The Minnesota Timberwolves’ acquisition of three-time All-Star Rudy Gobert from the Utah Jazz was a consolidation of resources of sorts, sending Minnesota’s valuable role players away in exchange for elite rim protection and rebounding.
In came Hall of Fame-level defense, but out went perimeter defense, leadership and floor spacing. Malik Beasley’s sharpshooter-off-the-bench role was up for grabs heading into the season, with the player likely to absorb those minutes being Jaylen Nowell.
Nowell started the year strong by averaging 16 points per game through the first five games, but since then he’s scored in double figures in just six of the last 16 games.
The 2019 Pac-12 Player of the Year is unfortunately back to a familiar spot, one that leads to variations in minutes depending on the matchup and/or how he played in the previous game. Nowell’s shown plenty of scoring ability throughout his time in Minnesota, but being able to guard on the other end has been a work in progress. This year he’s had good stretches of competent perimeter defense, but with a roster that struggles so mightily at the point of attack, it’s a risk to play any combination of Nowell, Edwards, Russell and Forbes on the floor together. In 251 possessions that Russell and Nowell have shared the floor, the Wolves hold a net rating of -11 (7th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass), as they simply don’t provide enough consistent defense on the perimeter. Nowell is somewhat similar to Bryn Forbes, in that when he isn’t able to get rolling on offense, it’s difficult to give him extended run.
Forbes — despite questions about a consistent role off the bench — was expected to provide floor spacing in his minutes. He hasn’t been able to find his groove in the few games he’s played in (just 11 total), shooting 26% from beyond the arc on two attempts per game. That comes after shooting 10/20 (50%) from deep across five preseason games.
On a team that has just Naz Reid (35.5%) and Taurean Prince (39%) beyond Nowell and Forbes for bench shooting, Forbes’ struggles put Minnesota into even more of a bind. I’m not sure the 2021 NBA Champion was ever a lock to be a one-for-one swap for Beasley, but more of a mix-in option for Chris Finch if/when floor spacing was required. Unfortunately for Finch, Forbes’ positive impact is neutralized if his shots aren’t falling.
A player that has an opposite skillset, Austin Rivers was another guy on the rotation bubble this summer. Similar to Forbes filling in the Beasley role, Rivers was theoretically going to step into the Patrick Beverley role, providing perimeter defense and guide the young players as a 10-year veteran would.
In the last four games (the only games he’s had a consistent role in) he’s averaging just under five points per game, but more importantly has made an impact by defending on the perimeter.
Outside of Jaden McDaniels, the Wolves haven’t had much to stop opposing teams’ guards from getting into the defense, forcing help/rotations almost immediately. Rivers provides competency on the perimeter, being able to guard point guards and some shooting guards. There’s been talk of the Timberwolves trying to simplify things schematically, such as pick-and-roll coverages. Rivers can act as “simplification” indirectly, by not allowing his defender to beat him off the dribble as easily, leading to less frequent mad scrambles defensively.
Finch said postgame that the Wolves aren't as physical or as tough as he expected them to be.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) November 28, 2022
So I asked Austin Rivers how he can help make the Wolves more physical and more aggressive.
Here was his answer ⤵️ https://t.co/xbYKgEpUfn
Rivers can also act as someone the team can lean on for direction, which is important at this stage of the season; perhaps the Wolves won’t lean as much on him offensively, but rather as someone to help right the ship on defense when things get rocky.
If Rivers can consistently provide that perimeter defense while also being a consistent voice for the Wolves, that likely will be more (or just as) valuable as Nowell’s up-and-down scoring or Forbes’ shooting.
All of this to say that we don’t know a whole lot more about the backup shooting guard spot in this rotation than we did this summer. Other than Forbes’ struggles from 3-point land, there really haven’t been many substantial changes to the competition for the rotation spot. It’s reasonable to assume that none of Rivers, Nowell or Forbes were ever expected to take the spot full-time, and that a committee approach was always the answer.
Going forward, the guard rotation off the bench is nearly as murky as it was this summer. Other than Rivers’ value as a defender and leader, Nowell’s hot start to the year, and Forbes’ consistent threat from 3-point range, the backup two-guard minutes are still up in the air. Until anyone gives Finch any reason to stick to just one or two guys, it seems as if we’ll continue to see all three guys mix in.