The sky is not falling and the world is not ending. A 107-99 loss to the Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs was not what many expected. There is an opportunity to steal a win whenever a team is missing the MVP candidate like Leonard. To do so, you need to play smart basketball, not the disjointed performance the Wolves gave on Wednesday night.
Expectations are high for this team. As a consensus playoff pick, some expected them to be ready to achieve out-of-the-box. History tells us this rarely happens, with the exception of the 2008 Boston Celtics. Even the Big 3 Miami Heat needed time to figure out their new dynamic. While not on the same level, the Timberwolves are reconfiguring their team with big pieces. This is a process that cannot be completed with just three preseason games. There is also no hard rule on how long this adjustment period takes.
Watching Karl-Anthony Towns run into Jeff Teague on offense or miss a defensive rotation was hard to watch. Gorgui Dieng was a starter for much of his first four years but appeared uncomfortable in his new bench role. At times, bad passes were thrown because someone wasn’t where they were supposed to be. These are all signs of a team that hasn’t played together enough. The only way to remedy this lack of chemistry, unfortunately, is time.
A big reason for the Spurs’ execution without Leonard is their continuity. Rudy Gay is a significant new face but the majority of the roster is familiar with one another. Dejounte Murray knows precisely where to throw the ball when LaMarcus Aldridge pops in the pick ‘n’ roll. He doesn’t have to think. That makes missing a player like Leonard easier to stomach. Meanwhile, the Wolves are integrating three new starters.
Despite the frequent discombobulation, the Timberwolves never trailed by more than 13. They may have looked as awkward as kids at a middle school dance but the game never got away from them. When Jimmy Butler is on the floor, he acts as a second point guard. This may have been what Tom Thibodeau envisioned when he had Andrew Wiggins run the offense last year. Having Butler in this role as the better passer is far more ideal.
What was encouraging was the shooting. The Timberwolves went 8-of-19 from deep on Wednesday. Their 19 3-point attempts were a result of deliberate action to get those shots. Wiggins went 4-of-6 and Butler hit 2-of-3 as well. Even the big men got involved. Gibson and Dieng each unleashed corner 3’s, something else new for this season. It seems that the Timberwolves are modernizing their approach to the game after all these years.
The defense was far from perfect at times but there were moments. In particular, Towns was posted up twice by Pau Gasol and Aldridge where he forced them to make difficult shots. That’s all you can ask sometimes: be in position and stay straight up. Players are sometimes going to make shots no matter what you do. But the effort was usually there. They held the Spurs to 46 percent shooting, which is fine but the defense should improve overall as the season wears on.
A constant area of contention last season was the bench. Moving Dieng to the bench and adding Jamal Crawford was supposed to help. For the most part, the reserves looked better. Crawford’s shot selection can make you nervous at times but he’s a playmaker. Nemanja Bjelica looks like he should be receiving more minutes than Shabazz Muhamammad. Once Dieng adapts to his role, the Wolves should have 3-4 players they can consistently trust to spell the starters. It’s no guarantee but this would answer one of the biggest questions about this team.
It would have been nice to see the Wolves steal a win on the road to start the season. Wednesday night made it clear that they’re not yet the team we believe they can be. Instead of Wiggins having 28 points on 14 shots while Butler has 12 points on as many shots, they’ll be special when both are scoring well. In order for that to happen, players will need to adjust to their roles. They’ll need time in order to adjust to those roles.
After 13 years, what’re another few weeks anyway?