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The Timberwolves and the High-Usage Wing Question

With three naturally high usage wing players on the roster, all young and still on their rookie contracts, how should the Wolves approach their futures in Minnesota?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Britt Robson wrote with his usual insight and eloquence the other day about the minutes battle between Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad, how both of them are deployed, and where their might be opportunities for each of them, focusing on getting LaVine out from under the point guard duties that seem to overwhelm him, and getting Bazz more floor time with Andrew Wiggins, which has been an intermittently powerful pairing.

As usual, Britt beat me to it, as I've been thinking about the future of the Wolves wing spots for some time now, and have written before about the team's need to sort through and evaluate so many young players in an attempt to determine who is part of the future and who might not be.

I pose the question thus: Can three high-usage wings whose primary on-court skill is scoring points co-exist successfully, and can a team wring maximum value out of three such players?

One of the problems we have in trying to answer this question in the context of the Wolves three youngsters is that none of them are good NBA players at the moment. Both Bazz and LaVine have significantly worse on/off and net ratings than the team as a whole, while Wiggins is about neutral for the team when he's on the floor. More sophisticated measures tell the story: All three players have significantly below average RPMs this season, with Bazz especially struggling as the worst ranked small forward in the league by this measure, and neither Wiggins nor LaVine distinguishing themselves. RPM specifically tells us that all three of their struggles are primarily at the defensive end of the court, which causes real synergy problems that we'll discuss in a moment.

So not only are we trying to evaluate fit, but also improvement trajectories for two 20 years olds and a 23 year old. Meanwhile, because they are all struggling players, and all struggling in similar ways (defense), when they are on the floor together, the problems are exacerbated.

As a three man combo, in 187 minutes these players are -10.4 net points per hundred possessions (All net ratings will be per 100 unless otherwise noted). This is the worst three man combo in Muhammad's top 10 most used, and the third worst of LaVIne's 10 most used. It doesn't appear on Wiggins' most used list, but would be second worst if it did.

As two man pairings, none of them fare well either: Muhammad is -8.4 with LaVine and -7.8 with Wiggins, both worse than his -6.7 average. Wiggins and LaVine are -8.1, worse than LaVine's -7.1 average, and all worse than Wiggins -3.9 average.

At this point, Andrew Wiggins is a given; the Wolves clearly view him as one of their two major building blocks along with Karl-Anthony Towns, and it's going to be up to everyone else to fit around those two, so the question becomes can either or both of LaVine and Muhammad thrive to the extent their talents allow next to a player who is going to be given the lions share of the playing time and perimeter scoring opportunities for the foreseeable future.

LaVine and Muhammad have taken turns in the relative spotlight as the season has progressed. Early in the year, when LaVine was going well, Bazzy was struggling for minutes and shots. LaVine was still frustrating us at point guard, but seemed to be showing off his scoring skills, and there was a wide call to get him in the starting lineup between Ricky Rubio and Wiggins. John wrote an excellent piece about it, and there was significant agreement among the fan base.

Meanwhile, Bazz was struggling to earn minutes, and his usage hovered right around league average 20% all the way through December, his best shooting month. Despite the impression that he has earned more minutes over the last couple of months as he's learned to pass the ball, his usage has reached a season high in January (24% for the month) and brought his season total to 21.6%. Realistically, if Muhammad isn't carrying a significant usage, he isn't doing much for the team, as he's not going to add value as a defender or facilitator.

As Bazz was gaining some traction this season starting in December, LaVine began to fade. He had a terrible month of December, particularly shooting it, though he carried a ridiculous 30% usage that month, largely a sign of the dysfunction of the 2nd unit that he was leading. Those struggles continued through January, until his last couple of games against Cleveland and especially his explosion versus the Thunder on Wednesday night.

At any rate, as Bazz has worked himself in to the rotation more and more, there have been similar calls to insert him in the starting lineup at small forward, in place of Tayshaun Prince, and let him work with Wiggins. However, as noted above, that duo has not had a ton of success this season playing together, largely because of defensive deficiencies, but I also wonder whether the two of them out there simply can't maximize their offense because the game is only played with one ball.

