The Championship Window for Minnesota is Now Wide Open

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NEW YORK — The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves visited Madison Square Garden, they were fresh off a week of practice following a preseason tour of Abu Dhabi. The media entered Minnesota’s morning shootaround, a sleepy Saturday in mid-October, to find veteran point guard Mike Conley Jr. hoisting floaters off the shot clock flatscreen above the basket. Jaden McDaniels, a few days shy of inking a five-year, $136 million contract extension, was lunging up the stadium’s empty stands as part of rehab for a left calf injury.

There was a palpable ease among the practice court. A confidence among the roster and coaching staff that this Minnesota collective, albeit not too differently constructed from the group that middled out in the Western Conference, was developing a different alchemy with a greater potency.

“One thing we’ve been preaching to our guys is that we’ve got to establish an identity, because I don’t think we ever really did that last year,” head coach Chris Finch told Yahoo Sports then. “Some of the things that we think could help us, we did in Abu Dhabi. We looked like a big team. We played like a big team.”

They landed back in Manhattan at three in the morning on Dec. 31, aiming to dodge the New Year’s Eve transit chaos before a matinee New Year’s Day clash with the new-look Knicks. And even with New York having acquired OG Anunoby from the Raptors, adding a supersized wing next to Julius Randle in the frontcourt, the Timberwolves certainly billed as a big team and one that has even bigger possibilities in this second season pairing perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert next to Minnesota’s sweet-shooting 7-footer, Karl-Anthony Towns.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 1: Anthony Edwards #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves dribbles the ball against Josh Hart #3 of the New York Knicks in the first half at Madison Square Garden on January 1, 2024 in New York City. The Knicks defeated the Timberwolves 112-106. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

The Wolves are first in the West entering this new calendar, much in part thanks to Gobert’s return to dominance stalking the paint and protecting the rim. A full offseason with Conley, his longtime pick-and-roll partner from Utah following February’s trade deadline swap for D’Angelo Russell, has raised the floor of Minnesota’s offense, all amid the ongoing evolution of fourth-year guard Anthony Edwards morphing into one of the game’s most dangerous scorers.

Yet their loss to New York on Monday was also a tale of two wolves. There was Minnesota’s waning scoring attack — currently 19th in league — throughout the game’s first three quarters, where Edwards’ erratic tendencies and inefficient playmaking, coupled with Towns’ streakiness and foul troubles, can serve as their detractors’ biggest concern for this team’s postseason chances. And then there was the final frame, where the Timberwolves regrouped into the NBA’s best defense – a full 2.1 points per 100 possessions better than the second-best Thunder – and Minnesota turned a 93-73 deficit with 43 seconds remaining in the third into a four-point game with 6:40 to play.

“We just gotta bring it every night,” Edwards said postgame. “Can’t pick no nights that we want to lock in, or pick the quarters. We gotta bring it from the jump ball till the buzzer sounds.”

Edwards surely has to, perhaps more than any member of this franchise’s foundation. For all the conversation about Minnesota’s wonky frontcourt fit, for which the Timberwolves famously mortgaged five years of first-round draft capital to acquire Gobert from the Jazz, the more critical undercurrent for their championship aspirations remains how Minnesota can routinely blend its twin towers while maximizing Edwards.

And yet the “every night” theme Edwards parroted from his postgame locker on Jan. 1 is the same message his head coach delivered during Minnesota’s visit to MSG in October — when the discussion that Edwards “has next” in the league was reaching a fever pitch after his strong play for Team USA in the World Cup. It’s the same message that’s been paramount for Edwards’ overall development. It might be the message, fully embraced or not, that determines whether Edwards can lead this particular group deep into the playoffs, this season or beyond.

“We’ve spent a lot of time with [Edwards, Towns and Gobert] just breaking down into the two- and three-man games that we have to find and accentuate,” Finch said then. “And with Ant, as he continues to get better and better, it’s about consistency. It’s not just about being able to do it now and again. It’s about how can we find that consistency every night. How do you figure out how to manipulate the whole game and everything that’s going on in it? I think that’s still the learning curve for him.”

