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Amid Dysfunction, Wolves Bench Has Been Source of Stability

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Minnesota has a competent bench for the first time under Tom Thibodeau

NBA: Utah Jazz at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

There have been plenty of aspects of Tom Thibodeau coached teams that have been notoriously scrutinized, both in Chicago and Minnesota. One that sticks out ahead of most has been the limited amount of minutes that he has given bench players.

In Minnesota, not only has he given his reserves limited playing time, but those bench units have also been notoriously awful. It’s fair to assume that the putrid secondary lineups have become a byproduct of solid reserve players understanding that they would not get much of a chance to play, leaving Minnesota with average at best players to deploy when the starters need rest.

This year, that theme is being flipped on its head a bit. The Wolves bench unit has been a pleasant surprise, and has often helped carry the team in what has been a tumultuous start for many members of the starting lineup. There are several reserves who are earning their minutes on the floor, and they’re all offering something unique.

A quick disclaimer: players such as Derrick Rose and Josh Okogie have started games this year due to injuries and (un)rest to the usual starters. For this exercise, we’ll be examining the players as if Minnesota was playing their regular starting lineup of Teague, Butler, Wiggins, Gibson, and Towns.

While we’re at it, how about another disclaimer? Derrick Rose is a complicated person, and we could discuss his past and character issues for days. That stuff is very important. However, in this piece, we’re going to strictly analyze Rose based on what he does or does not contribute to the Wolves as a basketball player.

With all that being said, Rose does seem like the right player to start the conversation about the Wolves bench mob this year. It’s hard to hate on Rose too much after he dropped a 50-piece on Utah, on a veterans minimum contract.

But even after that spectacular performance, the advanced stats are still ugly for Rose. His effective field goal percentage is sitting at 47.6%, which is well below the league average of 52%. His shot selection is questionable at best.

What he certainly has brought to Minnesota is tempo and pace. Nobody on Minnesota’s roster looks to push the ball up the floor faster than Rose, and that is a positive development for a team that for years has lagged behind the rest of the league in adopting to the modern NBA. It would be nice if Rose gave Tyus Jones the opportunity initiate the offense more often in the half-court, but Rose has been phenomenal at getting the Wolves playing at a faster pace.

His raw offensive production is probably unsustainable at this point in his career, but we’ll take it while we can get it. Defensively, Rose has had a tough time. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that he’s being asked to guard shooting guards much of the time he’s on the floor, and the larger wings are killing him.

Quick side note, Utah has now given up a 50 point night to 2018 Derrick Rose and 60 points to farewell tour Kobe, what’s up with that?

While we’re on the topic of reserve lead guards, let’s look at Tyus Jones. Tyus reportedly asked to be traded after the season, but was talked out of it with the promise that he’d receive more playing time. Well, that hasn’t really happened. His minutes per game are up, but only marginally (20.9 this year vs. 17.9 last year). In his minutes, Tyus has not been extremely effective. He’s averaging 6 points per game and shooting only 31.9% from the field, as well as a discouraging 33.3% from beyond the arc.

Additionally, as the season has gone on Tyus’ net rating is a fascinating figure to watch. Before the game in Golden State on Friday, his net rating was sitting at +7.7. After the Golden State and Portland games, it now sits at -5.0. Small sample sizes are wildly volatile, but I’d expect to see Tyus improve each of the listed figures as the season drags on. He’s proven to be too solid of a player in the past for him to continue to play this poorly.

When a team is picking in the latter half of the first round, they’re mostly just trying to find a useful rotation player. Well, if these first few weeks are any indication, Minnesota did just that by selecting Josh Okogie with the 20th pick in the 2018 draft. “Inspector Gadget,” as Dave Benz loves to call him, has brought an energy and aggressiveness to this team that the Wolves desperately need with Jimmy Butler on his way out the door. Okogie feels like the kind of player that’s going to be a good player to have on the Wolves even if his offensive game never completely comes around. Honestly, whatever offense he gives Minnesota just feels like an added bonus at this point.

He is constantly flying around and making life difficult for his opponent, and this became most apparent in his matchup with Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell hit a few tough shots to get himself going in the second half of last Wednesday’s game, but Okogie flustered Mitchell into a 2-11 first half, and forced him to earn each and every one of his buckets in the second. He’s the new fan favorite in Minnesota because of how hard he plays night in and night out. Minnesota fans were ready to build him a statue after his outstanding first half in Golden State.

If anyone is going to put “Nonstop” in their twitter handle, it should be this guy. He truly seems to energize the rest of the team when he is on the floor. It will be impossible to keep him out of the rotation, even when the Wolves are at full strength.

While the backcourt has been a more complicated area for Minnesota, their frontcourt reserves have been much simpler.

Anthony Tolliver told us before the season that he was going to jack up three-pointers whenever he was in the game, and he’s held true to his word. In right around 20 minutes per game, Tolliver is getting up just over 4 three-point attempts per game. Over 85% of his field goal attempts come from beyond the three-point line.

His sharpshooting has been a revelation for the bench unit, but his defense has also been a welcome surprise. On his own, he is not a great defender. In terms of team defense and rotating, he has been much better as he is seemingly involved in one or two close block/charge calls a game.

The move to the bench for Gorgui Dieng last year didn’t really work out, posting his least efficient and least productive season to date. This year, he looks slightly better to the naked eye, but none of his statistical figures really back this sentiment up. He is definitely a useful player as a mid-range shooter and solid rebounder, but there just seems to be something missing. His fg%, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks are all virtually the same as last year.

To be fair, while some of these figures do not shed a positive light on the bench unit, they have actually been pretty solid as a unit compared to the starters. Additionally, these numbers are all somewhat skewed due to the massive, lifeless beatdown delivered by Portland on Sunday night.

On a whole, this year’s bench unit is more effective and productive than in years past. Replacing Jamal Crawford with Josh Okogie, coupled with the addition of Tolliver’s shooting has made this a unit that Minnesota can put out on the floor together without completely getting killed.

Together, the unit looks to play fine. In a small sample size (20 minutes), they have a net rating of +6.5, which is very good for a unit made up of 5 reserves. My only gripe so far is that I’d like to see Tyus initiate more of the offense. However, Tyus has gotten off to a rough start which makes it hard to argue that he is not getting as many opportunities as he should.

It is important to note that we’re only 11 games into the season. All of this could change, none of this could change, or anywhere in between. All we know as of now is that the dysfunction of this team has certainly impacted the core players, but the reserves are still coming in and doing their job.

There will be good nights (Utah) as well as not so good nights (Clippers) for the bench, and nobody really knows how this season will end. Either way, I’m betting that this bench unit will end up being one of the bright spots.

*All stats from NBA.com/Stats