Until the end, the 2022-23 Minnesota Timberwolves team was talented at marshaling their underachieving.
Losing four out of five games as an eighth seed against the top seeded Denver Nuggets is a primary score in the first round of an NBA series. But the wolves are angry. The strip low of a 29-point loss in the opener was followed by a pair of more involving losses and then a thrilling overtime victory to avoid a sweep. Meanwhile, a nation of basketball viewers has reacquainted itself with the charismatic exuberance of burgeoning superstar Anthony Edwards.
The clichéd plot of a feisty underdog story began to take shape steadily. Kyle Anderson joined other previously injured valuable contributors Nas Reed and Jaden McDaniels on the sidelines at the conclusion of Game 4. Game 5: The Wolves, struggling with the weakness of their element in the thin Denver air, were trailing and leading for a chance to tie the score with a last-second 28-foot jumper by Ant. He clung from the trailing edge with a bittersweet echo.
The final tally was a regular season record of 42 wins and 40 losses, a 1-1 record in play, and a 1-4 mark going into the playoffs. Considering all the injuries, the roster’s off-beat strife, and the random and self-imposed strife, a losing 44-45 record can still give the glimmer and heft of a half-full glass.
Until and unless you remember the measure of liquid that was supposed to be in the glass. It’s a memory that summons more discerning taste buds, and forces you to “taste” a season whose half was always nearly empty.
Deliberately raising the stakes – and leveling up
Gobert’s trade was intentionally designed as a stark indication that these weren’t the old, mundane Timberwolves. Anyone could see that up-and-coming minority owners Marc Lorre and Alex Rodriguez were looking to make a splash, and that the head of basketball operations they hired with huge paychecks, Tim Connelly, was scrambling to create a more patient team-building model. in Denver.
Joubert cost the Wolves a starter and a sixth man from the 2021-22 team that unexpectedly put Minnesota into the 2022 playoffs — as well as 2022 first-round draft pick Walker Kessler and the team’s top pick in every single year through 2029. Made despite the fact that the Wolves were It already has an All-Star status at KAT, and the NBA is still moving (with a few notable exceptions) toward small, quick formations that can space out the floor on offense and switch with ease on defense.
Was it a somewhat risky overpayment under the best of circumstances? definitely. But the bold and decisive choice to execute the deal anyway was part of the cultural shift, the genesis of a new era in Wolves franchise history. As much as we like to salute the underdogs’ tenacity in the playoffs, the remarkable success of Trade, and the Timberwolves, will be framed by the number of games and playoff series they’ve won in the four years they have Gobert under contract.
Adjustments and revisions, rinse and redo
Joubert’s arrival changed the way coach Chris Finch analyzed and adjusted his roster this season. Heading back to the start of his first season with the team in the fall of 2021, Finch created and executed a defense that combined the skills of the senior rotation staff, created a key hitting identity, and, after a few weeks, offensive production flowed fairly smoothly — a win.
By contrast, in the fall of 2022, Joubert was exhausted from the EuroBasket, KAT was recovering from injury and the team believed there was enough talent and experience in the roster to get things going. But ever since the first time KAT and Gobert shared the floor in the show’s ultimate game last October, it’s been clear that the pair would be a good fit — with each other and in the ever-evolving roster and rotation in general. Despite all the treasure he needed to acquire, Joubert’s style and skill set were special. The team will have to adapt to him as much as he adapts to the team.
Incredibly, “Unlocking Joubert” had to be one of the first priorities and become a fairly stable project. Along the way, the value of being able to cement the continuity of four leftovers from last season’s rotation — KAT, Ant, McDaniels, and D’Angelo Russell — has either been lost or slow to emerge. The players who got along best with Rudy were Wolves’ smart new vets this season – ‘Slow Mo’ Anderson and Mike Conley. Of the rest, the defensively oriented glueman McDaniels was the most natural synergist.
Clearly, the loss of the KAT due to a severe calf strain was one notable reason for the team’s slow learning curve in terms of tandems, rotations, and overall teamwork. But the more Finch discovered what did and didn’t work among the individuals he had available, the more it became apparent that wolves had a formidable personality. There was a group of players who mostly gravitated toward fundamentals wise and built their teamwork from those experienced components. And there were players who relied on last year’s mold of “flying” hoops that pressured the ball for turnovers and transfer points, sometimes at the expense of staying alert for the mundane tasks in front of them.
