The whirlwind that is the 2020 NBA offseason is unbelievably nearly complete with training camp beginning on December 1st, just twelve days after the draft and ten days after the start of free agency. Typically front offices have had plenty of time to round out the edges of the roster by the start of training camp, but this season many teams, including the Timberwolves, are still finalizing those last roster spots and camp invitees. In an unprecedented offseason, this Timberwolves team has questions to answer during the rushed training camp. We will examine five of the under-the-radar questions that will hopefully have answers by the season opener.
Where does Jarrett Culver fit in?
The second year pro from Texas Tech should find himself with second unit minutes this season barring a major improvement on his rookie season. There are several lineup combinations in which he could thrive, but his skillset limits his usefulness at this point of his career. By all accounts, Jarrett is an intensely like-able teammate, and a very hard worker that rose from an unheralded high school recruit to the sixth pick in the 2019 NBA draft in just two seasons of college basketball. He also led an underdog Texas Tech basketball team through the NCAA tournament in 2019 and pushed national powerhouse Virginia University to the brink in the championship game right here in Minneapolis. As the unquestioned best player on his college team, he endeared himself to many NBA fans on the national stage with his defensive effort and desire to take the big shots on offense. He seemed like he was ready to bring that skillset to the NBA. So what has happened since then? He was drafted to a team in the midst of a complete offensive overhaul to emphasize threes and getting to the rim with pick and roll schemes and cutting. This system would work well for Culver as the lead ball handler and distributer, as that is the role he played in college. The problem is that he is not yet a good enough playmaker to be the lead ball handler in a good offense using this scheme, so he is pushed to a secondary role as a cutter and spot-up 3pt. shooter. This proves problematic as two of his worst attributes currently are 3pt. shooting percentage and field goal percentage at the rim as well as the free throw line. If he does not act as the lead ball handler and does not space the floor well, then his value to his offense is severely diminished. What does that mean for his role in the 20–21 Wolves offense? That will all depend on his improvement in those key areas of weakness. There is hope for his improvement in the 3pt. shooting department. In the final fourteen games of the season (after the roster overhaul) the team had improved spacing and that meant more open shots for Culver. He hit 41.5% of his three 3pt. attempts per game while shooting 48% from the field overall compared to 27% from three and 38% from the field overall prior to the trade deadline. If he shows that improvement in his shooting during training camp, he could be a viable piece to have along side the other guards in the rotation as a low usage three and D wing. If his shooting continues to underwhelm, his minutes may continue to diminish throughout the year. Culver’s work ethic and effort is well-documented, so it would be a safe bet that he improves in many areas of his game which could provide the type of two-way wing that the Timberwolves thought they were getting as the sixth pick in the 2019 NBA draft. Ultimately he will likely serve as a backup wing this season who could see more minutes to when deployed as a big wing stopper. That role alone can prove very valuable, and could be the niche that Culver settles into as he finds himself in the NBA.
How long could new personalities take to mesh?
