The Minnesota Timberwolves tried to have it all.
And, though they had never gone too far in the past, they seemed to be at least close to something the year before.
The Timberwolves had ended the 2021-22 season with 46 wins, bounding from the 19-win season they finished with just two years before, on their way to a victory against the Los Angeles Clippers in the Play-In Tournament. Then-Wolves guard Patrick Beverley leapt on the scorer’s table after the triumphant win over the Clippers, tossing his jersey into the crowd as if Minnesota had won it all right there in the Target Center.
Even after falling to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs, Timberwolves players still found the motivation to build their newfound success into something more. For Wolves guard Anthony Edwards, it meant finding ways to continuously improve his craft on offense and prove those who had doubted his abilities wrong.
“From last year to this year, everybody was like, ‘He can’t shoot,'” Edwards said in April 2022, via NBA TV. “So my focus this summer was shooting the ball. Being able to shoot the ball. I think next year, they’re going to say, ‘He can’t shoot in the midrange.’
“So this summer I’m going to work on being able to score the ball everywhere. Floaters, midrange, finishing at the rim, 3-pointers, everything. I’m just going to work on it.”
But all it can take is one lousy bet to erase nearly all signs of propelling upwards.
Minnesota seemed to have found its final missing piece of elite talent when it gave up five players, four first-round picks and a pick swap for the chance to roll the dice on Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. The 3-time Defensive Player of the Year made the All-Star Game in three consecutive seasons with averages of 15 points and 13.9 rebounds per game, according to NBA.com.
“I know the hardest thing I like to do is get elite talent, learn to win,” Timberwolves general manager Tim Connelly said in July, via The Athletic. “I thought we learned to win last year, and we had elite talent, which is pretty special.
“Time will tell. We gave up a lot to get a lot and ideally it’s the trade that will work well for the Jazz and the T-Wolves.”
Did Minnesota live up to the lofty expectations it placed upon itself? And where can it go from here?
The Gobert trade wasn’t the first time the Timberwolves tried to take a giant leap for a hopeful playoff run.
Minnesota traded guards Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7-overall pick in exchange for All-Star forward Jimmy Butler and pick No. 16. Though it wasn’t as hefty of a price as the Gobert exchange, the trade amounted to nearly the same result: One playoff series against the Houston Rockets and an eventual trade request from Butler by late 2018.
A new era and a new series of expectations were placed upon the Timberwolves after they tried to take a swing for the fences with the 30-year-old French center.
But the Timberwolves were never meant to have it all.
Not this season, anyway.
Even with the addition of Gobert, it would take time for this Timberwolves team to truly find their place and gel together as a cohesive unit. Whether anyone expected them to take this long can depend on who is asked.
Now-Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell, who was traded to the Cavs in exchange for a massive package of his own, warned Edwards and guard D’Angelo Russell that the chemistry between them and the 3-time All-Star wasn’t going to be built overnight.
“I told them, ‘It’s not just going to happen,'” Mitchell said. “‘You have to stay building that bond and chemistry. It’s going to take time to see it continuously build gradually.'”
As tough as it was to even get to the chance to look at a potential summit, Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch warned it would only get harder from here as he looked ahead to building on last season’s success in April.
“We’re going to have expectations,” he said, via The Athletic. “But we always expected to be in the playoffs all season long.
“We talked about it a lot in film and in practice and what it would take to be there. Those were internal expectations. The external ones are ones that can oftentimes be more of an anchor.”
Final Grade: B
To a point, Edwards kept his promise from the Grizzlies series.
The 21-year-old guard saw improvements across the board on offense between the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons. His point-per-game averages increased by 3.3 points. His 3-point shooting percentage climbed by a rate of 1.2%, while his overall field goal percentage rose by 1.8. Though he saw a decrease in his 3-pointers attempted, Edwards attempted 2.2 more field goals per contest between his second and third seasons.
Three 30-point games in the scoring guard’s first five outings first showcased the progress made by the former Georgia standout. He ended his small scoring run with a 34-point performance against the San Antonio Spurs in late October, a game that saw him hit 12 of his 21 shot attempts and seven of his 12 tries from the 3-point line.
Still, the expectations of leaps and bounds for the Timberwolves were replaced with small steps. Small steps that tried to push them past an underwhelming loss to the Spurs at home during their fourth game of the season. That saw role players take a hopeful stand against San Antonio the following matchup, with forward Jaden McDaniels scoring 20 points and guard Jaylen Nowell adding 23 more.
