- Joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009
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ANTHONY EDWARDS AND Rudy Gobert, the two players left in the FedEx Forum locker room, have just struck up a conversation. It’s Nov. 11, and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ had just suffered their sixth loss in seven games, this night’s coming on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that last season ended the Wolves’ second playoff run in 18 years.
The duo is busy discussing the nuances of a specific defensive coverage, an exchange the 21-year-old star shooting guard initiated with the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, who new team president Tim Connelly traded away three rotation players and a stockpile of draft picks to the Utah Jazz to acquire.
It’s a simple chat about strategy between new teammates but also a sign of progress. For these Timberwolves, any semblance of building chemistry — any indication of prioritizing the less glamorous aspects of the game — provides a sliver of hope.
The 7-8 Timberwolves have spent the first month of the season inconsistently navigating one of the league’s most scrutinized roster experiments: pairing two All-Star big men — and watching the Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns partnership struggle.
“Everybody’s in the paint,” Edwards said after a Nov. 1 loss to the Phoenix Suns when asked why one of the league’s most explosive finishers didn’t have a dunk through the first eight games of the season. The early returns haven’t been “all peaches and cream,” to borrow another phrase Edwards used then.
But for all the focus on the Gobert-Towns fit, the spotlight has also frequently shifted toward Edwards. The eventual face of the franchise has on a number of occasions gone viral, appearing disinterested — a stark contrast to Edwards’ infectious energy on display last season — as he and the Timberwolves go through the growing pains of building a contender.
“It’s the little things,” Edwards said after an Oct. 21 loss to the Jazz. “We’ve got to figure it out. I’m going to figure it out.”
EDWARDS RAISED EYEBROWS after that loss to the Jazz by mentioning that, “The smaller we go, the better it is for me,” in response to a question about his production during a stretch when the Wolves went with an undersized lineup.
He then smiled when asked a follow-up question about the fit with Gobert, perhaps realizing he’d slipped in too much honesty. Days later, knowing the conversation he’d spurred, he politely asked reporters to avoid asking for his opinions on specific lineups.
But Edwards isn’t alone in expressing concerns about the Timberwolves’ spacing. So, too, has point guard D’Angelo Russell, whose scoring average (14.2 points per game) is the lowest since he was a teenage rookie.
“It’s our main thing on offense we’re trying to figure out,” Russell told ESPN after the loss in Memphis. “Obviously, you see us running into each other, trying to back door and might run into a guy. It’s just little things like that that aren’t in sync right now. It’s kind of hard to find rhythm or flow.”
The Wolves have been awful offensively with Gobert on the floor (106.6 points per 100 possessions, which would rank No. 28 in the league) and bad defensively when he isn’t (113.2). Their starting lineup (Russell, Edwards, Towns, Gobert and forward Jaden McDaniels) has a negative net rating (-0.8 points per 100 possessions) in 198 minutes together, a statistic that improved drastically with Wednesday’s 126-108 blowout of the overmatched Orlando Magic.
“We either figure it out or we don’t. Simple as that,” Russell said. “We either figure it out, commit to it and be consistent doing it, or we don’t. And then we’ll be wherever we’re at next year.”
Minnesota coach Chris Finch said he gets “great hope” from the chemistry he’s seen develop between Towns and Gobert. He cited Towns’ assists to Gobert (25) as an especially encouraging sign. But that’s more than Wolves’ starting guards’ combined assists to Gobert; and Towns’ scoring (21.9 points per game) is the lowest it has been in five seasons, although his assists (5.2) are at a career best.
“He’s done such a good job of trying to make the changes and the sacrifices in his offensive game, but probably overcompensated a little bit,” Finch said of Towns. “I think there’s growth for him just getting back to being a little bit more of his normal self.”
One opposing head coach told ESPN that he anticipates that while Finch, who is considered an especially creative offensive mind, will find ways to make the two-bigs spacing work, he believes the Wolves’ biggest problems are “interpersonal.”
The coach cited Edwards sulking when his team employed a switching defense, resulting in the Wolves frequently going to Towns in an attempt to attack a mismatch against a guard. A clip went viral of Edwards standing with his hands on his hips for an entire possession while the Wolves ran a play that wasn’t called for him during their Nov. 5 win over the Houston Rockets.
“I don’t have Twitter, so I don’t pay attention to it. I’m always engaged, man,” Edwards said of that moment. “I’m ready for it if it comes my way. I just want to play basketball.”
Edwards has acknowledged he wasn’t ready to start the season reporting to training camp “a little too heavy.” The Timberwolves listed him at 239 pounds on the official roster. (The NBA requires teams to list actual heights, but there is leeway allowed with weights, and it’s typically used for stars who might have packed on extra pounds.)
Edwards attributed the weight gain to “lifting a lot,” and has said he shed the excess pounds during camp, slimming down to 230. Towns, however, decided to publicly call out Edwards for his diet and conditioning early in the season.
“I know you all think it’s funny up here when he talks about Popeye’s and all that s—,” Towns told reporters after a late October loss, comments that could be perceived as an attempt at leadership or another reason to wonder about the Wolves’ chemistry.
“That doesn’t make me happy to hear. We’re high-level athletes.”
Edwards responded two days later with a few workout clips.
WHILE THE TIMBERWOLVES need more offense from Edwards to become a real threat in the Western Conference — he’s averaging 21.9 points and 3.9 assists per game but has room to grow offensively, particularly as a decision-maker — he’s also being pushed to fulfill what coaches and teammates consider immense defensive potential.
“Your path to being an All-Star or being All-NBA player in this league is being the high-level, two-way player that you can be,” Finch said of Edwards. “A Paul George or a Kawhi [Leonard].”
Gobert, for his part, has challenged Edwards to become the NBA’s best wing defender and sees no excuse for Edwards to not be in that conversation given his size, strength and explosiveness. The missing ingredient, Gobert believes, is focus.
“He’s shown me that he can be an All-Defensive player if he puts his mind to it,” Gobert said. “I’ve been on his ass a little bit about off-the-ball [defense]. He’s very competitive. He’s probably one of the best on-ball defenders I’ve seen when he takes it to heart and he’s guarding a really good player.
“But being great defensively is about consistency. It’s doing it every minute.”
Edwards welcomes that challenge but said he’s “got to get in better shape” to be able to play hard all the time on both ends of the floor.
It’s not as if Edwards’ mind occasionally wandering, or effort lapsing, on the defensive end makes him an exception in the Minnesota lineup.
Towns’ defensive shortcomings were among the primary reasons the Wolves wanted to move him to power forward and pair him with a dominant rim protector in Gobert. Russell has a reputation as a poor defender and was benched down the stretch in last week’s loss to the Grizzlies after his mistakes allowed a pair of alley-oops, the second of which caused Finch to throw his hands in the air before signaling for a substitution.
Edwards put it more succinctly after a loss to the New York Knicks last week: “We just play soft, man.” He said that criticism included himself.
Yes, solving the Gobert-Towns puzzle will raise the floor for a franchise seeking consecutive playoff berths for the first time since 2003-04. But raising Minnesota’s ceiling? That will come only when Edwards emerges as a two-way superstar.
“I still believe this is a good team,” Finch said. “We just haven’t earned the right to be good.”
Gobert, meanwhile, reminds that the Wolves need to focus on the little things and “the big things will come.”
“Most of the people watching the game won’t even see [them],” Gobert said. “It’s the difference between us winning and losing. I’m talking about running back, spacing for teammates, talking about communication, physicality, boxout, stuff like that.
“Just the things that winning teams do, but we haven’t been doing consistently yet.”
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