We're all used to the idea of Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell being teammates, but they've barely played together. The Minnesota Timberwolves acquired Russell before last year's trade deadline and proceeded to play one game with both available on Feb. 10, a 137-126 loss to the Toronto Raptors.
That game was a tidy microcosm of the question facing the team: As gifted as these guys are offensively, can the Wolves survive on the other end? If it's going to happen, Minnesota needs Towns and Russell to improve or it needs to stack the roster with players who can make up for their deficiencies. Ideally, it will be a mixture of both.
Minnesota was in a strange spot with the No. 1 pick in November. This is typically the worst spot to draft for need instead of taking the best player available, but two of the three players at the top of the board play the same position as one of the Wolves' cornerstones. The front office drafted the one who doesn't: Anthony Edwards.
The 19-year-old looks the part of a star wing. His highlights are tantalizing, and he has the physical tools to be a good defender. His track record on that end is questionable, though, as is his shot selection. He comes with more downside risk than a typical top pick.
Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, both of whom shot the lights out after the deadline deal that sent them from Denver to Minnesota, both re-signed. They fit just fine offensively but do little to solve the Wolves' defensive issues. Offseason additions Ricky Rubio, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Ed Davis can help in this respect.
Minnesota remains low, however, on guys who can both stretch the floor and defend at a high level. It would help immensely if second-year wing Jarrett Culver and third-year wing Josh Okogie could evolve into capable shooters. Until there is more balance on this roster, it's going to be difficult for the Wolves to get back in the playoff picture.
Taking the temperature
Wolves believer: It all starts with Towns, whose lack of team success has wrongly obscured his development into an MVP-caliber player. He has always been a dominant force on offense, but last season was something else -- the Wolves unleashed him as a high-volume 3-point shooter and a facilitator, and they scored at an elite rate with him on the court. I can't wait to see him and Russell operating like Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
But I am in on this team because they have more weapons than people realize. I can't emphasize enough how irrelevant last season was -- it's not just that Towns played only one game with Russell, it's that he played only two with Beasley and Hernangomez. Now the No. 1 pick is here, and Rubio will keep the second unit organized. Let's go.
Wolves skeptic: It's fitting that you didn't mention defense at all. I'd be right there with you if all the Wolves had to do was score points. Unfortunately, that's only half the game, and they project to be abysmal at the other half.
Towns has MVP-caliber talent, and he has the tools to be a good defender, but until he actually does it I can't say he's an MVP-caliber player. Russell is a disaster defensively, I expect Edwards to be the same and this roster is shockingly devoid of two-way players. They remind me of the Blazers team we saw in the bubble and the Wizards from the first few months of last season (or, if you'd prefer older examples, the 2009-10 Raptors and 2005-06 Sonics) -- if you are horrible defensively, a great offense can only get you so far.
Wolves believer: They probably won't be great on defense, but will the Nuggets be great on defense? How about the Mavs? This is hardly a reason to write the Wolves off. Rubio is obviously a plus defender, and while everybody kills Russell for his defense, I thought he made some progress on that end in his All-Star season. The Nets were perfectly fine on defense that year, and the Wolves have reunited Russell with his tougher teammates from back then: Hollis-Jefferson and Davis.
Culver was a pretty good wing defender as a rookie. Okogie gets after it. Towns' limitations have been wildly exaggerated, though I'll admit he needs to be more attentive this season. Did you not see Edwards get in his stance and stick with Luka Doncic in the preseason on Thursday? This story is more complicated than "Minnesota can get buckets but can't stop anybody."
Wolves skeptic: If it is, it's because the Wolves are sacrificing offense. Opposing teams aren't worried about Okogie, Culver, Rubio, Hollis-Jefferson on the perimeter. Davis is planning to go his entire career without making a 3-pointer. If Ryan Saunders is set on making defense a big part of this team's identity, then he's going to clog things up and take away the team's strength. I'm sure he'll experiment with his rotation a fair bit, but his best bet is probably trying to outscore everybody.
Wolves believer: Saunders will have to balance his lineups, just like every coach in the NBA. I don't see that as some kind of unsolvable riddle. I doubt we'll see much of Davis and Hollis-Jefferson sharing the floor, and it's probably smart to separate Okogie and Culver until one of them proves he can make spot-up 3s consistently. This isn't fundamentally different than the way Erik Spoelstra managed his rotation en route to the Finals last year.
Wolves skeptic: Yeah, it's the exact same thing, provided that Towns starts defending like Bam Adebayo and Edwards' defense resembles Jimmy Butler's more than it resembles Tyler Herro's. Awesome comparison!
Look, I can see this team being pretty fun to watch, but there are a bunch of holes here. I don't even anticipate the Wolves being elite on offense, between the offensively limited role players and the limitations of some of their core players. Russell isn't much of a finisher and doesn't get to the line, and Edwards loves taking inefficient jumpers.
It's easy to identify the theoretical improvements that would vault the Wolves into playoff contention. I just can't pretend that they're likely.
Wolves believer: This team doesn't need a bunch of drastic improvements. I've seen Towns play good defense; he just needs to be consistent. I've seen Edwards do spectacular stuff; he just needs some structure. The Wolves have real firepower, better wing defense than they get credit for and a coach that will make sure their shots are coming from the right places. They aren't a joke anymore.
Eye on: Jarrett Culver
Culver is stronger than he was as a rookie, but that's not the story. The story is his shooting. Culver wasn't efficient anywhere on the court last year and he made just 46.2 percent from the free throw line, a truly scary number for a wing.
He made some progress over the course of his first season as a 3-point shooter, though, and he's at least shooting with confidence in the preseason. The Wolves wouldn't have traded up to No. 6 to draft him in 2019 if they didn't believe in him fixing his form.