And that was all they needed at the beginning of the season.
“It shows us what we’re capable of doing when we keep giving ourselves to the system, keep giving ourselves to the offense,” Finch said, via The Athletic. “But at this point in time, we’ve got to do it all the time and that’s who we’ll be.
“And I’m confident the guys want to is there to do that, and we’ve just got to keep working through things.”
But small steps can only take a team so far.
The Timberwolves finished the 2022-23 regular season with a 113.3 offensive rating, good enough for 23rd in the NBA with spots behind the Washington Wizards, Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Pelicans. Their rating of 109.6 wasn’t enough to push them through the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Playoffs, narrowly avoiding a first-round sweep after they scored 80 points in Game 1.
But the Wolves didn’t end their 2022-23 campaign without some progress on offense.
Edwards and center Karl-Anthony Towns still finished the season with averages of 24.6 and 20.8 per game, respectively. Gobert took home 13.4 points per contest, while guard Mike Conley completed the year with 14 per matchup. Their offensive rating may have tapered off from the season before, but it still ranks higher than the team’s renewed search for an identity between the 2018-19 and the 2020-21 seasons.
One can only hope it will take one tiny spark to set the Timberwolves ablaze as Minnesota gears up for another season of pushing all its chips in.
And one can only hope it will take nothing more than a few small steps to bound into one giant leap.
Final Grade: C
If there was going to be a calling card for the Timberwolves this season, it would be the team’s defense.
Their stout defense couldn’t hold up in the playoffs against a high-powered Nuggets offense in the first round. The team’s rating rose to 117.2 during its first-round series against Denver, putting it in 12th place among postseason teams after five games.
Gobert finished the year with a team-leading 11.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, earning as many as 23 boards in an October matchup with the Jazz in the Target Center. Edwards finished with a career-high 1.6 steals per game, making him one of four Timberwolves players to end with one steal or more by the end of the regular season.
Though none of their players ended with spots on either All-NBA Defensive Team, McDaniels took home three first-place votes and 34 second-place votes. McDaniels is still under contract for the Wolves in the 2023-24 season.
The Timberwolves still have room to improve under Finch and the team’s corp of veteran players. Whether they take steps to take the defensive rating crown from the Cavs remains to be seen, but the Wolves ended with a solid foundation to build off of once the offseason gets into full swing.
Minnesota still holds the No. 53 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. It will be up to Connelly to decide whether he wants to fortify the perimeter with a guard or take a chance on a backup big with the late second-rounder.
Either way, the season showed Minnesota still has options to work with if it wants to hold its regular-season opponents to manageable amounts for now.
And, should they find a way to build upon that, they can have a solidified identity on defense if they take another spot in the postseason.
Final Grade: B-
Far too often, teams try to fly too close to a playoff run too quickly for them to handle.
Few can quickly find their footing again.
They may have fewer than they used to possess, but the Timberwolves still have options.
Minnesota’s core players have a playoff series together under their belt. They have a pair of exceptions to help them through free agency if they can’t find a trade to help boost the team’s roster or offload salary. And, if everything goes right, the Timberwolves will have at least a few contracts remaining for their run in 2025-26.
Cap space will be tight for the Timberwolves heading into the offseason. The team’s total taxable salaries reach just under $144 million for the 2023-24 season. Conley, Towns, Gobert, Edwards and forward Kyle Anderson are all under contract in 2023-24, and the team still has the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level and Bi-Annual exceptions to work with, according to Spotrac.
Minnesota will have the 53rd pick in the 2023 pick in the NBA Draft. Though it’s rare to find a diamond in the rough that far down in the draft, it’s not impossible. The Timberwolves were projected to take Eastern Michigan forward Emoni Bates with their second-round selection in Tankathon’s mock draft, giving them a former 5-star prospect who can be a reliable scoring option.
The Timberwolves will need to improve internally and bring in some extra options in the offseason, while looking for sleeper options in the draft and beyond. In all goes to plan, it won’t be long before they can become playoff contenders and win their first playoff series since the 2003-04 season.
Only time will tell whether the Gobert gamble paid off or not.
All we can do is patiently wait.
Final Grade: C+
Alex Sabri is a General Assignment Contributor for BackSportsPage.com.
He has three years of collegiate and professional sports and local journalism experience. The 23-year-old writer currently serves as an Associate Editor for ClutchPoints and a Sports News Contributor for Yardbarker, and specializes in the NBA, WNBA, NFL and college football and basketball.
Find him on Twitter at @asabri012.
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