wolves completely overhaul their roster, they have locked in their top eight, aside from Kyle Anderson. Resetting the roster would start with Towns, who carries the team’s highest cap hit next year. However, the Wolves seem intent on retaining him for next season.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Tim Connelly said when a reporter asked him if Towns could be the second option on a championship team. “I thought Karl was brilliant for most of the playoffs. He had some tough shooting nights in this last series, but that didn’t dictate his intensity or his ability to do other things. We’re not here without Karl. The maturity that Karl showed in the playoffs, I thought was one of the greatest things that we all saw.”

Last year, the Timberwolves reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 20 years, defeated the defending champions, and Edwards established himself as an ascending star. However, Towns, Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, and Naz Reid’s extensions kick in next year. Assuming he picks up his player option, Rudy Gobert ($43.8 million) becomes an expiring contract after next season. Mike Conley turns 37. There will be inevitable long-term roster leakage because Anderson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker may leave after next season.

Therefore, the Wolves must act with some urgency.

“We’d always err on the side of patience and continuity,” said Connelly. “And we’ve been fortunate that ownership has allowed that. After coming off last season, ownership allowed us to see what we had this year. And then we had a pretty successful run. We have all these plans, but they go out the window when you get one call. So, it would be disingenuous to say that we have some well-laid plans. We have well-laid theoretical plans, but the fluidity of the marketplace changes things rapidly. And we’ll be aggressive and nimble, but again, I think patience is oftentimes most rewarded if you’re allowed to do so.”

Assuming the Wolves retain Connelly and Chris Finch next season, it will be the first time since Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders that the Timberwolves had the same general manager and coach for three straight years. Part of Denver’s success is that Michael Malone has coached them since 2015, and Connelly was the GM there until Minnesota hired him. The Nuggets built a champion in a similar-sized, cold-weather market by emphasizing continuity.

“I’m a big fan of continuity,” said Finch. “You should have continuity offensively because you just kind of know each other better. Hopefully, we can continue to be a little bit better out of the gate offensively. Continuity and internal growth, to me, [are] key to going far in this league.

“We’ve experienced it ourselves – heavy change takes a while to settle down and then build off of. Last year, Dallas basically tanked the season at the end so that they could get one of the pieces that they needed. Then, they went through the season and added basically the perfect pieces. If you have continuity, you’re going to be ahead of the curve.”

Minnesota’s two-big experiment didn’t immediately work two years ago. However, Gobert played a pivotal role on the Wolves’ No. 1 defense this season. Similarly, Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving didn’t immediately click after the Mavericks traded for Irving at the deadline two years ago. However, Irving complemented Doncic against Minnesota, averaging 27.0 points on 49.0/37.5/80.8 shooting splits during the Western Conference Finals.

There are nits to pick with Minnesota’s roster. The Wolves are overly reliant on Conley to run the offense and Edwards to score. Towns didn’t provide enough offense against Dallas. Anderson and Alexander-Walker are good defensive players, but they were inconsistent offensively in the playoffs. Finch also should have called a timeout in Game 2 against Dallas to get Conley into the game and found a better way to contain Doncic and Irving throughout the series.

“There’s certainly areas we need to get better,” said Connelly. “The roster is never perfect, and we gotta continue to build both externally and internally. Our guys have got to come back as better players. I think [with] the hunger these environments create, we’ll see a lot of these come back even more hungry and more aggressive. But I don’t know if I have a specific answer about that next step. I’m a pretty firm believer when you’re in the final four that you got a chance.”

The Wolves should run it back next year. They’ll have to determine whether Anderson’s shooting slump is related to his eye injury from two years ago or if he can improve offensively with a normal offseason. Minnesota also must determine whether Monte Morris would be a more effective backup in his second season with the team or if they need to upgrade their backup point guard.

However, aside from tinkering with the edges of the roster, they should enter next season with a similar group. If they fail to advance past the Western Conference Finals, then it’s time to discuss trading Gobert on an expiring contract or moving Towns. Finch and the players should benefit from a deep playoff run and an offseason preparing for another one. The Timberwolves fell apart once they broke up their continuity following their last Western Conference Finals run. They shouldn’t make the same mistake this time.

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