April 4, 2020, 12:16 pm
This Wolves season is the result of a multitude of factors that have been piling up over the past year and a half, ultimately translating to a 19-45 record and the 14th spot in the Western Conference. This isn’t what the Wolves had in mind entering the season, and to get a glimpse of that, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane.
In the 31-year history of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team has only gotten past the first round of the playoffs one time, making it to the Western Conference Finals in the 2003-04 campaign. The days of seeing Kevin Garnett fly around the court and carry the team to wins are long gone, as the team has a mere one winning season since the franchise icon was traded to the Boston Celtics following the 2006-07 season.
That playoff berth came just two short seasons ago during Karl- Anthony Towns’ 3rd NBA season after coach/GM Tom Thibodeau traded for his guy, Jimmy Butler. The team lost to the Rockets in the first round, dropping 4 of 5 games. Butler was shipped to Philadelphia only 10 games into the following season and Thibodeau followed suit soon thereafter.
Within the last year the Wolves decided to retain interim coach Ryan Saunders, with an endorsement from Towns, and nab Daryl Morey’s right-hand man, Gersson Rosas, as Head of Basketball Operations as they looked to make a push back towards a playoff race.
Implementing a New a System
After 2 ½ seasons of moderate success and a loss of draft capital and young talent under Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves decided to go with a new, yet familiar face in Ryan Saunders. Saunders was the interim coach for the Wolves for 42 games to close out the 2018-19 season and was able to implement his system on the fly with some success, but given that it was a far cry from Thibodeau’s system, they needed to work out some kinks. With an entire offseason and a healthy Robert Covington, among others, the team was ready to show off its up-tempo, floor-stretching potential.
To put the different styles of systems into context, let’s take a quick look at two key categories: pace of play and 3-pointers launched. Back in 2017-18, Thibodeau’s last full season as head coach, the team ranked 23rd in pace at 96.75 and sat dead last in 3-point attempts with a mere 22.5 per game.
Flash forward to this season, Saunders’ first full year as head coach, and the team jumps all the way to 3rd in pace (only .02 behind number 2) at 103.94 and 3rd overall in 3-point attempts at 39.7 per game. The difference in the styles of play was night and day and played a big role in why Karl-Anthony Towns advocated for the Wolves to extend Saunders in the offseason.
To paint a little bit more of the picture, the Wolves are third in the league in percentage of field goal attempts that are 3-pointers at 43.3%. That means nearly half of their shot attempts are from behind the arc. If that still doesn’t scream out fantasy-friendly, then add in the fact that the team is also 3rd in the league in free throw attempts per game.
This new system didn’t translate to the standings but it did translate to the box score for fantasy owners.
Andrew Wiggins enjoyed a rebound after a few down years, and at one point early in the season was a top-40 fantasy player. Robert Covington outperformed his 5th/ 6th round draft price as the style played right into his game.
Guys like Shabazz Napier, Gorgui Dieng, and Naz Reid, among a host of others, found themselves playing crucial roles for fantasy owners at various points over the course of the season. If we’re to take anything away from the Wolves to this point in the season, it’s that this system is going to put smiles on the faces of fantasy owners for however long it lasts.
What Went Wrong With KAT
Speaking of “however long it lasts,” this season has been one to forget for the big dog, or big KAT if you will, Karl-Anthony Towns. He was a consensus top-5 pick, and likely a top-3 pick in your fantasy draft this year, so much was expected from him.
On a per-game, basis KAT did not disappoint. When he was on the floor, he was as good as advertised, ranking as the 4th/3rd best fantasy player in 9/8-cat leagues (per-game). Towns upped his scoring to a career-high 26.5 points per game. Much of that had to do with the new system as Towns launched an easy career-high 7.9 treys per game, connecting on 3.3. The continuing confidence in stretching the floor didn’t hurt his efficiency either as he was at a career-high eFG% of .600.
At this point, you might be scratching your head and asking yourself, “but Santino, didn’t you headline this section, ‘What Went Wrong With Kat’? These stats don’t look like anything went wrong?” Ahh, my friends, that’s why sometimes numbers can be deceiving depending on the narrator.
On the stat sheet, everything was trending towards a career-year, but everywhere else fell flat. For starters, the Wolves sit 14th in the Western Conference standings and 28th overall. After a 3-0 start, Towns got into a tussle with fellow superstar big man Joel Embiid and was subsequently suspended for the team’s next two games. Though it was early, they never really recovered from this, failing to record another three-game win streak the rest of the season.