One microcosm this season has been Edwards’ incorporation of a bank shot. Edwards tried just 31 attempts last season off the glass, according to Synergy Sports, tied for 29th in the NBA. The year before that, his 23 attempts were good for 39th in the league. Through Dec. 31, Edwards had already kissed 46 shots off the glass this season, four attempts above the second-most frequent bank-shooter in the NBA, Luka Dončić, with Kyle Kuzma and Jaren Jackson Jr. tied for third with 25.

“Everybody got, like, a go-to shot. And I just wanted to get mine. And I found out that was mine,” Edwards told Yahoo Sports. “The first couple days I started working on it, it wasn’t hard. It was pretty simple. It’s something that I go to when I need a bucket.”

He drilled shooting off the backboard over and over this summer, although Edwards’ persistence to hoist bankers hasn’t exactly led to the most positive result. The makes look smooth and lethal, channeling Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan puncturing a road crowd. But he’s compiled a measly 37% effective field-goal percentage on the shot profile, as the league average stands at 45%.

His coaching staff has surely taken notice. “It’s all part of the talk about shot selection that we have an ongoing dialogue with him. Like any other shot, there’s better versions of it and there’s worse versions of it, right?” Finch said. “If you’re driving to the hoop and you pull-up, you’re getting close around the lane line, you need the bank to help with the touch or whatever, that’s one thing. But just to kind of pull-up three bank, or a mid-range bank? It’s a hard shot. And the numbers bare that out.”

The other hurdle for Edwards, and Minnesota at large, continues to be playmaking. Neither Edwards nor Towns are natural passers, gifted with the abilities to bunch buckets with the best in the world. Conley deserves critical credit for stabilizing the Wolves’ offense with Gobert lumbering down the middle in ways Russell never could. But the Wolves also lack a snap-your-fingers, clear-cut floor general to relieve the 36-year-old veteran. Devoid of key draft capital, Minnesota’s best bet for adding more playmaking and shot creation this season might well be internal improvement from their pair of under-30 All-Stars.

“Once they start to do it on a nightly basis and get used to doing it, that’s our clearest path to having that secondary guy, especially Ant,” Conley told Yahoo Sports. “Even though we know that they’re elite talents and scorers, but there might have to be a little bit more thought going into the games, like, ‘Hey, I’m coming in and for the first two or three minutes of this game, I’m just trying to facilitate, trying to get into the paint.’ Just kinda get the juices flowing that way. But that’s all gonna come from growth. When the ball isn’t sticking and everybody’s engaged and our defense is what it is, we’re a different animal.”

Maybe Edwards and Towns will embrace that challenge and share it, just as they have embraced sharing this team’s scoring load. When Towns was feasting in the fourth against New York, Edwards was on the bench, leaping to his feet and waving a towel, and then deferred to Towns once he returned to the floor. Towns spent so many years trying to be the standard bearer of this franchise, there was once a legitimate concern about how he would take the notion that Edwards could be stealing the baton from his paws before he ever fully grasped it. But Towns has supported Edwards’ arc ever since he was being anointed during the preseason.

“Why not? Why not? He’s a hell of a talent. He’s maturing,” Towns told Yahoo Sports in October. “My job is to help him in any regard I can to reach his potential. If he reaches his potential, we both have a chance of winning here.”

Their chance is now, for who knows how long. You can simply look at the mounting expenses of a mid-market roster, with Edwards and Towns both set to begin maximum extensions next season, along with McDaniels’ big payday from this fall — with an incoming new ownership group unproven in how it’ll be willing to spend into the luxury tax and keep such a group together.

But maybe the more pressing element is the aging veterans who’ve served as necessary bookends for all of Minnesota’s young talent. Conley will be an unrestricted free agent following this season, although there seems to be early optimism among league figures that a reunion can be in the works. Gobert’s deal, though, expires after the 2024-25 season, when he’ll be 32, and his effectiveness in each of these two seasons has so far been the true benchmark of whether Minnesota can contend.

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