Over the final 33 games of last year, the Minnesota Timberwolves closed the regular season at 22-11. They ranked second in offense and fifth in net rating in that stretch. Expand to the full season and they were still seventh offensively.
This season, after drastically reshaping their roster by acquiring All-NBA center Rudy Gobert, they’re 18th. Through the 20 games Karl-Anthony Towns started and finished before a calf strain sidelined him, they were 19th. Through a quarter of the year, Minnesota’s grand experiment wasn’t working. Without Towns for the past eight games, they’re 21st offensively. The conclusion remains the same.
So, what’s gone wrong for the Timberwolves? Why have they failed to be the prolific offense that fueled their joyful 2021-22 playoff run? Is anything salvageable or are they doomed until changes get made to the roster?
The culprits behind these failures are widespread. Gobert’s shortcomings are a factor. Lead ball-handlers in Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell carry responsibility. The roster construction is at odds, and Towns isn’t free of blame.
Let’s start with Gobert, the three-time All-Star who established himself as an excellent ball-screen partner in Utah’s expansive, well-spaced offenses over the last half-decade. Gobert’s presence in those well-oiled Jazz attacks was a symbiotic relationship. They surrounded him with a slew of ball-handlers and shooting, while his roll gravity and lob threat freed up shooters and offered a release valve inside.
Minnesota is not that. Whereas Utah was top 10 in both three-point frequency and accuracy each year between 2018-19 and 2020-21, the Timberwolves are 20th in frequency and 25th in accuracy. Last season, the Timberwolves were third in three-point rate and 13th in accuracy, but Tauren Prince’s absence, Towns’ down year (32.5 percent from deep) affect the outlook, and Jaylen Nowell dropping off from a 39.4 percent shooter to 30.1 percent this year have not helped the situation.
On top of some internal regression, their rotation boasts fewer quality shooters overall. Gone are Malik Beasley and Patrick Beverley (who hit 34.3 percent from deep last year), and now guys like Kyle Anderson, Jordan McLaughlin, Jaden McDaniels, and, currently, Austin Rivers have stepped in, none of whom defenses typically respect beyond the arc. As a result, opponents are more willing to aggressively sag off and complicate Gobert’s finishing angles.
That’s an issue. Gobert’s touch, flexibility, and capacity to finish through contact are poor. He’s a premier lob threat, but lacks the versatility to convert in a plethora of ways. He can’t usually beat switches or contort himself around timely rotations. For all the qualms about his playoff defense, his rigidity as an interior scorer was a much more glaring problem.
It’s persisted in Minnesota, an offensive context much less conducive to success than Utah’s. According to Cleaning The Glass, his 72 percent mark at the rim places him in the 55th percentile among bigs, his lowest ranking since 2015-16.
Minnesota’s primary decision-making trio of Edwards, Russell, and Towns is not sufficient to navigate this precarious situation. It was part of their downfall against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs and has translated to their slow start this year. Anderson assuming a significant ball-handling role speaks to his heady decision-making but also underlines the concerning state of the rotation. He’s very good at prioritizing reads to Gobert, but he’s also a substantially limited on-ball creator and all-around scorer. A high-level offense ideally treats him as a connector, not an initiator. Minnesota aims to be a high-level offense, yet is forced to rely on him as the latter because of surrounding problems.
In general, those designed to feed Gobert are not equipped like those in Utah were. He’s also given them some reasons for doubt when they do feed him, fumbling passes and botching point-blank attempts. Trust is earned and it simply might not yet exist among all the new faces.
Edwards brings downhill juice as a scorer, but is not an adept passer, especially on the interior. Russell is a talented, albeit flawed playmaker, who struggles to regularly turn the corner. Guys like Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley Jr., and Joe Ingles merged both aspects. The latter two’s chemistry with Gobert was preternatural by the end of his Jazz tenure. Edwards and Russell were already incomplete creators, and they don’t tout the synergy with the big fella at the moment to compensate.
Russell is 26 years old and in his eighth season. He’s averaging 16-6-3 on 57 percent true shooting. His first month was frigid, but he’s come around the last month and fostered some rapport with Gobert. His 31 assists to him are a team-high. He’s playing fairly well and is likely not remedying his insufficient burst at this juncture.
Edwards, meanwhile, is 21 and in his third season; maturation should be expected and is imperative for this club to approach its lofty aspirations. His raw numbers are eerily similar to last year (22-5-4, 56 percent true shooting). The tape is as well, spotlighting clear weak points that haven’t been remedied.
He fails to sync his pacing alongside Gobert’s rolls and will routinely force laborious shots rather than find his roll man for laydown passes or lobs. Despite sharing the floor with Gobert more than anyone else and leading Minnesota in usage rate (27 percent), his 12 assists to the Frenchman are fourth on the team.