When KAT returned, he played his longest stretch with 19 straight games. The team would go 6-13 before a mysterious knee injury on December 13th would cost him the next 15 games. I say mysterious because, quite frankly, it was. KAT was listed as day-to-day for a month and then was suddenly ready to play again on January 17th. The return to the lineup happened to occur the day after former teammate Jeff Teague was moved to Atlanta for Allen Crabbe. Teague was the team’s top PG option at the time, and even when he would come off the bench he would see the more minutes than whoever started. There were rumblings that Teague and KAT had friction, and connecting the dots, it does seem like there was some smoke to this theory.
The weirdness of Towns’ season doesn’t end there. When he did get back on the court, he showed visible frustration. His press conferences showed a man fed up with the organization and the lack of talent that he was playing with. It was evident that Towns wasn’t happy.
Were his numbers affected? Not really. He’s a young guy, playing the game he loved and getting free reign as the best player in a wide-open system. But he was upset.
So, the team, seeing their superstar unhappy, went out and made splashes on the trade front.
What happened almost instantly after, you ask? Medical doctors would declare that Towns would be out for an extended stretch after revealing that he was playing with a fractured wrist. Before he got to enjoy himself again, he was back on the shelf and there he remains. Towns missed 29 of a possible 64 games this season, or pretty much half the season as we currently stand.
All Around Me are Unfamiliar Faces
Speaking of the trade front, my oh my! The Wolves underwent a complete roster overhaul this season, bringing in 9 new faces and shipping out 9 others. The Wolves showed that no one besides Towns was untouchable as they moved players from all levels of the roster.
Jeff Teague, Robert Covington and Andrew Wiggins entered the year as starters and are now playing for different teams. Important rotational players like Shabazz Napier, Gorgui Dieng, and Kieta Bates-Diop were sent packing. And even occasional rotation guys like Treveon Graham, Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh got shown the door.
“Out with the old and in with the new” was the theme of the Wolves around the deadline as they brought in seldom-used, underrated guys like the slick shooting Malik Beasley, the veteran motor James Johnson, and lanky forward Juan Hernangomez. They brought in a nice prospect in Jarred Vanderbilt and young guys in Jacob Evans and Omari Spellman. And finally, they brought in veterans Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner, though neither was expected to contribute much to a team that was fitting its young pieces together.
That’s a lot of players. Take a minute and try to process the transformation this team has gone through in the past few months. But not too long, because there’s only a few new Wolves that matter for fantasy purposes when the season resumes: Beasley, Hernangomez, and Johnson.
At this point in his career we know what Johnson does when he gets the playing time, and the more up-tempo the system, the more potential there is for him to get those mouthwatering stocks.
So, let’s shift to a younger guy that has had less exposure to the casual fan, Malik Beasley. Beasley showed last year that when he’s getting the run, he can put up numbers in bunches. He is one of those microwavable players that can heat up in an instant and make it rain all over the court. And this new system fits him like a glove. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at what he was able to do in the 14 games in a Wolves uniform: 20.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.5 threes per game.
Beasley averaged 16.6 shots with roughly half, a whopping 8.2, coming from deep. Talk about not being shy about letting it fly.
What about his efficiency in this short sample, you ask? 47 percent from the field with an eFG% of .577. While this happened without Towns in the lineup, it does show a glimpse of the potential Beasley offers should he continue getting the burn.
Hernangomez was another piece that came over from the Nuggets after being buried in a deep rotation. While not as talented as Beasley, he’s not too shabby himself and is a solid fit in this system with his ability to spread and run the floor. Seeing roughly 30 mpg with the Wolves, he was shooting over 42 percent from deep while grabbing a solid amount of boards and getting steals.
If he can continue in this role, he’ll be able to keep up this quality value as a guy, capable of playing both forward spots, who can do a little of everything without needing the ball. And not needing the ball is something that might happen if Towns is ready to play whenever games are back on.
Save The Best for Last
At this point, you may have said to yourself, “Does this Santino guy even watch the NBA news?” But just like Mr. Rosas, we didn’t forget about the biggest splash of the trade deadline either.
