Dare To Speak The Forbidden Words: The Minnesota Timberwolves Are Good Now
9:21 AM EST on January 19, 2024
The Minnesota Timberwolves hit the midpoint of their season Thursday night, finishing the first half with a come-from-behind victory over a visiting Memphis Grizzlies squad so savaged by injuries that for long stretches of the game their best and only ball-handler and distributor on the court was a seven-foot center who is not much good at handling the ball or distributing. The win was Minnesota's 30th in 41 games. Their record this morning is tied for the best start in franchise history; it's also the best record in the meat-grinder that is the Western Conference. The Timberwolves have now been atop the West for 56 consecutive days.
You would have to say, at this point—possibly even in a blog; possibly even in a blog under your very own byline; possibly even for a website that has a firm idealogical opposition to the practice of deleting published blogs, no matter how humiliating—that the Timberwolves are good. This has not always worked out very well in the past. At times in this franchise's history it has felt like the Timberwolves string together months of good basketball in order to dupe people into saying aloud that they are good now, so that the team can then reveal its true form—bad at basketball—and complete a rude prank. It's like Lucy yanking away the football and yet again sending Charlie Brown somersaulting through the air. No, really, this time it's real, you can totally trust us.
Here is what I mean: The Timberwolves have made the playoffs 11 times in their 35-year history, and seven times they've topped 45 wins; it would not have seemed insane in really any of those seasons to allow yourself to take them seriously. But in all those tries the Timberwolves have won two playoff series. In the 2001–02 season, when the extremely cool Kevin Garnett-led Wolves also opened the season with 30 wins in 41 games, they lost five of seven to open the second half, then dropped seven in a row in March, finished the regular season with a disappointing 50 wins, and were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by a not-special Mavericks squad that was subsequently bounced from the playoffs by the Sacramento Kings. Do you see? I realize that this is a worn-out caveat, but so long as I am required to attach my name to a public proclamation of this team's seriousness there must also be a record of my having hedged against any future owns.
With that out of the way: The Minnesota Timberwolves appear to be good as hell now. They have the thing that you most want if you are trying to build a sustainable foundation for success, which is an absolute monster of a defense. Per Cleaning The Glass, which filters out garbage time from its various metrics, Minnesota's defense is almost three points per 100 possessions clear of the second-best defense in the NBA. Last season this same basic outfit struggled to design and execute a defensive scheme that made the best use of newly acquired behemoth Rudy Gobert without also exposing the vulnerabilities of Karl-Anthony Towns, and even when Towns missed a huge chunk of the season with injury, Minnesota's defense never really coalesced. With Gobert lumbering around the interior and gumming up driving lanes, and with veteran guard Mike Conley having the worst season of his career, Minnesota's offense sagged down toward the league's bottom third, which is how a star-laden team with an eye-popping payroll managed to finish eighth in the West, with the conference's 11th-best point differential. The vibes were impressively shitty.
No one would've been surprised if general manager Tim Connelly had moved heaven and earth over the summer to unwind, to the extent possible, the huge deal that brought over Gobert from Utah, or had finally gotten the Timberwolves out of the Karl-Anthony Towns business, or had otherwise acted rashly to break up the core of last season's 42-win bust. One of the bolder summer maneuvers headed into this season was Minnesota not substantially altering the outfit that looked so deeply dysfunctional last season. Now that it has worked, it is safe to say that the logic of holding pat was sound: Whatever you think of Gobert as an action hero, when he is healthy he is an incredible defensive force, the kind of rim protector who, with just about any collection of NBA-grade teammates, can be the foundation of a top-10 defense. Towns might be a certified goober, but it is basically impossible to build a truly bad offensive lineup around him.
Minnesota's floor as a team, with those two guys in the rotation, simply cannot be very low. In order for their ceiling to be very high, the Timberwolves just needed some other guys to pop, or to continue popping. The obvious one is Anthony Edwards, who can do absolutely everything on a basketball court. Last season—his third—he was great; this season he is The Terminator, scoring 26 points a game on pristine shooting splits and morphing into an aggressive and terrifying perimeter stopper. Kenny Smith talked on TNT Thursday night about the calming influence of having a teammate with Edwards's vast arsenal of A-grade abilities: When the Timberwolves need a clutch shot, they can look for Edwards; when the Timberwolves need someone to hunt out a mismatch, they can look for Edwards; when they need someone to slow things down and force contact and will his way to the line, they can look to Edwards; when they need someone to lock up an opposing perimeter scorer for a key sequence of possessions, they can look to Edwards. As a bonus, when they need someone to throw a self-alley-oop off the glass and cause the arena to shake as if pounded by the fist of God, Edwards can handle that as well:
That wasn't even Edwards's coolest dunk of the last 48 hours. In Minnesota's win Wednesday night over the Pistons, Edwards disabled gravity for a drive down the paint, causing an audible awe to fall over a Detroit crowd that has seen a lot of Globetrotter shit befall their awful basketball team.
