In years past, we’ve spent a lot of time talking ourselves into being fans of Minnesota Timberwolves players who really didn’t deserve meaningful NBA minutes. It’s a sad statement, but one I think we could probably mostly agree on. There have just been some dark times in terms of bench pieces in the Twin Cities recently. Looking at you, Treveon Graham (I know he started for a while, but nonetheless).
While it’s still too early to know for sure, on paper, this Timberwolves roster looks like it should be different. I’m not saying this is a team that’s loaded with top-end talent and should contend for a top-4 seed in the West, but bench units should be more tolerable this year for a variety of reason.
For one (and as mentioned multiple times in the last few weeks), the Timberwolves just have a lot of pretty strong options. If they’re willing to be flexible, Minnesota should be able to react to a number of different lineup structures throughout the entire condensed season.
When they want to run two ball-handlers together (often), they can do that with D’Angelo Russell and Ricky Rubio. When one of them needs a break, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jarrett Culver operate adequately as a weak-side playmaker this year.
When they need an infusion of shooting or just want to really spread the floor, they can play Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez and Jake Layman around their two franchise cornerstones.
When teams go small, they can match with pretty much any four-man combination of Rubio, Russell, Beasley, Culver, Layman, Anthony Edwards, and Josh Okogie in front of Karl-Anthony Towns. Lineups that feature four guards/wings with KAT should theoretically be able to hang on the glass, defend a little bit, and then torch switches on the offensive end.
Conversely, when teams go big, they have options as well. As noted before, Jake Layman has solid size for the wing, and they can slide Ed Davis or Jarred Vanderbilt in alongside KAT. Admittedly, this is probably their weakest spot, but if the worst they can muster up is a KAT/Davis frontcourt, that’s not all so bad compared to where we’ve been in the past.
I wouldn’t hate to see them try Vanderbilt at the 4 when teams go small either, as he theoretically can move on the perimeter but would also help KAT pummel undersized opponents on the offensive glass. Maybe that’s not realistic, I just know that watching Steven Adams and the 2016 Oklahoma City Thunder try to beat the Warriors by bludgeoning them on the glass was one of my favorite viewing experiences (until it wasn’t) and that I’ve wanted to see the Wolves try that when teams go small ever since.
The point is that this team truly does have a lot of options. You don’t want to be on your heels, but when the game tells them what rotational adjustment they need to make, they should have the requisite personnel to make those adjustments.
For clarity, the only players who are written in stone in the starting lineup are Towns and Russell, and I’d imagine Malik Beasley probably is too, although there are fair arguments for bringing him off the bench as a super-sub.
So, while Minnesota has a better, deeper stable of bench players than they are used to, that is somewhat offset by the fact that they don’t necessarily boast top-end depth in the form of really good ancillary starters. I think that actually speaks pretty well to what to expect from this squad this year.
I personally would be surprised if there was any lineup combination, outside of something insane that we didn’t see coming, that just gets completely run out of the gym. Most realistic lineup combinations seem like they should include enough talent to hold their own, relatively speaking. Conversely, I’m not sure there’s a lineup combination that will be dominant either given the offense-defense trade-offs that will come with each lineup combo.
The moral of the story, in my opinion, is that this team should be a refreshing step in the right direction. They have options with competent NBA role players for the first time in a long while. However, because of the defensive limitations that come with their best offensive lineups, and vice versa, the ceiling for this team just isn’t THAT high barring another leap by Towns or Russell.
And I think that’s okay.
They have a lineup full of guys who, for the most part, are at least rotational pieces on most good teams. That raises the floor quite a bit, and while it may not necessarily be what all fans are hoping for, is a really nice progression for an organization whose floor recently has been, well, the number one overall pick.
Surely, the lineups that feature Karl-Anthony Towns will be good as they almost always are, but the kicker to these “options” is that the Wolves don’t have enough two-way players to make adjustments without giving up something on the opposite end of the floor. That’s the next step in this process, and Minnesota is surely hoping that players like Jarrett Culver and Anthony Edwards turn out to be those core two-way players.
It takes time to go from arguably the worst team in the league to being a perennial playoff contender, but the team Gersson Rosas has put together is filled with respectable NBA players, which is a nice developmental step for this organization.