Week 9 is in the books and the Minnesota Timberwolves are sitting at 16-15 in 10th place in the Western Conference.
Last week was yet another roller coaster as the Timberwolves recovered with wins against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls after facing a thrashing against the Portland Trail Blazers and losing one of the worst games of modern basketball against the Los Angeles Clippers. Despite a deluge of injuries, the Timberwolves are staying afloat.
The Importance of the Bench
Coming into the season, the Timberwolves were widely derided for their lack of depth. Fans knew the importance of players like Taurean Prince, Naz Reid, Jaylen Nowell, and Jordan McLaughlin, but there were still a lot of questions that needed answering. After a slow start, Kyle Anderson has started to find his footing and proving to make a legitimate impact. How he will perform once Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns are back to full health remains a question as the previous sample was discouraging, but with Anderson at full health, it should be better.
Until recently, the question of who else would step up remained a mystery. President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly took flyers on Bryn Forbes and Austin Rivers, while also retaining Nathan Knight and then Luka Garza on a two-way contract. Due to inconsistent minutes, lack of opportunity, and generally poor performances, none of these have really taken shape as legitimate role players. As the season progresses and injuries continue to inevitably play a role, some of these deeper bench options must show some ability to contribute in a consistent fashion.
The Forbes experience has been an abject disaster. Forbes has been one of the more reliable bench sharp shooters in the league for years and played important roles on championship teams. For whatever reason, though, Forbes has completely lost his shot. Per Cleaning the Glass, Forbes is scoring 0.765 points per shot attempt (0th percentile), has an effective field goal rate of 34.7 (0th percentile), is shooting 18% from 3 (0th percentile), and has an on/off net rating differential of -4.4 (32nd percentile).
Garza has quickly become a die-hard fan favorite because of his ridiculous stat lines for the Iowa Wolves. Dating back to his days with the Iowa Hawkeyes, Garza has never struggled to pad the stat sheet with points and rebounds. He has an outstanding motor and plays with a bully ball mentality that can thrive at lower levels. Unfortunately, Garza still leaves a lot to be desired on defense. Without additional injuries, it is hard to envision how Garza finds consistent minutes.
Similar to Garza, Knight has been another fan favorite who only the sickos have begged to see more minutes of. Knight has always played with a sense of physicality and athleticism that this team needs, but his lack of minutes makes it clear that Chris Finch has yet to fully trust him. Knight can be insanely productive on the right night, as we saw against the Bulls where he dropped 16 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds, and shot 6/8 from the floor and 1/2 from three. To expect this level of production from Knight on a nightly basis feels like a stretch, but it does feel like his best application to fill the role of break-in-case-of-emergency.
All of this brings us to Austin Rivers, who has been excellent recently. Over his last four games, Rivers is averaging 10.5 points, 1.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.5 steals on 52/55.6/100 shooting splits. Additionally, Rivers is now scoring 1.192 points per shot (70th percentile), has an assist-to-usage rate of 0.78 (79th percentile), and is shooting 47% on corner threes (86th percentile). Besides the uptick on offensive production, Rivers provides the Timberwolves with a versatile, experienced defender in the backcourt. Rivers can switch on multiple positions and is one of their best point-of-attack defenders. It would be surprising if Rivers’ recent production continued at its current level, but something in the same ballpark would be incredibly important for the Timberwolves moving forward.
The Defensive 3-Point Woes Continue
The Wolves’ 3-point defense seems like it is going to be an issue all season. Three-point defense can be tricky to judge because a lot of it can be influenced by luck and some of it is purely scheme based. With the Timberwolves, though, it is continuing to be a lack of ability issue.
Before the Towns and Gobert injuries, Minnesota had an awful three-point defense. With two centers on the floor, the struggled to properly close out and chase guys off screens. The result was either a wide-open three, or an extra pass that created a wide-open three to counter a Timberwolves’ defender who was frantically scrambling to cover for his teammate.
After these injuries, there was some optimism that the downsizing of the roster would improve the Wolves’ defensive activity and result in fewer threes per game. Nope. So far this season, Minnesota is allowing opponents to shoot 37.9% on threes (28th) and allowing an opponent three-point shot frequency of 38.4% (25th). Additionally, the team is worst in the league, allowing 23% of opponents three-pointers to be wide-open.
Since the issue isn’t scheme based, and we’ve had enough sample size to more or less dilute luck out of it, what’s the issue? The main problem is the Timberwolves’ complete lack of point of attack defense. Last season, the Wolves had defenders like Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt who were tremendous at navigating screens and scrambling to their next rotation when they were taken out by a screen. This season, though, Minnesota doesn’t have that guy. Instead, they are still implementing a lot of last season’s habits that had them scrambling and aggressively rotating, which don’t work well in a drop scheme. In a drop defense, the goal is to funnel the ball to the rim protector and allow everyone else to stay home.
Unfortunately, players are still helping off corner shooters because the lack of screen navigation tends to result in constant 2v1 situations going downhill. Without the help rotations, opponents likely get a bunch of layups. As we’ve seen with the help rotations, opponents get wide-open threes. There isn’t an easy fix to this because it is a deficit of skill. The only way for the Timberwolves to figure this out is through more repetition. Either the help defenders have to stay home on shooters, or the point of attack defenders need to be better about making their secondary rotations once taken out by a screen.
D-Lo Continues to Shine
D’Angelo Russell continues to be tremendous. After what was shaping up to be his worst season of his career, Russell this month is now averaging 24 points, 5.8 assists, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.1 steals on 54.6/45.3/84 shooting splits. Over the entire season, Russell has also climbed up to the 79th percentile for points per shot (1.184), 58th percentile for assist-to-usage ratio (1.15), 87th percentile for effective field goal rate (56.2%), 87th percentile for mid-range shooting (50%), and 81st percentile for 3-point shooting (37%).
A major factor in the D-Lo renaissance has been him rediscovering his shot, but it feels like there is more to it than that. Russell has stopped pressing as much and is more patient with his approach. He’s carving out pockets of space in the mid-range, moving the ball, and showing his versatility by operating off-ball more. The turnovers are still an issue, and probably always will be, but there are fewer of the head scratching what-the-fuck-was-that moments. Russell will always take some risks with his passing, but that’s a necessity for this offense. It allows them to show different looks, maximize their talents, and expose weaknesses in the defense. If Russell can continue to play with this level of effectiveness, it will surely pay dividends for the Timberwolves.