Timberwolves in Search of Contender Identity


We’ve come a long way since the days of Alexey Shved and Luke Ridnour starting lineups, where the bar of expectation was lower than mid-January temperatures in Minneapolis.

Now, we’re spoiled. Perennial defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert is on track for his fourth Defensive Player of the Year Award, Anthony Edwards is working toward the first 25/5/5 season in Timberwolves history, and Karl-Anthony Towns has an individual defensive rating of 108.6 for fifth-best in the Association.

Pair these performances with the ascension of Naz Reid, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Jaden McDaniels, and you have a best-in-the-West 30-13 record.

With all that said, why does it still feel like Minnesota is missing the label of a “true contender”?

All the Small Things

It’s an age-old saying in sports that the truly great teams do all of the small things at a high level. For the Timberwolves, it’s not just a Blink-182 reference, it’s a matter of taking care of the ball, cashing in on their opponent’s mistakes, and showing up ready to compete every single night.

Minnesota currently ranks 28th in turnovers per game at 15.3 and 30th over their last 15 games, per NBA Stats. To put that into perspective, only two teams in the play-by-play era (1996 to now) have averaged as many or more turnovers per game as the Timberwolves and won it all: the ’02-’03 San Antonio Spurs and the ’17-’18 Golden State Warriors.

Needless to say, the Timberwolves are not a dynasty. What the Timberwolves are, however, is a team that has improved each year under Coach of the Year candidate Chris Finch.

To summarize Finch’s words following an embarrassing collapse to Charlotte on Monday night, the team’s turnover issues come down to mostly carelessness and a spoonful of immaturity. But, most importantly, it’s fixable. A potential prescription lies in less congestion in the painted area, fewer spastic kick-outs to the corner on drives, and simply making the easy pass to amend a majority of the issues.

What better way to nullify your own mistakes than to capitalize on your opponents’? This is an area where Minnesota can cash in, but, given the size of the Wolves’ roster, playing slow makes that difficult to achieve. This is not a team that pushes the ball, which has landed them at 22nd in the league in pace and only 12.5 fast-break points per game. Maybe a more surprising stat is that the Timberwolves only average an offensive rebound 27.8% of the time a shot comes off of the rim.

You would think that a team with this much size, this much length would be able to create second chances, but then you look and see much smaller teams like the Golden State Warriors grabbing another possession on nearly one-third of their shot attempts.

“Say it ain’t so, I will not go and crash the boards” – the Timberwolves’ wings. Alright, I’m done with the Blink lyrics, but this is truly a microcosm of many of the issues the Wolves are dealing with during this stretch of the season. A lack of hustle, a moment’s (or whole quarter’s) lapse in focus, and a need for their young stars to find the in-game maturity needed to compete for a championship. Veteran players like Mike Conley, Rudy Gobert and Kyle Anderson can only hold everyone accountable to an extent. It’s not a matter of “if”, but “when” the youthful core taps into that mentality that things really start to get interesting.

Looking Ahead

The trials of the first half of the season are over. Minnesota stood tall during 16-game stretch against opponents with a .500 record or better, going 9-7 in the end.

Now, the Wolves boast the league’s easiest remaining regular-season slate, with games against the Wizards, Nets and Spurs this week. A great opportunity to put solutions into practice. As the February 8th NBA trade deadline looms, Tim Connelly and Co. are tasked with eliminating as many flaws as possible. Do you invest in a backup point guard to help eliminate turnovers? A movement shooter to come off of the bench and increase three-point volume? Or maybe you take a risk on bucket-getters like Bones Hyland who have little to no role on their current teams.

Either route you go, this team is in for a potentially historic second half of the season. The mission: make it out of the first round in the NBA Playoffs.

About Andrew Johnson

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