What do the Minnesota Timberwolves need for their team to thrive?
In the offseason, they traded several of the role players that helped them make the playoffs last season (in addition to a bunch of future draft picks) to bring in three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. I was vocal at the time that this deal improved the Timberwolves' ceiling, but through the first two months of the season they remain closer to the play-in line than the battle for home court advantage out West.
What's gone wrong?
Bluntly, their offense has regressed. The defense is solid but unspectacular (112.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, 13th in NBA), but the offense has slid from seventh in the NBA last season (113.8 PP100) to 14th this season (112.3 PP100).
Karl-Anthony Towns got injured 10 games ago, forcing the Timberwolves to cope without one of their primary offensive forces. And, in the process, this might just uncover the key to the team reaching their potential this season: Anthony Edwards.
In the 10 games since Towns has been out of the lineup, the Timberwolves have gone 6-4, and have won their last three straight. In those three games, Edwards has averaged 27.7 PPG, 10.3 RPG and 9.0 APG... all way up from his season averages. His average Game Score (think of this as basketball-reference's game-by-game estimate for PER) has been a scintillating 25.4 (average is 10, and anything over 20 is star-level).
It turns out, Edwards' Game Score has been over 22.5 in four of the Wolves' 10 games without KAT, and the Timberwolves went 4-0 in those games. Expanding to look at the entire season, Edwards had four games with a Game Score over 22.5 while KAT was playing, and the Wolves went 3-1, with their only loss in Memphis in a game where KAT was in foul trouble the whole game and fouled out in only 26 minutes. Hmm.
So, while this looks interesting, let's get away from anecdotal analysis and generalize. If you look at Edwards' splits for the entire season, it becomes clearer:
16 wins : 24.1 PPG (46.4 FG%, 80.0 FT%), 6.9 RPG, 5.3 APG, 2.9 3PG (7.3 3PA), 2.0 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 3.1 TO
15 losses: 21.9 PPG (43.8 FG%, 71.4 FT%), 5.3 RPG, 3.6 APG, 2.3 3PG (6.7 3PA), 1.7 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 3.1 TO
The Timberwolves are more successful when Edwards is more aggressive and locked in at both ends of the floor. There's also a correlation between Edwards' higher counting stats and improved efficiency, perhaps suggesting that Edwards plays better when he's more of the focal point... or that maybe he is a player whose peripheral statistics and output level fluctuate on days when he either isn't getting the looks or his shot isn't falling. Another possibility is that he believes in his teammates enough that he sometimes willingly moves to the background to let them shine.
While watching a game earlier this month, I tweeted that Edwards was visibly not as aggressive as I thought he could be in a close fourth quarter as the team was running their offense through Jaylen Nowell. Someone responded with a quote they attributed to Edwards, saying Nowell was the best scorer on the team and must-see TV, with screenshots of Edwards appearing to stand behind the 3-point line with his hands on his hips as teammates ran the offense.
Regardless of the reason for why Edwards is sometimes more locked in and aggressive than others, the key takeaway is that for the Timberwolves to succeed, they need more from Edwards on a nightly basis, particularly on offense, and perhaps less from some of his teammates. This can be demonstrated by examining Usage Percentage (USG%) as a gauge for how many of a team's possessions a player uses when on the court.
Edwards has a higher Usage Percentage (28.4 USG%) in Timberwolves wins than he has in losses (26.5 USG%). The kicker is, this trend is reversed for the other volume on-ball scoring options for the Timberwolves, including Towns (22.8 USG% in wins, 26.3 USG% in losses), D'Angelo Russell (21.3 USG% in wins, 24.4 USG% in losses) and even Nowell off the bench (24.1 USG% in wins, 28.1 USG% in losses).
Now, this trend doesn't in any way connote negatives for the other Timberwolves, as much as it supports that the Timberwolves need Edwards to be their offensive focal point for the team to succeed. This same trend, in fact, shows up in several cases around the league of a team having multiple primary options but performing better when one is emphasized in the offense more than the other(s).
A look at prominent players other teams
For the Celtics, Jayson Tatum has a higher Usage in wins (34.1 USG%) than losses (29.6 USG%), while for Jaylen Brown (30.9 USG% in wins, 32.2 USG% in losses) the trend is reversed.
For the Cavaliers, Donovan Mitchell has a higher Usage in wins (32.6 USG%) than losses (30.6 USG%) while the reverse is true for Darius Garland (26.8 USG% in wins, 28.2 USG% in losses).
