How good can the Timberwolves' core trio be?
The Minnesota Timberwolves have been rooting around in darkness for so long that any flicker of hope tends to hit like a blast of warm sunlight.
The franchise has seen the postseason once - for a grand total of five games - in the last 17 years, and even the Jimmy Butler trade that made said playoff berth possible proved to be a poisoned chalice. After Minnesota was swiftly dispatched in the first round, a disgruntled Butler set about contaminating everything he touched until the front office agreed to trade him. The team fired GM/Coach Tom Thibodeau shortly thereafter and promptly returned to the doldrums, arguably worse off than before Butler arrived.
This season feels different. The Wolves may be a middling 11-15 squad, losers of five straight and tied for the last West play-in spot, but it's been a long time since they've gotten to bask in this much big-picture optimism. There's a sense of purpose and growth even in their moments of struggle, and most importantly, they've performed quite well when their core players are healthy and playing together.
That core consists of a fascinating, flawed, uber-talented trio: A ridiculously explosive sophomore wing with a raw but fast-developing feel for the game; a high-usage, low-efficiency guard with slick passing chops and a poor defensive reputation that was well-earned until recently; and a multifaceted offensive big man who occasionally teases all-time greatness but more often leaves much to be desired with his penchant for passivity. Put those three on the court together, warts and all, and the Wolves outscore teams by 10.1 points per 100 possessions.
So, how good and how sustainable a nucleus can Anthony Edwards, D'Angelo Russell, and Karl-Anthony Towns be? Let's look at what has and hasn't worked for them at both ends of the floor so far this campaign.
Maybe the biggest factor powering their success is all three playing the best defense of their careers by far (though Edwards had only a rookie season's worth of precedent). Minnesota's defensive rating is a jaw-dropping 99.3 when all of them share the floor, equivalent to the NBA's best mark and nearly 17 points per 100 possessions better than the trio registered in its joint minutes last campaign.
Head coach Chris Finch has overhauled the Wolves' defensive scheme, amping up their ball pressure, bringing Towns up to the level of the screen in pick-and-roll coverage, and relying on frenetic help rotations behind him. Towns, Edwards, and Russell are relying on support from Minnesota's cadre of long, quick, physical role players - namely Jaden McDaniels, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Josh Okogie - to make the scheme work by filling the gaps and playing help-and-recover on the backside. But each member of the core trio is defending with more energy and focus in the new system.
Here's an example of the three of them working in near-perfect synergy:
Towns slides with Tobias Harris on the drive, Russell stunts from the strong-side corner and forces Harris to pick up his dribble, Towns cuts off his angle at the rim and forces the kickout to the corner, Edwards gets cover from McDaniels and completes the X-out by running Tyrese Maxey off the arc, and Vanderbilt steps up to force a difficult floater.
Minnesota's scrambling style of defense also has its downsides. With frequent strong-side digs and constant low-man rotations, the Wolves concede more corner threes than any team in basketball. With Towns spending a lot of time defending on the perimeter, they also allow scads of shots at the rim and rank dead last in defensive rebound rate. With an emphasis on ball pressure and handsiness, they send opponents to the free-throw line at the league's highest rate. They've managed to remain a top-11 defense anyway, in large part because they're forcing an absolute boatload of turnovers.
Despite the red flags, Minnesota has plenty to feel good about from a process perspective. Edwards, for one, has been significantly more alert as a team defender this season than he was as a rookie. He's making timelier rotations, navigating off-ball screens better, and displaying a much sharper ability to track his man and the ball at the same time.
Edwards also has plenty of room to improve. He can be slow to react as the low man, and sometimes even when he's pulled over with early weak-side help, he messes up his recovery by making a low-percentage play on the ball rather than just sprinting back out to his man. Even on the play above, he overhelped on the drive and then started to recover back to the corner before realizing his closeout needed to go to the wing. The thing is, as that sequence illustrates, he's so fast and athletic that those types of small mistakes often don't end up costing him. And the strides he's made over just one calendar year in the league suggest he's barely scratching the surface of his defensive potential.
Russell, meanwhile, has been a revelation as a strong-side-flooding rover. The Wolves are sticking him on non-shooters and asking him to pull all the way over to gum things up while 2.9-ing on the opposite side of the key. He's constantly communicating, making proactive rotations, getting his hands in passing lanes, dropping down to cut off baseline drives, tagging and recovering, and making snap reads when he's zoning up the weak side, especially when it comes to sniffing out 45 cuts:
Russell's physical stature still prevents him from being an especially imposing or impactful tagger. And while he's been more willing to put his body in harm's way this season, there are times when his instinct to stay out of the fray resurfaces and compromises the Wolves' backline.
On the possession below, for example, low-man duties should have been Russell's since he was on the side of the floor with two shooters while Vanderbilt was on the side with just one (the dangerous Jaren Jackson Jr.). Russell kept pointing at Vanderbilt to tag, but Vanderbilt instead stuck with Jackson as he lifted from the corner. Russell never rotated, either:
Those miscues haven't really stood out because most of what Russell's doing on defense is positive and because opponents are bricking threes to the tune of 27.7% with him on the floor. The slip-ups might become more evident if or when that changes.
There's an element of playing with fire in all aggressive schemes. Minnesota has reaped the benefits of doing so (turnover generation chief among them) but also exposes itself to a lot of risk. The Wolves have already started to succumb to regression, with the league's eighth-worst defensive rating (115.6) over their last eight games.
