June 23, 2024

What have we learned from the Timberwolves’ NBA-leading 16-4 start?

With every passing day, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ rise in the Western Conference grows increasingly more eye-opening.

Now 1 / 4 of the manner by the NBA season, the Wolves are off to a franchise-best 16-4 begin after a 102-94 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday evening. They are 10-1 at residence, 11-2 in the convention and three video games away from the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets, who’re tied for second place. They have the fourth-best web ranking in the league and are 15-2 of their final 17 video games, the greatest such stretch in franchise historical past.

Rudy Gobert will inform you he always saw this coming, that even in the darkest of days final season, he all the time knew that if the Timberwolves stayed dedicated to studying and rising, it could all come collectively the manner it has this season. However, Kyle Anderson couldn’t say the identical.

“No,” Anderson mentioned with a sheepish giggle this week when requested if he was all the time assured the Wolves would determine issues out. “I ain’t gonna lie. I was just trying to stay positive and take it one day at a time. So to see it now, it’s like, OK, I didn’t see this coming. But let’s keep it going.”

Either manner, this exceptional begin has thrust the Wolves into contender status. It continues to be too early to take any victory laps for the Gobert commerce or to declare the struggles of this franchise’s checkered previous to be over, however the pattern dimension is getting bigger and extra compelling. At the quarter mark, it’s a good time to take inventory of the place the staff is and the place it may very well be going.

Three stars

Perhaps the greatest information of the season to this point is that the Timberwolves do have three stars. Anthony Edwards has leaped, Karl-Anthony Towns has bounced again from final season’s injury-plagued season and Gobert has been dominant after a subpar first season in Minnesota.

Edwards: The hype surrounding his fourth season was by the roof, however the 22-year-old has in some way exceeded expectations. He is averaging profession highs in scoring (25.7), rebounding (5.9), assists (5.1) and 3-point taking pictures (37.8 %) whereas exhibiting a midrange sport that may very well be an enormous a part of the Timberwolves fixing their crunchtime offensive woes of final season.

The Wolves are 22.0 factors per 100 possessions higher with Edwards on the ground versus when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass. Better information? Edwards missed the fourth quarter in opposition to OKC and video games in opposition to Utah and Charlotte, however the Wolves had been capable of win all three due to their depth and, by luck of the draw, the weak point of the Jazz and Hornets.

Edwards returned in opposition to the San Antonio Spurs and was nonetheless visibly bothered by his hip. He was 4 of 17 from the subject however did have seven rebounds, six assists and managed to search out the catapult when he wanted it.

Edwards mentioned he was tentative early in the sport whereas getting again on the courtroom, however he was capable of lock in defensively as the sport went on.

“Not a lot of pain. Just scared. Nervous. I didn’t want to do too much,” Edwards mentioned. “That was the main thing.”

He nonetheless performed 37 minutes, and the Timberwolves outscored the Spurs by 14 factors in these minutes. He obtained a break day on Thursday and can get one other likelihood to work off a few of the rust on Friday in Memphis earlier than the schedule will get difficult for the remainder of the month.

Gobert: He has been a revelation, by no means extra so than in the Wolves’ uninspired efficiency in opposition to the lowly Spurs. Gobert had 16 factors, 20 rebounds, two blocks and was a plus-31 in his half-hour, which means the Wolves had been outscored by the Spurs (3-17) by 23 factors in the 18 minutes he sat.

“This is the best I’ve ever seen him play,” coach Chris Finch mentioned.

Gobert has blocked at the very least two pictures in eight straight video games, the longest such streak for the Wolves since Darko Miličić did it in 2010. Gobert has eight video games this season with at the very least three blocked pictures after doing it 11 instances all of final season. On high of the elite rim safety, Gobert has proven consolation with guarding out close to the perimeter when groups attempt to unfold the Wolves out.

Edwards has been terrific. Towns has been excellent. But Gobert could also be the staff’s MVP by the first 20 video games.

