Lackluster start, play, far from the ‘greatness’ that was promised by the Wolves before the season

Lackluster start, play, far from the ‘greatness’ that was promised by the Wolves before the season

Through the first four games of the 2022-23 NBA season, the Minnesota Timberwolves have performed with an unlikable mixture of indolence and arrogance, disrespecting the game that gives them their livelihood.

What is arguably the most talented roster in the 34-year history of the franchise is assuming superiority without deigning to exert the mental focus, physical exertion and generosity of spirit required to make it so. They are carving out an identity akin to an Ivy League graduate just appointed executive vice president of daddy’s company.

This malaise is pervasive enough that the team’s inevitable comeuppance has occurred in the fourth game of the season Monday night at Target Center, when an opponent from San Antonio with a fraction of the Wolves’ skills and pedigree embarrassed them with a simple mixture of fundamentals and sweat equity. The final score, 115-106, was a false face-saving worthy of a mortician’s magic touch. The game was laid to rest by the third quarter, when the Spurs expanded their double-digit halftime advantage to a 34-point lead and boos from the disgusted hometown crowd cascaded around the arena with more passion and maneuverability than was demonstrated by the players on the court.

“They (emasculated) us in every way possible” were the first words out of head coach Chris Finch’s mouth during the postgame press conference. “They out-ran us, out-competed us, out-physicaled us in every way possible. It was ugly and unacceptable.”

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Later, as the tag sentence in another accurate diatribe, Finch said, “They kicked our ass and we felt it.” While the first four words are undeniably true, the last three might be wishful thinking. It would require that these Wolves belatedly absorb something that has been apparent since the beginning of the season.

To really “feel” a butt-kicking requires summoning enough resolve and stamina to legitimately try to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. That isn’t a guarantee for this 2022-23 Timberwolves team, which has, mentally and physically, been obstinately soft.

“Soft” schedule turns out to be not that soft

This season’s NBA schedule blessed the Wolves with ridiculously compliant early slate of games. Six of the first seven contests are against rebuilding teams that aren’t even expected to make the “play-in game” that comes with finishing ninth or tenth in a 15-team conference – and the other one is against the dysfunctional, currently winless Lakers. Furthermore, nine of the first dozen games are at home. For a Wolves team that bolstered its talent base while upholstering its style of play by acquiring elite defender Rudy Gobert for a slew of rotation players and draft picks, it was a fortunate opportunity to familiarize themselves with new faces and responsibilities without suffering too many losses along the way.

But as with so many other aspects of this season thus far, the Wolves took their scheduling privilege for granted. After racing out to a 13-point halftime lead against the game but hapless Oklahoma City Thunder in the season opener, they forfeited the advantage with a third quarter lapse that produced 19-2 third quarter run by OKC that put the result in doubt until the final minutes. After the game, Finch remarked that, “We kind of got outcompeted on the glass (going for rebounds). We’ve got to find ways to be more physical.”

Over the first three games, a template was set: The Wolves race out to an early lead, get too comfortable, fall apart in the third quarter and then find themselves in a close game down the stretch versus an inferior team that has outworked them. Then Finch dissects the foibles, most of them related to unsustained focus and effort, in the postgame press conference.

After squeaking by in the season opener, in game two the Wolves put up 41 first quarter points but again quickly punted the lead away after halftime and were upset at home in overtime by a rebuilding Utah Jazz opponent. Again Finch lamented the soft playing style. Asked how the Jazz were allowed to hit so many three-point shots, he said, “I thought we could have been way tighter on them. We died on some screens that gave them enough separation.” And as for the defensive intensity in general, “Today (the problem) was ball-contain and blow-bys when they were spreading us out and they got some easy kick-outs. We’re just not physical enough. We’ve got to get into guys and they’ve got to feel us a little bit more whether they are handling (the ball) or (we are) trying to get through a screen.”

Another ongoing Finch critique has been that the ball has been “sticky” on offense; specifically that the players are “not trusting in our ball movement.” This has been especially true when the game has tightened and the stakes are raised in the second half. Because the Wolves are blessed with a bevy of talented, prolific scorers, a “hero ball” mentality takes hold.

