The former UCLA star is an important veteran leader in the Wolves’ locker room but may be the only player Tim Connelly and the front office can move to meaningfully improve the team.
The Minnesota Timberwolves sit atop the Western Conference at 24-9, bludgeoning their way through the competition with a suffocating defense. In my years of fandom, I never thought I would be privileged enough to nitpick a team with a legitimate chance at contention. Though, before we dive into what is sure to be a contentious topic within the Wolves’ fanbase these next few weeks, I wanted to introduce myself to the Canis Hoopus community.
I am a Minneapolis native and NDSU graduate (go Bizon, yes it’s with a z) who’s been enamored with the Timberwolves since watching Troy Hudson bury 37 on the Kobe and Shaq Lakers in 2003. I have covered the Timberwolves with Dunking with Wolves in the past, and have run the Timberwolves community within the Bleacher Report app for the last two years. I thoroughly enjoy thoughtful conversations about this team and the sport we all love, and I hope to inspire you with new perspectives and analysis of the team.
So buckle up! We’re diving into a controversial topic:
Does Kyle Anderson fit the 2023-24 Minnesota Timberwolves?
The Argument For Kyle Anderson
I likely won’t even have to ask if you’ve heard the saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That certainly applies when considering the fit of a team staple and respected locker room presence associated with a player like Kyle Anderson. The Timberwolves boast the NBA’s No. 1 defense through 33 games. This is no longer a small sample size, but a sustained assertive dominance on the defensive end of the court, and Anderson plays a vital role in keeping it atop the NBA. Sitting at 24-9, the Wolves have established a culture of accountability and have found a true identity as a defensive powerhouse.
Both Jim Peterson and Michael Grady have commented on the connectedness of the current squad, and that plays a role in the game-to-game success of the team. Slow-Mo is a staple of accountability inside the locker room and has become a respected statesman for the team.
He is a versatile “Swiss army knife” and high IQ player capable of handling the ball and initiating offense as a wing while offering an elite defensive and rebounding presence for his position. With a description like that most will conclude that this debate is over, and I can’t fault anyone for that thought process. On brand with his nickname, Slow-Mo, Kyle’s patient and fundamentally sound defensive approach meshes with his 6-foot-9 frame and 7-foot-3 wingspan to frustrate opposing shot creators of varying sizes and positions.
One night, he put a stop to a Luka Dončić takeover. Not giving into Luka’s equally fundamentally sound and high IQ game. Anderson sticks with Dončić and uses his strength and length to force Luka toward the baseline for a tough pull-up jumper. Outstanding work.
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What makes him special, is he had a similar stabilizing defensive effort a week later guarding MVP front-runner Joel Embiid. Anderson’s strength and patience allow him to keep in front of Embiid without fouling, and his length offers just enough obstruction to throw off a scorching hot Embiid just enough for the miss.
Slow-Mo offers a consistent and stabilizing effect on the defense, capable of taking tough matchups when other stalwarts such as Jaden McDaniels are in foul trouble. Something more critical it may appear, as McDaniels’ matchup difficulty leads him to commit 3.5 fouls per contest. That is good for fifth in the entire NBA on a per-game basis. The Paterson, New Jersey native’s versatility to guard multiple positions, and players of any size on the perimeter and mid-range gives the Timberwolves an elite defensive presence off the bench — a luxury few teams in the NBA boast.
That same 7-foot-3 wingspan also provides an imposing force on the boards. He brings a willingness to put a body on opposing players and has the strength and length to win rebounds over the opposition. For a team driving home a big ball style of play, the supplemental rebounding help from a wing is instrumental to enforcing Timberwolves basketball.
In addition to his impactful rebounding ability, Anderson’s length is problematic for opposing offenses. He frequently utilizes his length to sit in passing lanes and disrupt passes without falling out of position with his matchup.
Kyle Anderson is an important cog in the Timberwolves’ 24-9 start and a critical component of the league’s premier defense. Make no mistake, removing Kyle Anderson from the Timberwolves roster will water down the defense. His off-court chemistry and leadership are essential to formulating a winning culture and his absence would create unknown ripple effects throughout the locker room. Moving on from Anderson is not something that should be considered lightly.