Sam Mitchell has, wisely in my view, resisted that call, and stuck with Prince, who provides a steadying defensive presence that helps make the starting unit very successful (+9.1).  Still, Prince is not part of the future of this team, and somehow they need to figure out which combinations might work among the guys likely to be around over the next couple of seasons.

It's dangerous to read too much into 5-man lineups when many of the sample sizes are so minimal, but one Wiggins-Muhammad lineup has been very successful (in only 30 minutes of total time): Those two with Rubio, Gorgui Dieng, and Towns. That group is an absurd +44/100 in their time together. It's possible that having two true bigs who can clog the paint, along with Rubio's defensive wizardry, masks the deficiencies of the wing defense in that combination. Or it could be entirely a function of small sample variance. It's certainly something worth looking at some more at this point.

On the other hand, there has been some talk about playing Bazz as a small-ball four, which instinctively I don't like. The defensive problems seem impossible to overcome, and in fact in the one 5 man lineup in Bazz's top 10 that features no true power forward, it was a catastrophic -40/100 (only 20 minutes), and that was the best imaginable group for it: Rubio, Wiggins, Prince, and Towns along with Muhammad.

Stepping back, both Muhammad and LaVine have a long way to go, particularly defensively, before they are ready to help a good team in any role. Even if that improvement comes, they both seem to profile better as scoring 6th men, especially given the Wolves current situation. With Wiggins being the predominant wing offensive option, and Karl-Anthony Towns not needing the ball less as he matures, another player whose primary talent is using possessions and scoring seems an uncomfortable fit in the starting lineup. We've discussed at length the need for a "3 and D" wing to pair with Wiggins, and I still think this is the best path if such a player can be found. Someone who can hold his own defensively and efficiently convert the catch and shoot opportunities that come his way.

Of course the Wolves don't have that player at the moment and they don't grow on trees. Nonetheless, it's something that would be a priority for me if I were running the team.

Hopefully, however, saying they profile as 6th men at best is underselling either or both LaVine and Muhammad, and that's one of the issues the Wolves confront. Can they get the most out of all three of these players if they are on the same roster? Whether or not any or all of them emerge as starting quality players? My gut instinct, based on their somewhat overlapping strengths and weaknesses, is that they cannot.

If that's true, cashing in one at least one of LaVine and Muhammad makes sense. It's not a decision that has to be made today; they are both young players on their rookie deals. Muhammad is eligible for an extension this summer, without which he will become an RFA in 2017.  LaVine still has his two option years remaining after this season. I'm not advocating immediate movement, but I do think planning for the future requires asking the question if the roster would be better off by using one (or even both) of these players in a trade.

I suspect they both have some real value on the trade market; LaVine in particular seems to have a reputation that outstrips his current level of play, and there were stories earlier in the season that teams were inquiring about Muhammad's availability.

I personally prefer watching Muhammad play; I find his game--the all out desire for the ball, the post-ups and around the basket maneuvers, the blatant and obvious hunger to score, the forays to the hoop, to be more appealing than LaVine's mostly perimeter oriented, ball dominant shoot-off-the-dribble game, but of course your mileage may vary.

On the other hand, given their relative ages, LaVine is the more likely (however unlikely it is) to achieve some semblance of stardom, which of course would be painful to give away. Again though, this is likely a question more for this summer at the earliest than right now, giving us a few more months to see how things develop.

There is a tendency to want to hold on to young players, especially for a team in the Wolves position. I understand that, and I agree to an extent. But the Wolves, as we've discussed before, have so many players in their 1st-3rd years that it's unreasonable to expect all of them to work out, develop into quality players and fit seamlessly into a whole. At some point, some decisions are going to have to be made.

This was part of what I wrote about the other day that having someone in place who is empowered to make these evaluations and act on them is vital.

One of the central roster questions I have is whether all three of Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Shabazz Muhammad can thrive on the same roster. For the reasons discussed, I think it's unlikely, and I think the team would be better served by using LaVine and/or Muhammad to help balance the roster via trade at some point in the next 12 months.

I'd be very interested to hear what you think.