“I think I’m the best Rudy I’ve ever been, and I think there’s still a lot of other ways to grow,” Gobert mentioned. “I’m pushing myself every day to keep learning, keep getting better and stronger. I’m hungry. I want to win. Until you win, you never stop. And even when you win, you want to win again.

“Right now, I’m trying to win a championship, and I’ll do whatever it takes, anything that’s in my power. And make it fun. It’s about having fun too.”

Towns: He began slowly on offense this season, having bother discovering his shot and determining precisely the place he slot in with Edwards and Gobert. But ever since he scored a season-low seven factors on Nov. 6 in opposition to Boston, Towns has been on hearth. He is averaging 23.9 factors, hitting 56.7 % of his pictures and 52.2 % from deep.

With Edwards out, Towns scored 32 factors in opposition to Utah and 28 in opposition to Charlotte to assist ship wanted victories. More importantly, Towns has been a rock-solid defender taking part in alongside Gobert in the frontcourt. He has been capable of keep in entrance of energy forwards, and the Wolves have not had their doorways blown off in transition as they did final season.

“He’s more comfortable navigating all the actions he’s finding off the ball,” Finch mentioned. “Containing drives has been a significant improvement, fouling less. We’re way more comfortable understanding the positions to put him in when we go through a game plan.”

He had 14 factors on 5-of-6 taking pictures and 10 rebounds in opposition to San Antonio but in addition turned the ball over six instances in his first jagged efficiency in a while. But the huge image has been distinctive on each ends of the courtroom. When taking a look at precisely how far the Wolves can go this season, their ceiling lies with Towns. If he continues to play as properly defensively as he has and dietary supplements that with environment friendly shot-making, the Wolves could be a matchup nightmare for many anybody.

Getting defensive

Even with Towns, Edwards and Mike Conley, three glorious offensive gamers in the beginning lineup, protection is what has propelled the Wolves to the high of the standings.

Their 106.0 defensive ranking is 2.2 factors per 100 possessions higher than second-place Boston. They have the fourth-best web ranking and have held their opponent below 100 factors, 40 % taking pictures and 30 % from 3-point vary 5 instances this season. No different staff has completed it greater than 3 times. The Timberwolves by no means did it final season.

Gobert is the lynchpin, however Towns and Naz Reid have confirmed greater than succesful in the frontcourt as properly. In 432 minutes on the courtroom collectively this season, Towns and Gobert have a 105.5 defensive ranking, higher than the staff’s league-best ranking, and a plus-12.3 web ranking. The two-big configuration is working extremely properly.

“I would say for us, we know if things get tough, fall back on our defense, and hopefully it will turn into some turnovers, give us a rhythm where it’ll help us make some shots when we get in the half court,” Towns mentioned.

Karl-Anthony Towns defends Victor Wembanyama this week in Minnesota. (Bruce Kluckhohn / USA Today)

It additionally provides the Wolves confidence that this scorching begin just isn’t a fluke. They haven’t constructed this report by making a rare quantity of 3s or attending to the free-throw line time and again. Aside from a sport or two, their protection has proven as much as ship wins. Sometimes, like in the second halves in opposition to Charlotte and San Antonio, it seems in the nick of time.

“There’s a belief that it’s sustainable,” Finch mentioned. “It’s built on the right things, defense.”

Offense wants work

While the protection has been excellent, the Wolves offense has languished under common. They are ranked nineteenth with a 112.6 ranking. Getting Edwards again to full well being ought to assist there, however there stays a variety of enchancment that should occur if the Wolves are really going to place themselves to make a deep playoff run.

One of their largest issues has been turnovers. The Wolves are twenty third in the league in turnover share, and the carelessness each brief circuits their offensive possessions and triggers breakouts for opponents.

“I think a lot of our turnovers are spacing or passing-related, or where the two meet,” Finch mentioned. “Trying to get through or play in tight spaces, there’s a lot of easy passes and kick-out situations where we’re creating turnovers for ourselves. We’ve got to get rid of those.”