In his 4th year in the association, and second year with the Nets, D’Angelo Russell morphed into the All-Star that scouts and analysts had foreseen when he was selected second overall (behind new teammate Karl-Anthony Towns) out of The Ohio State by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2015 NBA draft. He led a surprising Nets team with low expectations to the 6th seed in the East and even won a game against the heavily favorited 76ers. At just 22 years of age and entering free agency, Russell was an up-and-coming star that the Nets wanted to build around for the long haul.
This summer fling would quickly flame out once Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving decided to team up in Brooklyn. Russell signed a max contract and was subsequently traded to the Warriors for Durant.
Though this was really the first year since college where Russell’s team entered the season with high expectations, those would fade quickly as Stephen Curry joined Klay Thompson on the sidelines shortly into the season.
What looked to be a prime spot for Russell to put up monster fantasy numbers as the lone go-to scorer on a depleted roster didn’t quite go how owners had hoped as Russell would miss 19 of a possible 52 games with a multitude of different injuries, maintenance days, rest, and general reasons we do not know.
Like Towns, Russell’s numbers when on the court translated into a top-60/40 fantasy player in 9/8-cat leagues on a per-game basis, but those missed games would take a toll on owners. One day Russell would drop 30 points and the next he’d be out for a few games with some type of ailment as the Warriors embraced the tank. When Russell did play, however, he was on par, and if not slightly better statistically than his All-Star season with the Nets.
In a bit of foreshadowing, Russell would have his best game of the season, nigh his career, when the Warriors traveled to Minnesota on November 8th to take on KAT and the Wolves as he dropped a career high 52 points to go along with nine rebounds, five assists, three steals, two blocks, and seven made treys.
This game only fueled the speculation of Russell eventually landing with the Wolves. That started a time long, long ago, in October 2019, when Russell, KAT, and Devin Booker appeared on the cover of SLAM Magazine talking candidly about their personal friendships. It would take up until the waning moments of the trade deadline to happen, but the Wolves would eventually get their guy.
Unfortunately for Wolves fans, and the two close friends, they wouldn’t get to see the duo gel as they only shared the court together for under 26 minutes. With the unfortunate happenstances of life intervening for now, the foundation is still in place for the team to build around their two young star friends for the future with both under contract for at least the next three seasons.
The Crystal Ball
This is a lost season for the Wolves in terms of making any noise of significance, but when the season returns, they still have a lot to play for. For starters, the team’s core as currently constructed has barely seen the floor with one another.
Russell has played with Beasley and Hernangomez for only 12 games. Towns, Russell and Beasley have shared the court together for only a single game. The team needs to evaluate how these guys fit together for the future, because the Wolves have some choices to make this offseason.
After the season, the Wolves will have just $94 million on the books with Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe’s bloated deals coming off the books. With Beasley and Hernangomez eligible for restricted free agency, the team will likely enter a bidding war for at least one, though they could match any contract offer either receives.
They’ll also be looking at bringing in more cheap shooters who fit the system, as they have done throughout the year. Assuming they re-sign the two guys above and bring in a few other cheap vets, there’s not much room left to go cap wise, and that’s before we account for a likely top-5 draft pick.
Although the season hasn’t gone the way anyone in the organization had hoped for up to this point, they are on the right track in terms of turning this thing around. If they can keep this core together, they’ll personally be at the top of my NBA League Pass charts for most fun team to watch.
Whether this comes along with wins in the standings or not, the run and gun style of play and multiple players capable of going off on any given night gives them all the ingredients to be a team that’s exciting to watch and fantasy-friendly.
The ‘What If’ Bonus
Here’s a little under-the-radar nugget to file under “keep an eye out for” territory: Devin Booker.
We talked about how the Wolves went out and did whatever they could to make Towns happy and get his buddy and Banana Boat 2.0 member Russell at the trade deadline. What if they were to double down on that same approach with Booker?
Maybe it seems far-fetched now because the Suns would be silly to move Booker, and maybe it’ll never happen, but we’ve seen crazier things come to fruition.
I’ll leave you with this: Booker isn’t fully satisfied with the direction of the Suns. As we’ve seen recently, star players have more power than ever to dictate their situations and force owners’ hands on where they play. If Booker becomes a distraction and makes it known that he wants to be in Minnesota with his friends, would James Jones turn down a package involving Jarrett Culver, whoever the Wolves take with their likely top-5 pick this upcoming draft, future picks, and potentially Beasley? It’s hard to say, but it’s well within the realm of possibilities.