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Projecting The Timberwolves’ Bench

Last year, the Wolves struggled with many of their non-starting lineups. What’s in store this season?

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NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, adding three new players to the bench isn’t a huge overhaul. But when you considered the cap situation of the Timberwolves, many thought it would be difficult to add NBA quality players to the rotation.

Jamal Crawford departed after a mostly down, especially on the defensive end, season. Nemanja Bjelica also left for a big pay day in Sacramento. They were replaced by Anthony Tolliver, James Nunnally and CJ Williams. As a result of these changes, the Wolves bench unit has, at least it appears, improved in many areas while also losing quality in some areas, notably playmaking and prowess out of the pick and roll.

The Timberwolves bench unit played the least minutes of any bench unit last season and it wasn’t particularly close. Their bench players played a total of 1110 minutes, and the Thunder were the next lowest with 1316 minutes. To put that 206 minute difference into perspective, if you go another 206 minutes in the other direction, you get all the way to the Orlando Magic at 15th on the list.

Not only was the Wolves bench unit barely utilised in comparison to other teams, but it was largely ineffective. They ranked 6th in offensive rating but this was offset by ranking dead last in defense, leading to a 20th placing in net rating. The bench unit was largely led by Jamal Crawford and Nemanja Bjelica, who both provided offensive value on multiple different play types, but Crawford in particular was catastrophic to the defense.

Both of these players will be playing elsewhere next season, so the Timberwolves bench is going to need an overhaul schematically. Crawford was essentially given the keys as his usage percentage was the highest of anyone on the bench at 24%. In comparison, Tyus Jones usage percentage was at a measly 13%, and Bjelica’s 14.5%.

Crawford’s season was not a particularly effective one as outside of a couple of games; he was largely wasteful. His box score stats look good but the argument against Crawford has always been that other players could do what he does with the sheer amount of possessions he is given.

Regardless of efficiency issues, Crawford did at times have some value as the leader of the bench unit. Crawford was an excellent pick and roll ball handler as he ranked in the 74th percentile. This was impressive given the lack of floor spacing and off-ball motion incorporated into Tom Thibodeau’s offensive sets.

At the time of writing, the Timberwolves do have six players who can be competent NBA bench players. These are Derrick Rose, Anthony Tolliver, Tyus Jones, James Nunnally, CJ Williams and Gorgui Dieng. They also have two of the more NBA-ready rookies arriving in Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop. It feels like they actually have depth for the first time in a while. Let’s take a look at the bench unit for the upcoming season, delving into the rotations before looking at some of the schematic tendencies of the unit, and problems they might come across.

The Jones-Rose Backcourt

We need to make one thing clear- Derrick Rose is going to be getting minutes off the bench. Tom Thibodeau values his ability to drive to the basket and believes it creates opportunities for spot-up shooters to get open. It’s hard to see his logic. Opponents would rather live with Rose’s tunnel vision drives than leave guys open on the perimeter. In his prime Rose shredded defenses on the interior, but those days are long gone. Rose attempted 5.1 drives per game last year for the Wolves and only shot 42% from the field on those drives. In comparison, Jamal Crawford shot 49%, Jeff Teague shot 47% and Tyus Jones shot 51%. Rose also struggled to get to the line on these drives in comparison to his team-mates. In the half-court, he was primarily used as a pick and roll ball handler. His numbers on this play type were quite abysmal, ranking in the 14th percentile. For many backup guards, the ‘excuse’ is that they are not playing with stretch bigs, but this wasn’t really the case with Rose. Per NBA.Com’s lineup tracking statistics, the most utilized bigs alongside Rose in his brief stint at the end of the season were Bjelica and Towns.

Having come to accept the fact Rose will be forced into the lineup, it makes sense to look at his potential usage next season. Towards the end of the season, Thibodeau opted to use Jones and Rose together in the backcourt. According to Jon Krawczynski, Thibodeau has repeatedly spoken highly of the dual point guard lineups, so expect to see them at a high rate while Rose is healthy.

The 65 minutes he played with Jones were the third highest pairing Rose had with any player. The sample size was minimal, but this was still a very strange pairing to evaluate. The two had a net rating of -4.3 together which is not great, and the defensive rating of 113.3 stands out in a bad way. Not only did the pairing statistically fail to impress, but they didn’t look aesthetically pleasing either. The minutes together were characterized by shot chucking and horrendous transition defense. The pace of 103.24 which they logged together emphasizes this, and the tape between the two was very strange to evaluate.

One of the reasons the evaluation of the pairing was tough, is because they were often joined by a third guard (Crawford). The majority of the tape the three had was chaotic and pretty painful to watch. Plays like the one below were too common.

There is no attempt to move the ball or run any action, and Crawford chucks up a terrible shot. I certainly won’t miss plays like this. Now, bad shots from Crawford are not necessarily the fault of Jones and Rose, but even without him, the play was up tempo without real results.

Thibodeau clearly wanted to try and overcome the lack of floor spacing given by Gorgui Dieng by playing quickly. The results were not good though, as the Jones-Rose-Dieng pairing logged a net rating of -24.2 playing at a pace of 108.72. The number with Crawford inserted in for Jones is not much better, at -18.7. The Wolves core three guard unit with Dieng on the court was simply atrocious, even on a small sample size. If one does not like to buy into small sample sizes that is fine. But even if things get slightly better for the Rose-Jones-Dieng trio, it will still be a bad unit.

