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Monday Musings: Bench Woes

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The Timberwolves’ bench has struggled to produce

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Timberwolves have always had challenges in finding the right players to fill out their bench. Long-time fans of the team are all too familiar with watching the lead that the starters built up slip away to disastrous bench play. Last year, the chemistry of the bench unit was particularly horrendous when we ran out the trio of Zach LaVine, Kevin Martin, and Shabazz Muhammad, who were all determined to play iso-offense regardless of the situation.

Over the offseason, the Wolves’ front office’s priority was obviously to shore up the bench. The main acquisitions of Jordan Hill, Cole Aldrich, and Brandon Rush were meant to provide veteran support to the young roster.

The early returns have been less than promising to say the least. The Wolves’ bench is last in scoring in the NBA with 23.3 points per game with the second worst point differential of -16.5 points. The only other bench that is comparably bad is the Washington Wizards, which averages 25.6 points per game with a differential of -19.1.

This problem is associated with the heavy minutes the Timberwolves starters are playing this year, which was one of the main concerns with a team coached by Tom Thibodeau.

Zach LaVine is playing 35.1 minutes per game, Andrew Wiggins is playing 36, and Karl-Anthony Towns is playing 35. These numbers are not extraordinarily high, and thus an immediate cause for concern, but they do place LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns in the top 20 for minutes per game this season.

As the starters are getting a heavy run, this does not leave a ton of time for the bench players to make an impact. We can see this with the Timberwolves’ bench overall minutes numbers that are also the lowest in the league at 14.9, although it is not clear from Hoopsstats how that number is calculated. At the very least, the more telling statistic is that the Wolves’ bench is taking the least amount of shots in the league at 19.9 per game.

It’s possible these numbers are skewed as the Wolves have also had to deal with injuries among their already thin Wing lineup with Rush and Muhammad, both of which many of us assumed would be providing the shooting along with Nemanja Bjelica off the bench. Rush in particular has been barely seen, as he has only played five games due to a toe injury and in the games he played he was shooting an ice-cold 27.3 percent on threepointers.

The lack of scoring on the bench is especially problematic in games where the Wolves’ starters are not shooting well, as we saw in the last game against Memphis. If some combination of Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine are not able to provide their usual scoring punch, the Wolves are going to have an extremely hard time on offense.

There are a few problem areas that we can hope the Wolves will improve upon, but so far the results have not been promising in this early season.

  1. Nemanja Bjelica has been maddeningly inconsistent again this year. Like many of our other Timberwolves, it is easy to become excited by the prospect of a fully realized Bjelica after his good games or disheartened and believe he will never be able to put it all together after his bad ones. At this point, it seems like each game is a 50/50 on which Bjelica we will see.
  2. There may need to be an adjustment to the Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones playing time allotments, which currently does not include Jones actually seeing the court. While Dunn has flashes of brilliance on defense and occasional highlights on offense, his lack of positive contributions on offense and difficulties in running offensive sets are becoming problematic. If the Wolves’ decide they need to get more points out of their bench, considering they have the worst scoring bench in the league, Jones is the obvious answer to alleviating those problems.
  3. We are closing in on decision time for Shabazz. This is not entirely fair to Shabazz as he is just returning from injury, but if he cannot mesh with the bench unit and provide his trademark scoring abilities on a consistent basis, then the Timberwolves need to move in another direction.

It’s was seemingly impossible to believe that this is true, but Adreian Payne has been the recent bright spot on the bench. But if we have learned anything from this year, it’s that anything can happen.