In a normal September, the Timberwolves would be readying for media day, preseason, and training camp. Instead, the NBA playoffs are still happening and the Hometown Five are not participants. The long-term effects of six months (or more) without playing basketball for the Timberwolves and the league’s other worst teams will be extremely interesting to monitor this fall.
Anyway, now that we’re halfway through the conference semifinals, there are things for us to learn. Among the biggest things we’ve realized is the importance of numerous ball handlers and guys who can create for themselves and others.
The Celtics have Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker.
The Raptors have Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Marc Gasol.
The Clippers can choose from Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverly.
Conversely, when you look at eliminated teams like Milwaukee or Philadelphia (who desperately missed Ben Simmons) and you realize the giant impact of having an additional ball handler or two could have had on their playoff success (or lack thereof).
Anyway, you get the picture. The more players you have to help create offense (for themselves or others) the better. When you do finally reach the playoffs, opposing coaching staffs in today’s game are so well-versed at scheming against your best players (i.e. Karl-Anthony Towns or D’Angelo Russell), that it becomes imperative to find other ways to initiate your offense to remain competitive. The same logic applies when one of your top ball handlers (for example Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets) struggles on the court or suffers an injury that prevents him from even playing.
This larger concept has been a weakness of the Timberwolves for a while. For example, Robert Covington was a fantastic perimeter defender and spot up shooter, but you could not ask him to create a shot for himself or others. I wrote about this in November, but having a player like this as your third-best player makes more sense when your other best players are James Harden and Westbrook instead of Karl-Anthony Towns and, uh, Andrew Wiggins.
Since I published that piece, the Wolves have done well adding guys who can, for better or worse, simply dribble. D’Angelo Russell, for all his flaws, is pretty good at creating for himself and others. But outside of Russell and Towns, the team needs even more creators. Even a guy like Malik Beasley relies on others to set up his scoring about 70 percent of the time. In the past, the Wolves’ crunch time offense even struggled at times with a great facilitator like Ricky Rubio because teams would help off him, clog passing lanes, and force others to initiate things.
Holding up the best teams in the league as models makes you realize the Wolves still don’t possess enough guys who can be primary ball handlers in certain situations. If players like Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver figure to be a part of the team’s future, they’re going to need as many creators as possible around them. Looking to the future, you don’t want to go into playoff situations where you’re essentially playing 4-on-5 because your shooting guard poses little-to-no offensive threat.
But if you do have enough creators on the floor to amplify the weaknesses of specialists (defensive stoppers, corner shooters, etc.), you can make all of that work. None of this by the way is to purely call out Okogie or Culver, because both guys are still extremely young and could improve their handle well enough to the point where they could be relied upon as creators/facilitators.
What you will notice is the players I mentioned above (George, Leonard, Tatum, Lowry, etc.) are some of the best in the entire NBA at this type of skill. It’s not easy to collect ball handlers or creators, and no one is saying the Timberwolves should (or even can) sign these types of players. That’s simply unrealistic. However, whether it be via the draft, trades, or good old fashioned played development, the 2020 NBA playoffs have shown us yet again the importance of having multiple creators on a roster, and it’ll be imperative for Gersson Rosas and his staff to address this issue prior to the start of the 2020-2021 season.