What’s Behind the Timberwolves’ Rocky Start?

Minnesota made the splashiest move of the offseason after acquiring Rudy Gobert, but the team has struggled as we approach the midpoint of the season.

Our NBA insiders are debating the biggest topics in the league. Sports Illustrated senior writers Chris Mannix and Howard Beck weigh in on the rocky start in Minnesota and where theTimberwolvesshould go from here.

Chris Mannix: All right, Beck, we are fast approaching the midway point of the season, so it’s time to ask: What is going on with the Timberwolves? The Wolves were a trendy pick to finish in the top four in the Western Conference standings, but if the season ended today they would be outside the play-in looking into. Yes, Karl-Anthony Towns was injured, but this team wasn’t winning before he went out. So what gives?

Howard Beck: If we’re ranking Most Disappointing Teams of the 2022–23 season, the Wolves have got to be a runaway No. 1, no? Sure, theRaptorsandBullsare underachieving, and theLakersare an unmitigated disaster, but we had zero expectations for the Lakers, and the other two teams arguably overachieved last season. Plus, the Raptors are young and still searching for an identity.

But the Wolves? The Wolves had two certified offensive dynamos and added one of the greatest defensive bigs of the era. And, as you might recall, they gave up a ransom to pryRudy GobertfromUtah. So, yeah, this was supposed to be a breakthrough season.

Injuries aside, something just isn’t right here. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 26 years on the NBA beat, it’s that if a team has great talent (the Wolves do) and is losing anyway (they are), it’s almost certainly a chemistry problem. Maybe it’s Gobert, who certainly had some friction issues in Utah. Maybe it’s Anthony Edwards, who still has tendencies to dominate the ball and ignore defensive assignments. Maybe it’s D’Angelo Russell, who’s always been a challenging personality. Maybe it’s Towns, though he hasn’t played since Nov. 28, and, well, that’s part of the problem, too.

Or is there something else we’re missing here?

Mannix: I was among those boldly predicting a top-four level jump for the Wolves this season, largely because if we learned anything from Gobert’s years in Utah it’s that he impacts (regular-season) winning and instantly transforms a defense. The Jazz had a 61%-plus winning percentage in three of the last four seasons along with a top-10 defensive rating in three of them.

Yet, remarkably, the Timberwolves have a worse defensive rating this season than they did the last. How? Last season’s team D was decent, but anyone who watched that team knew they were doing it in a gimmicky kind of way. There was a lot of smoke and mirrors to that team’s defense. This year, with a defensive anchor, they have a rating of 112.8, per NBA.com. That’s more than a point higher than it was in 2021–22.

Has Gobert, at 30, started to slip? Does Chris Finch not know how to use him? Are his teammates not comfortable playing with him?

beck: One thing we all need to remember: Defense in the NBA is never a one-man game, especially in today’s pick-and-roll dominant, pace-and-space league. Even a gifted shot blocker like Gobert has a somewhat limited impact on his team’s overall defense. We’ve often talked about Gobert as a Walking Top-10 Defense who can transform any lineup, and there’s some truth to that. But it takes much more than a mobile 7-footer with a nose for the ball.

I also think it’s too soon to say that Gobert, at age 30, in Year 10, is somehow eroding already. If the Wolves are failing on defense, it’s a team issue. The Jazz might not have had elite defenders across the board, but they at least had willing defenders like Mike Conley and strong wings like Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanović and Joe Ingles.

The Wolves’ three star scorers are all net negatives on D. Maybe it was too much to ask Gobert to fix so many deficiencies by himself.

Mannix: Wait—defense isn’t a one-man game? Have you seen the Jazz’s on/off numbers with Gobert the last few seasons? How Conley defended last year? How Donovan Mitchell defended? Gobert took a lot of heat for Utah’s first-round playoff exit last season, but it’s hard to win when your guards are getting consistently beat at the point of attack.

Anyway, I’m not convinced Gobert is regressing either. I think Minnesota struggled early figuring out how to play Gobert and Towns together. I think Finch has struggled developing a defense backstopped by a dominant big and not the swarming version he installed last season. I think that because the Wolves have been painfully bad from the perimeter (21st in three-point percentage) they have been put in far too many transition situations (Minnesota ranks in the bottom third in opponent fast break points) that Gobert simply can’t help in. In my view, if the shooting improves, the defense will. But can this roster do that?

beck: Mock the Jazz backcourt all you want, but the fact is the Jazz were far better equipped, team-wise, to take advantage of Gobert’s defensive talents than this Wolves team is. Have you watched Edwards, Russell and Towns play D? I rest my house.

