The Timberwolves regular starting lineup was very successful last season and also the most heavily used lineup in the league, two facts which are not unrelated. Tom Thibodeau, whose tendency is to rely on certain players extensively anyway, had a lineup that worked, and he was loath to go away from his trusted combination.
That’s understandable, but the question that I want to investigate today is whether staggering certain players more would have been beneficial to team success. Let’s start with some baselines:
Overall, the Wolves were 2.2 points better per 100 possessions than their opponents. The regular starting lineup of Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson, and Karl-Anthony Towns was 9.1 points better per 100.
This is good news we already knew: The starting group is capable of playing consistently good basketball. The problems emerged when bench combinations were on the floor, and the question is whether that can be mitigated with a different approach to substitution patterns.
The starting lineup played a shocking 1098 minutes together, nearly 30 percent of total team minutes. Does it make sense to “give away” some of those minutes to (hopefully) improve the rest of the minutes?
The major problem in trying to assess whether they would have been better off with more staggering is the presence of Jamal Crawford. It is difficult to overstate his negative effect on the team while on the floor last season. Wonderful guy or not, yikes. He killed just about every lineup he was a part of.
Crawford’s disastrous turn as the primary backup wing makes a central question more difficult to answer: Should the Wolves have staggered Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins more than they did? Would that have helped Wiggins to engage more, especially on the offensive end where he was not the same player this past season?
Butler only played 400 of his minutes without Wiggins on the floor, though Wiggins of course played more of his without Butler, since Jimmy missed time with injury. When Wiggins was on the floor without Butler, the team was a brutal -6.7/100 in nearly 1300 minutes.
But, drill down more to the minutes Wiggins was on the floor without either Butler OR Crawford, and the team was -2.2/100 in a still decent sample of 565 minutes. Crawford’s presence on the floor was just devastating. To carry the story a bit further, when we pair Wiggins with Nemanja Bjelica (but no Butler or Crawford) which was the starting wing pairing while Butler was injured, they were a very effective +3.7/100.
Another way to look at it:
Regular starting lineup: +9.1
Starters -Butler + Bjelica: +8.4
Starters -Butler + Crawford (106 minute sample): +0.5
Ultimately, in order to approach some of the value-of-staggering questions that I wanted to ask, I had to hold Crawford completely out, because he skews the results so much. The good news, of course, is that he is no longer on the roster. That in itself is a significant positive change for the Wolves, or at least it should be. They have not exactly replaced him with back up wings that give confidence, but it’s impossible to imagine it being worse.
So back to our question: Should Butler and Wiggins be staggered more?
Again, the presence of Crawford makes it somewhat hard to say. Butler and Wiggins were a huge positive (over +10/100) when playing together, something you don’t want to give away too much. But ultimately the answer is probably yes, for this reason: Butler is capable of elevating more bench heavy units, and should likely be used more with less talented groups in order to mitigate the damage.
For example, playing Butler with Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica, but without Wiggins, was very effective (in a small sample; again Butler only played 400 of his minutes without Wiggins.) In particular, that was one of their most effective scoring groups at 121/100.
The four starters without Butler or Crawford were still a positive; you can succeed with that group, though not to the extent as with Butler on the floor. They can still score very well, though the defense takes a hit. When looking at it this way, we see that losing Bjelica could be harmful; The starting group was very effective with him in place of Butler. Surprisingly adding Bjelica made the defense much more effective, in large part because that group rebounded the hell out of the ball.
The question is whether there is anyone on the roster who can fill that role as effectively, allowing Butler more time with second units. The dream scenario is that Josh Okogie is that player, though it’s exceedingly unlikely that happens this season. Perhaps Anthony Tolliver, though his game is different, would work, though I’m skeptical of a Tolliver-Gibson-Towns front line.
Which brings us to the other linchpin of the squad: Karl-Anthony Towns. And this is, in some ways, where the rubber hits the road. The Wolves played 732 minutes without either Towns or Butler on the floor, and it was catastrophic. They were -11/100, and bad on both sides of the ball, but particularly defensively. 480 of those minutes included Wiggins on the floor, and things got even worse, as they were -14/100 and gave up 124/100 on defense.
Of course, of those 732 minutes without either player on the floor, probably around 300 of them simply couldn’t be helped: Butler missed 23 games, and Towns couldn’t play 48 in those. Some of the other minutes were garbage time when the game was already decided. But the lesson is: You cannot play any meaningful minutes without at least one of Butler or Towns on the floor if it can be avoided.
Of course there is a flip side, which is that pairing is hugely effective (regardless of their feelings about each other,) and the impulse is to maximize their court time together. With or without Wiggins, the Butler-Towns combo is awesome, nearly a +12/100 and over 119/100 offensively. We like that.
In the end, the key here is Jimmy Butler. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that it’s incumbent on Tom Thibodeau to find some lineups that work without him better than what we saw last season. It’s possible, as we saw with the group that started while he was injured (though the bench, as a result, got even worse in those games. Injuries suck.)
The best approach seems to me to stagger lineups so that they always have two of their three primary scorers on the floor at once. The key to this is finding players to group with Towns and Wiggins when Butler is not in the game. Crawford opting out helps, but Bjelica leaving hurts that pursuit. All is not lost, however. A threesome of Towns, Wiggins, and Taj Gibson held their own without Butler on the floor, and really if you can find a way to play net even basketball without Butler, you are way ahead of the game.
This approach would require subbing out one of Wiggins or Butler earlier, and then rotating them through most of the rest of the half. One of the frustrations I had with Thibs was he seemed oblivious to the idea that players could check in and out of games more than once per half. For example, they could sub out one of the wings after 4-5 minutes, bring him back after another four minutes for Towns, then bring Towns back in for the other wing to start the second quarter. That keeps two of the three primary scorers on the floor at all times. Mostly it’s about flexibility, a trait that, despite his favorite quote “the game tells you what to do,” Thibs hasn’t showed much of during his tenure in Minnesota.
But I admit it’s difficult to let go of a lineup that was so effective last season. Trying to maximize the Towns-Butler pairing while minimizing times neither is on the floor really should be the goal.