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Key Timberwolves Reserves are Laying Foundation for Success

The unselfish and decisive play of Minnesota’s reserves is beginning to seep into their starting lineup

Minnesota Timberwolves v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s funny how history repeats itself, isn’t it?

A season ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves offense got off to a sluggish start, in part due to unsustainably poor shooting from good shooters, but mostly due to an unwillingness to trust in the ball movement principles of Head Coach Chris Finch’s offense. Finch, in consecutive seasons now, has spent the early part of the season having to explain why the ball gets “sticky” and that the team needs to “trust the ball.” In Finch-speak, “sticky” is the nice way of saying that the team is playing selfishly.

While a return to normal shooting percentages from the likes of Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Malik Beasley brought the offense back to life to a certain degree last season, the bench unit setting the example for how Finch’s system can work is what built the offense back up. The most famous example is the Wolves’ 108-103 victory over the Boston Celtics in the COVID Classic, a game in which Minnesota opened with Jordan McLaughlin, Malik Beasley, Jaden McDaniels, Josh Okogie, and Nathan Knight, since the team’s normal starters — as well as several Celtics players — were all out to due to COVID. That game was a microcosm of what later defined their season, as many around the team have admitted that it showed the starters what could happen if they bought into the system built around ball movement.

Of course, it’s only natural for players as talented as D’Angelo Russell, Edwards, and Towns to want to hold the ball and attack their man one-on-one. It’s understandable for Rudy Gobert to be uncomfortable at first as he gets used to a system where he is asked to make more decisions with the ball than he was asked to as a member of the Utah Jazz. These are things we knew were coming, and we all warned each other about all off-season long. Let’s give this 15-20 games, we all said.

A week ago, as the team was run out of their own building and boo’d off the Target Center floor against a Phoenix Suns team missing Chris Paul and Cam Johnson, everyone threw the concept of patience out the window, myself included, in large part because it was so hard to see any progress being made, on either end of the floor.

Well, finally, the team is beginning to show signs of progress. And just like last year, much of it can be attributed to key reserves showing the core pieces what happens when a unit trusts and buys into what Finch asks of them.

I’m not going to pretend that beating the Cleveland Cavaliers without All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen, or the ultra-depleted Orlando Magic are wins you hang your hat on at the end of the season, but the way in which the team played in both games was encouraging. There were real signs of progress, especially on the offensive end.

The starters earned praise, but I firmly believe that Taurean Prince, Jordan McLaughlin, and Kyle Anderson deserve a boatload of credit for this team’s offensive improvement — and the numbers back this up. Small sample size and all that jazz, but in the 46 minutes that trio has played together, the Timberwolves have outscored opponents by 28.8 points per 100 possessions, without one end of the floor a glaring outlier. The offensive rating when that trio is on the floor is 130.8, and the defensive rating sits at 101.9. Those numbers will level a little bit as the season goes on, but it’s not as if it’s a lineup buoyed by a DRTG of 75, or something of that order. They’ve also been pivotal to lineups including the stars of this team, as Canis alum Jake Paynting pointed out (here’s a link to Howls and Growls, where Jake now houses his great work).

Prince is a natural fit in Finch’s scheme, and he exemplifies how the wings are supposed to operate better than anyone on the team. The respected veteran leader doesn’t waste time when he catches the ball. If he’s got a good look from 3, he lets it fly (it helps that he’s shooting 41.3% from 3 this year). If he isn’t open, he immediately either looks to attack a close-out or he swings the ball to get others a touch. He is a decisive player; and while his decision-making isn’t always perfect, making an imperfect decision quickly is better than catching and holding the ball while you figure out what you want to do next. At the very least, he keeps the ball moving and the offense in flow.

McLaughlin has long been the heir to Tyus Jones’ plus/minus throne in Minnesota, and it’s easy o see why. All he does is inject pace and movement into the offense to generate easy shots for his teammates. The Wolves assist on 66.2% of their made baskets with J-Mac on the court, compared to 61.2% with him off the floor. The on-court number would rank fourth in the NBA, sandwiched between the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns, while the off-court number would place 14th. In other words, the Timberwolves generate easy looks in the flow of their offense at an elite rate with him on the floor, and are only average in doing so without him. The overall offensive process is significantly better with McLaughlin on the floor.

Consider this: McLaughlin is shooting a ghastly 13.6% from the 3-point line this year, and yet, the Wolves offense is scoring 115.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor compared to 109.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. He never has been, and likely will never be, the type of player that teams close-out hard to when he catches the ball, but even an uptick to just regular bad shooting would widen that gap. McLaughlin only plays 16 minutes a game right now, but he drives winning as much as anyone on the team.

Anderson experienced a slow start to the season (fueled by lingering back spasms) but he has come on of late, and the results have been outstanding. With Slow-Mo on the floor, the Wolves are scoring 121.3 points per 100 possessions, compared to 107.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. Now, some of that on-court number is a little misleading, as Anderson isn’t going to shoot 46.2% from 3 for the entire year, but similar to McLaughlin, the team just gets easier baskets when he’s on the floor. The Wolves assist on 70.4% of baskets with Anderson on the floor, compared to just 59.9% without him. Not that it needs to be said, but that on-court number would rank first in the NBA.

Now that these players in particular have set the example, it’s starting to filter out to the rest of the team, particularly in the back court, where the ball can sometimes get “sticky.”

For one, Russell’s play has improved in the past few games. Obviously, his shot-making in Cleveland was incredible, but we’ve started to just see Russell take ownership of his role on this team. He only scored 11 points in Orlando, but I thought the way he moved the ball decisively and played with pace was maybe the best of the season for him. The process has been better.

He’s the starting point guard on this team, so he’s clearly going to have more responsibility than J-Mac, but a version of Russell that keeps the ball moving and hits timely shots the way he did in the fourth quarter of the game in Orlando is perfect. When he wants to be, D’Lo can be a truly marvelous passer. A version of Russell that finds the balance of playing quarterback for this team as a distributor and hitting big, timely shots is the apex version.

For Anthony Edwards, it’s been the willingness to play without the ball a bit more. I’ve long felt that the best version of Anthony Edwards looks more like a Devin Booker or Paul George type than a heliocentric Luka Dončić type, which is why the Orlando game was so encouraging to me. Ant was able to get into his bag here and there, especially once he got cooking, but he was marvelous off the ball in catch-and-shoot situations, as well as cutting and keeping the ball moving when he didn’t have it.

There will be times where the Wolves need Edwards to just get them a tough bucket, and he’s fully capable of doing so. Having that as your “break glass in case of emergency” offense is a whole lot better than Edwards dancing with the ball for 48 minutes, though, especially since he still has a bit to go in terms of making advanced (and at times basic) passing reads. Keeping Ant off the ball to start possessions, letting him come off a pin-down or Iverson cut and then letting him play from there is where he’s going to be at his best.

In turn, that’s where the Wolves will also be at their best. They’re close to laying a true foundation, now they need to continue to build on it.