First off, the conversation about this team’s new personalities mixing with the current Timberwolves needs to address the staggering mix of players that have lost a parent to illness recently. I will not pretend to understand how that effects a teenager or a grown man, but it seems like it would certainly be helpful to have teammates or coaches to talk too that have gone through similar tragedies. The hope is that Ricky Rubio, Anthony Edwards, Head Coach Ryan Saunders, and Karl-Anthony Towns are able to lean on one another to work through the tough times and strengthen the team’s bond. With that, there are plenty of other factors that will affect the team’s chemistry on and off the court. Last season, the team went on a trip to the Bahamas prior to the season and seemingly built up their camaraderie that way, but that type of vacation is not possible this year, so they will have to get to know one another on the court. One of the most important questions that Timberwolves fans have is whether star point guard D’Angelo Russell will be open to playing along side newly acquired point guard Ricky Rubio, who is beloved by Timberwolves fans worldwide. Off the court these two should mesh quite well as they are both cerebral students of the game, and neither player will force their style upon the other. On the court, it will completely depend on Russell’s willingness to understand Rubio’s strengths and weaknesses. Rubio can be the defensive pest to take the pressure off of Russell, as long as Russell understands that Rubio is most valuable with the ball in his hands distributing in half court sets. This could be a very valuable partnership that effectively closes games for the Timberwolves if both players understand one another’s game. The other looming chemistry question has more to do with the front office’s view of players. The Rosas regime has proven to be aggressive and creative in finding trades for players to improve the team. While the front office has endeared themselves to the fanbase, one can imagine many of the players do not feel quite as secure and valuable. Karl-Anthony Towns and two year veteran Josh Okogie are the two most tenured Timberwolves on the roster. While the team needed a roster upheaval badly, this was an unprecedented shift in personnel. The incoming players may feel valued as they were brought in and in some cases signed to extensions, they also may have the feeling that they are waiting around to be traded when something better comes along. They likely are not wrong as Rubio, Beasley, and Hernangomez have contracts that will be perfectly trade-able within the next two years. The front office has been angling for a third star player to form a trio with Towns and Russell, so any young player with a trade-able contract will be on the table. When players feel like they are interchangeable, they may not always be their best selves on the court and make their teammates better. The ability to cultivate the family atmosphere that Rosas and co. have advertised to new players will be the determining factor in much of this team meshing and playing for one another instead of with one another.
Will the coaching staff attempt to install a new defensive scheme?
The easy answer to this question is quite simply, No, they will not change the defensive scheme prior to this season. Assistant Coach and defensive coordinator David Vanterpool runs a drop coverage scheme to keep his bigs in the paint to contest at the rim while the guards contest 3pt. shots and force midrange jumpers. Coaching in Portland, Vanterpool worked this scheme nearly to perfection with guards that contested threes, wings that dug in on rolling big men, and Jusuf Nurkic who protects the rim nearly as well as any big man in the league. They are not likely to change the strategy now that they have the personnel in place to run this scheme better than last season, but the fact is the Timberwolves were repeatedly burned on defense by the same offensive schemes over and over again. They conceded midrange shots so easily to the best guards in the league, and those players happily took them and racked up points with ease including 52 points from current Timberwolf D’Angelo Russell early in the season while he played for the Golden State Warriors. With the guard rotation revamped, they should have the athleticism to chase guards over the top of screens and contest midrange shots better than last season. The major question mark is the star center that plays 36 minutes per game who will dictate the success or failure of this scheme. The easy comparison is to say Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic who is slower and less athletic than Towns is able to play the drop scheme to average levels, but Jokic is bigger, longer, and generally smarter on both ends of the court so he is able to deter just enough shots to make the drop scheme a viable strategy. Towns is actually an above average rim protector when he is one on one in the paint with a shooter, but his problems arise when he has to make a decision on whether to lurch forward to contest a driving guard or to fall back and cut off a rolling big or cutter. His lack of instincts and unpredictability in this spot hurts the help defense as well, leading to open layups and putbacks by opposing bigs. There is a chance that another offseason of learning this defensive system will help Towns reach average levels as the drop big and make this a viable system, but if he struggles again then a change to a switching or blitzing scheme may be necessary. Vanterpool has earned a reputation for being able to get offensive guards to play competent defense, but if he can get Towns to master his system it may be his best work yet.
Will midrange jump shots make a comeback in the offense?
