MINNEAPOLIS – These are not your father’s Minnesota Timberwolves. They’re not your mother’s, either, or your uncle’s, your aunt’s or your cousins’.
This 2023-24 version doesn’t belong to Pooh Richardson, Christian Laettner or even Kevin Garnett. No one and nothing from their bumpy, often embarrassing past owns them at all.
Their position atop the Western Conference with the league’s second-best record (29-11) and their rare appearance Thursday night against Memphis (10 p.m. ET) as part of the TNT doubleheader are new, exciting and entirely of their own doing.
Halfway through the season, they can flex the No. 1 defense (108.6 points per 100 possessions), an offense that is 19th but climbing and one of the biggest, most versatile eight-man rotations around. Led by coach Chris Finch, Minnesota is on pace to surpass its single-season record for victories (58, back in 2003-04).
It has three legitimate All-Star candidates in Anthony Edwards, Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Edwards on the fringe of Most Valuable Player discussions and Gobert arguably a favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. Together, with their mates, they have energized Target Center back to a level, with few exceptions, absent for a couple of decades.
Still, though, there’s a question hanging over these guys that is crying out for an answer. Apparently, it’s essential to so many in the hoops world these days to know: Whose team is this?
The Timberwolves are Anthony Edwards’ team
That was the chatter last spring, as Minnesota packed up from its first-round loss to the Denver Nuggets. The eventual champions dispatched the Wolves in five games but wound up recalling that round as the toughest of their four.
Edwards had turned those games into a coming-out party, averaging 31.6 points, with 5.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.8 steals and 2.0 blocks. His performances and the growing pains the Wolves felt pairing its twin towers, Gobert and Towns, had people inside and outside the organization seizing upon that answer.
This has to be Ant’s team going forward.
Seemed logical. The No. 1 pick in the 2020 Draft out of Georgia, the 6-foot-4 shooting guard was heading into his fourth NBA season. He had been an All-Rookie choice and, last season, an All-Star for the first time.
Edwards oozes raw athletic ability, plays with a passion that’s palpable from the arena’s top row and has reminded – in his fast-twitch movements, his drive, even his facial expressions – of, ahem, a certain legend against whom the very best at Edwards’ position must be measured.
Comparing anyone’s game to Michael Jordan’s can hit some as silly, a little blasphemous and probably unfair. But even Edwards’ bosses see it.
“He’s the most competitive guy you’re going to find,” Minnesota president of basketball operations Tim Connelly told NBA.com after a recent practice. “So we’re not just showing him his peer group as is. We’re showing him the greatest to ever play his position. We think he has that ability, and we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t constantly challenge him instead of hand-holding.”
Every season Edwards has boosted his scoring, his shooting and his ability to get to the foul line. It seemed only natural that his so-called ownership of what the Wolves are doing and where they want to go would grow. If nothing else, it could define the pecking order and sharpen the focus for Towns and Gobert in their secondary roles.
It wasn’t that Edwards was too deferential to the veterans, Connelly said.
“He’s a kid. He just turned 22,” the exec said. “Leadership, the idea that one size fits all is something we don’t believe in. You can lead with your positive emotions. He’s competitive – whether it’s basketball, spades or bowling, he’s gonna try to win. Lean into those things and lean into fantastic coaching, and we felt that – he’s so young – not just this year but every year we’ll see a different player.”
Said Edwards: “The mentality, the approach, everything is different now. Even from the summertime, guys were here in Minnesota, locking in, working out. We were communicating with each other. And Finchy has done a great job of coaching us hard, getting us in the right spots, putting us in the right situations to be successful.”
Almost every night, Edwards finds a task to tackle and master. After a home victory over Dallas three days after Christmas, he said: “I put in my mind before the game, I’m probably going to shoot it every time I touch it. ‘Cause I felt like last game [at OKC] I left bullets in the chamber.”
Another time, it was his about his attacks on the rim. “I’m never looking to get fouled. I’m trying to finish. If they foul me, I’ll take it,” he said. “But if they’re not cutting it off, it’s pretty simple for me.”