The thing is, this is still probably the best way to use Towns, since he continues to largely be an ineffective drop defender. He struggles to alter shots as the last line of defense (opponents have shot 66.1% at the rim with him in the vicinity this season), and he still hasn't fully mastered the footwork required to play between his man and the ball. He's prone to compromising his positioning in one-on-two scenarios, taking a wrong step or committing too early to the ball-handler.
But Towns has mostly held his own in show-and-recover coverages, and has been excellent as a one-on-one defender against face-ups and post-ups. It certainly feels a lot more plausible than it did a year ago for Towns, Edwards, and Russell to not only exist within a high-level defense but meaningfully contribute to one.
The big question moving forward is whether they can do so without the insulation they're padded with now. Because the defensive specialists who currently fill out lineups around those three stalwarts are kneecapping the Wolves' offense, which ranks a lowly 24th. Apart from Beverley, those defense-minded role players are complete non-shooters who generally struggle to assert themselves in any manner (beyond Vanderbilt's rebounding) at the offensive end.
One of the effects that's having is opposing teams are increasingly guarding Towns with a forward while letting their center functionally play a one-man zone around the basket while "guarding" McDaniels or Vanderbilt. That hurts the offense in myriad ways: it minimizes Towns' speed advantage, it reduces the value of his shooting from the center spot (since the opposing center isn't actually getting dragged away from the rim), and it neuters the Towns-Edwards two-man game since opponents can more comfortably switch those actions.
You'd hope Towns could bust those smaller defenders in the post to counteract that coverage, but he too often fails to work himself into deep enough position to do damage. Look how far he let himself get pushed out on the catch by Harris, a player three inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than him:
Towns was once a fearsome post scorer, but his efficiency on that play type has declined every year since 2016-17, and he's become increasingly turnover-prone with his back to the basket. This season, he's averaging a measly 0.72 points per post-up, mainly due to the fact that he's turned the ball over on an insane 33.3% of those possessions.
After a game this past week in which the Jazz stomped Minnesota while using Bojan Bogdanovic as the primary on Towns and letting Rudy Gobert play free safety, Edwards noted that Towns has a penchant for holding the ball too long on the block, essentially inviting double-teams rather than attacking mismatches right away.
"I told KAT the best way to beat it, you gotta go quick," Edwards told reporters. "I told him at halftime, you're waiting on the double. You're telling them, 'Yeah, come double me.' You're the best player on the floor, (and) they're taking you out of the game."
On one hand, it's encouraging that the Wolves employ a 20-year-old second-year pro who's both keen enough to grasp the problem and bold enough to challenge the franchise player to address it. On the other hand, it's concerning that said franchise player, in his seventh season, needs a 20-year-old second-year pro to prod him into being more decisive.
That's not to say Towns hasn't been great offensively - he's averaging 24 points on 62.1% true shooting and hitting 43.2% from 3-point range on nearly six attempts per game. Minnesota's offense has been disappointing on the whole, but the unit's scored at a borderline top-10 rate with Towns, Edwards, and Russell on the floor. And Finch deploys some clever set designs that make use of all three of them.
The most common of those are Horns sets, typically with Russell stationed at one elbow, Towns at the other, and Edwards entering the ball from up top. (Russell and Edwards will switch places in that alignment from time to time.) From there, they run any number of screening variations to get Towns or Edwards cutting to the basket or popping for threes.
Towns' shooting gravity opens up slips and cuts because his defender doesn't want to lose contact with him for even a second and risk letting him pop open beyond the arc. But Edwards' gravity as a cutter is often enough to spring Towns free anyway. Russell can orchestrate with his passing from the elbow, capitalizing on any window that cracks open.
But again, with guys like Vanderbilt, McDaniels, and Okogie spotting up around those sets, opposing teams are often ready to send early help crashing in from the wing or the corners to stymie the Wolves even when they successfully skirt the first layer of defense. Where a negligent defense like Sacramento's might not be prepared, a help-conscious defense like Miami's will be all over it:
Unfortunately, there aren't any better options. Malik Beasley brings more offensive pop, but he undermines the integrity of the defense. Backup center Naz Reid could be an interesting option with those lineups, but Finch has been reluctant to play his two bigs together and the Wolves have gotten smoked in limited minutes with both Towns and Reid on the floor. Taurean Prince has been a mess at both ends.
It isn't just about the supporting cast, of course. All three of the main guys have significant weaknesses that are holding the offense back. We've already covered Towns' lack of force. Russell rarely gets to the rim or the free-throw line and doesn't shoot the ball nearly well enough from mid-range to justify how many shots he takes from that zone. Edwards is a limited playmaker prone to tunnel vision, and he needs to refine his finishing craft. When he isn't dunking all over people, he struggles to modulate his pace and keep his layup attempts under control. Some semblance of an in-between game would also be beneficial to counter defenses that park their bigs right under the basket and wait for him there.
So, yeah, the trio is far from perfect. But it would certainly help if Minnesota could find a way to acquire more two-way role players, or perhaps develop one or two of them from within. Because there's a good squad in here somewhere. Towns is still one of the most skilled offensive bigs ever. Edwards is probably a safe bet to lead the league in scoring someday. Russell is the type of playmaker who can serve as the bridge between them. And all three are competing on defense.
With a little bit of development in the problem areas and a slightly stronger surrounding infrastructure, the Wolves' nucleus could produce the franchise's first sustained run of success in nearly two decades.