It tolls for thee, Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves fell in a grotesque exhibition of something resembling basketball to the Philadelphia 76ers 93-91. The Sixers simply out-hustled, out-muscled, and out-willed the Wolves for nearly three quarters of the game, at one point building up a 26-point lead, before Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine came alive towards the tail end of the third.
Nerlens Noel, the Sixers’ controversial (for reasons both in and out of his power) big man, was the team’s initial catalyst, providing stout interior defense, running the floor with purpose, and catching multiple lobs for dunks. He brought an energy that simply was not matched by the Wolves, and it transferred over to his teammates. Ersan Ilyasova, a fine, but not really threatening stretch four, and Nik Stauskas, better known by his moniker Sauce Castillo, torched the Wolves combining for 27 points and 5/13 from three.
For the vast majority of the game the Wolves played like a boy who was just thrown into the deep end of the pool and doesn’t know how to swim, but instead of fighting and trying to keep his head above the surface, he just sinks and waits for the lifeguard to save him. The team seemed devoid of energy and desire to play basketball. Their shot selection would generously be described as poor, all aspects of their defense was uninspired, and the general looks on their faces were defeated and disengaged.
It’s moments like these, when they’re getting wiped on the road during the dark, cold days of January against an inferior team, when the Wolves could really use more veteran leadership. This has been a talking point and harped on for the entirety of the season to this point, but tonight this need reared its ugly head. The Wolves need a veteran presence that can help reel the team in and get them to focus when things aren’t going their way in an attempt to right the sinking ship. The Wolves don’t have that kind of guy and we have seen the ship sink time and time again as a result, at least in part.
Ricky Rubio is unquestionably the team’s leader at the moment, but he needs more help. Ideally you would like one of, as Tom Thibodeau calls them, the team’s core three to step up to the plate, but Towns speaks too often in platitudes, Wiggins is quiet, and LaVine is the third banana. These aren’t necessarily bad things and they shouldn’t really be held against them, but at this time none of the three are in the position or right mindset to become a leader for this team. I think Towns, and to a certain extent LaVine, will become vocal leaders with time and Wiggins will most likely always be a leader by example (believe it or not, being a leader by example is actually a good thing, contrary to popular belief), but they just aren’t there yet; they’re too inexperienced and perhaps too young.
How ironic is it that I bring up these points again after a Wolves’ game against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team notorious for #TheProcess? The Process was systematically designed to accrue talent and diamonds in the rough by way of the draft and undrafted free agents, essentially building a team of youngsters. For the past few years, it has been talked about how perhaps the greatest weakness of The Process was its neglect of the importance of veteran leadership and its overvaluing of talent; a common talking point was that the Sixers needed to acquire veterans if they ever wanted to become successful.
The Wolves have essentially fallen into similar results as The Process, albeit in a much different fashion. They are the league’s youngest team and have no true veterans to lean upon and learn from. Cole Aldrich has been a journeyman role player, same for Brandon Rush. John Lucas III has never had a real impact in the league, and Nemanja Bjelica is just as inexperienced as the others.
Veteran leadership is a valuable attribute on any team and while it may not be as big of a factor for teams who are in the playoff hunt and are contenders, it is invaluable for a young team like the Wolves. Just look at the Milwaukee Bucks. Sure, Giannis Antetokounmpo (HUMBLE BRAG: I spelled that right on the first try.) and Jabari Parker run the show in Milwaukee, but Khris Middleton, though he hasn’t played this year, is already in his 5th season and they have wily vets Jason Terry and Mirza Teletović coming off the bench for them. The Wolves could really use a Jason Terry or Mirza Teletović right now.
In the end, Joel Embiid proved to be too much for the Wolves. He tallied 25 points, eight rebounds (five offensive), three assists, two blocks, and one steal. Watching him play was an absolute joy, if not a little frustrating because of the way he toyed with the Wolves at times. The power and grace with which he moves is not unlike that of Karl-Anthony Towns, but at the same time it’s totally different. When you compare Towns and Embiid side-to-side it becomes obvious that Embiid’s 7-foot, 250-pound frame is much larger than Towns’ 7-foot, 244-pound frame. The only way to put it is that Embiid has man muscles, and Towns does not quite yet.
Towns had himself a nice game once he started to play well in the second half, in part due to egging on by Embiid. He finished with 23 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists and, along with LaVine who added 28 points and three boards, was a major catalyst behind the Wolves clawing themselves back into the game. After a heroic, unexpectedly expected game-tying three from Rubio with roughly one second left, Sixers forward Robert Covington, who played phenomenal defense on Wiggins all night and was booed by the home crowd because of his poor three-point shooting, tipped in a lob pass from out of bounds for the victory.
The Wolves’ inconsistent play is not to be unexpected for a young team and will continue until they either gain experience or obtain some veteran leadership. Only time will tell which avenue Tom Thibodeau decides to take.