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During the last offseason, the entire basketball world watched as the Timberwolves gave up everything, they had to give to finalize a deal that would bring three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to Minnesota. The trade sparked many discussions about what it would mean for the team’s and the league’s future. Would there be a new power in the West, or would the twin towers collapse and Minnesota’s plan to win a championship fail miserably?
So far, the Timberwolves have not failed yet, but they have also not reached their full potential. A team with two former number one draft picks, a former All-Star aat point guard, the best shot blocker in the game, and a young defensive talent should have a better record than 18-21. Many excuses were brought up to justify their lack of success thus far. Claiming that they needed some time to integrate Gobert into the lineup and the injuries that have plagued the team all season long – those were the most popular ones. Both of those are true, however. Gobert brought a style of play with him that the Timberwolves were not used to, and youngster Anthony Edwards specifically has complained about the lack of space the twin towers lineup leaves for him to drive. Edwards is also the only starter who has played every game so far and even suited up after a nasty fall against the Milwaukee Bucks. Every other vital part of their lineup missed time, including Karl-Anthony Towns, who was supposed to lead the team but has not played since November 28th.
Even with Towns in the lineup, the Timberwolves were not as good as advertised, though. They were decent, but decent is not what the Wolves were going for when they brought in Gobert. Ironically, they were actually better while both Towns and Gobert were sidelined at the same time. Having to completely mix up their rotation, the Timberwolves seemed to have found a lineup of Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Jaylen Nowell and Naz Reid, who was great as the starting center, which worked well together. Once Gobert returned, they had to shake things up once again, and it did not look quite as good. The Timberwolves certainly have the talent to be a winning team, but they also have connectivity issues between certain players and some reoccurring issues that hamper their success.
Bad shot selection, a lack of rebounding and bad defensive effort, especially in transition, led to a six-game losing streak that was punctuated by a loss to the Detroit Pistons on New Year’s Eve. The Pistons are one of the worst teams in the league right now and yet, they steamrolled the Timberwolves. It was not a lack of talent that led to this loss. Yes, the Timberwolves were diminished, and Edwards played through an injury, but they were still able to establish a huge lead by halftime. They just could not adjust to Bojan Bogdanovic’ scoring and the Pistons’ will to put up a fight. The Pistons simply seemed to want it more, put in the effort on the offensive glass, scored second-chance points and ran the floor while the Wolves tried to force shots in isolations, argued with the referees rather than running back on defense, and committed foul after foul against one of the worst offenses in the entire league. The problem seemed to be a lack of effort, a lack of willingness even, that players and coaches are aware of. After the loss to Detroit, they had a much-needed players-only meeting to talk things over. As a team, they seem to struggle with the fact that they do not have a distinct leader, or at least someone who will hold everyone accountable and push them to do the dirty work. Last season, they had an energizer in Patrick Beverley, but he is in Los Angeles now and the Wolves have not been able to replace him yet. People made fun of the way Beverley celebrated the Wolves’ trip to the playoffs last year, but he brought a passion and spirit into the locker room that the team could use right now.
This realization once again brought up questions about how beneficial the trade for Gobert really was. Last season, the Wolves made the playoffs, but one season of mediocre success does not mean that all their big pieces are ready to take a step forward and carry a heavier load. Maybe the organization should have given Edwards and McDaniels another year to develop before pushing them onto the big stage, or maybe they should have worked with Edwards’ timeline rather than acquiring a much older player. This along with the growing frustration with Gobert for not having the expected impact on defense and turning the ball over frequently has led to the argument that the Timberwolves would have been better off playing their first-round pick Walker Kessler, who was sent to the Jazz as part of the trade, and Naz Reid at center. They do, in fact, average more turnovers with Gobert on the floor (17.2 per 100 possessions vs. 13.8 per 100 possessions without him) but even though he does not always seem to be a great fit for this team, Gobert alone is not to blame for all of Minnesota’s struggles so far. D’Angelo Russell, for example, has the highest turnover rate and the lowest assist rate of his career this season, and we have already seen Edwards stand on the court with his hands on his hips during a play that was not designed for him. Besides, what is done is done, and it will not do Minnesota any good to dwell on what-ifs. They need to work with what they have and try to turn their season around before it is too late. We have seen other teams do it before. The Boston Celtics struggled early last season, starting the year 25-25, and then something clicked and they made it all the way to the NBA finals.
Currently, the Timberwolves are off to a good start with regards to turning their season around. After hitting rock bottom against Detroit and their players meeting, they pulled off two important wins over the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers. Especially the win over Denver, led by their young talents Edwards and McDaniels, was incredibly important. Despite Russel and Reid joining the long list of injured players, Edwards, McDaniels and Minnesota’s deeper bench that scooted into the rotation finally showed some effort. Minnesota still lost the rebound battle but only by three and Edwards showed a whole new intensity, grabbing a team-high 10 rebounds while the rest of the starters (including Gobert) grabbed four rebounds each. Taking on the point guard responsibilities along with Jaylen Nowell, Edwards also fixed a lot of the mistakes he and his team made during their losing streak. Instead of playing iso-ball, he initiated ball movement, which is important to get McDaniels involved offensively. As a result, McDaniels had one of his best scoring games this season, flashing a glimpse of what this duo could look like in the future. This is something the Timberwolves should put emphasis on from now on because Edwards and McDaniels could be playing together on this roster for quite some time, and McDaniels has the potential to be more than just their go-to defender.
After two wins, however, not everything can be considered to be fixed. The Timberwolves still need to put in a consistent effort on the glass, move the ball without turning it over, figure out how to work with Gobert on offense, especially once Towns returns, and fix their defensive issues. While they are terrible in transition, their half-court defense is actually rather mediocre; unfortunately, a mediocre defense centered around a three-time Defensive Player of the Year is not going to bring them success. One thing is clear, though. Edwards led the charge in these two latest wins, and if the Timberwolves want to turn their season around, they need Edwards to keep that energy going and grow into the team’s leader. That is a lot to ask from a 21-year-old on a veteran-filled team and Edwards has faults of his own, some of which can be explained with a certain level of immaturity that comes with being so young, but he is still their best bet. Towns is not available often enough to lead the team on the court, Russell often lacks the very effort they need to win, and Gobert first has to worry about finding his place on the team before he can even think about anything else.
In the end, only time will be able to tell whether the Timberwolves can eventually live up to expectations or if they will have to figure out how to fix their off-season moves, but there is still hope. First of all, they are starting to get key players back, starting with Taurean Prince, who brings some good energy onto the court, and they are beginning to get better production from their deep bench. Secondly, the Wolves are aware of their issues and finally started to address them together with Edwards leading the way. It will certainly not happen overnight because there is a lot of work involved, but the Timberwolves still have a chance to turn things around before the playoffs come around.