The arrival of Gersson Rosas in Minneapolis has brought a great deal of change already. His way of thinking is so far in the opposite direction of the prior regime. At every turn, and every press conference, there’s a new idea introduced to the fanbase.
One such idea that’s been presented is playing Robert Covington at the 4 for the majority of his minutes. Rosas has made it clear that he wants to play with one point guard, three wings, and one big man on the court as much as possible.
Gersson Rosas addressing the media after the reported trade said Robert Covington is a player who has his most success at the 4.— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) June 21, 2019
Without Saric, it appears Covington will be taking on an increased role at the 4.
On the surface, that sounds like a wonderful, modern idea. Teams all around the league are gravitating towards this type of rotation, and many are finding great success with it. Namely, Rosas’ old employer, the Houston Rockets, are finding that they’re able to launch more three-pointers and defend with the maximum amount of versatility by playing lineups that almost never feature a player bigger than the 6’5” P.J. Tucker at the 4.
You don’t have to look far to see that the most successful teams in the NBA are following a similar model. The Golden State Warriors rarely played anyone larger than Draymond Green or Kevin Durant in that spot, and the NBA Champion Toronto Raptors played the majority of their minutes with Pascal Siakam at the 4. Jerami Grant, formerly of the Oklahoma City Thunder is another name that pops into mind in this mold.
None of those guys are “small” by any means, but they’re certainly not what anyone would consider to be traditional power forwards.
What those teams all have in common, though, is a starting center that can handle opposing big men in the post defensively, which is not something that Karl-Anthony Towns has proven he can do consistently.
That’s concern number one for me with this 1-3-1 idea. It forces Towns to bang down low with opposing star bigs, which is not ideal for Minnesota. You want to be able to put someone else on those bigs to a) contain them better than Towns would and b) keep Towns out of foul trouble, something he already struggles with enough. This is the role that Taj Gibson filled so beautifully over the past few seasons.
Although Gibson is gone, Minnesota still has options to fill this role in Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell. Vonleh measures in at 6’9” and 250 lbs with a monstrous 7’4” wingspan, while Bell comes in at 6’9” and 225 lbs with a 7’ wingspan. Both players have experience guarding opposing post players, and Vonleh in particular has the measurables to really bang down low with said posts.
The other big difference between the teams that successfully deployed a jumbo-wing at the 4 and what the Timberwolves are going to try to do is rebounding. This was already a maddening subject on the defensive end for Minnesota last year. Putting Robert Covington in a spot to grab a ton of defensive rebounds does not seem like a great way to finish out possessions.
For comparison’s sake, let’s compare Robert Covington with the other two most likely candidates to play along side Karl-Anthony Towns, Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell.
For his career, RoCo has averaged 6.7 rebounds per-36 minutes. That’s a fine number for a wing player, but would be a concerning number for someone who will be relied upon to grab a significant portion of rebounds. Jordan Bell, on the other hand, has grabbed a shade under 9 boards per-36 minutes for his career. Noah Vonleh comes in at an elite 11.0 rebounds per-36 minutes for his career, only having one season in his career below that mark.
Minnesota would potentially be able to survive on the backboards if they had wings or a guard who really attacked the glass, but they don’t. Maybe the hyper-active Josh Okogie would be able to make up a bit of the difference, but even he only gathered 4.5 rebounds per-36 minutes. Additionally it’s hard to imagine Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins contributing much (in a positive way, at least) in this area.
There are clearly positives that would come from running RoCo at the 4, though. For one, the spacing on offense around KAT would be much, much better. This kind of goes without saying, but replacing a more traditional 4 with a competent wing shooter is going to open up the floor significantly. That might be a necessity, although the wing you’d likely be adding in place of Vonleh or Bell would be Josh Okogie, who made 28.6% of his threes last season, whereas Vonleh, for instance, made 33.6%.
Noah Vonleh is perfect from the field -- here's his latest, a three-pointer from the top of the key: pic.twitter.com/XY1MQqrwIe— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) December 1, 2018
That’s just one clip, sure, and 33.6% isn’t exactly anything to write home about, but the stroke looks clean and should be something Minnesota can utilize this season.
The best argument in favor of RoCo at the 4, in my opinion, is what it lets him do defensively. Letting Covington play more of a roamer role would be exciting as hell. His instincts on the defensive end are out of this world, and those instincts specifically would be maximized playing off-the-ball more often.
Robert Covington isn't an elite on-ball defender, but he's elite off-ball and still has the length and quick hands to do stuff like this.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) September 10, 2018
Being able to cleanly steal the ball off LeBron and KD in transition isn't something too many players can do: pic.twitter.com/flPVhwRKZl
While the idea of running out a 1-3-1 lineup with RoCo at the 4 is enticing, there are some very clear drawbacks. The point of building rotations is not to maximize Robert Covington’s individual defense, it’s to maximize the team as a whole. He’d probably rack upeven crazier stock numbers as a roamer than he has in years past, but it’s hard to imagine that specific benefit would outweigh all of the other potential negatives.
Additionally, after pouring through the numebers, it feels like there’s a very obvious fit next to Towns already on the roster in Noah Vonleh. Vonleh would be able to take the responsibility of defending star bigs and give the Wolves a second great rebounder on the front line. If the shooting from last year is legit, he’s also a better option to space the floor than Josh Okogie, barring an improvement from Okogie.
This isn’t to say that the Wolves should NEVER play a lineup with Robert Covington at the 4. There are certainly times where it makes sense, and I think it would make a lot of sense for Okogie for Vonleh to be the first substitution to get to that lineup. Running that type of lineup for too long against an opponents’ best five might be a recipe for disaster, however.