The shooting of the duo is limited, and the contrast in styles likely won’t mesh. Jones likes to keep the ball moving and make play for others out of the pick and roll, whereas Rose wants to attack downhill. Jones is not ball dominant, but he still needs to run the offense. The issue I have with Rose isn’t necessarily that he is bad at basketball, but more that he only runs his version of the offense. This in conjunction with last year’s data is the main reason I think the two point guard line-ups are set up for failure.

Usage of Shooters

It feels strange to critique a top five offensive unit that carried a bottom five defensive unit, but some problems are worth noting. The sets have some good aspects to them, they are excellent at getting Towns spot up shooting opportunities and they are good at creating and exploiting favorable one on one matchups, usually via flare screens and other misdirection concepts. On the whole this is the aim of Thibodeau’s sets- stretch the opposition out and create favorable one on one matchups for Butler, Towns and to a lesser extent Teague and Wiggins.

One area where the Timberwolves do lag behind other teams though, is in their usage of shooters. Tom Thibodeau’s sets do not really incorporate a lot of off-the-ball motion which means that the Wolves do not create open three-point shots courtesy of their scheme.

We should be careful when discussing this, as the Wolves have simply not had a variety of good shooters for a while. This is especially true when analysing the bench unit. But Minnesota’s lack of shot creation on the perimeter is not all on the personnel, the Wolves don’t use screens to free up shooters and they do not really throw a lot of off-ball motion at the opponent.

The way the Wolves like to free up shooters is via forcing double teams. This works against weaker opponents because many like to double team Towns and Butler, but the best teams will switch everything. Alongside the change in defensive schemes, the elite teams also have good wing defenders who are happy to go one on one against someone like Jimmy Butler. They simply don’t need to double team him. This was evident in the series against the Rockets, especially when the reserves saw the floor.

The play below is something we saw too much of in the guard heavy lineups.

The only motion in the entire play is a Rose cut, and this doesn’t really look like something that was schemed. Due to the lack of player movement, the ball sticks, and they end up with a contested Gorgui Dieng mid-range shot. Minnesota was basically waiting for a double team, but I’m not sure there is one player on the bench worth double teaming. You could potentially fix this by staggering the minutes of the starters, but ultimately they need to revolutionist the way they use shooters.

A lot of Minnesota’s problems were no doubt personnel related. They only had three players among the top 100 in three-point percentage, and one of them now plays for the Sacramento Kings. Jones and Crawford both shot under 35% from beyond, and Gibson and Dieng both offered little in that regard.

On the surface the additions of James Nunnally and Anthony Tolliver look good. Tolliver was one of the best shooters in the NBA for periods of last season, and Nunnally is lights out. But I find it hard to get over-excited about these guys because Minnesota’s sets don’t create enough outside looks. Not only were they below average at converting three point looks, but they were awful at creating them. Their three-point frequency was the lowest in the League and it was easy to see why with a quick glance at their offensive sets. The counter-argument to this is that Thibodeau’s sets created very few three-point looks because it wasn’t a team strength, but I don’t see it this way.

Something they should do, especially with the bench unit, is use more screens to free up shooters. The idea of any NBA possession should be to throw as many actions at a defense as possible in 24 seconds in order to end up with a good shot. Minnesota is poor at this, especially against good teams. They were dead last in off-screen usage and this summarizes their three-point struggles more than anything else. Using screens is not the only way to create open looks from the perimeter, but they can create chaos for the opponents. No team want to constantly be chasing people around the perimeter and fighting through big men just south of seven feet tall. Minnesota are giving teams a free pass in this regard.

Having Tolliver is essentially the same as having Bjelica last year. Bjelica’s presence meant Minnesota could have a four-out lineup for most of the game, and Tolliver moves into that role. Both are going to be anchored to the perimeter, and this is fine.

My main issue with the Wolves attitude towards perimeter shots in the scheme is mainly aimed at the guards and the wing players. James Nunnally will have to fight for his minutes but even if he gets them, I do not back these current sets to maximize him. And history suggests that Thibodeau is not going to edit his sets and incorporate some of the modern modern strategies for freeing up shooters. Ideally it would make sense to use Nunnally in a similar way to how the Miami Heat use Wayne Ellington. The former Wolves sharpshooter offers nothing outside of the shooting. Yet the Heat still have him on the court for multiple plays a night and the gravity he creates gives opportunities for secondary actions such as fake dribble handoffs and back cuts.

So while I am pleased to see shooters on the roster, this is really only the first step. Minnesota has to eradicate some of their internal problems in order to overcome the math problem they are going to have against the very best teams.

Room for Optimism

On the whole I am pleased with the offseason. Thibodeau and Layden had an excellent draft and added some modern NBA players. But I also kind of see the signings as the equivalent of my grandparents buying an iPhone — it’s a waste if you don’t use it properly.

Thibodeau has depth on the roster for the first time in a long time, and it’s time he used it. I question whether the two guard lineups will ever work with Dieng on the court, the data and the tape are not very good.

The two rookies are also ready to make immediate impacts, so there is really no excuse for Minnesota to go eight or nine deep and be comfortably last in bench usage once again. Schematically the bench needs to be a little bit more creative or it will be swallowed up by the best teams, but the players are there. It’s a question of whether they will be utilized correctly.