This NBA season figured to challenge the Timberwolves in many ways that were plain to see.
Because they weren't in playoff contention last year when COVID halted play in March, they didn't get invited to the NBA bubble in Orlando — leaving them without valuable on-court time that a mini-camp of sorts couldn't come close to replicating.
And when the NBA announced an accelerated offseason — running the draft, free agency and training camp in a tiny stretch of barely more than a month from Nov. 18 until the Wolves' first regular-season game on Dec. 23 — it further hurt teams like the Wolves, who were still playing catch-up and didn't have much continuity on a young roster in the first place.
So it was smart to approach this year with a patient eye, understanding that even if you believed in the Wolves' vision for the future the present would likely be filled with bumps.
But just 12 games into this season, those bumps feel like giant potholes. Even if you thought the Wolves would struggle, it would have been hard to envision what has transpired so far. Taken as a whole, it feels like things couldn't be going much worse for Minnesota.
*It starts with Karl-Anthony Towns. The franchise centerpiece played in just 35 of 64 games last season while battling two different injuries — after missing five the previous year and zero in his first three seasons. If the hope was that he would return to being a durable, steady presence that could hold the team together on the court, that hasn't materialized.
The Wolves were 2-0 after Towns fell awkwardly on his wrist late in a victory over Utah. They lost their next six games without him, looked more competitive in two close losses after he returned with a brace on the wrist, and are now without him again for a stretch after his positive COVID diagnosis.
That diagnosis is particularly sobering and sad for Towns, who has said he lost several family members — including his mother, Jacqueline Cruz — to the virus. It will add to the already heavy mental burden Towns is carrying.
On the court, the Wolves will have to adapt, again, to missing Towns for at least a handful of games. They are 1-7 without him this season after a Monday loss in Atlanta; D'Angelo Russell, acquired almost one full calendar year ago, has played just five games with Towns since the trade.
*Speaking of Russell, he has picked up the scoring slack capably lately, reaching 25 points in five of his last six games.
But his individual defensive rating of 119.7 is the second-worst on the team behind Juancho Hernangomez and Russell had a four-game stretch earlier this season when the Wolves were outscored by a combined 110 points when he was on the floor.
Russell is one of several players on the roster who seemingly makes the Wolves choose between offense and defense when he is on the floor. Their lack of players who excel — or are at least functional — on both ends of the court is a recurring problem.
*As a result, the Wolves haven't been good on offense OR defense. The offense part is most easily explained by Towns' absence. But it is still surprising to see them rank just 26th in the NBA in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions). They are 28th in defensive rating, and the combination of offense and defense makes them dead last in net rating at minus-9.6.
That poor net rating is a function of both a lack of identity and roster imbalance in addition to missing Towns.
The only silver linings?
*The Wolves' preferred starting lineup of Towns, Russell, Josh Okogie, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez has a net rating of plus-17.4, albeit in just under 17 total minutes of game time together this season.
If the Wolves can get healthy and get more set in their rotations, they might find success starting and ending games. Just having Towns back for an extended stretch would smooth over some of their issues and lead to more wins.
*Rookie Anthony Edwards should continue to improve his shot selection and overall acumen, giving the Wolves another much-needed scoring option.
For now, though, expectations have already been revised. FiveThirtyEight and John Hollinger had the Wolves pegged for 36 wins in this 72-game season, a .500 record. FiveThirtyEight has already revised that down to 26 wins projected.
There season is only 12 games deep, so that could still trend back up. It almost feels like it has to after a start to the year in which not much else could have gone wrong.