For the Lakers, both Anthony Davis (31.0 USG% in wins, 26.9 USG% in losses) and LeBron James (32.4 USG% in wins, 31.1 USG% in losses) use more possessions in wins than losses, while the reverse is true for Russell Westbrook (22.4 USG% in wins, 28.7 USG% in losses).
Bringing it back to the Timberwolves
Less usage for Towns and Russell doesn't necessarily connote worse (fantasy basketball) production. On the contrary, examination of their box score stats in wins and losses yields some surprises, given their Usage ratios:
Wins: 21.3 PPG (55.6 FG%, 89.1 FT%), 8.0 RPG, 6.0 APG, 2.2 3PG (5.5 3PA), 1.1 SPG, 0.7 BPG, 2.9 TO
Losses: 20.3 PPG (46.4 FG%, 87.9 FT%), 8.4 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.5 3PG (5.6 3PA), 0.5 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 3.3 TO
Wins: 16.7 PPG (51.4 FG%, 71.4 FT%), 3.0 RPG, 6.5 APG, 2.3 3PG (5.9 3PA), 1.4 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 2.7 TO
Losses: 16.9 PPG (42.1 FG%, 86.5 FT%), 3.1 RPG, 6.1 APG, 2.4 3PG (7.1 3PA), 1.0 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 2.9 TO
The offensive counting stats for both players are as good or better in wins than in losses, despite them using fewer possessions. Both players are shooting almost 10 percentage points higher from the field in wins, but with no corresponding improvement in free throw percentage, so it's not just that their shots were working in wins and not in losses.
Both players, particularly Towns, had more assists and a higher assist-to-turnover ratio in wins than losses. And, the two combined for almost twice as many steals in wins than in losses.
What I take from this is that it's all about decision-making and execution. The Timberwolves clearly need high level production from both Towns and Russell; the only loss they have this season when Edwards had a huge game score was in the game where Towns was in foul trouble and Russell was off, so they combined for only 17 points on 6-for-17 from the field.
But the dramatic increase in field goal percentage in wins tells me that Towns and Russell were getting much better looks, likely within the flow of the offense instead of forced shots. The improved assists and turnovers tell me that Towns and Russell contribute to offensive flow better in wins than in losses. And, the steals suggest that Towns and Russell may be putting forth more defensive effort in wins than in losses.
This all dovetails with what we know about Edwards, and the idea that aggressive Edwards is good for the Timberwolves. According to Second Spectrum, Edwards scores at an above average clip on Driving Layups (1.14 points per chance) and in catch-and-shoot situations (1.50 points per chance), but at a below average clip in step-backs (0.91 points per chance) and pullup jumpers (0.91 points per chance). Also, per Second Spectrum, Edwards' touches end in higher-than-average scoring outcomes when they end in a pass (1.05 points per chance), shot (1.08 points per chance) or foul (1.57 points per chance).
Unpacking, this tells me that Edwards is a great spot-up shooter when his teammates create the shot for him, and he's great at driving to the rim. When he settles for step-back or pullup jumpers, he's not nearly as effective. Similarly, Edwards is strong at creating shots for teammates with his passing, and he's good at creating scoring opportunities by drawing fouls. Translation: like above, the Timberwolves need aggressive Edwards, where he's either shooting long-range set shots in the flow of the offense or driving to the rim and either finishing or creating easy looks for Towns, Russell and his other teammates.
So, what does this all mean from a fantasy perspective?
After 31 games, the Timberwolves are in ninth place in the West, but they're only 3.5 games out of the top seed. They are still relatively early in this Gobert experiment, and they are still learning how to play together. Edwards, in his third season, is still only 21 years old. He's still learning how to become the superstar that he was drafted to be.
Upshot: the Timberwolves should be taking note of what works and what doesn't. And doing more of what works, moving forward. If they reach similar conclusions as what I've laid out, Edwards could be a great trade-for target in fantasy hoops leagues, because both the team's fortunes and his fantasy hoops output would benefit from him becoming more of an offensive focal point.
Ironically, Towns and Russell could also be reasonable trade-for targets, because when the team is clicking they are still producing similar volume, just at much better efficiency. If Edwards continues his glow up, you might be able to talk down the trade price of the injured Towns, suggesting the team might move beyond him. When, in reality, a team emphasis on Edwards as the main option could also be of benefit to the Big KAT.
Bottom line: smart deployment of their players and optimized team strategies would not just benefit the Timberwolves as a team, but could also benefit the production of all of their main players and thus the outlooks of any fantasy team that rosters those players.