In 2007, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett, kicking off a decade and a half during which the team ranked last in the league in win percentage. Seven years later, the team shipped off another All-Star-turned-champion in Kevin Love. And within two years of obtaining Jimmy Butler, who helped the team end a 13-season playoff drought in 2017-18, Butler abruptly exited, marking the beginning of another regression.
Minnesota has been known more for the stars who left than those who came. But after the Timberwolves finally got lucky in the draft lottery and landed the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, which they used to select Anthony Edwards, the team has a chance to rebuild with its own Big Three. Though offseason turmoil in the front office threatened to unravel its plans, the team still has reason for optimism as its season starts Wednesday night.
Edwards, a shooting guard from Georgia, had a rocky beginning to his NBA career. He had no Summer League reps in an offseason shortened to 71 days by COVID-19. His first 17 appearances as a pro came off the bench, as the Timberwolves started 4-13 under then-coach Ryan Saunders. But when Edwards took the floor for his 18th game, it was as a starter — and he didn’t leave the starting lineup for the rest of the season.
On Feb. 21, the 7-24 Wolves parted ways with Saunders and pivoted to Raptors assistant Chris Finch. The coaching change unlocked another level in Edwards. Finch “really let me play my game,” Edwards said in an April GQ interview. “He go out there and be like, ‘just play yo game, do you.’ So, I’m just having fun at that point. When I’m having fun, I’m playing my best.”
Under Saunders, Edwards averaged 14.3 points in 28.5 minutes, shooting 37.5 percent from the field. With Finch at the helm, he averaged 23.2 points in 34.9 minutes on 44.1 percent shooting. The team’s overall offense also improved: The Wolves ranked 28th in offensive efficiency under Saunders, but rose to 17th under Finch while going 16-25 and notching impressive wins over playoff-bound teams.
Edwards’s splits before and after the All-Star break are even more impressive, with gains in isolations, drives, touches, potential assists and effective field-goal percentage, according to Second Spectrum. Though these jumps came alongside an increase in the rookie’s playing time, many of them exceeded the percentage increase in minutes.
In the second half of the regular season, Edwards ranked 16th among 130 qualified players with 541 direct touches in the fourth quarter or overtime, outpacing Khris Middleton (505), Damian Lillard (426) and Bradley Beal (396). And even though he only ranked 69th in points per direct touch in that span, per Second Spectrum, he showed flashes of brilliance as a scorer. In a March 18 victory over the Finals-bound Suns, Edwards became the third-youngest player in league history to record a 40-point game, doing so at 19 years and 225 days old. Only LeBron James and Kevin Durant achieved the feat at younger ages.
As the young star found his footing in the second half of the season, he also found partnerships in his big-name teammates: Karl-Anthony Towns, a fellow former No. 1 overall pick, and D’Angelo Russell. The three have formed a high-octane core that, if healthy, could challenge for a Western Conference playoff spot.
The team has struggled to get its stars on the court together: Edwards, Towns and Russell played together in only 24 games last season. But in those few games, Edwards was the difference maker he was projected to be, especially on the offensive end. Towns and Russell were better in virtually every traditional offensive statistic with Edwards on the floor.
When Towns and Edwards shared the court without Russell, who missed time after undergoing in-season knee surgery, that pair finished the season among the top duos in the league to have appeared in 50-plus games together. The two posted an offensive rating of 115.2 while averaging a combined 67.5 points (ranked 10th), 15.6 assists (seventh), 24.5 rebounds (19th) and 2.7 blocks (21st) per game. But for all of the success the two saw on the offensive end, they struggled just as much defensively. The two posted the 12th-worst defensive rating, 115.5, of the 361 pairs to appear in 50-plus games.
In the 24 games that Russell shared the court with the former No. 1 overall picks, the three-man unit got even better offensively but worse on defense. And the team as a whole also improved on offense when the three shared the court. The Wolves’ offensive rating increased from 112.4 when Towns and Edwards played without Russell to 120.9 with him, and the team also improved its field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage and plus/minus.
When all members of its new core were on the court, the team’s 120.9 offensive rating would have been good enough to lead the league over the course of a whole season. But the unit’s defensive rating (116.0) would have ranked second-worst.
With a defense that hasn’t finished a season ranked higher than No. 20 since the 2013-14 season, the Wolves have plenty of room to improve. In an effort to jump-start that improvement, the team traded for veteran guard Patrick Beverley this offseason. Their 78.8 contested shots per game ranked eleventh this season, according to Second Spectrum, which suggests that the team can make some of the necessary strides to improve defensively and close the gap with its high-ceiling offense. Some of that comes from defined roles for the team’s Big Three, according to Finch.
“We’ve gotta outline exactly what our expectations are for [the players],” Finch said in an interview with NBA.com in March. “If we’re going to drill down on shot selection or drill down paint defense, we have to create a structure where we can hold them accountable.”
If Minnesota can turn the corner this season, the Timberwolves might finally change their narrative from a trail of departing stars to a focus on their talent-laden current trio — a young, athletic and active core for the franchise to build on. Edwards, with the raw tools and confidence required of today’s NBA, could be the key to elevating the franchise’s profile beyond its moribund status quo.
“I don’t know if he has a ceiling. I’m sure he does. We just don’t know where it is,” Finch said of Edwards’s growth. “He’s an integral part of our success. The biggest upside in our organization is his development. And we’re gonna do everything we possibly can to make sure has every chance to be the top-level player that we think he can be.”
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