The Timberwolves reserves have left a whole lot to be desired since the 2013-14 season,
Whether the bench unit featured point guards like JJ Barea and Mo Williams, wings like Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger, or bigs like Adreian Payne and Anthony Bennett, it has been mostly a horror show.
In those five seasons, the Wolves’ bench brigade never finished in the top half of the NBA in net rating. In fact, the 2016-17 campaign was the only one where they finished outside the bottom 10 teams in the league.
Suffice to say fans in the Twin Cities are used to their eyes being bludgeoned by bad basketball as soon as the starters hit the pine.
No matter what motley crew of players the litany of head coaches have trotted out, fans have spent the entire summer convincing themselves this is the year the reserves will finally help instead of actively hurt the cause.
Well, it’s that time of the year, folks. This time, the odds look as good as ever. The biggest addition will be by subtraction. Jamal Crawford has long been one of the NBA’s most prestigious sixth men, but it’s clear he’s a bleeding wound at the ripe age of 38. His ability to heat up and nail a flurry of pull-up jumpers saved the Wolves’ more than once last season but as a whole, J-Crossover’s offensive confidence was more of a burden than luxury.
The three-time Sixth Man of the Year recipient was streaky at best, most nights. Of players who attempted over 700 field goal attempts last season, only eight posted a worse true shooting percentage than Crawford. On top of that, just five players who jacked up 300 or more triples converted them at a worse rate than the 18-year pro. To make matters worse, he possessed the third highest usage rate on the team.
All of that offensive inefficiency is enough to make any hoop head shudder, but Jamal Crawford’s defensive output was even more disheartening. His aging body and carefree attitude toward the gritty end of the floor was obvious for all to see, and it was evidenced in the fact he ranked dead last in ESPN’s defensive real plus/minus statistic. Yikes.
Now, after declining his $4.5 million player option, Crawford is out of Minnesota. Instead, the Timberwolves will rely on a number of new wings to help them push their second unit to new heights.
First-round draft pick Josh Okogie has shown immediate flashes of a two-way capability that the Wolves crave. The 6-foot-5 combo wing ties his elite wingspan and athleticism together with a high-powered motor. A combination that oozes defensive potential.
He showcased all of that defensive versatility in his Summer League debut:
A decent long-range stroke and a knack for getting to the free throw line rounds out the 20-year-old’s budding game. He has posted averages of 9 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in his opening two pre-season games, nailing 50 percent of his field goals and draining his only 3-point attempt.
Accompanying the rook in the wing stocks are a bunch of new and improved faces. Second-round draft pick Keita Bates-Diop has looked impressive in his exhibition opportunities. Two-way contract earner CJ Williams was good enough to be entrusted with a starting role in 17 games for the Los Angeles Clippers last season. James Nunnally honed his game in Europe as a 3-point sniper (55% from downtown last season). Even the off-guard version of Derrick Rose has shown a new lease on life under his old friend Tom Thibodeau’s guidance.
It isn’t only the reserve shooting guards and small forwards who have had a face-lift. The big men rotation has a fresh look, too. Taj Gibson’s 33-year-old body will undoubtedly be happy to see more time on the bench, and Anthony Tolliver looks to be the perfect ying to Gibson’s yang.
While the former Bull bangs down low with an array of nifty post-moves, Tolliver makes a living behind the arc. He is pretty much a peak version of last season’s Nemanja Bjelica. In his one and only year with the Pistons, Tolliver connected on 43.6 percent of his 4.6 3-point attempts per game. According to Synergy Sports Tech, the 33-year-old ranked in the 97th percentile in spot-up shooting chances, and the 92nd percentile on hand-offs.
When media day members quizzed him on his shooting prowess, Tolliver was quick to reassure fans that he plans to change Thibs’ reluctance toward firing up triples.
If for some reason the the second coming of Anthony Tolliver goes awry, Thibodeau brought in a familiar and effective back-up plan: Luol Deng.
After getting no opportunity with the Lakers, Deng could be revitalized and ready for a new challenge in Minnesota even if it means being a third-string power forward who can effectively preach Thibs’ system.
When you combine all of these new skills and personalities, the bench looks poised for an upswing. Over the two exhibition games thus far, which aren’t to be read into too much, the Wolves’ bench has posted a +2.7 net rating. This ranks them 14th across the league.
With Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson only just providing a passable foundation as starters, Minnesota’s bench will have no room for their usual woes. If Minnesota want to even sniff back-to-back playoff appearances, the back-ups will have no choice but to produce.
For once, the personnel matches that desire. The bench might actually be palatable.
In the words of Nick Wiggins, hallelujah.