“We need to build trust to make the right play,” Finch said after the Utah loss. “When we do run a set (play) or call someone’s number at the moment, they feel they have got to make the play, rather than the play which leads to the play, which is oftentimes how it is in those situations. A lot of guys want to be closers but when you have talent you have to let the game decide how it is going to unfold and close by making the simple play to the open man.”

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Finch used the word “sticky” a fair bit last season and significantly more in the first few games of this one. It’s a polite, patient way of saying “selfish.” Even if you honestly believe you are the right person to take the game into your own hands – and even if you succeed – it is a selfish approach that can be pennywise and pound-foolish when it comes to nurturing teamwork and connectivity among a star-studded group of prolific scorers.

There were plenty of “sticky” moments when the Wolves took their first road trip to Oklahoma City for a rematch with the Thunder on Sunday. It was another victory festooned with red flags. While the Wolves coasted into town early during an off-day, OKC arrived after losing a grueling game in the high altitude of Denver. The Thunder’s best offensive player, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had scored 32 points in the season opener, sat out the rematch due to an injury. Their second-best offensive player, Josh Giddey, left the game with a sprained ankle midway through the third quarter.

Nevertheless, the Wolves coughed up all but one of a nine-point halftime lead during a typically moribund beginning to the second half. When foul trouble on center-forward Karl-Anthony Towns and back spasms that have kept forward Kyle Anderson on the bench recently compelled Finch to go with a smaller lineup of guard Anthony Edwards and four reserves in the fourth quarter, the difference in energy, teamwork and ball movement was stark. The pace and aesthetics were gilded, the lead ballooned.

Yet after the win, the Wolves second in three games, Finch was not interested in complicating his team’s halting progress by messing with the player rotations this early in the season. “The first unit, it’s still a work in progress, but it’s better. I thought it was really good tonight,” he claimed. “As we go through these different units and guys playing with Rudy, it is all a learning curve for us right now.”

Far from “great”

The farcical display put on by the Wolves against the Spurs the next night left no room for such rosy rationalizations, however. And the stakes are different now.

New president of basketball operations Tim Connelly went “all in” on making the Wolves a championship contender with the bold, against-the-trends trade for Gobert, giving the Wolves two All-Star big men in a league emphasizing fast-paced ball movement and outside shooting. It is a gamble that has some obvious schematic drawbacks that at the very least will require time to discover how, where, and in some cases if, this formidable base of talent can be synergized. But the players have responded with an infuriating lassitude that complicates, and could sabotage, this discovery process. At the very least it is being delayed.

Let’s get specific.

Karl-Anthony Towns is a multiple All Star who just inked a super-max contract.  He is entering his eighth NBA season and next month will celebrate his 28th birthday, the chronological heart of his prime. On the day of the season opener, he went in front of the media and pounded the podium as he said, “We’re always talking about ‘are we good enough?’ It is time to be great. It is not a time to be good anymore, it is a time to be great.”

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Then he goes out and indulges in the same immature histrionics that have plagued him throughout his career: The exaggerated head and body reactions to a defender’s contact that are foolishly designed to get the call from the ref; the petulant arguments and lack of hustling back that ensues when the calls aren’t made; the self-defeating leg kick-outs on jumpers that earn him a personal foul far more frequently than the defender he kicks; and the constant need for affirmation.

It can be mostly a good thing when KAT says his plan is to “unlock” the supposedly latent offensive potential of Gobert, and then goes out of his way to issue a slew of nifty dimes – mixed in with a lesser slew of missed connections – with Gobert during the first few games. It can also be mostly a good thing when a historically good marksman like KAT looks to score. But the 17 shots he took in the 17 minutes of fourth quarter and overtime against Utah, or the emphasis on feeding Gobert specifically, both get in the way of Finch’s dictum of trusting ball movement and furthering offensive efficiency by making the simple pass to the open man.

We will give KAT’s frequent confusion and late rotations on defense a pass right now because he is being called upon to play a position for which he is ill-suited and for which, for a variety of reasons, including his own health in preseason, the team overall is ill-prepared. But it is difficult to extend the same leeway to the backcourt duo of Edwards and D’Angelo Russell.

After the San Antonio game, Finch called out Ant and DLo for not instigating offense more consistently.

