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Embracing Minnesota’s Newfound Depth

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Minnesota’s new look bench is a refreshing sight.

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

When you consider that the Minnesota Timberwolves have only made the playoffs nine times in their 30-year history, or only got past the first round in one of those attempts, it’s understandable to see how pessimism radiates easily throughout the fan base. From putrid expansion squads to injury-riddled, mediocre ones, the majority of the barely bearable Wolves teams we hate to love have one thing in common: A deprivation of depth.

You have to step into the Timberwolves time traveling machine and voyage back to the 2011-12 season to find a bench unit that finished the season with a positive net rating. Even then, those reserves, led by infamous names like JJ Barea, Michael Beasley and Wayne Ellington, only helped their team muster up 26 wins in a 66-game lockout season.

27 games into one of the more drama-filled seasons in the Timberwolves’ rotten history, that trend seems to finally be coming to an end. In the 436 minutes Minnesota’s reserves have spent on the court, they are posting a +0.1 net rating. Overall, it isn’t a very significant output. However, like everything this season, it must be split up into pre and post-Jimmy Butler sections.

That’s when the newfound depth starts to really get exciting.

In the 14 games since the disgruntled All-Star swapped chewing up teammates for chewing Philly cheese steaks — and Dario Saric and Robert Covington arrived in the Twin Cities —Minnesota’s bench productiveness has skyrocketed. Throughout 245 minutes together, the unit usually consisting of Saric, Tyus Jones, Derrick Rose, Gorgui Dieng and occasionally Josh Okogie has registered a +3.2 net rating. That ranks as the fourth best set of reserves over that 31-day stretch.

After giving up 141 points to the Sacramento Kings, Andrew Wiggins told the media the team will be hoping to “throw this one out”, but there were still some great signs bench-wise. At the end of the high-scoring gunfight, the Wolves second unit contributed an encouraging 51 points. In what has become a nightly occurrence, the fire was lit by Derrick Rose. The 30-year-old who is enjoying one of the more stunning late-career rejuvenations in recent memory:

In his 29.7 minutes per game, Rose is averaging 18.4 points and 4.5 assists while shooting 48.8 percent from the field and a sizzling 47.6 percent from behind the 3-point arc. With enough juice left in his worn-out legs to blow past nearly anyone in the league, a completely transformed jumper, and a mindset that has been retooled to find the open rollers and cutters more often, Rose is the most important cog in the Wolves bench machine.

While the 2011 Most Valuable Player keeps the wheel turning, it’s not just him. The Timberwolves are experiencing a rare dose of depth. Dario Saric was one of the bright spots in the Kings loss, where he contributed 18 points, six rebounds, and three assists. Since The Homie arrived in Minnesota, his minutes and production have been steadily trending upward. In fact, it has got to the point now where Saric is starting to scalp fourth-quarter minutes off Taj Gibson, as Tom Thibodeau seems to be realizing how good he is spacing the floor next to Karl-Anthony Towns.

You can tell at times that Saric is still not completely immersed in the ins and outs of Thibs’ offense, but he is such a smart and talented player that he will always be useful on that end. In the play below, he immediately clicks onto Dante Cunningham standing around in autopilot and makes a hard cut past him for the easy deuce:

With Rose often capturing the attention of multiple defenders, the Croatian’s spot-up shooting and cutting ability has helped Minnesota’s bench blossom. Since he arrived, the Wolves bench have put up a red-hot 58.7 percent true shooting percentage (a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-point field goals, and free throws). That trails only the Denver Nuggets reserves as the hottest shooting in that span.

The other two bench mainstays have embraced a more effective offensive game lately, too. Gorgui Dieng has opted for hard rolls to the cup and nifty two-man hand-off plays instead of pulling up for long mid-range jumpers that the defenders bait him into taking. At the same time Tyus Jones has improved his 3-point shooting in the last 10 games from 26.3 percent to 36.4 percent, per NBA stats.

However, with all the offensive success the second unit is having, defense has been their calling card. With Defensive Player of the Year front-runner Robert Covington usually filling the empty chasm with the aforementioned bench quartet, the lineup has locked up their opponents. In 93 minutes played together, the five has held their counterparts to just 94.9 points per 100 possessions.

RoCo is the leader of the wolfpack, Jones has always been a pesky-yet-undersized defender, Saric is slow-footed but brimming with basketball IQ, and even Rose seems to be trying harder than last season, but Gorgui Dieng is the glue tying it together.

In his last 15 games, the Senegalese giant has registered a 99.3 defensive rating. On top of that, he is finally starting to impact the game with his help side shot-blocking again like he did when he earned his hefty 4-year, $48 million contract. Over those 15 games, he is averaging 0.9 blocks in 13.6 minutes. Last season, Dieng-swats seemed to completely disappear, and he was often late to the spot or out of position to get a hand on the ball. The result was the 28-year-old averaging just 0.5 blocks in 16.9 minutes per night.

With Covington and Jones providing the defensive savvy to funnel their man into Dieng’s danger zone, it makes it abundantly easier for the big man to stuff shots. That defensive confidence has even led to him digging in with extra grunt when isolated in switching situations.

Here is a collection of his best blocks of late:

With a collection of players who ying and yang perfectly together, an offense that runs smoothly combined, and a defense that makes life difficult for would-be scorers, it’s easy to see why Minnesota’s reserves are starting to turn heads. Even if the rookie excitement machine that is Josh Okogie has been tethered to Thibodeau’s pine for far longer than fans would like. Okogie will hopefully get his chance to earn consistent minutes at some stage this season, but it’s hard for coach Thibs to adjust when the nine-man rotation he is running with is finally meshing.

It’s been what seems like an eternity since the Minnesota Timberwolves have been able to stay competitive when their starters sit, but it is happening. Let’s embrace it and shower in its glory. You never know how long good things will last with this franchise.

*All statistics are accurate from December 12*