Edwards still flashes immaturity. He dawdles after plays, complaining about whistles unblown. Late in a recent first half, in foul trouble with Finch looking to pull him, Edwards waved off the coach. He apologized to the team after that one.
“It’s on him to recognize when he’s done something that’s a little off the wall,” backup big Naz Reid said. “He’s figuring it out. He has the ability to put so much pressure on teams. When he’s knocking down his midrange and his 3s, he’s pretty much unguardable. And when he’s making plays, finding guys for open 3s, that’s something not a lot of guys are willing to do.”
Edwards has led the Wolves in scoring 25 times, and in assists 13 times, far out-distancing any others. They’re 21-9 when he scores 20 points or more. Then again, they’re 8-2 when he doesn’t. The idea that this somehow is his team more than his teammates’ didn’t prompt much reaction.
“I plan to play every game we play and I plan to win every game we play,” he said. “Other than that, I don’t plan to score. I just play basketball. As long as we win, I’ll be happy.”
The Timberwolves are Rudy Gobert’s team
Physically and symbolically, Gobert was the biggest Wolves question last season. After Gobert’s nine seasons in Utah, during which he had three times been handed hardware as the NBA’s top defender, Connelly engineered a massive, three-team trade to deliver the Frenchman to Minneapolis.
There, he would play alongside another All-Star center in Towns. It was a radical, retro move in the one-in, four-out (or even five-out) perimeter-crazed NBA of 2022. And it did not pay swift dividends.
Minnesota finished 10th in defense last season and 23rd in rebounding. Towns suffered the mother of all calf strains, missed 53 games and saw his offensive production fall below career standards. Gobert’s rebounds dropped off (a 21% decline) as did his blocked shots (33%).
Towns’ injury cheated the learning curve Minnesota needed and an uneasy fan base hyperventilated, dwelling on the price Connelly had paid in players and draft picks. After all, this was a team that inadvertently indoctrinated followers to focus on the future, because the present for most of its first 34 years was so flat.
The future based on most of last season looked bleak.
“We probably left a lot on the table,” Connelly conceded.
Said Finch: “We thought internally it would take us 50 games to be comfortable with it all. We kind of got there at the end but it was all chopped up. … We did learn enough through that – this could work, that doesn’t work, maybe this will work – so coming, we were way more streamlined.”
Gobert said he knew both he and Donovan Mitchell possibly would be traded in the 2022 offseason and they were. His family and support staff remained the same, but everything else about his NBA life was altered. He’s a sensitive fellow and it was a challenge.
“He’s at peace now,” Finch said. “Last year we maybe underestimated how hard it might be for him personally to get traded. We had an up–and–down year and I think he unfairly bore the brunt of that. Without Rudy last year, for sure we don’t make the playoffs. And right now, we’ve got the player we wanted when we traded.
“Teammates have good chemistry,” Finch said. “Fans have reacted in a really positive way – it’s 180 degrees different. All credit to Rudy, he had a summer where he was focused on what he needed to do and play at the level we needed from him.”
Finch, 52, arrived midway through 2020-21 – a rare NBA hire, reaching outside the organization during a season – with a reputation as an offensive guru, based on previous stops in Toronto, New Orleans, Denver and Houston. Before that, he built his resume in the G League and Great Britain.
That the Wolves would make defense their identity thus far shows how central Gobert has been to the grand design. Connelly knows his bigs – he drafted Denver MVP Nikola Jokic in the second round, after all, as well as Gobert in 2013 (before trading him that night). And Finch knows his personnel.
“You have to coach it all,” Finch said. “We’ve got a great defensive staff led by E.T. [Elston Turner], who’s the perfect complement to me. He’s run defenses for a lot of offensive-minded guys – [Rick] Adelman, [Mike] D’Antoni. We tend to be a high-turnover team with the nature of how we play. It’s not ideal, but it just is. And as a big team, we want to get to the glass.
