MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Timberwolves made a big move last summer — in more ways than one — to build off a breakthrough season, and the end result was a small impact in the NBA playoffs this spring.
Injury absences were a major hindrance, but a return to fully healthy roster is entirely possible. The integration of top acquisition Rudy Gobert in a 7-footer pair with Karl-Anthony Towns was limited and clunky, but more time together for a talent-rich if awkwardly constructed lineup can only help.
The most pertinent question, then, might be about maturity. Can the Timberwolves cultivate enough good habits to be a legitimate Western Conference contender and not just a one-round-and-done team?
“Our emotional control was really disappointing at times this year. It wasn’t just the young guys, too, which is even more disappointing,” general manager Tim Connelly said Thursday. “So I think that’s going to be a huge focus of this offseason, not just relative to acquiring new faces, but how do the guys who are here be a bit more mature when things don’t go their way.”
The most publicized moment, of course, was in the April 9 game against New Orleans when Jaden McDaniels broke his hand by punching a wall out of frustration and Gobert took a swing at teammate Kyle Anderson during an argument in a timeout. Anthony Edwards also found some trouble Tuesday for swinging a folding chair on his way off the court following the series-ending loss in Denver. His outburst allegedly caused minor injuries to two arena employees.
“We have to address some of this, some of the behaviors, for sure. A lot of it I think comes from a good place. They’re competitive. I don’t think they’re malicious or petulant or necessarily just trying to act out to be acting out," coach Chris Finch said. “We have a lot of guys who have not necessarily won a lot in their career as young players, so handling failures as they come and the stakes are a little higher also exposes some flash points for us. They’re all growth opportunities, for sure.”
The Wolves also led the league in ejections (nine), tied for the most fouled-out players (15) and had the second-highest total of personal fouls (1,768), according to Sportradar data.
Perhaps more implicating was the 9-15 record against the bottom four teams in each conference: Washington, Orlando, Charlotte and Detroit in the East; and Utah, Portland, Houston and San Antonio in the West. Continuing a trend that cost them their playoff series last year against Memphis, the Wolves lost 18 games in which they had a lead of 10-plus points.
“We’re not where we should be, where we need to be yet in terms of winning habits,” Gobert said. “I think we can get there. I think we will get there, but those things take time and discipline.”
THE EXPERIMENT CONTINUES
The experiment of playing Towns as a stretch power forward with Gobert, a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, at center barely got going. Towns missed most of training camp recovering from a throat infection that had him hospitalized on bed rest. Then he severely strained his calf muscle and missed 52 games.
“They’re both really incredibly good basketball players,” Finch said. “With the skill level that KAT has, for sure, there’s no reason basketball-wise that it shouldn’t work.”
Gobert and Towns will gobble up $77 million against the salary cap next season, which makes finding room for backup center Naz Reid a priority. Reid's presence in the playoffs was dearly missed due to a broken wrist, and he will be an unrestricted free agent after a breakout year.
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Edwards will be eligible for a maximum-value contract extension this summer, a five-year deal worth more than $200 million that Connelly said the Wolves would offer as soon as the negotiation period begins on June 30. McDaniels, who came from the same 2020 draft class as the first overall pick Edwards, made major strides in his third season as well and is the team's best perimeter defender.
“They’re going to be tied to the hip and they’re going to be as important to this team as anybody else is obviously,” Connelly said. "Both are excited about their long-term future here, and the minute we’re allowed to, those guys are going to have really, really nice offers with a lot of money in their inbox.”
Connelly is the 10th boss of basketball operations, including interims, the Timberwolves have had in the last 15 years. After his first season, there's already a question about his status because of the opening created when Washington fired general manager Tommy Sheppard.
Connelly interviewed for the Wizards job four years ago before deciding to remain with Denver. The Baltimore native also broke into the NBA with the nearby Wizards as an intern who worked his way up to become a scout. Connelly spent eight seasons with the Nuggets.
“I’m pretty committed to the Minnesota Timberwolves right now," Connelly said. "I’m just worried about how we can get out of the first round.”