Heading into the 2021-22 NBA season, the Minnesota Timberwolves
are one of the NBA’s most intriguing teams. They have a solid young
nucleus, a new head coach, new ownership, and a tough climb in
terms of scaling the ladder in the Western Conference.
With so many teams either in win-now mode, or ascending rapidly
thanks to internal development, Minnesota once again could be on
the outside looking in for a real playoff opportunity in
In their current state, the T-Wolves have to rely on their
25-and-under trio of Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and
Anthony Edwards. When all of them were on the floor together last
season, Minnesota was 13-11.
In a small sample size (324 minutes) featuring Minnesota's trio,
their three-man lineup offensive rating was 120.9, which would’ve
ranked No. 1 for any team last season. However, the defensive
rating checked in at 116.0 — a mark that puts Minnesota last in the
Association for team-wide advanced metrics. Although the overall
net rating for Minnesota’s young Big 3 still checked in at +5.3,
they were relying on outscoring the opposition at a pace that
seemed unsustainable over a full 82-game schedule.
Toss starting shooting guard Malik Beasley into the mix — who
has canned 40.6% of his three-pointers since arriving in Minnesota
two years ago — and the total sample size for the four-man unit was
13 minutes. Yes, you read that right, 13 minutes. That's all that
Towns, Russell, Edwards and Beasley suited up together for during
the 2020-21 campaign.
Minnesota is betting on its young core to take necessary steps
forward, but new head coach Chris Finch must also figure out how to
utilize his pieces more efficiently. Once Finch replaced Ryan
Saunders — an incredibly tough adjustment coming over from the
Toronto Raptors — Minnesota’s offense started to click into high
gear. One of the biggest beneficiaries from Finch’s arrival was
2020 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards.
Edwards began to turn heads over the final stretch of last
season, with many ending the campaign under the belief that he
could eventually become a consistent 25-plus point per game scorer.
Edwards’ emergence became one of the few bright spots from another
downtrodden season for Minnesota.
Pre-All-Star Break: 14.9 points, 4 rebounds, 2.5
assists, 0.9 steals; 37.1 FG%, 46.6 TS%
Post-All-Star Break: 23.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.4
assists, 1.4 steals; 45.4 FG%, 56.7 TS%
After the All-Star break, Edwards placed himself in elite
company. Only six other players averaged his stat line and
efficiency over that span: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Giannis
Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Jayson Tatum and Julius Randle. During
his rookie season at age 19, Edwards put the NBA world on notice;
he’s one of the brightest young wing scorers.
With Edwards’ fast rise, another rookie for Minnesota turned
into a legitimate rotation piece: No. 28 overall pick Jaden
McDaniels. Although McDaniels’ numbers weren’t gaudy — 6.8 points,
3.7 rebounds, 1.0 blocks in 24 minutes — his improvement as a
shooter late in the season provides promise for him complementing
their core. McDaniels drained 38.3% of his three-pointers after the
All-Star break for Minnesota, where he also forced Finch’s hand
with his plus-defensive versatility. At his peak, McDaniels figures
to be a jumbo 3-and-D do-it-all big who doesn’t need plays run for
him. He's already passed the eye test with flying colors, and now
he should slide right in as Minnesota’s starting power forward
alongside Towns, Russell, Edwards and Beasley.
Minnesota also drafted point-forward Leandro Bolmaro from
Argentina in the 2020 draft, who plans to join the roster after
being stashed last season overseas. After Ricky Rubio was traded to
Cleveland for veteran wing Taurean Prince, Bolmaro figures to play
an important role as a playmaker off the bench immediately.
“This draft class was a game-changer for this organization,”
Timberwolves GM Gersson Rosas
recently told The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski. “When it happens
like that, you want to be right more often than you’re wrong. And
nobody’s always right.”
With high hopes for the 2020 draft haul helping pull Minnesota
into real playoff contention eventually, how does their rotation
stack up for 2021-22?
Starters = Russell, Beasley, Edwards, McDaniels,
Second Unit = Bolmaro, Josh Okogie, Jarrett Culver,
Prince, Juancho Hernangomez, Naz Reid
Although the starting lineup has huge potential — especially
with the projected sophomore leaps for Edwards and McDaniels —
Minnesota’s second-unit is shallow on NBA experience and
net-positive players. For the Timberwolves to become a real playoff
threat, the Towns/Russell/Edwards trio needs to be dominant. And
it’s fair to wonder if Edwards needs to become his post-All-Star
break self every single night for Minnesota to take those necessary
Minnesota’s core is locked in for the foreseeable future. Towns
and Russell are best friends on-and-off the court and have a bond
that developed during the 2015 pre-draft process. But is the former
No. 2 overall pick the best fit moving forward with Edwards’
becoming a real 1B option?
Moving forward, there’s no reason for Minnesota to not treat
Edwards as their second star behind Towns. He’s already proven to
have more two-way ability than Russell, who is an above-average
three-level scorer. Still, the point guard has been graded across
multiple metrics as the worst defender for his position. For a team
starved of impact defenders, Russell is the opposite. He brings
scoring and some playmaking, but not much else.
For Towns, the clock is already ticking in Minnesota. He’s
experienced the playoffs one time in his six-year career after
being selected No. 1 overall. And that one appearance was due to
Jimmy Butler, who is no longer with the franchise. Towns’ career
record is nearly 100 games below .500 at 185-279. Halfway through
his rookie-scale max contract extension — which expires after the
2023-24 season — the time is now for Minnesota to put the necessary
pieces around him before it’s too late.
Edwards feels like a lock to be a key cog in the Timberwolves'
rise. McDaniels has shown flashes of a competent frontcourt partner
alongside Towns. Questions still loom about Russell’s overall value
in a winning situation, but right now, Minnesota’s roster is still
on the youthful side of the spectrum.
Banking on the young core is a necessary risk for a small market
like Minnesota, but there needs to be some urgency. If all goes
well for the Timberwolves this season, these Towns-related concerns
will wash away.
In the end, it'll be determined by whether this appealing core
centered around he and Edwards stakes their claim as a rising team
in the Western Conference.