Another huge problem is that two essential bench gamers are struggling mightily on the offensive finish. Shake Milton was signed in the offseason to be the bucket-getter Jaylen Nowell couldn’t be final season, however the assured, aggressive scorer Milton was at his greatest in Philadelphia has been nowhere to be present in Minnesota.

Milton made 37.8 % of his 3s final season however is taking pictures 21 % this season. He is taking pictures 35 % from the subject general and appears to be hesitant to take pictures and assault. With the emergence of Troy Brown Jr., Milton’s spot in the rotation may very well be in jeopardy when Jordan McLaughlin and Jaden McDaniels return.

Anderson additionally has not regarded like the identical participant on offense that he was a season in the past when he hit 41 % of his 3s and stuffed in admirably as the beginning energy ahead whereas Towns was out together with his calf harm. Anderson is taking pictures 16.7 % from 3 and has resorted to hardly ever taking them anymore. Some of his shot choice inside the arc has been erratic as properly. He is 1 of 10 on hook pictures, based on Basketball-Reference.com.

He’s nonetheless taking part in properly defensively and has Finch’s belief to shut video games due to his decision-making.

“He’s one of those guys that you just feel better when he’s on the floor and he has the ball in his hands,” Finch mentioned. “We’re not worried about his production, and I’m sure he’s not either. Defensively, he continues to guard whoever we ask him to guard.”

Still, it could be good to get some extra constant scoring punch off the bench, particularly from Milton.

Nifty Naz

One of the vivid spots of a largely ragged offensive evening in opposition to the Spurs was Reid’s offensive exercise. He had 15 factors and 9 rebounds, however it was how he compiled his factors that was encouraging.

Reid discovered himself face-to-face with Victor Wembanyama’s alien type, and he by no means flinched in going proper at the 7-foot-4 rookie.

“I’ve said it before: Everybody’s food,” Reid mentioned. “I don’t shy away from them. I’m willing to compete against anybody. That’s just who I am, competing, whether I’m down in the dumps or I’m in a situation like I’m in now. I’m competing regardless.”

Finch has been attempting to get Reid concerned in additional actions to benefit from his abilities. There was a interval earlier than the previous couple of video games the place Reid discovered himself hanging out on the perimeter and simply jacking 3s. But he scored 23 factors in opposition to Charlotte on Saturday and was in assault mode Wednesday.

“He’s back to doing what he was doing at the beginning of the season,” Finch mentioned. “A couple of weeks ago, he kind of fell into just being a spot-up shooter, but we need way more than that. Moving around the floor, coming off actions, diving hard to the rim, getting on the offensive glass.”

Health report

The Wolves have managed to maintain profitable even whereas taking part in short-handed, with out Edwards for a few video games, McDaniels for the final seven due to an ankle harm and McLaughlin for the final 14 video games with a knee harm.

McLaughlin has began taking part in five-on-five in follow and seems set for an imminent return. The Wolves’ thinnest place is level guard behind Conley, so they might use McLaughlin’s management and offensive group.

“I’ve been just waiting for my opportunity, and I think there are parts of the game I can help this team out, for sure,” McLaughlin mentioned. “I think I’ll be able to push our pace, get us some more possessions offensively and get guys in the right spots and stuff like that.”

McDaniels has began practising as properly however has not but been cleared for five-on-five, which means his return probably will come someday subsequent week. As a lot as the Wolves miss his perimeter protection, they’ll probably get an enormous enhance from his offense when he returns. McDaniels is a 40 % 3-point shooter and certainly one of the staff’s greatest off-ball cutters.

It’s a superb time to get wholesome as a result of the schedule is about to get daunting. After the sport Friday at Memphis, the Wolves’ December slate contains street video games in opposition to New Orleans, Dallas, Miami, Philadelphia, Sacramento and Oklahoma City. They have two residence video games in opposition to the Lakers, one in opposition to Indiana and one in opposition to Dallas.

Buckle up.

(Top picture of Rudy Gobert, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns: David Sherman / NBAE through Getty Images)