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Comparing the Rockets’ “Skill Ball” to the Timberwolves

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What can we learn from Houston’s experiment

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Since taking over as president of basketball operations in Minnesota, Gersson Rosas has brought a similar philosophy to the one he was greatly a part of with the Houston Rockets. He has shifted the team to a brand of basketball that prioritizes shooting and skill above all else, which played a large part in the chase of D’Angelo Russell, as well as the additions of players such as Malik Beasley and James Johnson.

Ironically enough, this past season the Rockets dove even FURTHER into what Mike D’Antoni refers to as “skill ball”. After moving veteran center Clint Capela at the trade deadline, the lone true center on Houston’s roster was Tyson Chandler, who barely ever played. The Rockets were all-in on going small, starting five guards/wings and playing the 6’5” P.J. Tucker as the team’s de facto center.

Minnesota hasn’t shifted quite that far, and they likely never will because Karl-Anthony Towns is the team’s best player, and also happens to stand 7’ tall. In that sense, the Timberwolves will likely never “concede” post-ups as often as Houston does. This is an example of a larger theme that’s at play — Minnesota is seemingly trying to mirror Houston’s style of play with wildly different roster construction. I’m here today to try to dive into where that will be a good thing, and where that may ultimately end up hurting Minnesota.

First things first, let’s be honest about something, if it weren’t for Karl-Anthony Towns, I’m not convinced that Rosas would prefer to go to an uber-small roster that is predicated entirely on skill. To me, that signals that Rosas wants to try to surround Towns with similar players.

This is going to be challenging, especially defensively.

What makes Houston’s experiment (kind of?) work is the sheer bulk and strength of their guards and wings. James Harden, P.J. Tucker, and Eric Gordon are human brick walls, all standing at roughly 6’5” with good length. That Russell Westbrook guy is in pretty good shape too. Lastly, while Robert Covington may be thin, he is so long that he’s incredibly effective as a weak-side rim protector, as shown by his 2.5 blocks per-game with Houston. This allows Harden and Tucker to be the primary post defenders, with Covington lurking on the weak side.

Those kinds of bodies just don’t exist in Minnesota. Outside of Josh Okogie, Minnesota’s guards and wings are on the lighter side. Asking anyone in the long-term plans (outside of KAT) to try to battle in the post just won’t cut it.

The Rockets didn’t adopt this theory for defensive reasons, however. They figured they’d be able to get by, while torching teams on the other end of the court, and they’ve mostly been able to do that. Daryl Morey talked on The Lowe Post about why they chose to go this route, and the answer really came down to simplicity. Harden/Capela pick-and-rolls were good offense, but did Harden ever really need that screen? Morey concluded that Capela’s presence clogged the paint and hurt the Rockets offense more than his screen helped, so he decided to just remove that option from the equation entirely.

Minnesota doesn’t have James Harden, but they do have two young stars in Towns and Russell who are going to be very tough to stop in the exact action that Morey worked to eliminate, pick-and-roll/pop. Because of each Towns and Russell’s unique talents, they won’t overlap the same space very often in the way that Capela and Harden did around the rim.

Russell is most comfortable shooting jumpers, which isn’t exactly ideal, but is fine considering he’s an elite shooter. Towns operates almost exclusively at the rim and at the three-point line. Each player allows the other to play within space, and within space that they’re comfortable in. That should should allow the Wolves offense to have a ceiling that they haven’t known for a long time.

In reality, as it almost always does for the Timberwolves, it probably comes down to how KAT progresses. If he’s able to continue his upward trend offensively, the sky truly becomes the limit for this franchise on that side of the ball. Becoming a more consistent defensive presence, with the help of whatever wings the front office adds, takes the team from a fun fringe playoff team to a team that could challenge for postseason success.

Is all of this ultimately going to produce wins? Who knows. Nonetheless, I’ve come around to the idea. I truly think Karl-Anthony Towns will only continue to get better, and I am really excited to see what he can become and where he can take this team.