“Some defensive coordinators will panic. He doesn’t.”
Individually, wing Jaden McDaniels and Gobert are ace practitioners of defense. Edwards can be tenacious, too, Mike Conley at 36 works hard and Nickeil Alexander-Walker off the bench is another stopper option. The goal is for the whole to function better than the parts.
Said Gobert: “You’ve got to want to enjoy being with one another. You’ve got to want to enjoy doing the work together. I think the winning comes from the work.”
Finch believes that defense, along with passing, builds chemistry. All five players doing “the selfless things you have to do alongside your teammates.”
“When I looked at our team this summer, our personality just had to be defensive,” Finch said. “We should be better offensively and we will – I believe we can be a Top 10 offense and a Top 5 defense.”
The Timberwolves are Karl-Anthony Towns’ team
None of this works if the Wolves’ presiding star, Towns, doesn’t facilitate it. Finch has called the big man “the key” to this season’s success, even as he sometimes looks like the third wheel.
A few years ago, an NBA.com GM survey had Towns chosen as the player they’d most want to build their franchise around. With three All-Star appearances, a Rookie of the Year trophy, a Three-Point Shootout crown and a $257 million max contract inked before last season, he had all the prestige and accouterments of a modern NBA superstar.
Potential prima donna too, because if he wasn’t sold on the Gobert move or Edwards’ growing primacy, this all either fails or he gets shipped out of town.
The New Jersey native and top overall pick in 2015 is having too much fun now for that.
“Food tastes better,” he said.
Told about Finch’s comment, Towns said: “He’s talking about the sacrifice. I’ve made sacrifices in my game every year. This is just another year when I have to sacrifice more of myself for the betterment of the team. Space out more, try to get other guys open. Defensively I have to find different ways more consistently than I ever have.”
Said Connelly: “Karl is one of the more caring teammates I’ve ever been around. [Sacrifice is] a heavy ask, and all credit to Karl for doing it and doing it with a smile on his face.”
At 28, Towns is averaging 21.8 points, making 51.4% of his shots overall and 43.5% from 3-point range. The biggest concern with Gobert supplanting him from the center spot was whether Towns could keep up at the other end with smaller, quicker forwards.
“There’s probably not a position in the league that has more of a variation of types of players,” Finch said. “You have fours who are kind of threes. You have physical fours like Julius Randle. You have a four like Jaylen Brown. They come in all shapes and sizes.
“If we can get him out of less-than-ideal matchups, we try to do that,” Finch said. “But his switching numbers have always been a little better than you would think. And when everyone else is guarding, you have to guard too. That’s a peer pressure thing.”
Towns has tried to get this right through five coaches: the late Flip Saunders who drafted him, Sam Mitchell, Tom Thibodeau, Ryan Saunders and now Finch. He has played in just 16 playoff games, 11 in the past two postseasons.
“I just love winning,” he said. “As long as it translates to winning, I’m cool with anything.”
He claims that he gets recognized more around town now that the Wolves are winning, hard as that is to believe for a famous 7-footer.
“No, I’ve been told I’m a [University of Minnesota] Gophers player a lot,” he said. “In the skyway last year.”
He is as uninterested in whose team this is as Edwards, Gobert, Connelly, Finch and the rest. Technically it is Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore’s team, based on their purchase from longtime owner Glen Taylor. The pair exercised their option in December toward 80% ownership.
“That’s a discussion that losing teams have. ‘Whose team is it?’ We’re not too concerned with that,” Finch said. “We want to keep developing Anthony in all the ways a No. 1 guy does, from manipulating the game with the ball in his hands to closing games to being a high-level, two-way player to being a leader off the floor. Those are things we’re committed to doing, whether it ends up being ‘his team’ or not.
“If we were to make a trade for some other megastar, would it be his team at that point? These are useless conversations.”
What matters is that the people inside Target Center, the fans in the Twin Cities and the state, and the rest of the NBA see the Timberwolves as Minnesota’s team. One they can, after so many fits and starts, be proud of.
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