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Brandon Rush: Playing Time Whiplash

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From DNP-CD to the starting lineup, it was an inconsistent season for the veteran.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Rush’s season with the Wolves was in many ways more revealing of Tom Thibodeau than it was of Rush himself.

Brought in on a one year deal to provide some shooting and depth at the wing spots, Rush was under or unused through much of the season, until Zach LaVine was hurt. At which point he went from regular DNP-CDs to the starting lineup, and regularly 25+ minutes a night. In the end, he appeared in only 47 games, 33 of which were starts, and averaged 22 minutes a night. Which brings us to Thibs: It’s one thing for a player’s role to expand when another guy gets injured. It’s another to say for half a season: This guy can’t help us in essentially any role, and then turn around and decide he’s the starter.

The Season

Rush had his moments. Two good games in starts at mid-season when LaVine was out with a hip injury that resulted in big back-to-back wins against the Rockets and Thunder (after which he played three minutes in their next outing followed by nine straight DNPs). A few decent efforts in the Wolves’ nice run surrounding the All-Star break.

This is how it looked when things were going well for Rush (and this was their last win before everything fell apart at the end of the season). Getting open for threes, often in the corner where Ricky Rubio found him with cross-court passes as in the second make in this video, and really not much else.

But overall, it was not a strong campaign for Rush, who posted career lows in several categories and never really had a rhythm during the season. He was rarely a significant part of the offense, and while his three-point percentage of 38.6 was in line with his career, he played a very small role. His 9.6 usage percentage was the lowest of his career, and frankly so low that it probably hurt the team, even sharing the floor with two high usage scorers like Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

He brought nothing to the offense beyond a bit of floor spacing, but even then he didn’t really shoot it enough to cause problems for opponents. Defensively...he was probably the least bad of the Wolves wing options (counting Kris Dunn as a point guard). Which, of course, is damning him with extremely faint praise. At age 31, injuries have sapped much of his athleticism, and while he was able to use his experience to be in the right place more often than the other wings, he no longer has the chops to be a real factor for a struggling team.

The idea of a Rush-like player—a three-point shooter who can guard—is obviously enticing, but Rush himself neither did enough on the offensive end nor defended well enough to perform the role.

That said, it’s worth pointing out that the two most used five man lineups this season look like this:

Rubio-Wiggins-Dieng-Towns-LaVine: 880 minutes, -2.3 net points per 100 poss.

Rubio-Wiggins-Dieng-Towns-Rush: 596 minutes, +1.7 net points per 100 poss.

The smaller lineup combinations tell a similar tale: Rush was somewhat more successful with the rest of the starting group compared to LaVine. Much like his playing time patterns probably tell us more about Thibs than Rush, the lineup data probably tells us more about the other guys than it does Rush. We’ve long discussed that the LaVine-Wiggins wing pairing is problematic; it’s not that Rush is ideal, it’s that he’s more of a neutral place-holder. He’s a facsimile of what the Wolves need, not the actual player.

The Future

Rush is an unrestricted free agent this summer. I am guessing he won’t be back in a mutual decision, but he has been spending time in the Cities working out this off-season, and could perhaps come back on another one year deal. Unlike Cole Aldrich, he wound up getting significant playing time, but it only happened due to injury. He came in as a veteran and found himself fairly well nailed to the bench for the first half of the season.

Whether he returns or not, the Wolves need to find better players to fill minutes, especially as they work LaVine back from his injury. Even with a fully healthy LaVine, they need stronger wing play both in the starting lineup (either from internal or external improvements) and off the bench. Both Rush and Shabazz Muhammad are free agents this summer, and how the Wolves approach both of them will depend on what other opportunities they have in the player market.

As for Rush, after experiencing the highs of Golden State followed by the lows of Minnesota, one imagines he will be open to opportunities elsewhere. It remains to be seen if those opportunities will be forthcoming.