Speaking of Towns, I don’t think we can truly and fairly judge this team until he’s healthy and playing again. I know, the Wolves were an alarming 10–11 before he went down in late November, but they’ve been even worse without him. And even that 21-game sample isn’t enough to declare the Gobert-Towns experiment a failure. They do need some time together, and Towns’s extended absence from him hasn’t helped.

They were also without Taurean Prince for 20 games (until Wednesday) and have been missing backup point Jordan McLaughlin since early December. This team isn’t deep enough or experienced enough to survive missing three rotation players for extended periods. I’m not saying, “Just give them time, and things will be fine,” but I do think they need a full squad for at least a month or two to find any cohesion at either end of the court.

But Mannix, let’s cut to the chase on this one: Do we believe in this team, or don’t we? Because if we don’t, it raises the question: Where do they go from here? They can’t reasonably trade Gobert, given all they gave up to get him. They won’t trade Edwards (duh). They’re prohibited from dealing KAT until after the season. So … where do they go from here?

Mannix: Tim Connelly, who I know has to be beyond frustrated right now, doesn’t have many options. We know he can’t trade Towns and probably wouldn’t right now anyway. We know he shipped out a trash bag full of draft capital in the deal to get Gobert. Russell has been and will continue to be available, but as far as I can tell the market is low for an inconsistent point guard in the final year of a big contract. We know Minnesota—sorry, Twin Cities—is not likely to be a destination for any late buyout players.

So the short answer is: nowhere. There’s not much they can do the rest of this season but hope a healthy Towns changes the calculus. Maybe he will. Towns is an elite talent, and we have seen new-ish teams jell late in the season before. But into what? A play-in team? A playoff team?

So let’s push this forward even further. Let’s say this team makes the playoffs. Or gets into the playoffs and gets beat in the first round. What then? Have we seen enough of the Gobert-Towns-Edwards trio to concede it doesn’t work? Will Finch, who was hired before Connelly, it should be noted, take the fall? How will this team fix a roster that isn’t winning in spite of some pretty high-level talent?

Karl-Anthony Towns has been out since late November with a calf injury.

Matt Krohn/USA TODAY Sports

beck: The rational, nuanced half of my brain says lets see what happens when KAT comes back and what kind of chemistry they can establish in the final months of the season. Who knows, maybe there’s a respectable playoff team in there somewhere. But the reactionary part of me wants to double down on what I wrote in this space a few weeks back: It might be time to close the books on the KAT era.

This is Towns eighth season in Minnesota. He’s been paired with Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Jimmy Butler, Edwards and now Gobert. He’s been coached by Sam Mitchell, Tom Thibodeau, Ryan Saunders and now Finch. He’s led the Wolves to two playoff appearances, each ending in the first round. If the Wolves flame out again this spring, they have to try something else. Auction him off for as many picks and players as you can get. Some team desperate for star power (hello, Knicks!) will happily take a chance on a 27-year-old All-Star center who’s averaged 23 points and 11 rebounds for his career.

Or is there a less drastic solution?

Mannix: I think that’s too drastic. I’m not sure Towns is a No. 1 on a title team; his defensive limitations, among other things, concern me. And I’m not sure he’ll ever be a good fit opposite Gobert, in part because any effective fourth-quarter lineup will likely need to feature Towns at center.

Still, he’s 27 and on a long-term contract, and you know that wherever he goes next someone is going to unlock the rest of his potential.

I’d probably start with the coach. Finch is a bright guy, and he has done well with this team since taking over for Saunders. But maybe he’s not the right guy for this team. Connelly has some cover if he decides to make a coaching change; every new top exec wants to hire his own guy, and, while Connelly has spoken flatteringly about Finch, there has to be a part of him that wants to go through the interviewing process and bring in someone like-minded, as he did when he hired Michael Malone in Denver.

What do you think? A coaching change feels like the less-than-nuclear option if this thing doesn’t turn around.

beck: Firing the coach is always a face-saving option, sure. But what reason do we have to believe that Finch is the problem here? Or that a new coach will have any greater success with this group? How many coaches have to fail here before you scrutinize your star players? Maybe the pieces just don’t fit. Maybe the Gobert-Towns pairing is just as flawed as rival scouts and coaches thought it would be. And maybe, as many folks around the league believe, KAT just isn’t a winning player. Or at least, not as a leading man. Edwards is young and has his own flaws, but maybe he’s the real future of this team. You’re right that Connelly doesn’t have any investment in Finch, since he inherited him. But he also inherited Towns and has no obligation to keep him.

Mannix: True, but what’s easier to find: a coach on Finch’s level—and again, he is a good one—or a player like Towns? Bottom line for me, there’s too much upside to this core to throw a stick of dynamite on the roster. Connelly is a really smart basketball guy. He built a formidable team in Denver. This trade has not worked out yet, but I’m betting he won’t call it a failure, even if this season turns out to be one.

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