It’s been nearly three weeks since we last saw the Minnesota Timberwolves take the court, a 136-121 win in the regular-season finale against the Dallas Mavericks. As is tradition, the Timberwolves missed the playoffs for the 16th time in the last 17 seasons.
This season felt different though.
While they did finish with the sixth-worst record in the league, there seems to be a lot of positivity swirling around one of the saddest franchises in all of sports.
Minnesota finished the season 11-11 in its final 22 games after D’Angelo Russell returned to the lineup after missing 26 games with a knee injury. Rookie of the Year finalist Anthony Edwards turned into Donovan Mitchell after the All-Star break. The first-overall pick averaged 23.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game after the break while shooting 45.4% from the field and 34.9% from 3. Karl-Anthony Towns recovered from a wrist injury and COVID diagnosis early in the season and looked fantastic once Chris Finch took the reins.
In 39 games under Finch, Towns averaged 25.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game.
Even though the Timberwolves will likely have to send their first-round draft pick to the Golden State Warriors to finish off the Andrew Wiggins/Russell trade, their arrow is pointing up for the future. This isn’t the first time since the Kevin Garnett trade that fans have begun to inflate expectations for a team that’s won two playoff series in 32 seasons. It’s hard to turn a franchise around over the course of one season, but it’s not impossible.
If Gersson Rosas is watching the first round of the playoffs (and obviously reading this article) he should be taking miles of notes on one team specifically that should be the blueprint for the Wolves to go from laughing stock to legitimate contender — the Phoenix Suns.
Before earning the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs this season, the Suns were just as bad as the Wolves over the last decade. They hadn’t made the playoffs since Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire made a run to the Western Conference finals in 2010. It has been so long Nash is now coaching the Brooklyn Nets in this year’s playoffs.
Like the Wolves, the Suns missed on draft picks, moved on from their star players, and couldn’t find the right coach while having one of the worst owners and GMs in the league.
But as with all things, change is inevitable.
Devin Booker went from being the 13th pick in the 2015 draft to becoming one of the best guards in the game. Pheonix stuck to their guns and drafted Deandre Ayton first overall in 2018 ahead of the likes of Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Monty Williams took over last season and changed the culture of losing, leading Phoenix to an unbelievable 8-0 record in the bubble, just missing out on the playoffs. And the coup de grâce, the Suns traded for then-35-year-old Chris Paul with hopes of the point god leading them to the promised land.
Early returns are exceeding expectations in Arizona. They finished with a 51-21 record, only behind the Utah Jazz in the West.
Their reward? Playing LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. Great. Except the Suns are the team playing like they’ve been there before taking a 3-2 lead before Thursday’s Game 6.
With the Suns’ playoff success seemingly happening overnight, what can the Wolves do to emulate their turnaround?
First, let’s look at the similarities that are already in place between the two franchises. We’ve already discussed how terrible Minnesota and Phoenix have been over the last decade-plus. The Timberwolves drafted Towns first overall in 2015 and the Suns bet their future on a center when they picked Ayton first three years later. They’re very different players: The offense runs through KAT and he’s one of the most prolific shooters in the game. Conversely, Ayton is more of a pick-and-roll partner with Paul on offense, but he is a more reliable defender than Towns. But both franchises staked their rebuilds on a young center with star potential.
The Suns have a young affable shot-creating shooting guard in Booker. It just so happens the Wolves have 19-year-old wunderkind Edwards who is already one of the most likable players in the league. Booker in his sixth season is a much more efficient shooter than the teenager Edwards, but Ant is on the superstar track and could be competing with Booker for All-Star appearances as early as next season.
Both teams have young x-factor two-way wings. Phoenix has Mikal Bridges who has done a masterful job shutting down LeBron James in the first round. Minnesota has Jaden McDaniels, a 20-year-old sunken-eyed block machine who may already be the team’s most versatile defender.
The last similarity is the head coach.
Phoenix hired Williams last season to guide a young and talented team to playoff success. In February the Wolves completed one of the weirdest mid-season switches in modern NBA history when they fired Ryan Saunders and hired outsider Finch to finish out the regular season. Unlike Williams, Finch has never been a head coach in the NBA before. He cut his teeth in Europe, the G-League, and as an assistant with the Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans, and Toronto Raptors.
So you’re saying that with Towns, Edwards, and McDaniels implementing Finch’s offense, the Timberwolves are destined to take a huge leap and compete for a title next season? No, because while there are a lot of similarities between the Suns and Timberwolves, it’s the differences that the Wolves will have to overcome to contend.
The most glaring difference is the acquisition of Paul. It’s not every day that a struggling franchise pulls off a move for one of the 40 greatest players in the history of the game. Paul has done this everywhere he’s played during his 16-year Hall of Fame career. The then-New Orleans Hornets won 20 more games during his rookie season than the year prior. He took the lowly Los Angeles Clippers to the conference semifinals his first year in Southern California.
The Houston Rockets were a Paul hamstring and 27 missed threes away from taking down the Warriors in 2018. The Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to be lightly tanking when CP3 led them to the brink of taking down the Rockets in Round 1 in the bubble last year. And now the Suns are on the brink of dethroning the mighty Lakers.
All-timers like Paul don’t just grow on the free agency farm, so what can the Wolves do to mirror the home run swing the Suns took? Realistically, there isn’t a move to make. (Unless you want to compare the Russell acquisition, which more power to you if you think he’s in the same league as Paul).
The Wolves are already barely under the luxury tax as is, and this year’s crop of free agents is highlighted by good-not-great names like Lonzo Ball. The most realistic option is to be graced by the lottery gods, keep the top-three protected pick, and hope that Cade Cunningham or Jalen Suggs is the next Magic Johnson.
In reality, the way the Wolves make the jump is by drastically improving their defense. It’s been the bugaboo in Minneapolis since Kevin Garnett was dealt to the Boston Celtics, but real contenders play hard defense. Using the Suns once again as an example: They had the ninth-best defense in the NBA this season.
That’s a huge improvement from 17th in 2020, and 29th in 2019 under Igor Kokoskov when they went 19-63. Minnesota’s defense was once again abysmal this season, ranking 28th. The Wolves haven’t had a top-10 defense since 2006, but they have some defensive talent to build around.
Towns has vastly improved on that end of the floor over the last three seasons. Edwards has the physical tools to be a lockdown perimeter defender. Josh Okogie and McDaniels are on the verge of becoming great defenders, and Jarrett Culver’s current value is as a defensive presence in short spurts off the bench. Finch is known mostly as an offensive coach, but he and his new assistants will need to get everyone to buy in on the defensive end to sustain their rebuild.
So Gersson, if you’re reading (please!), you’re 60% of the way to becoming the 2022 Suns. They were 8-0 in the bubble, and the Timberwolves were 7-5 down the stretch. You’ve got the star center, and budding superstar guard with a few young two-way X-factors to round out the roster, and the right coach.
If you could please try to find a team-friendly trade for one of the greatest players of all time, that would get you in the mix. And if not, perhaps add some players that play defense. Then, and only then, will you be branded the next Suns and compete for a championship, and Timberwolves fans will finally know peace.