His maneuvering in ball-screens doesn’t tend to adapt based on what’s happening around him. He marries a decision early and tethers himself to it. The process is flawed and hampers many possessions for himself and others. According to Synergy, he’s below the 45th percentile as a pick-and-roll scorer and passer.
Signs of progress are manifesting, though. Eight of Edwards’ 12 assists have come throughout their last 318 minutes together. He recorded just four during their initial 331 minutes. His emphasis to set up Gobert more commonly is apparent, even if not always prosperous.
This is a long-term pairing anyway. The 2022-23 season is two months old. Gobert is under contract through at least 2024-25. Minnesota can keep Edwards for a while. Edwards is trying to adjust, and that matters — he’s even remarked that this is the first time he’s ever played with a center that only rolls to the rim at any level of basketball.
Slowly developing cohesion between Gobert and ball-handlers is a microcosm of a team-wide ailment. This squad is not cohesive. They’re not precise with some of their screening and off-ball motion. Imperfect screens, cuts, and positioning all work against them to create clunky possessions.
Every game is good for at least a few turnovers stemming from inaccurate passes, confusion, and/or illegal picks. An attention detail feels fleeting instead of the norm. The Timberwolves are 10th in true shooting percentage, but just 20th in points per 100 possessions. Their 27th-ranked turnover rate is to blame for that dichotomy. Unfamiliarity amid a different offensive environment with a revamped rotation produces gaffes like these.
The hope, for their sake, is that time breeds comfort. Some of those errors can easily be corrected as everyone assimilates to a novel context. Some of it, though, shouldn’t exist whatsoever. Purposefulness escapes this group far too frequently and is the sort of pitfall that is altogether avoidable.
The final major flaw: the Timberwolves can’t score when their star duo shares the hardwood. With Towns and Gobert, they’re generating 107.2 points per 100 possessions and hold a net rating of minus-1.0 When Towns plays without Gobert, the offense flourishes (119.5 offensive rating), while the defense craters (119.5 defensive rating). When Gobert plays without Towns, the offense wilts (107.9), while the defense thrives (110.0). None of the three realities are panning out thus far.
Towns’ allure as a preeminent offensive big man is his multifaceted nature. He stretches the court, launches threes on the move, can roll to the rim, will drive off the catch, is a viable passer (with glaring holes), and is adept in the mid-post. As the centerpiece of Minnesota’s offense last year, his success toggling across those duties all over the floor proved vital.
This year, though, Gobert’s arrival demands a more meticulous deployment of Towns, which hasn’t always occurred during their minutes together. The opposition will ignore Gobert to disrupt Towns’ drives, rolls, or post-ups. Last season’s standard operating procedure cannot be the same as this season. Defenses load the paint and funnel passes to whichever shaky shooter(s) is (are) stationed along the perimeter.
Towns has to act as more of a floor-spacer alongside Gobert, which is a troubling existence because he’s the Timberwolves’ best offensive cog. Reducing him to a spot-up 4 role while Russell or Edwards and Gobert run pick-and-rolls on a cramped court will yield diminished returns. However, Towns is wired to attack closeouts and has teamed up with Gobert for numerous buckets. His 27 assists to the three-time Defensive Player of the Year are second-most on the team.
The Timberwolves have drawn up some actions that incorporate Towns’ dynamic offense and shooting gravity with Gobert’s screening and rolling. Double Drag comes to mind, as does Horns Flare. Utilizing Gobert as a weakside screener during Towns’ interior touches has been flashed from head coach Chris Finch and Co. There are pathways for this to succeed, they’re just more narrow than how this offense excelled a year ago.
The hefty price of the Gobert acquisition smashed the accelerator into win-now mode for the Timberwolves. That “now” is here for them, yet the winning has lagged behind. Injuries contribute to some degree, though they’re hardly the only team afflicted by those developments. Hope is by no means a relic already confined to the offseason. They must be patient and amenable.
Staggering Edwards or Russell with Towns or Gobert as the other two rest could be beneficial. Those four possible iterations have only logged a combined 658 possessions out of a total 2,790 Timberwolves possessions. Leaning less on the bench-heavy units may help when the full roster is available.
Avenues for this atypical duo to drive a top-10 offense on a very good team are available. Discovering them warrants improvement throughout the organization. Players must grow, while schemes and rotations should be tweaked.
The season hasn’t even reached 30 games. Minnesota, for all its ugly sequences and outcomes, is only 3.5 games behind the No. 4 seed. Through 28 games last year, 13-15 was also its record. There is time to fix this, but time alone won’t be an antidote. If this unorthodox offense shall ever blossom, recognizing that is imperative.