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After giving up most of their viable assets to acquire Rudy Gobert over the summer, the Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t yet lived up to their true potential. There are several reasons for that. Karl-Anthony Towns has been injured for most of the season. Gobert struggled to find his place in the Timberwolves’ defensive system. D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards couldn’t figure out how to involve Gobert offensively, and both played too much iso-ball.
At the trade deadline, the Timberwolves finally made a move to address at least some of these issues. As a part of a three-team deal, they sent Russell to the Los Angeles Lakers and filled the vacated point guard spot with Utah’s Mike Conley. Russell’s name had been involved in trade rumors for a while now, but the Timberwolves had been reluctant to give up their All-Star scorer. The emergence of youngster Edwards as an unstoppable scoring force made the decision easier. Also, Russell was going to be a free agent this summer and there was no guarantee of retaining him; to lose such an asset and have no way to replace it with equal value would have been devastating.
Conley can offer the Timberwolves things that Russell never could. During his time in Utah, Conley has learned and perfected how to play with Gobert and unlock his offensive contributions. He knows, for example, how to get the ball to Gobert in pick-and-rolls so that he can safely catch it and easily put it in the basket. Gobert likes to get the ball up high in these situations and struggles to catch bounce passes in a crowded paint. Russell and Edwards struggled to adapt to that, whereas Conley already has it all figured out.
All in all, Conley is more of a traditional point guard and facilitator than Russell, Edwards or Jaylen Nowell, which should benefit the rest of the team as well as Gobert specifically. The Timberwolves noticed before that one key to an efficient offense is involving Jaden McDaniels, who needs someone to get the ball to him. It is incredibly important to develop McDaniels because he and Edwards are their future and McDaniels can be much more than just a lock-down defender. In two outings with Conley running the show, McDaniels has looked much more engaged offensively than before. He actually got plenty of touches instead of just standing in the corner and put up 25 points over the two games. Gobert similarly scored 29 points in the first two games of his reunion with Conley, and the guard himself contributed 21 points and 12 assists. If he can continue to keep up this production and unlock Gobert’s and McDaniels’ contributions, this new-look Timberwolves team will be more than able to make up for Russell’s scoring that they sent to Los Angeles.
While his knowledge of Gobert’s talents is Conley’s most appealing asset, the hope is that he can also fix some of the Timberwolves’ other issues. They have lost several wins late in the game, so the hope is that Conley can be a calm presence in these situations and make smart decisions. Conley is, after all, very careful with the ball. He averaged 1.7 turnovers on 7.7 assists in Utah this season.
Furthermore, Conley is a truly wise veteran who can impart important wisdom and good habits on the Timberwolves’ young players. Not only does he have plenty of playoff experience and can withstand the pressure, but he is also very poised when the ball is not in his hands. Conley does not argue with referees. During all his years in the league, he has never been ejected and only got one technical that was later changed. Edwards could certainly learn from that. Besides, profiting from Conley’s off-court mentorship, Edwards should also work well with the veteran on the court. Conley did, after all, share a backcourt with a young Donovan Mitchell in Utah, whose explosive style is very similar to Edwards’ game. He knows how to allow a young teammate to flourish into a star next to him.
So far, the new-look Timberwolves look promising and even got a big win over the Dallas Mavericks and their new backcourt duo of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. It was a good two-way game, but defense was what eventually sealed the deal for the Timberwolves. Edwards and McDaniels had been haunting Doncic and Irving all game long, but on the final game-deciding possession, they didn’t even let the two superstars get a shot off.
Despite this big win, the Timberwolves’ new roster is not yet on the same level as Western Conference contenders such as Denver and Memphis. They have the potential, though, and in the end it will all come down to Karl-Anthony Towns and how he will fit in with the team. In his absence, they have found a routine and an identity. Especially defensively, Gobert finally looks comfortable, improving the team’s overall defense immensely, and offensively things are slowly falling into place too. Towns will have to integrate into that existing system and accept that his offensive involvement will not be a priority anymore. The team is now officially Edwards’ after he carried it in Towns’ absence by being indestructible and putting up insane numbers. He truly made the jump into All-Star territory, and his growth is the key to the Timberwolves’ success. The team managed to find its way without Towns, but that does not mean that they are better without him on the court. While his teammates might have to pick up some slack defensively, Towns is an incredibly gifted scorer and offensive talent.
Talent was never the problem with the Timberwolves, though. They just never figured out how to connect all of their pieces, and now the hope of finally achieving that rests on Conley’s shoulders. They certainly have the talent to be a top team in the Western Conference, now even more so than before, but they still have to stay healthy and prove that their pieces can all work together. It is too early to say if this trade was a home run or not, but theoretically, it raises the Timberwolves’ ceiling.