The Minnesota Timberwolves entered this season with a preseason over/under of only 35.5 wins, eighth-lowest in the NBA, after finishing the 2020-21 season at 23-49. They had made the playoffs only once since the NBA expanded to 30 teams in the 2004-05 season, and the FiveThirtyEight forecast gave them just a 39 percent chance of making a repeat appearance. But here they are, the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference, with a 1-0 first-round lead over the Memphis Grizzlies.
Minnesota finished the regular season with the league’s eighth-best offense and 13th-best defense, as well as its 10th-best net rating and 10th-best mark in Basketball-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (which adjusts point differential for strength of opponent). Plus, the Wolves’ 46-36 record — which was good enough to land them in the play-in tournament, where they defeated the Los Angeles Clippers — actually fell two wins shy of the team’s Pythagorean expectation, which was the same as that of the Philadelphia 76ers.
When searching for explanations as to how the Wolves so dramatically outperformed preseason expectations, it doesn’t take that long to land on the obvious one: For the first time in quite some time, they actually got strong performances out of players other than Karl-Anthony Towns, their All-NBA candidate center.
Towns has been in the league since 2015, when the Wolves made him the No. 1 overall pick out of the University of Kentucky. During that time, he has finished first or second on the team in our overall RAPTOR metric in every season. This season, though, he was joined by a whopping five teammates that finished with a positive RAPTOR rating.1 Not only that, but the 10 non-Towns Wolves who played at least 750 minutes (Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jaden McDaniels, Patrick Beverley, Naz Reid, Taurean Prince, Jaylen Nowell and Jordan McLaughlin) combined to produce 27.3 RAPTOR wins above replacement, the highest mark of Towns’s career.
|Season||Players with positive overall RAPTOR||Non-Towns WAR|
|2015-16||Rubio • Towns||15.1|
|2016-17||Rubio • Towns • Bjelica • Dieng • Wiggins • Jones||20.6|
|2017-18||Butler • Towns • Jones • Bjelica • Gibson||26.0|
|2018-19||Towns • Covington • Rose • Okogie • Jones||18.3|
|2020-21||Towns • Vanderbilt||7.9|
|2021-22||Beverley • Towns • Vanderbilt • Edwards • Russell • McLaughlin||27.3|
The quality of Minnesota’s non-Towns rotation players was hammered home in the play-in game. Minnesota was down 93-86 to the Clippers when Towns fouled out with 7:34 remaining in the fourth quarter; the Wolves proceeded to end the game on a 23-11 run without Towns and claim a 5-point victory, along with the No. 7 seed. And it’s not like Towns played all that well before he was disqualified: He finished the night with just 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting as the Clippers hounded him into repeated mistakes.
That victory marked Minnesota’s first since 2018 in a game in which Towns made three or fewer shots. (He also went 3-11 against the Clippers in November, and the Wolves got their doors blown off.) The team was also previously 5-13 when he shot 30 percent or worse, as well as 9-21 when he recorded no more than 11 points. But they survived this game, in large part because of stellar performances from Edwards and (especially) Russell, as well as stout defense, particularly in the fourth quarter.
Russell saw his usage rate and shooting percentages fall off a bit this season, but he nonetheless has become smarter about figuring out who to attack. In his splendid second quarter against the Clippers, he repeatedly directed traffic, pointing teammates to and fro so that he could hunt specific defenders in the pick and roll. He scored 14 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the second, helping Minnesota win the period by 8 points and take a lead into halftime despite Towns dealing with foul trouble.
Against the Grizzlies in Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs, Edwards showed off his wildly improved jump shot, which helped Minnesota weather a poor shooting performance from Russell, who finished just 2-of-11 on the evening. Edwards consistently found himself isolated in space against Grizzlies defenders, and he consistently found a way to create just enough separation to get off a pull-up or step-back that splashed through the net. His 36 points were tied for the third-most ever scored by a player age 20 or younger in a playoff game, as well as tied for the third-most ever scored by a player of any age in his playoff debut.
The performance was emblematic of Edwards’s sophomore year improvement. According to Second Spectrum, he had an effective field-goal percentage of just 45.29 on jump shots attempted from outside the paint during his rookie season. This year, that mark jumped to 51.12. He also went from underperforming relative to his expected conversion rate2 to overperforming, while taking better-quality shots. Considering he was not a particularly consistent — or good — jump-shooter in college, his rapid development is an encouraging sign.
In that same Game 1, the Wolves also held a Grizzlies team that averaged 114.6 points per 100 possessions during the regular season (fifth-best in the NBA) to only 111.6 points per 100. They did so in atypical fashion: Minnesota finished the regular season with the league’s second-highest defensive turnover rate and fourth-lowest defensive rebound rate, while Memphis was the best offensive rebounding team in the league. During Game 1, Memphis coughed it up on just 9.5 percent of its offensive possessions but also grabbed only eight offensive rebounds on 43 opportunities — an 18.6 percent offensive rebound rate that would have ranked dead last leaguewide.
Of course, Minnesota also got the usual defensive brilliance (and extracurricular nonsense) from Beverley, who played a role in holding Ja Morant to 8-of-18 shooting and Memphis to just 93.7 points per 100 plays in halfcourt situations, according to Cleaning the Glass.
A quality defensive performance from Minnesota would have been a surprise in just about any other year, but it was something like normal for this season. These Wolves finished the 2021-22 campaign with an above-average defensive rating, accomplishing the feat for just the seventh time in their franchise’s 33-year history.
They did so after a bit of midseason tinkering by head coach Chris Finch. Minnesota began the season playing one of the most aggressive defenses in the NBA, doubling and trapping opponents all over the place. It worked quite well early on, but teams eventually figured out how to pass over, around and through all the limbs with which Minnesota stocked the floor, so Finch tamped down the chaos a bit. After finishing only five of their first 35 games with a below-average rating in Aggression+ (indicating a defensive strategy more passive than the league-average team), a metric Krishna Narsu and I created, the Wolves did the same 15 times in their final 47 contests.
They then played drop coverage on 35 of Memphis’s 63 actionable pick and rolls in Game 1 after using drop coverage (the least aggressive coverage type) on more than half of opponent ball screens only five times in 82 regular-season games. Memphis scored just 0.9 points per possession when the Wolves used drop, after the Grizz tore that coverage apart to the tune of 1.159 points per possession during the regular season.
If the Wolves are to pull off an upset over the No. 2-seed Grizzlies, they’ll need to maintain that type of defensive performance through the remainder of the series, and they’ll need their supporting cast to give Towns nearly as big a lift as it did in the play-in game. In previous seasons, neither of those things would have been remotely realistic. This year, they both are. And that’s why Minnesota is here.
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