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Wolves Lineup Possibilities: Where Can they FInd Success?

A little bit about lineup combinations, and about Josh Okogie.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

This is ultimately going to be a story about lineups, and how we might expect the Wolves to best deploy their players, but it’s going start out as a story about Josh Okogie.

We start with Okogie because he had a surprisingly positive impact on the floor as a rookie, but his minutes are a bit precarious heading into 2019-20. Okogie played over 1700 minutes last season, quite a bit for a 20 year old post-lottery rookie. It was in large part due to injuries, particularly to Robert Covington and a bit to Andrew Wiggins.

The book on him after his rookie season is that he’s a high effort guy with some defensive abilities that could be developed into real excellence on that end of the floor, but unless he improves his perimeter shooting it’s going to be tough to carve out a consistent role. His potential is largely encapsulated in his best remembered play of the season:

That description is fair as far as it goes, but I think it undersells Okogie’s value. To begin with, the Wolves were a better team with Okogie on the floor, to the tune of 1.7 points/100. This is not insignificant: Among players with 500 or more minutes last season, it’s only behind Karl-Anthony Towns, Robert Covington, Jeff Teague, and the now departed Derrick Rose.

Of course on/off isn’t everything, but it’s not as if Okogie had teammate advantages. He played about 70 percent of his minutes with Towns, which is about average since Towns himself played about 70 percent of the available minutes. He played almost not at all with Covington, who he replaced after the injury.

The reason I fear Okogie will lose minutes this year is mostly numbers: Covington has to play when he’s healthy, because he’s clearly the team’s best wing player and defender. Presumably the Wolves brain trust, despite some scary trade rumors, understands this. Wiggins is going to play because, well, they made a huge financial investment in him, and have spent the summer talking him up.

Then there is Jarrett Culver. Like everyone else, I have high hopes for him, but he is a rookie, and I hope they don’t force feed him. However, he is the first big acquisition of the new regime, so of course they are going to be very invested in his success, possibly to the detriment of other, holdover players like Okogie. We’ll have to wait and see.

To an extent, the wing minutes crunch could be mitigated if Ryan Saunders really does embrace small-ball. While that limits the available time for off-season signings Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell, it appears the direction the team wants to go, and it allows them opportunities to get their best returning combinations on the court.

Among returning two-man combinations, the best four last year were KAT with Covington, Teague, and Okogie, plus Teague with Okogie. The Towns-Teague-Okogie three man lineup was a net +4.2, which was also better than the Teague-Towns-Wiggins threesome.

It might behoove the Wolves to get those four (Covington, Towns, Teague, and Okogie) on the court together as much as possible, but it leaves open the question of who the fifth player should be.

Towns-Teague-Okogie was successful largely because they dominated the glass and got to the free throw line effectively. Along with Covington, it’s probably their best realistic defensive group, though that isn’t saying much.

I’d like to see them try out that group with Vonleh on the floor as well, as I think this maximizes their defense and rebounding, but I suspect that we’re more likely to see Wiggins out there as well. This might work, since the 4-man group of Covington-Wiggins-Teague-Towns was also quite effective last season, as was Okogie with that group instead of Covington.

In fact, those two four-man groups were the two most effective among returning players, and two of the four most effective overall among the 20 most used combinations.

I have been concerned all summer about the Wolves going small, because I’ve been worried about the defensive efficacy of smaller groups. But having looked into this a bit, I’m somewhat more optimistic. It requires Towns to guard the opposition’s best big, which is not ideal, but if they assign Covington to the least dangerous opposition scorer, it allows him to do what he does best: read and roam to disrupt offense.

There will, I think, be a battle in training camp for the fifth starter spot. I’ve focused a lot here on Josh Okogie, because I think he’s a bit of the forgotten man, but I might actually put him in that spot. He has a chance to be a lot more helpful than I would have guessed.

Even if he doesn’t start, I would like to see him get opportunities with Towns, Teague, and Covington, as that might be an effective group.

One of the fun things I’m looking forward to this year is experimentation with a new roster full of players who have not yet established who they are in the NBA yet. Okogie, Culver, Bell, Layman, and even Vonleh are still guys finding their way. I’m not expecting too many wins, but at least Ryan Saunders has shown a willingness to mix and match, and it should be interesting to see what emerges as the season gets started.