Let’s check in on last year’s Western Conference 7-seed. As of December 6th, they sit at 11-12 and are currently seated in the 11-seed. Hardly where they wanted to be after the massive acquisition of Rudy Gobert over the summer. Now without $224 million man Karl-Anthony Towns for 4-6 weeks, what can we expect from this team? Who is going to step up in Towns’ absence?
KAT’s Out, What’s Next for the Timberwolves?
What’s the Timberwolves’ Identity?
With two legitimate centers, the Minnesota Timberwolves have at least two different identities. With Towns (and no Gobert), the defense hedges the all-too-common high pick-and-rolls. Because of the prominence of the high pick-and-roll in today’s NBA, this is the part of the Timberwolves’ defense to focus on. It’s also one of the defining characteristics of two identities (solo Towns and solo Gobert). The offense flows with the ball around the perimeter and into the paint via frequent drives from wings and guards. It resembles more of a five-out offense, with Towns’ perimeter skills being well-known.
A Gobert-led squad (with no Towns) has him skulking around either of the blocks, with shooters in each of the corners and Edwards and driving from one of the wings. This was a common sight during Wednesday night’s game against Memphis. While Towns hedges screens, Gobert excels in drop coverage, where he is most valuable protecting the rim with his 7’1 stature and 7’9 wingspan. To get the most out of a Gobert-led defense, the guards getting screened will most often need to go over the top rather than giving up space for an open three.
Gobert in drop coverage was the rhythm of the Utah Jazz’s defensive scheme, and we can expect it to be prominent in the Timberwolves’ defense without Towns. Saturday’s game against Oklahoma City Thunder, however, required a different defensive scheme. With a roster with unicorns and oddities that arguably make Kristaps Porzingis look normal, the Thunder started the game with Aleksej Pokusevski running the 5, although he just as easily plays the 3. Pokusevski’s unique mobility for a seven-footer meant the Timberwolves frequently switched screens. Gobert was able to display his perimeter defense while Edwards and McDaniels followed Pokusevski.
More on Gobert
Gobert has usually held his own out there in the past. Opponents shot just 32.7% from three with him guarding them last year, though he’s giving them up at a 36.8% clip this year (the current league average is 35.5%). It should also be noted this statistic is not the be-all-end-all describer of perimeter defense. When we combine it with what we see in Gobert’s technique, he’s considered a capable perimeter defender. He’ll be able to handle switching against more teams like the Thunder.
With both big men on the floor… Gobert sort of stands awkwardly on either block, positioning for a lob, with Towns roaming wherever he pleases. It’s not uncommon to see both blocks occupied by Gobert and Towns, disrupting spacing. Russell has a habit of slowing the offense down by playing iso ball. The most common lineup by far is Gobert-Russell-Towns-Edwards-Jaden McDaniels has a dissatisfying offensive rating of 108.2. Edwards’ body language has regularly told us that he is disinterested during Russell’s iso-ball antics. He’s been caught standing depressingly in the corner or walking back on defense before Russell’s jumper results in a make or miss. It’s no secret that the Timberwolves have struggled to integrate the two on the floor at the same time, but there’s hope.
With Towns Out, What is This Team Going to Look Like?
Much has been made about the head-butting that has taken place between Russell’s game and Edwards’, but we may finally be able to see Edwards take over this team. He did just that during the Wednesday, November 30th game against Memphis. Failing to convert a field goal in the second and third quarters, Edwards quickly heated up after a bucket at 9:01 in the fourth. He’d go on to make a pull-up three on a Gobert screen, a ferocious transition dunk after a Gobert rejection at the rim, and several tough driving layups. He found Gobert running to the rim with a lob that completed the display of pick-and-roll offense (pull-ups, using the screen to get an extra step and get to the rim, and finding the rolling big man for a dunk). Edwards was all the buzz post-game, garnering much love from teammates and fans alike.
His defense was spectacular, thanks in part to his surging offense. We’ve seen this before, not only in Edwards but in basketball players across the world; defense leads to offense. Not only LITERALLY with the offense scoring in transition, but his energy level on defense soared with each point scored acting as a flap of his wings. Losing Towns hurts, but it could be the extra push that Edwards needs to discover the full extent of his two-way talents.
Edwards was described as a “toolsy” player coming out of Georgia. A mesmerizing ball-handler with a pretty shot and enough athleticism, he could play for the Timberwolves, Vikings, and Twins (probably). He has the potential to become a go-to scorer AND a shutdown defender; Towns’ absence may lead him to it.
So, Look Out for Edwards, But What About the Other Guys?
Partly because McDaniels couldn’t suit up due to illness, Wendell Moore drew his first NBA start on Wednesday. It was a smashing success. On a team as deep as the Timberwolves, he should not be expected to shoulder much playmaking offensive load. His energy was and should primarily be directed to his defense. He was able to stick with offensive stud Ja Morant on screens while Gobert comfortably went in to drop coverage.
Kyle Anderson was put in the same situation, but “Slow-Mo” was too slow to go over the top of Steven Adams’ screens. Morant was able to comfortably pull up from three with the afforded space. With a healthy McDaniels and now Moore, the Timberwolves could have a superb response to the dominant offensive play. This is not to say Anderson will not continue to serve as a vital depth piece. He’s still a skilled defender, but Moore and McDaniels will be better options when defending the pick-and-roll.
Jaylen Nowell’s breakout season has so far resulted in 11.5 points per game on nearly 50 percent eFG%. With Towns and his 14.4 field goal attempts per game gone, someone has to shoot more. It’s possible Nowell sees a jump in his field goal attempts, currently averaging 10.2 per game. He took 19 against Memphis and 13 against OKC while also getting to the line for 2 and 8 free throw attempts, respectively. Nowell has done this while remaining an effective off-ball guard. He’s gone from 28.3% of his shots being considering “catch-and-shoot” last year to 28.2% this year. He hasn’t had to take on a ball-dominant roll to increase his scoring output, much to Edwards and Russell’s relief.
Less Towns could also mean more Naz Reid. It’s a small sample size, but in the 16 minutes that Taurean Prince, Nowell, Edwards, McDaniels, and Reid have shared the floor, the Timberwolves have a net rating of 61.1. Unfortunately, Prince is out for another week or two. When he returns, this lineup featuring five players that were here last year could be a fun second unit. Reid and Gobert likely won’t share the floor much, if it all. Luka Garza has been tearing up the G-League, and he may get another call-up. He hasn’t played in an NBA game since November 23rd. Finch shifted Anderson to the 5 after Gobert’s ejection in the Thunder game.