The weight usually fell on Ricky Rubio’s shoulders a year ago. After a disappointing loss or in the midst of losing stretch, Rubio would sit down for a Zoom interview during which he would diagnose the Minnesota Timberwolves’ problems, not so subtly call out the guilty parties (himself included) and start to chart a path forward.
Rubio was Minnesota’s veteran, truth teller and leader. But he was traded to Cleveland during the offseason, leaving that void seemingly empty for the Timberwolves. It needed to be filled after Monday’s 107-98 loss to New Orleans — which, frankly, was the Timberwolves’ second straight poor performance against the inferior foe.
It was second-year standout guard Anthony Edwards who stepped up to the mic. Edwards gushed about Rubio’s leadership last season. By the end of the campaign, he felt as though he was ready to step into a similar role.
But that hadn’t been on display until nearly 11 p.m. Monday evening, when questions surfaced about the team’s putrid offensive output, which has included consecutive games scoring fewer than 100 points.
There would be no sugarcoating on this evening. It was time to identify the problem, the culprits and the solution. It was time for the 20-year-old Edwards to lead. Minnesota has three lethal offensive weapons in Edwards, D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns. Those three, Edwards noted, are to blame.
“We think we the only ones on the team. We got to be willing to pass the ball,” Edwards said. “There’s no ‘I’ in team. We can’t beat five people with three people. We beat five people with five people. We got to be willing to play with our teammates.”
Edwards noted those teammates are the ones doing all the little things to help Minnesota win games. He paraphrased Timberwolves coach Chris Finch’s recent message from practice, noting Josh Okogie and Jaden McDaniels are going all out on the defensive end, and guys like Malik Beasley are running the floor hard.
And yet, they can’t get any shots on offense.
“We’ve got to do a better job of getting them involved, making them feel wanted in the offense, not just on defense,” Edwards said. “I told Beas that us three — me, KAT and D-Lo — do a bad job of getting y’all the ball, because we’re gonna get our shots. In order for them to keep fighting for us, we gotta get them the ball. We’ve gotta make them feel involved. We just gotta trust them, man. … If we’re not giving them the ball, then what are we doing?”
That’s true whether Towns has the ball in the post, Russell is coming off a screen or Edwards is getting downhill. Edwards said the Wolves’ star players need to pass up open looks of their own for open looks for their teammates.
He can feel the pain of a guy like Okogie, who is guarding the opponent’s best player on one end, then a bystander on the other. Edwards won’t stand for it any longer.
He made a point to find Okogie, McDaniels and Beasley all for looks early in Monday’s game. But it has to happen more often, and it needs to come from every member of the team’s big three.
“That’s how basketball works. There’s five people on the court for a reason,” Okogie said. “I think if we share the ball — and personally, that’s who I think we are, a team that plays defense and shares the ball, has fun, energetic. If we play like that, I think we’re very hard to beat.”
There are different kinds of leadership styles. Some lead by example. Others choose to be constantly supportive or elect to shoulder all blame themselves.
That’s what Towns did after Monday’s loss, taking sole fault for every one of Minnesota’s issues, including Russell’s struggles. Then came Patrick Beverley, who looks the part of the Timberwolves’ emotional leader during games. But after Monday’s game, while he expressed his disappointment in the loss, Beverley largely said he wasn’t worried about the troublesome aspects of the team’s play. He was confident Minnesota would figure it out.
It was Edwards who actually addressed what was ailing the Wolves. He carries the necessary weight in the organization to call out the likes of Russell and Towns — something only Rubio did last season — and hold everyone accountable, and he plans to start doing so.
“We take all the shots. We gotta be willing to lead and speak up and correct each other when we wrong, for sure,” Edwards said. “I don’t really talk too much as far as on the court. I let my game lead. But now I see that I’m gonna start talking more as far as, ‘You need to lock in, bruh. Pass the ball. Four people on you, pass the ball, know what I’m sayin?’ I’m finna start talking a lot more. It’ll be better coming from me.”
Stars lead on the best teams. It’s helpful to have a veteran such as Beverley to help set the tone and create a culture, but leadership needs to start at the very top. That’s when you have true accountability. Minnesota has lacked that kind of direction for years.
It may have it now.
The Timberwolves practice Tuesday — ahead of their game in Milwaukee — was “testy,” per coach Chris Finch.
“I took it as a good sign. They were bothered because we care. And we know it wasn’t a great performance from us (Monday),” Finch said. “But we looked at it on the film. A lot of guys talking about what could have been done better or different. So thought it was a really good practice. Exactly what we needed.”
There is a reason that, when pressed ahead of training camp about the team’s leadership options outside of Beverley, Edwards was the first name out of Finch’s mouth.
In just his second professional season, Edwards has the necessary talent, respect and personality to command an NBA locker room. On Monday, he seemed as though he was starting to take ownership of this team.
“That’s who Ant is. He says what’s on his mind,” Okogie said. “You guys have seen all the funny stuff that he says. That’s the kind of guy he is. Whether it’s funny, real, whatever it is, whatever is on his mind, he’ll get it out.”
There may be a new leader of the pack.
“I’m going to start speaking up, sooner rather than later, and hopefully people listen,” Edwards said, “and we’ll get it on track.”