The Holy Grail for Finch was finding the way to continually blend the virtues of these two styles into a cohesive, synergistic identity. There have been a few times when this has been achieved for a few games, most notably in March when KAT returned from injury and Nas forced himself into regular rotation with top-level consistency in his game. It created a rotation pattern that emphasized large formations that punish opponents with their size (the primary inspiration for Gobert’s acquisition of a pairing with KAT), yet could be quick and opportunistic without sacrificing disciplined teamwork. It fell down the drain after a handful of games when Nas broke his wrist in late March. Nas is now heading into unrestricted free agency as the Wolves figure out how to use the precious few roster maneuvers they currently hold in terms of the salary cap.
Amid all the roster turmoil, experimentation, and execution of style and rhythm, some rather intractable problems remained. Some were quite surprising, like this team’s inability to rebound, especially on their defensive glass. In a post-game presser on Tuesday, Finch blamed the perimeter players for not boxing or making rebounding a greater priority. The point is taken, but it’s still annoying because a persistent pair of big punishers can’t control a glass for the most part.
The other issues make sense. With more than their share of the big players on the field, the Wolves are vulnerable to an opponent who gets out and runs in transition, a disadvantage compounded when turning the ball over. There is also the fact that Joubert’s limited movement and scoring range reduces the open spaces his teammates can go to in attack. This is most acute in the stalled relationship between Joubert and you on the court. Joubert remains a formidable examiner, yet the two are still in what might be called the benevolent initial phase of their relationship by choice.
Priorities: Ant’s rise is greater than Gobert’s/KAT’s efficacy
The best thing about the 2022-23 Timberwolves is the endorsement that Anthony Edwards is the goods; A stellar talent, natural leader, temperamental and inspiring performance. He’s the best (and the next, and the next best) and hopes this team can become a true championship contender.
It is not impossible to reliably guide Ant’s rise and further refine the Caprine philosophy that prompted Joubert’s trade; But this isn’t easy or natural either, and if conflict begins to erode the pursuit of Ant’s ceiling, the adult tandem should take a back seat.
Indeed, the Ant Open should be the prism from which the 2023-24 season is drawn. This is not to give him carte blanche – despite some intelligent stubbornness, he is eager to train, trusts Finch and benefits from tough love. But put it this way; As much as I am grateful for the profoundly wise manner of Conley and (to a slightly lesser degree) slo-mo of greasing Joubert’s tastes and expectations on the court, the more I rejoice to hear that Ant continually hits Conley on the finer points of hoops, or goes to him to confirm his verses. And seeing Ant sitting in the locker room between Connelly and Slow Mo as they analyzed the game in the aftermath of a Game 2 loss in Denver made me giddy, albeit in a different way, as I watched Josh Minott play one-on-one with Connelly after experiencing half a dozen tremendous post-workout misadventures in yesterday.
There are optimists who believe the Wolves can still exploit their large, if diverse, resources in an efficient dynamo, keeping the flame lit on the original vision of Joubert’s trade. Among them is Finch.
“They’re both incredibly good basketball players,” he said of Joubert and Cat. “KAT’s skill level, there’s no reason why basketball couldn’t be successful. There are a lot of reasons we can talk about (for) why the learning curve has been so steep. But the most important thing is that we have a large enough body of work that I think we can assess appropriately.” Right. I’m still very confident we can make the most out of these guys.”
Good luck to him – if he is wrong he will eventually become the sacrificial lamb of this “great experiment”, which has now gone through a quarter of its life with disappointing results.
The future is not now, but it should be getting closer
No one needs to tell Finch that Ant, McDaniels, Slow Mo, and Conley are also “incredibly good basketball players” at various levels, with Nickel Alexander Walker (NAW) and Nas vying for an honorable mention. The main differences are the breadth and depth of skills and the main variable is the willingness to accept a lesser role if it is beneficial to the team. This of course is the opposite of “making a scatter” – it is the preservation of a wave growing with momentum and the absence of downstreams.
I admired the way Joubert broke out of his nine-year comfort zone to expand his defensive leagues and powers in “high-wall” defensive concepts and greater perimeter pressure on the ball. Being willing to admit that he will probably do more checking and less shooting at perfect wolves would be another great adjustment for him.
For KAT, Ant needs room to cook and the best way for KAT to empower both his teammate and teammate is to be an intimidating three-point threat from the corner, mixed with some fake-outs and cuts to his core drives. For KAT and Gobert, the word must also be that babies are coming. The tragic irony of Joubert’s splash is that Connelly had a stellar draft — Kessler is already a formidable edge protector at Utah and Minot feels like a future member of the devastating wing cadre that will also include McDaniels and NAW. These are long, agile, straight wires that can breach screens and blow up plays.
Bottom line, this was a disappointing season, made more by raising the bar while lowering actual teamwork performance. But miraculously, the future is not foreseeable. Wolves lovers know that hope springs eternal, dubious and otherwise.