The Timberwolves enter the final 29 games of their season closer to the bottom of the Western Conference than the No. 8 seed. Before the trade deadline, this stretch of the season seemed like it would be a dreary slog to the finish line, with the hope of significant change to the roster in the offseason.
But that change came quickly in advance of the deadline. With three trades in a week, the Wolves remade their roster, and landed the point guard of their dreams in D’Angelo Russell to pair with center Karl-Anthony Towns.
Towns remains out because of a left wrist injury, one that required further evaluation Thursday. But regardless of how much time Towns misses, there’s a lot to observe over the final two months of the season related to how this new-look Wolves team jells.
“It’s definitely coming faster than we thought,” guard Malik Beasley said. “But we just had All-Star break, so we got to reconnect.”
Will Russell take different shots?
The Wolves have done an admirable job eliminating the midrange jumper, an analytical albatross, from their repertoire. They rank 27th in midrange attempts. But Russell takes four midrange shots per game, 17th most in the league (but he hits 49% of them). Will the Wolves try to change the type of shots Russell takes like they did with Andrew Wiggins? Russell didn’t sound like he was going to stop taking them.
“There’s a fine line of making those shots you take, trying to relieve the pressure off coach eliminating those shots from me,” Russell said. “But once you make them, and he feels confident with you making them, I think you can’t put guys in a box when that’s their thing.
Is Beasley a long-term fit?
The three-game sample size of Beasley having an expanded role already has Wolves fans worried if the team will be able to sign him to a long-term contract after the season is over. Beasley is a restricted free agent, so the Wolves have control over where he goes and if they want to match any potential offer Beasley gets. After averaging 7.9 points in 18.2 minutes per game with Denver, Beasley has scored 22 per game in 32.7 minutes.
His shooting skill (38% from three-point range) seems to be a match for what the Wolves want to do. They get open threes, and they weren’t hitting them earlier this season. Beasley can help rectify that, and the Wolves hope he’ll keep that up for the next few years.
“I put in a lot of work, and I also studied the Timberwolves playing against them,” Beasley said. “So I kind of knew their system coming in. It’s not that hard.”
What happens with Jarrett Culver?
It’s been an up-and-down rookie season for Culver with more valleys than there have been peaks. After a slow start, understandable for a rookie, Culver seemed to be making significant jumps in December and January. Culver had an 11-game stretch from Dec. 30 to Jan. 18 in which he averaged 15.9 points on 46% shooting. Since then, Culver has reached double figures just once in his past 11 games, a stint that coincided with Towns’ return from a knee injury.
The Wolves are being patient with Culver, and with Russell in the fold, Culver figures to be playing off the ball most of the time. Can he find his niche playing alongside Russell and with shooters on the floor such as Beasley to take some pressure off him? Where Culver fits among the new personnel bears watching.
Can this team play any defense?
Without Towns, it will be hard to get a full picture of what this team’s defense will look like with everybody healthy, but the rest of the group can at least get used to playing with each other, communicating and figuring out the schemes associate head coach David Vanterpool wants to run. In three games since the trades, the Wolves had the No. 21 defensive rating.
Before that the Wolves were 16th for the season, and played much better on that end of the floor when Towns was out. There likely will be bumps in the road, but can they smooth things out by the end of the season?
What else do they need?
Presuming Beasley is the long-term answer at shooting guard, where does that leave the rest of the roster? Does Culver or Josh Okogie become the starter at small forward? Who ends up playing the most at power forward? James Johnson or Juancho Hernangomez? Can the Wolves develop some of this talent to flip in another trade this offseason?
There will be a lot of evaluation happening the next 29 games that’ll determine what the Wolves do with potentially two first-round picks in this year’s draft and in a free agency that isn’t supposed to be as explosive or expensive as last year’s was. But the Wolves have their major pieces in place in Towns and Russell, now it’s figuring out what comes next.