Jarred Vanderbilt had fallen out of the rotation early in Chris Finch’s tenure. The new Timberwolves coach was tinkering with various lineup looks, and Vanderbilt — a high-energy power forward who previously had established himself as a nightly fixture on the court — wasn’t in any of them.
Over a span of eight games from late March to early April, Vanderbilt played a grand total of seven minutes.
But then came a pair of embarrassing blowout defeats at Target Center at the hands of Brooklyn and Milwaukee that changed everything. With the Timberwolves down big in the second half of each game, Vanderbilt was inserted into the lineup, and each time provided a needed jolt to a struggling squad.
Vanderbilt blocked four shots in 21 minutes against Brooklyn. He grabbed 10 rebounds in 19 minutes against Milwaukee.
At that point, Finch felt he had no choice but to re-insert the young 6-foot-9 power forward into his rotations. In the following game, Vanderbilt grabbed 14 rebounds in a home victory over Miami.
“He did earn his position back in those garbage-time games,” Finch said. “He went out there, when we were down 20, and played inspirationally. And, when you’re trying to change the culture, that has to be rewarded.”
The culture-changing process within the Timberwolves is ongoing. The attempt to do so was very much present on the stage of the team’s press conference last week to introduce their offseason acquisitions and re-signings.
“I think we made great strides in addressing the needs to continue to go forward,” Finch said. “I think the front office, Gersson and his crew, did a really, really good job. We had limited bullets this year. We weren’t in the draft. But we had priorities, and we nailed every single one.”
The most important one was to get tougher. Minnesota has talent. You look at a team featuring the likes of Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, and you would figure it should be, at minimum, a fringe playoff team. The Timberwolves can score, no question. But can they get stops? Can they make the key, gritty winning plays? Can they bring a consistent effort on a nightly basis?
The answers to all of those questions have been a resounding “No” for far too long. That’s why it was important Minnesota bring back Vanderbilt, a 22-year-old restricted free agent this offseason, on a 3-year deal. It was important the Timberwolves sign 2020 draft pick Leandro Bolmaro and trade for a defensive gnat like Patrick Beverley, who has never missed the playoffs in his 9-year NBA career and doesn’t plan on starting now. He knows the type of consistent effort and focus that type of success requires — something that hasn’t been present in Minnesota for years.
“I think my biggest focus is seeing how locked in we can be each and every night consistently, over a preseason, a season and eventually if we’re doing the right things getting to the playoffs,” Beverley said. “Basketball is basketball. That won’t change. But everything else in the middle, I think you can control that to put yourself in a position to win a lot of games.”
Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said Minnesota needed to add Beverley’s urgency to the mix.
“We need that fire. … There’s no difference to him Day One to 10 years in the league. That’s what he’s going to bring. His ability, his experience, where he’s been throughout the league, to impact not only the defensive end, but the offensive end,” Rosas said. “His fit with us of how we play, the tenacity, the intensity, we needed that as a group. We’ve got a good group of guys, good talent, but we need to take that next step. It’s what we talked about all season. We need to balance out the roster with good vets that have had success and that know what it takes.”
The Timberwolves were again terrible defensively last season. For so long that has been attributed to the team’s lack of experience. This current regime acknowledged it didn’t assemble a roster with much defensive ability. That has changed with bringing in the likes of Beverley and even Bolmaro, who Rosas said also possesses a certain drive, competitiveness and passion.
“This guy, you know what you’re getting every day in practice, in games, in individual workouts, in the weight room,” Rosas said. “That’s gotta be our character. The more competitors we have in this building, the more we’ll be able to accomplish our goals.”
But it starts with accountability. That’s where Beverley needs to shine. His resume and reputation should give him the clout to hold his offensive-minded teammates’ feet to the fire on the defensive end when they aren’t doing what is necessary to win. He seems to have a mandate from the organization to do so.
“It’s hard to get an acquisition where you pick up a guy that can change the whole defense,” Rosas said. “We have to change the culture, change the environment and we have a guy that has the urgency, that fights, that’ll do whatever it takes to make sure we’re successful.”
Beverley said there will be a “good pressure” on this team to be locked in every day. The Timberwolves, he said, need to be honest with one another on top of the accountability piece.
“If everyone is accountable, we put ourselves in position to be successful,” Beverley said. “It comes from a place that I’m not trying to put you down. I’m trying to win.”
That’s why he will demand that players fulfill their responsibilities, that they’re students of the game and that they do what’s best not for themselves, but the team. Because it’s those features that deliver success.
“We’ve got a nice young core,” Beverley said, “and to consistently get what you want to get from every single day puts you in position to not only be successful this year but to be successful throughout the years.”
Is the Timberwolves’ culture where it needs to be at the moment? No. But they do seem to think they’re closer to that point today than they were at the end of last season.
“It’s a process. And it takes time and it takes effort, but it takes the right people,” Rosas said. “The additions we were able to make through trades in that we added guys that had the experience, that had been in winning programs, that give us what we need. But to be fair, until we do it, it doesn’t mean anything. We’re saying the right things, we’re doing the right things.
“We want to earn the right to win. And that comes day in and day out. That’s what we’re preaching to our group.”