But it’s also not just Edwards. Backup center Naz Reid has become an incredible bench heater and offensive force. Reid is producing 50/40/80 shooting splits on a career-high 23 minutes per game; he’s somehow become an electrifying driver who throws sick dribble moves at defenders while also developing into a high-volume three-point shooter. I almost want to warn you to sit down before sharing this next statistic: Reid attempts more three-pointers per 36 minutes this season than Devin Booker and Bradley Beal combined, and is hitting them at a higher clip than either of them. Thursday night he went into a brief fugue state and ripped off 13 points on five shots in three minutes, during a first-half stretch of play where his teammates were otherwise mostly asleep. It’s easy to think of the Timberwolves as Edwards for the offense and Gobert for the defense, and then you remember they’ve got Towns, and then you remember they’ve got Conley, and then you look up and Reid is burying an opposing bench unit under an absolute barrage of highlight buckets, and it starts to feel impossible that these Wolves could ever be anything short of excellent, even for a few consecutive quarters of basketball.
The question earlier in this season was whether Edwards, as Minnesota's single most important player, yet has the attention span to be the main guy on a truly excellent NBA team. And even in Thursday's win, more was done to reinforce the question than provide an answer. By his own postgame admission, Edwards "wasn't ready to play" at the start of the game, which was the second leg of a back-to-back. Edwards had two points at halftime, and the Timberwolves were down to a sad-sack Grizzlies team that often struggled to bring the ball past half-court even without defensive pressure, and I was feeling very deeply nervous about having committed myself to writing anything praise-like about this damned franchise. It took veteran teammate Kyle Anderson telling Edwards that he was "looking like a scrub" on national television for Edwards to take seriously his role as Minnesota's primary offensive engine.
But that's the cool and extraordinarily rare thing about Edwards: He's so talented that he really can decide to dominate a half of basketball. And dominate he did, with 26 points on 14 shots, including a sequence of back-breaking buckets inside the game's final stages. Conley hit some huge buckets, Gobert eventually forced the Grizzlies to stop even attempting to score in the paint, and the Timberwolves cruised away to what was ultimately a comfortable win. This kind of win can be impressive in its own right: A back-to-back against shitty opponents, a slow start, a couple of opposing shooters who catch fire, a late deficit, a challenge to supply your own momentum for an outcome that no one will remember come the playoffs. When the game didn't come to them the Timberwolves were able to buckle down and take it seriously, and that was enough to dominate the late stages and run away with a win.
While watching the Timberwolves go about gathering wins this season, it's hard not to think about the final set of losses that were added to their tally last season, when the Denver Nuggets bounced them out of the first round of the playoffs in five games. Nearly sweeping a 42-win team in the first round is not destined to play a major part in the retelling of a team's championship story, but those who watched that series closely will remember that the Timberwolves put a real scare into the Nuggets, and did so without access to Reid, or to their best perimeter defender, Jaden McDaniels.
Even now, I am hunting around for reasons not to believe in this team. Here's one: Per the NBA, the Timberwolves had "the league’s biggest discrepancy between their number of rest-advantage games and rest-disadvantage games" through the end of December. It's just more comfortable, with the Timberwolves, to believe that there is an illusory quality to their success. Alas, even this comfort is denied: Per ESPN and supported by the TNT broadcast, Minnesota has compiled their 30–11 record against the strongest schedule of opponents of any team in the NBA. And their second-half schedule is among the easiest, by current win percentage of their opponents. For once in your life, and perhaps for the first time in history, you will look more ridiculous doubting the goodness of the Minnesota Timberwolves than you will by proclaiming it. And, anyway, the powers that be will not let you delete any blogs of either inclination. We're aboard the Timberwolves train, whether we like it or not.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the Timberwolves have only won one playoff series in their 35-year history.