The 19–20 NBA season brought a complete overhaul of the Timberwolves offensive system. President of Basketball Operations, Gersson Rosas, came over from Houston and brought along the offensive philosophy of emphasizing fast pace and attempting efficient shots. This led the Timberwolves to raise their pace ranking from middle of the league in the 18–19 season to 4th last season, and from a bottom five ranking in 3pt. attempts in 18–19 to attempting the third most 3pt. attempts last season. The scheme took hold immediately as the more efficient shots were attempted, but unfortunately the personnel’s strengths did not match the scheme leading to the third worst 3pt. shooting percentage in the league. Timberwolves fans watched a lot of deep shot clanking and a lot of losing. After the trade deadline when the roster was completely overhauled, the personnel matched the scheme much better as they were able to space the floor with credible shooters for most of each game. While the scheme’s purpose should continue to be fulfilled by emphasizing layups, free throws, and three-point shots, many of the players acquired since last season may spend more time operating in the midrange area leading to more dreaded long two-point shots. Players such as D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley have publicly stated in the past that the midrange shot helps them get going early, and that it is important to make opposing defenses guard in the midrange to open up more layup and 3pt. opportunities. Other players such as Ricky Rubio, Anthony Edwards, Josh Okogie, and Jarrett Culver are simply not as comfortable shooting from three as they are from the midrange. These are all very valid reasons to take midrange shots if they are open, but will the coaching staff’s philosophy prohibit these players from taking these midrange shots when they are available? I do not believe there is a hard answer to this question. It seems that they wanted to avoid deviating from the scheme early during the 19–20 season because outside of Towns, they had very few real shooters, so they wanted to make sure they were taking the most efficient shots to try to steal a few points each game. Once the roster overhaul was complete, the messaging has seemed to turn towards allowing some leeway to the players to take the shots they are most comfortable with, as long as they are taking them within the flow of the offense. Russell and Beasley will likely have the most freedom to shoot their preferred shots, as the team knows they are good enough shooters and decision makers to take what the defense gives to them. Rubio is an established veteran with high basketball IQ who likely will not be pressured into taking the shots he is not comfortable with, so he will be free to take dribble pull up midrange shots, and stick to the spot-up three point shots that he has continued to improve on. Players like Edwards, Culver, and Okogie should continue to be shepherded towards attacking the rim and shooting from behind the three point line. Edwards and Okogie in particular can be especially valuable attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line with their size and physicality. In continuing to install the scheme during the upcoming training camp, it will be interesting to hear the messaging from the coaching staff to the players. Will Beasley and Russell have more freedom than the other shooters, or will everyone be held to the same standards of the system? Time will tell how much the number of long two-point shots increases, and if those shots seem to be hindering or helping the rest of the offense.
With all of the roster turnover, will Karl-Anthony Towns resume his role as the best player/vocal leader of the team?
We should have a clear answer to this question fairly quickly during training camp. Last season, Karl-Anthony Towns made a point to be the face of the franchise as they pulled their way out of the Jimmy Butler saga/Tom Thibodeau era and having just hired a new President of Basketball Operations. He spoke glowingly about his teammates, especially after the team trip to the Bahamas, and preached to anyone who would listen that the team was a family and things were going to be different. Then the 19–20 season happened, and all of the optimism and goodwill built up prior to the season was gone when the losing continued and Towns spent long stretches of time on the bench with injuries. Through it all, he was still the team’s best player and leader, even after the trade deadline as he welcomed a host of new faces to the North. The season was then shutdown in March, and unfortunately tragedy struck Karl-Anthony and his family when his mother, Jacqueline, passed away from complications related to COVID-19 in April. Since that time, the Timberwolves superstar understandably has been mostly out of the spotlight and absent from some of the team gathering opportunities over the past few months. He has been grieving for much of 2020, so no one would ever fault him from his lack of presence at organized team activities. He has reportedly ventured back to Minneapolis several times since his mother’s passing. Once during the period of growing racial tension and peaceful protests in June, and again for individual workouts at Mayo Clinic Square later in the Summer. Towns has also acted as a mentor to Malik Beasley through some ongoing legal issues, even visiting Beasley’s home when he was in town. These actions lead me to believe that KAT still sees himself as the leader on this team as its best and most important player. As a young man, it is encouraging to see him continue to find his voice and become the face of the franchise. He may not be all over the media during training camp to talk about how this team is different and things are going to be better, but that is not the leadership the team needs. They need him to show up when it counts and hold teammates and himself accountable. Along with his good friend D’Angelo Russell and respected veteran Ricky Rubio, Towns will likely resume his position as the unquestioned leader on the court and in the locker room. With his continued growth and maturation, that should be a good thing for the 20–21 Timberwolves.