Timberwolves training camp starts Tuesday, preceded by media day Monday. That marks the start of a season with an anticipation level that rivals that of Jimmy Butler’s first season in Minnesota back in 2017.
The rise of Anthony Edwards and offseason acquisition of Rudy Gobert has the Timberwolves, and their fans, thinking big — in more ways than one. Expectations are high and reasons for optimism are plentiful.
Still, even with loads of talent and momentum stemming from last season’s playoff appearance, there are questions that face the team ahead of its regular-season opener Oct. 19.
WHO IGNITES THE FLAME?
It’s not surprising that Patrick Beverley views himself as a catalyst for the Timberwolves’ soar up the Western Conference standings last season. The veteran point guard has always felt underappreciated.
Beverley, who was traded to Utah this summer before later being re-routed to the Lakers, responded on Twitter to NBA legend Paul Pierce’s take that Minnesota will be a top-four seed in the West this year by saying “Yal take Tony Allen off (Pierce’s championship) Celtic squad yal a different team. That’s all I’m saying. Toughness and Dog mentality goes farther when skill doesn’t work hard.”
Former Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett shared his concerns about losing players such as Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt in the Rudy Gobert trade on his show, KG Certified, noting Anthony Edwards was “mixed up in a group of dogs” with those two players — “some of those personalities and presences.”
No one is questioning that Minnesota’s ceiling and overall core improved with the addition of Gobert, regardless of what the Wolves had to give up. And there is no guarantee a second year with a grinding personality like Beverley would have worked, either.
But there is no denying the impact the likes of Beverley and Vanderbilt had on Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and, to some extent, D’Angelo Russell. Their consistent and relentless effort and energy was a spark that ignited more out of their higher-profile teammates.
Previously, all three of Minnesota’s “star” players had raps of being bad defenders who frankly weren’t invested enough on that end of the floor. The 2021-22 Timberwolves were scrappy and fiery. That was their identity. That was how they won games.
Now the road map is, first and foremost, to just be better than opponents. But they have to maintain at least some semblance of that edge Vanderbilt and Beverley instilled. Can Gobert be the source of that? Or did Towns and Edwards learn the value of such energy to understand they’ll need to bring it themselves?
WHAT’S THE PLAN ON ‘D’?
The Timberwolves finished 13th in NBA defense last season, an ascension that can be credited for the team’s playoff appearance. The success on that end was born out of the hectic style of run-around-and-recover defense that stemmed from Minnesota’s “high wall” pick-and-roll coverage that challenged ball handlers on the perimeter.
Towns, Edwards and others thrived in the chaotic system that relied more on athleticism than structure.
Gobert-based defenses in Utah have been the opposite. To this point in his career, the 30-year-old center has dominated structure-based systems that intentionally funnel opponents toward the big man. That can require more discipline and intentionality than some of Minnesota’s younger players have previously displayed on the defensive end.
So where will the Wolves land between the two styles? Will they cater toward Gobert? Will they revert to what worked last season? Will it be a combination between the two, depending on whether or not Gobert is on the floor?
Wolves coach Chris Finch and Co. will look to strike a balance that works for all involved.
HOW HIGH IS EDWARDS’ ASCENT?
It is universally agreed upon that Minnesota raised its ceiling via this summer’s Gobert trade. But the exact height of said roof, particularly this season, will be determined by Edwards’ progression.
Another jump is expected of the 21-year-old guard. If he is and plays like an all-star, the Wolves have a clear path to being a top-four seed in the West. If he’s an All-NBA player and a top-three shooting guard in the league, that would likely make Minnesota a legitimate NBA Finals contender.
That would entail Edwards being more consistent offensively on a night-to-night basis while continuing to grow into an on-ball defensive stalwart.
DO THE BIGS FIT?
Finch has stated time and again since Minnesota acquired Gobert that the Wolves will not allow other teams to force Minnesota’s best players off the floor. That means Towns and Gobert will likely share the floor for roughly 24 minutes a game.
The Wolves’ great size experiment has a high upside, but things have to fall into place. Can Towns consistently defend smaller players on the perimeter? Can the Wolves punish opponents offensively on the interior? Can Minnesota improve its transition defense, which Finch believes is paramount, with 40 percent of the lineup standing at 7 feet tall?
The Timberwolves enter training camp with one of the deeper rosters in the league in terms of sheer volume of NBA-caliber players. That’s a luxury but will create some challenging choices for Finch and rotation guru Micah Nori to consider.
Most teams play nine to 10 guys consistently. Locks for rotation spots figure to be Towns, Edwards, Russell, Gobert, Jaden McDaniels, Kyle Anderson and Jordan McLaughlin. Taurean Prince is likely a good bet to play, which would leave Jaylen Nowell, Austin Rivers and Bryn Forbes all in a battle for minutes at backup guard spots. It also remains to be seen if Naz Reid will play on a regular basis.