The Argument Against Kyle Anderson
Notice how I spoke very little of the offensive end in the last segment? While I need to briefly dip my toes back into the pro column and state that Kyle has a unique ability to be a ball-handler and playmaker, the concerns with Kyle’s game begin when he doesn’t have the ball on the offensive end. Over the last couple of weeks, teams have begun to completely ignore Kyle when he is positioned off-ball. This creates a myriad of issues, but first and foremost it allows teams to clog the lane to take away driving opportunities. To put it simply, the Timberwolves have endured a spacing problem when Kyle Anderson plays off-ball.
Kyle is getting Josh Okogie’d.
Sagging off Kyle forces the Timberwolves to play 4-on-5 in the halfcourt. Teams can apply significant ball pressure to Anthony Edwards and effectively turn the proposition of driving to the rim into a live basketball edition of American Ninja Warrior. The extra pressure has resulted in an uptick of turnovers for the 22-year-old budding superstar, with 20 turnovers in his past four contests. All of this is made possible by Kyle’s ineptitude from deep where he’s shot 3/14 (21.4%) from the corners, and 3/23 (13%) overall.
The scouting report is out, and teams are exploiting the spacing weakness of this Timberwolves offense to the detriment of Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns. It rears its ugly head in the box score, where the congestion has bumped up turnovers from the season average of 15.5 to 18.4 over the last five games. The shell teams have been deploying have created difficulties getting to the rim, forcing contested jumpers in the mid-range. From 10-19 feet, the Wolves have seen their 43.1% of makes dip to 31.7% over their last six games.
I know what you’re thinking… “Come on Tim, six games is a small sample size!” That said, until the Timberwolves can make a team pay a price enticing enough to part with Anderson, I don’t believe it’s a trend that will improve.
The Timberwolves currently sit as the 18th-ranked offense in the NBA. With the offensive talent this roster commands, it’s a head-scratching mark. Now, there’s more to the story than simply bad spacing. That said, the lack of spacing and Kyle’s inability to make the defense pay directly disrupts the Timberwolves’ ability to penetrate the defense.
This begs the question, what if Kyle’s minutes were replaced by someone who could space the floor? If defenses were forced to respect the corner, Edwards would see less resistance on his way to the rack. Furthermore, when that corner defender does commit to help, Edwards can fire a pass to the corner for an open look.
This play isn’t possible with Slow-Mo on the court until he shows he can be a respectable threat when left open. The only solution to mitigate this issue has been to put the ball in Kyle’s hands because you have to guard the ball handler. While Anderson is a capable playmaker, his turnover percentage of 16.7% (first percentile in the league according to Cleaning the Glass) is simply an unacceptable mark. So while he can be a ball-handling option, you absolutely would want the ball to be in Edwards or Conley’s hands. Thus, the minutes you can realistically deploy this solution are far and few between. Anderson’s performance lacks the results necessary to justify more minutes as a ball handler.
This all culminates into the fundamental question; is Anderson’s defense, rebounding, and locker room presence enough to make up for the ineptitude of his offensive production?
Kyle is coming off a year where he shot 41% from deep on 1.5 attempts per game. While it was low volume, Kyle punished teams for deploying this strategy last season. He finally canned a corner 3 against the Dallas Mavericks last Thursday, and the Target Center faithful erupted.
Could this be the start of Slow-Mo rediscovering his ability to make defenses pay? If so, it would provide just enough spacing to thrive.
So, there you have it. We have what amounts to a sumo wrestling match of defense and character versus spacing and inefficient offense. Kyle Anderson is a high-IQ basketball player and defender who has been essential to the Wolves’ success in his time with the franchise. The Timberwolves are now in a position to contend in a wide-open Western Conference, but for this to become reality the Wolves will need to create better spacing and shooting for the offense to manufacture higher-quality looks.
If Anderson can’t make defenses pay when he’s left open, then the Timberwolves may be forced to question the viability of his minutes. Fortunately, we sit here on January 4th and are afforded the luxury of time. The NBA trade deadline is February 8, just over one month away. But the good news is that the Timberwolves have several weeks to continue to evaluate their roster and contemplate targets across the association.
Trading a player with Anderson’s locker room status and defensive acumen is not something to be done lightly. That said, if the Wolves feel as if they can sacrifice defense to create a top-10 offense, it’s a proposition that should be vetted and considered.
So, where do you stand in the debate? Do you believe in his shot coming around, or is his locker room presence and defensive versatility too much to sacrifice? Or should we target spacing and shooting in place of his minutes?