“Honestly our backcourt has got to give itself up to the offense a little bit. There is too much ‘come down and take on the teeth of the defense,’ not enough movement early in the offense, not enough thrust. We are just kind of waiting and then it is pretty one-dimensional.”

On defense, DLo and Ant have different flaws that sabotage their effectiveness. For DLo it is the lack of constant foot movement and unwillingness to be physical. A proven student of the game and detective of the play-calls of opposing offenses, he is more effective with his communication than with his own body in deterring what he knows is about to unfold. It too often makes him a matador on straight drives or a casualty on pick-and-roll defense.

Ant can be a tenacious on-ball defender, especially against high-profile scorers who present a towering challenge. With typically charismatic honesty, he admits he is less engaged when his man is less-renowned, or when the off-ball reaction is the more important role in the possession. Yup, he is only 21 years old. He’s also being hyped as an inevitable All Star and face of the franchise. Meanwhile, his immature flaws are corrosive to his team’s half-court defense. The buckets Ant allows by not attuning his peripheral vision to defensive gaps opening near him or by not simply retaining his concentration for an entire defensive possession, those points count the same as the sparkling buckets Ant gets dancing his way through the lane for a layup. In year three, he still has a woefully limited grasp and context for what is required of team defense. If he wants to be great, to “make the leap,” he needs to be more than sporadically capable.

After a stellar first game of the season, Jaden McDaniels has reverted to his old habit of picking up unnecessary fouls, despite the fact that he is no longer frequently guarding much bigger and brawnier in the frontcourt. Against San Antonio, McDaniels was matched up with a wing player, Devin Vassell, who is in many ways his doppelganger. But Vassell dominated – he looked quicker, stronger, more self-assured – as did the larger small forward Laurie Markkanen against McDaniels when the Wolves lost to Utah. I and many other Wolves observers have consistently raved about McDaniels as being underrated, with a phenomenal upside. But that argument is losing some starch.

Finch should be held responsible for early woes as well

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Last but not least, Chris Finch needs to examine whether not his approach is getting through to this revamped roster. Finch has always been in favor of “letting guys figure it out,” and the communication skills he and his staff have honed have created great relations with his players. But there is no Patrick Beverly with both the moxie and the gravitas to set teammates straight, and no Jarred Vanderbilt to inspire via nonstop hustle. It thus may be more on Finch to provide the right motivations for a team that frankly is playing with an toxic amount of self-assurance, as if they have already “figured it out,” at both ends of the court.

It’s a tricky balance about when to doggedly stay the course and when to crack down on a roster that is in flux in terms of roles and personnel; a team of enormous talent that needs to figure out how to gel and synergize. But the lack of effort –Finch has called it “want to” on a number of occasions – has prevented an unvarnished distinction between when the schemes themselves are a poor fit and when the players are undermining them.

Another complication is that Finch was fairly blasé about the pace of getting Gobert and KAT on the same page, even before KAT’s unfortunate illness, knowing he would rest Gobert during preseason and stating he wanted to see how opponents would attack the “two bigs” lineup before plotting responses.

Bottom line, because of both insufficient player effort and insufficient preparation time, the progress of the Wolves defense is behind even the expected learning curve. It is telling that Finch has praised the zone defense in the past two games – in his interview with me last month, he said more zone and switching would be the fallback position if a defensive lineup featuring both KAT and Rudy on the floor was unable to mesh effectively.

Obviously, this is no time to panic – it is actually a time when the team may be vulnerable to overreaction. The Gobert acquisition kicked off what is scheduled to be at least a four-year experiment and we are four regular season games into the launch.

But it is telling that when I asked Finch Monday night to describe the personality of his team, he came up with, “Timid. For whatever reason we are just finding our way and it is not working and we are not fighting through that right now.”

There is a pernicious side to this timidity. We saw it in the haughty disinterest and insulting overall performance the Wolves staged Monday night. We don’t need an overreaction, but this should be an inflection point. This team needs to understand how much disrespect they are engendering. It is not time to be good nor great. It is time to be honorable, to the game and to the people who pay to watch it. Once that happens we can a more realistic sense of the pros and cons of this grand, thus far betrayed, experiment.