The Minnesota Timberwolves' roster has already been destroyed by injuries.
Flip Saunders only has a handful of players while Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic -- three of the opening day starters -- aren't expected to return for at least a month. Ronnie Turiaf has been virtually invisible, Mo Williams is aging and unable to carry a full workload and the Wolves have yet to catch momentum, in terms of good health, thus far this year.
The plethora of casualties subsequently ensures that the Wolves are in the midst of a rebuilding season, which is fine. This means they aren't flirting with any postseason aspirations and can focus on player development. Saunders has no choice but to play rookies Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins, along with second year players Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Anthony Bennett in each game, because there aren't many other viable options.
Even though the Wolves are destined for another losing season there have been reasons to be optimistic about the future; Wiggins recorded his first double-double of the season in an unexpected victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, LaVine scored 28 in a road-win against the Los Angeles Lakers, Dieng averages more points, rebounds and assists per game than he did last season and the same is true for Bennett, who spent his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Saunders has really done all he can -- especially if you consider what he has to work with -- and these are encouraging performances, but it's hard to measure development using statistics. This is perhaps why Muhammad has really been one of the more positive storylines this season. It's not that he's averaging 11 points in 18 minutes per game, but the way he seems to hustle at both ends of the floor, and on each possession, that has been so damn impressive.
And Muhammad has played especially well recently. He averaged 13.8 points in 22 minutes per game over the Wolves' previous five matchups, showing energy the very moment he steps onto the court. It's really a refreshing sight to see.
Having seen the production and relentlessness brought on what appears to be a pretty regular basis, some are asking why Muhammad isn't in the starting lineup. And it's a fair question to ask. However, the answer (at least my answer) doesn't get behind the idea in question.
There is a common misconception that starting lineups consist of the best five players on a team.
There is no true formula or equation that determines which players should and shouldn't start. It's ultimately the head coach that makes the decision of which five players are on the court at tip-off. Take the Golden State Warriors, for example.
Last season, under Mark Jackson, Andre Iguodala started at small forward in each of his 62 appearances with the Warriors.
Collectively, Iguodala, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Andrew Bogut was Jackson's most-used lineup throughout the year, recording 819 minutes on the floor together over 44-game span. These five finished last season as the Warriors' only group to average a positive plus-minus rating (+5.8) on a per game basis. Per game, Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee and Bogut averaged a better +/- rating than any of the 250 most-used lineups in the NBA last season.
Shortly after being eliminated from the postseason Mark Jackson was fired and replaced by Steve Kerr.
A member of arguably the best lineup in the league last year, Iguodala has yet to start for the Warriors this season. Even though Kerr admitted Iguodala was at times the Warriors' best player during training camp, it's third year player Harrison Barnes that has started in each of his 22 appearances.
So far, the starting lineup of Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Draymond Green (Lee has yet to play this season and is recovering from injury) and Bogut has recorded a per game plus-minus average of +7.5. Although they don't rank atop the league in this category, Kerr and the Warriors' starters currently own the NBA's best record.
Meanwhile, Barnes is having what could be considered his best year as a pro. "The Resurgence of Harrison Barnes" was written by Warriors beat writer Marcus Thompson, who explains how and why Barnes has flourished since the arrival of Kerr.
As for Iguodala, well, how could someone possibly complain about being part of a roster that's off to a 19-2 start?
Unless Shabazz Muhammad can play point guard, his presence in the starting lineup doesn't make any sense.
The Wolves' roster contains an inordinate amount of wing players; LaVine, Martin, Wiggins, Brewer, Muhammad, Chase Budinger, Robbie Hummel and Glenn Robinson III. The problems and benefits that coincide with having an abundance of wings have been presented and discussed in multiple columns published on this website. Some of the concerns with the Wolves' roster started coming to fruition after Rubio was sidelined with a sprained ankle.
Williams has missed time with his own injury problems, which is why LaVine has started at point guard in the Wolves' previous four games. There is a substantial population within the Canis Hoopus community who believe he isn't a point guard but rather a shooting guard, which is fine. However, there is no denying that LaVine must become a better ball handler, regardless of his "true" position.
Outside of Williams and LaVine, Saunders' only other option at point guard is Brewer. Essentially, the Wolves are without a secondary ball handler no matter which five players are on the court. Here are the starting lineups used through six games in December.
- LaVine, Wiggins, Brewer, Young and Dieng.
- Williams, Wiggins, Brewer, Young and Dieng.