With their season over prematurely, the Timberwolves are left with this reality: a lot of time to consider how they want to move forward with a dramatically remade roster — but not a lot of opportunities to figure out how all their pieces fit together.
President Gersson Rosas and his staff will have to do their best at piecing together evaluations of what they have based on the 14 games the Wolves played after the trade deadline, only one of which included Karl-Anthony Towns and new arrival D’Angelo Russell active at the same time.
When Rosas revamped the roster ahead of February’s trade deadline — only Towns and Josh Okogie remain from the team he inherited — and the league shut down March 11 at the onset of the pandemic, the Wolves weren’t in playoff contention. So not being among the 22 teams that will travel to Orlando in July to resume the season doesn’t hurt the Wolves from that perspective.
Rosas and the Wolves, however, were looking forward to seeing how their new players meshed together. That was the value in the 18 remaining games for the Wolves — and that’s what they’ll have to live without now that their season is over and they set about answering this question: How much tinkering is there left to do?
“I’m not doing my job if I’m not coming in every day to figure out ways to improve our roster and find the best players we can find,” Rosas said. “I love our group, I like the potential that they have, but to be fair, it’s potential right now, and they’re young players and it’s a young team. So can we do our part to help them become the best players they can be, and can they fit in our organization and in our roster to maximize our vision?”
Putting the pieces together
That vision took a while to develop. It seems like years since the Wolves had such players as Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington, Shabazz Napier and Gorgui Dieng all earning significant minutes. But that was less than five months ago.
Rosas then went to work at the deadline and landed his biggest target, Russell. He also acquired Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez from the Nuggets, cashing in Covington and his team-friendly contract for a first-round pick and those two players in a four-team trade.
Beasley and Hernangomez are restricted free agents, but Rosas used his best trade chip in part to acquire them, indicating how he feels about their future with the team. Beasley especially took advantage of his expanded opportunity in Minnesota by shooting 43% from three-point range after the trade.
Beasley has the makings of a starting shooting guard who can hit the open threes that Towns and Russell might create for the offense. Seeing Beasley shoot those shots was a breath of fresh air after watching the Wolves struggle to hit from deep before the deadline.
They shot 32.5% from three-point range, worst in the league, before the deadline and 37.5% after the deadline (ninth in that span). They played most of those games without Towns, who had suffered a fractured left wrist. Rosas said Wednesday he still didn’t feel the time was right to offer specific updates on Towns’ recovery two months after Towns’ mother, Jacqueline, died of COVID-19, but he added the organization felt “positive” about the status of Towns’ injury.
Help on the way?
The Wolves finished 19-45, the NBA’s third-worst record at the time of the shutdown. They have a 14% chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick and a 52.1% chance of picking in the top four — a slot that should come into sharper focus Aug. 25, when the NBA has tentatively scheduled its draft lottery.
Minnesota will potentially have three of the top 35 picks in a draft slated for Oct. 15 instead of the end of this month — picks that can be more trade chips for Rosas to improve that end of the floor. Free agency is scheduled to start just three days later in a compressed offseason before a projected Dec. 1 start to the 2020-21 season.
Of importance in the extended offseason is improving the Wolves’ defense, which, except for one brief spell of games in December and January, was in the bottom third of the league before and after the deadline.
The revamped Wolves had a defensive rating of 116.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, 29th in the league, and this is where the lack of activity this offseason can come into play.
Coach Ryan Saunders often said the Wolves could use a training camp to get everyone on the same page. But they may go eight months, from March 10, when they played their last game, to November, when training camp for next season is scheduled to begin, without practicing as a team.
The league and the eight teams not traveling to Orlando are figuring out a way to do what Rosas called “NFL OTA” style camps to get these teams on a court, but even then the wait will be long until an actual game.
It’s one thing to put up shots and improve your offensive game while in isolation or individual workouts. But defense relies on communication and teamwork. How can you develop that when most physical workouts have to be individual?
“A lot of our young guys especially, they have standing appointments with certain coaches to go through not just their game film but we’re watching other teaching tapes,” Saunders said. “… That’s why getting guys together and being able to work in larger groups is going to be important for us. Because a huge part of defense is communication, continuity and just an understanding of terminology.”
The Wolves were still figuring out their terminology as the season was going along in March. With this season ending early and next season starting late, they’ll have to wait a long time to get it down cold.