Everything Is Stinky In Minnesota
2:31 PM EST on November 8, 2022
Anthony Edwards, last seen around these parts being toasted for doing bad things to the Memphis Grizzlies in his first playoff game, was recently the protagonist of one of my favorite clips from the first 10 percent of the NBA season. With his team up double digits in the second quarter against the woebegone Houston Rockets, Edwards stood athwart the three-point line, choosing to stop. I don't think this ATO inbounds play was drawn up for him, yet it very clearly at least relied upon him doing something besides lounging, as Jordan McLaughlin comes to screen for him before Edwards staged his tiny, hilarious protest.
The Wolves beat Houston, though the vibes on display in that clip are representative of how the season's been for the team. The team is out four picks and a swap after pushing all their chips in to get Rudy Gobert this past offseason, and though the theory of mortgaging the future to add a three-time Defensive Player of the Year to a core that's led by two No. 1 picks is sound, the process has thus far been rockier than expected. The Wolves are 5-6, which is not disastrous in and of itself in a woozy Western Conference where half of the supposedly good teams are still getting their sea legs, yet they've racked up that middling record against the third-easiest schedule in the NBA. They've only beaten the Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, and Lakers, and have been smoked by every good team they've played. The defense is fine; the offense is sludgy and ineffective.
The problem, if we are to narrow the diagnosis to one factor, is that nobody is quite sure where to stand. The Pauli Exclusion Principle applies here: the driving lanes and interior spaces that the team grew used to while playing five-out basketball are suddenly clogged with Gobert's limbs and torso. Gobert's size and athleticism are only threatening around the rim, which is where his defender will sit no matter where Gobert goes. He's called this bluff twice and taken two three-pointers this season and, well, you can guess how that's gone. Karl-Anthony Towns is only taking 14 percent of his shots at the rim, well below the 33 percent he averages for his career. Anthony Edwards has two dunks this season, and it took him until the 10th game of the season to get on the board.
Not coincidentally, that was the first game Gobert missed with COVID-19. The Wolves, who have already lost to the Jazz this season, must see how much better everything feels in the now-Gobert-less Utah than it does for the team that just traded the farm for him. Gobert, for whatever reason, is probably the least respected star player in the NBA—Edwards himself quipped last year that Gobert "don't put no fear in my heart"—and he's right up there with Towns. Gobert has been exposed in the playoffs throughout his career, and Towns, for all his stats, has never won anything and also wilts in the biggest situations. One might hope that the Wolves could take motivation from the league's disdain for their two highest-paid players, but everyone just seems grumpy with each other. After a loss to the Suns, Edwards was asked about his lack of dunks and he put it plainly: two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.
But Gobert was not on the court last night against New York, when the Knicks came to town and embarrassed the Wolves. The Knicks built a strong early lead that ballooned to 27 and were never seriously challenged by the Wolves at any point. Gobert's presence is clearly not the only problem, as the team looked just as baffled and lifeless last night without him as they looked with him in the lineup for the first nine games of the season. The Knicks are essentially a perfectly average NBA team and they kicked the crap out of the Wolves. Obi Toppin was running around wreaking havoc while the Wolves lackadaisically shrugged their way into closeouts. Everyone was slumping and seemed resigned to their fate. The postgame locker room was reportedly quite grim. As Wolves assistant Micah Nori said at halftime, in response to a question about transition defense, scheme and tactics don't matter when nobody gives a shit.
"We just play soft, man," Edwards said after the loss. "Like, every bump, we flying all over the place, including myself. Teams just coming in like, 'We’re going to take their heart,' and that’s what’s going on. We’re down 20 every game. We’ve got to figure it out." That adjective, of course, echoes Jimmy Butler's infamous castigation of Towns and the team after he bullied his way out of town following one campaign with the Wolves a few years back. Edwards isn't wrong now, just as Butler wasn't wrong then. The only difference is back then the Wolves were very much a young team trying to figure itself out, still two years away from drafting Edwards with the first pick. They are now invested. There is no backing out of this. They will have to make this work.