The Four Seasons Resort at Disney World isn't the most convenient place for an NBA team to stay when visiting Orlando.
The hotel is nestled on the grounds of Disney, a half-hour drive from the Magic's Amway Center, and it requires you to pass through a security gate to gain entrance to the sprawling property, which has its own golf course and lake.
As President Gersson Rosas and coach Chris Finch sat for an outdoor lunch there last Sunday before playing the Magic, Rosas said the team stayed at the resort and not closer to downtown to give the players an extra dose of relaxation after a "tough" year.
A gust of wind ruffled the napkins and menus and had those at the table scrambling to weigh everything down with silverware and centerpieces. Once that was taken care of, the wind did little to interrupt the serenity of the 88-degree day, as turtles swam in the lake just a few feet away.
Rosas just marked his second anniversary on the job, and for most of the two years it felt like a whirlwind. Massive change to the roster in year one and coronavirus shutting down the season with the Wolves getting left out of the summer NBA bubble (which wasn't far from the Four Seasons) caused the team to miss needed development time.
The organization grappled with the death of George Floyd from afar, Karl-Anthony Towns dealt with family tragedies and then was injured and caught COVID during the season. D'Angelo Russell also was hurt, and all that delayed the evaluation of what the Wolves exactly have when those two play together. On top of that, Rosas decided to make a coaching change and replaced Ryan Saunders with Finch after a 7-24 start.
With the Wolves eschewing tanking in the final weeks and finally putting more wins on the board, maybe they've weighed down the menus.
"We've had what we've had the last two years for whatever reasons there are," Rosas said. "Things we can control, things we can't control, and our record is what it is and that's who we are. We really feel confident about the core, the roster we have in place. … Even though it's a small sample size, when our top guys are on the floor, we're a winning team and that's our belief."
Edwards making a leap
That belief comes in part from the second half of Anthony Edwards. The rookie guard thrived under Finch, and went from averaging 13.9 points on 37% shooting before the All-Star break to 23.6 points on 45% after it.
Shortly after the Wolves won the lottery in August, Rosas did his best to temper expectations for the pick, saying the player they chose didn't have to be a franchise changer. After the second half Edwards has had, it's hard for those who follow the Wolves not to get excited.
"He has no idea what he can be, and we had no idea he could be this good this quick," Rosas said between bites of quesadillas.
Rosas gave credit to Finch, who he said coaches Edwards "hard" in practices, and it's a trait Edwards has both of them appreciate.
"He's fun to coach because he literally is like a piece of clay a lot of times," said Finch, who ordered a lobster roll and onion rings. "You tell him to do something, almost to a point where it's so literal and you have to say, 'No, no, I didn't mean necessarily that.' Because he's coachable, which is one of the greatest attributes any high level player can have."
Finch cited examples of superstars, such as Tim Duncan and Stephen Curry, who take hard coaching easily. That sets the tone for everyone else.
"It's important we take advantage of it," Finch said. "By 'hard' it doesn't mean we're screaming and yelling, but it's direct. Accountability. These types of things. It's important for our culture."
"With Ant, like you can be direct and tell him what you want and you don't feel like you have to have a cleanup conversation all the time, softening the edges."
They are blunt with Edwards about what he needs to do to improve defensively. Rosas and Finch have experience from their days in Houston with James Harden, who arrived as a young elite scorer but struggled with defense. Their situations are a little different.
Edwards is a few years younger than Harden and this is Edwards' first NBA team, not his second. There were habits of Harden's on defense that were hard to break in Houston, if they were able to break them at all.
The Wolves have Edwards a few years younger than Harden was when he came to Houston and they want to improve Edwards' defense as quickly as possible before he develops any bad tendencies.
"Those are things if you don't get it early, you don't get it later," Rosas said.
Added Finch: "Ant hasn't been asked to play defense before. … But he's been more engaged, rebounding and then we're figuring out OK, here's what Ant can do really well on defense, how do we better employ that?"
Building the defense
While the offense jumped to the top half of the league in the second half, the defense languished near the bottom (25th before the break, 28th after). If the Wolves are going to become a playoff team, that has to improve, and it can be hard to see just where that improvement is going to happen. Edwards and the development of fellow rookie Jaden McDaniels, who earned a starting spot because of his defense, can help them improve internally.
Finch said he even noticed Russell, who can drive fans nuts with his defense or lack thereof, amping up his intensity.
"He has some moments where you're like, ooh," Finch said as his voice jumped in pitch on the last word. "But his care factor is up and that's where it starts. I'm pleased with that. I see him competing a little bit more defensive through things I would see him quit on. I like that."
Finch changed the Wolves' scheme to become less thinking and more running on defense. The Wolves want to use their athleticism to compensate for any mistakes in coverage. That means the closest man is flying to the ball no matter what may happen on the next pass. They will try and figure it out then.
Finch said he was able to install close to two-thirds of what he wanted to do defensively during the season. What is the other third?
"The missing third is a mixture of just better foundation," Finch said. "That gives you then the opportunity to create, to do different things out of what your base defense is."
One of the Wolves' "biggest defensive pieces of homework" was how best to utilize Towns in pick-and-roll coverage. Finch has had Towns playing more on the perimeter, but how they approach next year could depend on who is playing next to Towns on a regular basis.
"We can't sit here and say," Finch said. "I think I have a couple ideas of what we could do, but it may change. … But it's just still basketball. We're not reinventing the wheel here."
What comes next?
That segued into the next topic of conversation: Just where does the roster stand? Rosas said in order to be successful, a team has to have "seven, eight players you feel really good about" forming the foundation of the future.
"Right now we're at five," Rosas said.
Towns, Russell, Edwards, McDaniels and Malik Beasley.
"That's a lot better than we were two years ago …" Rosas said. "You can criticize any of our guys who have underperformed and that's fair because our record is what it is, but … those are team-building pieces that are very hard to acquire."
The Wolves might be able to acquire another one in the draft, if the pingpong balls go their way again. Their late-season surge cost them some odds of retaining a top-three pick, which would go to Golden State to complete the Russell trade from a year ago if it falls outside the top four.
"If we get the pick, there's a strategy in place there," Rosas said. "If we don't get the pick, there's a strategy in place there."
The team didn't mind relinquishing odds in the draft because for the first time they got to see what the team Rosas assembled looked like when most players were healthy. Rosas stood pat at the trade deadline, saying that was a primary reason he didn't make any moves. He also said then that power forward was a position the Wolves had to still address. That hasn't changed as the Wolves prepare for the offseason.
"The four spot needs help," Rosas said. "Our rebounding needs help."
That's what Finch was referring to when he said he didn't know what Towns' pick-and-roll coverage would look like. What they do at the four will determine a lot of that. Expect the Wolves to take another look at least at Atlanta's John Collins, a restricted free agent, after the season.
The late-season anti-tanking crusade was also pivotal for another reason, Rosas said: internal morale. After the last 14 months, the Wolves desperately needed something that gives them a reason to be hopeful, when there wasn't a lot of that for a long time.
"Our guys didn't believe," said Rosas, channeling his inner Ted Lasso. "Coach Saunders did everything he could. We were just at a different stage. … To be fair, he had the same issues that we had. No bubble, no development. But at some point, tough decisions have to be made and you have to do something different in order to change the trajectory.
"That's why the coaching decision was so important and that's why the trade deadline was so important. These guys believe now."