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The Timberwolves May Have Something Here

Minnesota is on the brink of average, with a credible defense to boot. But is its sometimes-winning formula enough to make a difference, both this season and in the long term?

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To a fan base that has experienced every shade of irrelevance, the Timberwolves’ 13-15 start must feel like a welcome change of pace. This is a franchise, after all, that has spent years out in the wild, wandering through a forest of Wesley Johnsons and Shabazz Muhammads with no end in sight. The current Wolves could have muddled along in much the same way, but instead found their style of play almost immediately. A complete overhaul of the team’s stodgy defensive system has put them within range of a top-10 defense for the first time since Kevin Garnett was in evergreen trim. Minnesota, at long last, is back in the mix.

The prospect of making the play-in tournament—or of having an outside shot at the 6-seed—just hits different for a franchise that has made the playoffs just once in the past 17 seasons. Minnesota’s last breakthrough was built on a powder keg, and really notable only for the fireworks Jimmy Butler set off as he made the Wolves a means to his end. The want for any progress in Minnesota is offset by the need for something real and lasting. Fortunately, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell are as promising a core as the Wolves have had in years, and the foundation for the most dazzling lineup in the league this season.

So far, Minnesota’s starting five has outscored opponents by 52.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, the kind of ridiculous figure you might see a few games into the season somehow stretched over an entire third of the schedule. The best lineups of the Warriors, Nets, Suns, Bucks, Bulls, and Jazz don’t come anywhere close. No lineup does. That formation is a perfect delivery vehicle for the pop of Edwards’s creativity and the pull of Towns’s buttery-smooth perimeter shooting.

Yet those same players are also the crux of a group that went on a five-game winning streak and a five-game losing streak in the span of the past month. Look closely and you’ll see a team slowly putting itself in a bind. Rebuilds (or in Minnesota’s case, never-ending builds) get complicated when the players driving what the team does best are not necessarily its best players. And they get even more complicated when the players critical to what makes the team effective on one side of the ball are a direct impediment to their progress on the other.

Pan to Minnesota’s two other starters: Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt. Anything even resembling consistency in the Wolves’ play this season is owed to the chaos they create. Minnesota, under new coach Chris Finch, runs one of the most aggressive defensive schemes in the NBA, and the reason that scheme works as well as it does is because Beverley and Vanderbilt have transformed the starting unit with their urgency.

The problem, of course, is that no one really guards them. Opponents are all too eager to leave Beverley standing alone above the break if it means they can muck up Minnesota’s action, or veer away from Vanderbilt to double-team a scorer as dangerous as KAT. When Towns, Edwards, and Russell play together, they can triangulate enough good looks between them to score anyway. In almost every instance when even one star is on the bench, however, the Wolves are losing. (The only exceptions, according to data from PBP Stats, are lineups featuring Towns and Russell without Edwards, which have been promising in very limited minutes.) Sometimes the offense can’t keep up with one arm tied behind its back; sometimes the defense collapses despite seemingly interchangeable personnel coming in off the bench.

You can blame the starting role players for their limitations or the stars for not uplifting their teammates, which is a strong hint that the real issues here are structural. The Wolves’ roster is shallow like that of a superteam, but without the superstars. Even Towns doesn’t quite live up to that billing; though he’s one of the most skilled bigs the sport has ever seen, he is so jumpy against double-teams that it is difficult to build a reliable half-court offense around him. Best practices at this point are to guard Towns with a power forward or wing, and bring a center over to double if they get in trouble. You can never fully shut down a big who shoots over 40 percent from deep, but you can destabilize his role in the offense to the point where Minnesota has to keep drawing up new ways to get him the ball.

Edwards and Russell, meanwhile, are constantly sorting out when they should push for their own offense and when they need to be organizers instead. When Edwards goes 10-of-14 from beyond the arc, like he did against the Nuggets on Wednesday, that distinction doesn’t really matter. On a more typical jump-shooting night, he and Russell (who’s making just 38.7 percent of his shots from the field this season) have to walk a much finer line.

Beverley and Vanderbilt start because they help the Wolves to best manage their stars’ issues—not only by anchoring a frenzied defense, but also with their ferocious pursuit of offensive rebounds. Some of that tenacity has rubbed off on their defensively challenged teammates. Towns and Russell—whose reputations for inattentive coverage had been well-earned—are pressuring the ball like never before and flying through programmatic rotations. That’s real development. Yet the reason Towns can guard the pick-and-roll so aggressively on the perimeter is because he has constant support behind him in Vanderbilt, who rotates over to protect the rim. Russell gets to play to his strengths off the ball only because he works alongside a guard like Beverley who can take on whatever assignment is necessary. Remove either of those safety nets, and the defense slips. Give up ground on defense, and this scrappy Wolves team would start to take after its aimless, underwhelming predecessors.

All of which leaves the Timberwolves with a bit of a scaling problem. If they’re going to keep climbing in the Western Conference in the seasons to come, Minnesota won’t be building so much as constantly reinventing itself—trading out one liability for another, and attempting to balance an entire rotation in the process. This is the first real test for the franchise’s new ownership. Charting a way to gradual improvement might seem as simple as replacing Minnesota’s one-way role players over time … until you realize that a version of Vanderbilt who could also meaningfully contribute on offense would be a top player the Wolves may never be able to entice or even afford with two max deals already on the books. This organization also doesn’t have the luxury of all that much time; Edwards’s career might just be getting started, but Towns is under contract with Minnesota for just two more seasons. It gets late early in the modern NBA, especially for teams that show initial promise but peter out in their efforts to fulfill it.

Maybe the fully formed version of the Wolves will build on the expanded playmaking of a more developed Edwards. Perhaps more time in the fire will help Towns simplify his reads against pressure, clearing new avenues for the offense. Minnesota is a young team with so much left to explore as it grows, but even that developmental headroom won’t erase the need for the Wolves to find a completely new formula again and again as they go. For now, they lean on the narrow support of two culture-setting defenders. In a year’s time, they might have moved on from this now-dominant starting five to chase the possibilities of a less hamstrung offense.

It’s never as simple as onward and upward, even for a roster with multiple no. 1 picks. So often, the work of building a winner is taking a premise as far as it can go—then adjusting course slightly and starting again. It’s calcifying lessons atop lessons until the whole roster levels out. That might be a tough ask for fans of a team that have already waited so long, but this season will tell the Wolves more clearly what their core players need and what all they can carry; which ideas work and which don’t; which constructions are built to last and which feel compromised. You don’t find your team in a blueprint, after all, but back out in the wild.