Last year, the Wolves were a fairly predictable team in terms of who we were going to see on the court. You could almost set your watch by Thibodeau’s substitution patterns and the Wolves played their starting five by far the most of any team in the NBA. In 48 games they played a total of 1131 minutes together. The next closest, the Charlotte Hornets starting five, played 1086 minutes over 56 games.
Even the five-man group with Nemanja Bjelica filling in for an injured Jimmy Butler was the 18th most used lineup in all of the NBA.
Some of this rigidity is due to Thibodeau’s coaching style. Unless injuries happened, he was reluctant to change the minutes of any player, even if they could have used the playing time. This was pretty clear when Jeff Teague was injured and Tyus Jones filled in admirably. The first game that Teague came back, Jones minutes dropped back to 15 minutes a game. After Nemanja Bjelica was playing small forward and starting extensively, his playing time again returned to his usual rate once Butler came back.
Really, only a few things throughout the year (other than injuries) impacted the minutes allocations and lineups. The first was if a player was playing badly. Shabazz Muhammad saw his minutes dwindle to DNP-CDs until he was released due to poor play. There were certainly a few games where Gorgui Dieng or Tyus Jones got a quick hook due to a bad decision. Jamal Crawford was really the only player who got to keep playing if he was hot, which was probably the only reasonable way to use him.
The second was when Derrick Rose came to the team, which was the impetus for Thibs to start using two-guard lineups after being resistant to the idea all year.
The final thing only really happened in the playoffs, which was when the Wolves were more open to going small, which cut down on Taj Gibson’s playing time. The Rockets made small-ball a feature in almost every lineup they played, which limited the efficacy of playing Gibson. After playing above 30 minutes throughout the year, Gibson played just over 20 minutes in most of the playoff matchups, with Jimmy Butler taking his spot at the four.
Other than a late season game against Memphis, where the Grizzlies were in tanking mode and featured Ben McLemore and Dillon Brooks on offense, Gibson never played that few of minutes in a game.
Gibson really should be the fulcrum of the lineup changes, as power forward is the position that is the most malleable in today’s NBA. As more teams are going small, it became clear very quickly that the Wolves simply did not have the personnel to matchup last year. Their only real option was putting Butler at the four, which necessitated bringing in Jamal Crawford to fill in the lineup. The team also almost never used Bjelica with the other starters, which would have given them the ability to play five-out. That group played 25 minutes together all year.
This year the Wolves should have a lot more flexibility. Hopefully, Anthony Tolliver inspires a little bit more trust from Thibs that Bjelica ever seemed to. With a stretch-four, the Wolves have an easy option to play five-out and let it fly from deep. That could easily give Butler and Andrew Wiggins a lot more room to attack the basket.
The rookies will also be essential. Keita-Bates Diop could theoretically play the part of a small-ball four and Josh Okogie gives the team another wing to play if they want to move Butler to the four. Unfortunately for us, the most likely option is that Thibs will instead go with the lineup that he used in the playoffs, which brought Derrick Rose in at shooting guard to move Butler to the four. We will have to see how that lineup works out when Rose is not shooting 70 percent from beyond the arc.
It’s likely that the Wolves will again use similar lineups to last year. After all, Thibs is running it back with the same starting five that led the league in minutes last year. That group is going to play together, for good reason as that group had a strong 8.5 net rating. However, the new roster will hopefully give the team a little more flexibility. Gibson’s minutes will be the thing to watch to see if the Wolves are becoming more adaptable.