After Wednesday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the public relations department for the Minnesota Timberwolves included a very interesting statistic in their postgame media email. The stat was that the Timberwolves’ bench became the NBA’s second-highest scoring unit after outscoring the Clippers’ reserves 47-44, as of Wednesday night.
Why is this surprising? Seeing the bench pack such a scoring punch now took me back to Tom Thibodeau grinding his starters to dust while the reserves tried to stay awake. In Thibodeau’s last full season as Minnesota’s coach, the Timberwolves bench played just 13.5 minutes per game and averaged 26 points per game. These figures were dead last in the NBA. For perspective, Oklahoma City was the closest ranking team and scored 0.4 more points in 2.5 minutes. Is scoring less than a half-point in three more minutes per game better or worse? The answer hardly matters because both are terrible.
Fast forward to 2021, where the Timberwolves’ reserves average 41.8 points and 21.4 minutes per game. The Pistons are first in scoring at 41.9 bench points per game; however, no team has played their bench more minutes than the Timberwolves this season.
Why the Wolves have leaned on their bench so much this season is unsurprising. Because of injuries and health and safety protocols, bench players started in place of the starters. Reserves being typically less suited for heavy minutes may mean more playing time for players with even less experience or ability. What choice is there really when you have to play the games.
The simple reason may be Ryan Saunders wanting a deep rotation — Timberwolves reserves played the fifth-fewest minutes in 2019, the year Saunders took over midway through the season, but played the 10th-most in 2020. Now, no one has played their bench more this season.
Again, how much of the bench’s heavy use is by design or necessity is unclear. It may very well be a combination of the two. The Timberwolves have really dug deep into their rotation so far this season. Playing Naz Reid and Jaden McDaniels as much as the Timberwolves have probably isn’t something the team expected this season.
How Much Should a Bench Play?
There has to be a point to this and there is — the top-five benches in minutes per game are Minnesota, Detroit, Memphis, Orlando, and Washington. Of those teams, Memphis is the only team with a winning record. However, this doesn’t mean that only bad teams play their benches a lot. The Lakers, Celtics, Warriors, and Clippers are the next four most-played bench units this season.
A season ago, it was Milwaukee and the Los Angeles teams — you know, the three best teams in the league then — in the top-five. Washington and New York were the other teams.
In 2019, just three teams with winning records — Clippers, Blazers, and Nets — had their benches in the top-10. However, the 2018 Toronto Raptors’ reserves played the second-most minutes that season and that was a good team.
Rather than a bench playing too much, it seems like it’s more dependent on how good the group is. The Clippers’ or Lakers’ benches playing 25 minutes a game is probably better than the Timberwolves' or Pistons’ benches playing the same amount. If you can replace your best players with players that are still good, you can play them more. Some call it “depth.”
Conversely, playing a bench few minutes isn’t necessarily good or bad either. Five teams in the bottom-10 of bench minutes played had winning records in 2020 compared to six in 2019. There are just four such teams this season. For example, the Jazz have been good each of the last two seasons but finished 27th in bench minutes last season and are 22nd this season.
Sure, some bad teams lean heavily on their starters like better teams. Good teams also rely on their reserves, too. Whether a team’s bench use is good or bad seems to depend more on an individual team’s makeup.
The Timberwolves Could Use Less Bench
Looking at the Timberwolves with a 6-19 season record and a -2.0 bench plus/minus doesn’t feel like a good sign. Minnesota has had key players but so has Memphis. Ideally, the Timberwolves would rather have more Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell this season to limit their bench unit.
So, it feels like the Timberwolves have had an all-hands-on-deck situation for weeks out of necessity and the results have been mixed. There have been numerous players playing in situations they’re less suited for (the way these same players have been used has also been questionable at times).
Like anything else, sometimes a statistic doesn’t tell the full story. It’s great the Timberwolves’ bench is scoring well, but they’re also playing a ton of minutes and not stopping anyone either. Finding a better balance between the starters and reserves would better suit these Timberwolves.