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An Argument Against Small Ball

An argument for the Wolves to play bigger once Karl-Anthony Towns returns.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Wolves were coming off three wins in a row to start the season when they visited Philadelphia to face the Sixers. Their season opening winning streak was fueled by the brilliance of Karl-Anthony Towns, and a new system that featured lots of threes and a smaller lineup, with Robert Covington, in reality a wing player, occupying the power forward spot. Not only were the Wolves starting small, to that point they had stayed small throughout every competitive minute of their three games.

Ahead of the Sixers tilt, I wondered if they would have to adjust given the size they were going to face: With Joel Embiid and Al Horford up front, to say nothing of a 6’10” point guard and the big, physical Tobias Harris at small forward, the Sixers were and are bucking the trend of playing smaller. They did not adjust in that game, and predictably got hammered.

During and after the game, it was suggested to me that it was more important for the coaching staff to stick with their plan, and show the players, particularly Towns, they were committed to their system, than to switch to a more traditional lineup just because of the opponent.

After that Sixers game, there was some relaxation in their strict commitment to one big on the floor at a time, but it still remained a rarity, as the Wolves continued their commitment to small ball.

I was never a huge proponent of it with this roster for several reasons. First, the Wolves do not have the shooting to play small all the time. While I am glad to see their three point attempts significantly up after years of being way behind the league curve, they simply clank too many to make use of the natural advantage of playing small.

Second, it puts too much pressure on Robert Covington, who is struggling this year in part, I believe, because he is consistently forced to guard bigger players. The Wolves need Cov out on the wing, disrupting passing lanes, and getting himself open on the arc and via cuts on the offensive end.

Third, it left talent unused. Until Towns’ injury, Gorgui Dieng, who has consistently proven himself a positive performer throughout his career, was underutilized. The two bigs they brought in over the summer—Noah Vonleh and especially Jordan Bell were not seeing much action. Meanwhile, equally if not even more limited wings were holding down rotation spots.

Fourth and most obviously, it creates defensive difficulties when Towns is the only big protecting the paint. After the first few energetic games of the season, the defense regressed back toward what we’ve become accustomed to: near the bottom of the league.

And here we are. It has become clear that the Wolves cannot effectively defend with Towns as the only big. The last seven games that he has missed are quite instructive on this point: In his absence, and to a lesser extent that of Andrew Wiggins over the past three games, the defense, anchored by Dieng, has revived. Unfortunately, the offense has cratered.

We now have a decent sample with Towns both on and off the floor, and the picture it paints is stark: The Wolves are 12 points worse per 100 possessions defensively when Towns is on the floor. They are also 18 points better per 100 offensively when he plays.

When Towns is healthy, he’s obviously going to play. He’s the Wolves best player and centerpiece. It is incumbent on the organization to figure out how to maximize his impact. In my view, that means playing a defensive big next to him. Clearly it simply isn’t working on that end of the floor to have Towns surrounded by four guards/wings. He needs help in the paint.

When he returns, it’s time to give up on large amounts of small ball when Towns is on the floor. It isn’t workable defensively. Gorgui Dieng has once again shown he’s deserving of consistent playing time, and I still believe Jordan Bell can help. (Bell’s top two two-man pairings in terms of net rating are Towns and Dieng.)

Philosophically there is nothing wrong with playing small—much of the league has gone in that direction. But the Wolves simply do not have the personnel to play that way effectively at either end of the court. They must adjust to the talent at hand, and that means playing two bigs.

What say you?