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The Sneaky Value of the Wolves’ Moves on the Margins

Armed with one of the league’s deepest benches, the Wolves can afford to prioritize health next season.

Miami Heat v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves have enjoyed a well-earned summer of excitement following a seismic July that metamorphosed the team back into a potential Western Conference power for the first time in nearly two decades.

After staging a coup that convinced President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly, one of the league’s most well-respected decision-makers, to abandon his post leading the rival Denver Nuggets, you knew that minority stakeholders Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez weren’t going to sit on the sidelines when another transformational opportunity presented itself.

The Wolves’ braintrust, in full understanding of and agreement on the moment they were in, capitalized on it and acquired a Hall-of-Famer-to-be in All-NBA center Rudy Gobert. While landing a player with as proven of a regular season resume as the Stifle Tower boasts is obviously a momentous step for a team, city, and ownership group yearning for sustainable relevancy, it also influenced ripple effects that are easily overlooked.

Immediately in the wake of his addition, on the opening day of NBA Free Agency, Gobert — when coupled with an executive of Connelly’s caliber — became a skeleton key that a diversely talented and empowered Timberwolves front office used to unlock the trade’s paramount ancillary effect: health insurance.

Portland Trail Blazers v Minnesota Timberwolves
Josh Okogie checks on Anthony Edwards
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

While the team agreed to terms with Kyle Anderson 48 hours prior to landing Gobert, there is no doubt that it was helpful in selling the veteran Swiss Army Knife to bolt an upstart Memphis Grizzlies squad for a budding conference rival.

Minnesota continued fortifying its back end with by signing veteran guards Austin Rivers and Bryn Forbes to veteran’s minimum deals, an indication of the duo’s belief in the Wolves as a legitimate playoff threat.

As icing on the cake, Connelly and Co. were able to net Eric Paschall, a member of the 2019-20 NBA All-Rookie First Team in search of a home to reignite his NBA career, on a two-way contract.

It’s not often a small market team is able to 1) trade for an All-NBA quality player with four years of team control who is eager to join your franchise, and 2) parlay that into legitimately ample depth to support three star players: Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards.

Yet, the Wolves pulled it off; and because they did, they’ve not only paved a surefire path to the 2023 playoffs, but also one whose journey doesn’t need to be arduous.

While perhaps not top of mind right now, Edwards’ lingering knee issues at times caused Wolves stakeholders, from fans to players to executives, to hold their collective breath.

Early in Game 3 of the first-round series against Memphis, Edwards, seemingly out of nowhere, began grabbing his right knee after bringing the ball up the floor without any contact. That was concerning to say the least for a 20-year-old with otherworldly athletic ability.

Edwards gutted out left patella tendinopathy in his knee for a good chunk of last season because he didn’t feel he could rest it if the team wanted to get where it needed to go. The never-before-injured Edwards acquiesced to the requests of the training staff and sat out four games, even though it probably should’ve been closer to 10 games spread throughout the year in a pressure-less world.

His fellow starting guard D’Angelo Russell missed 12 games due to injury and lingering soreness in 2021-22, but wasn’t at his best in the playoffs, even with resting the final two games of the season. Ensuring Russell is at the peak of his powers as much as possible will be pivotal to the Wolves’ hopes of landing home-court advantage in the playoffs next spring. Backup floor general Jordan McLaughlin showed down the stretch of the season that he is more than capable of creating excellent offense for his teammates over large stretches, and needs to be utilized more next season, too.

And finally, Towns underwent small clean up procedures following the season to rectify wear and tear he fought through as a bruising 5 inside. Incredibly, Towns missed only two games outside of the six COVID-19 knocked him out of. Like Edwards, Towns takes great pride in showing up for his teammates every night and was willing to lay his body on the line each and every night last season in order to make the playoffs.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

The good news for all of them is that next season, gutting out severe pain and lingering injuries for extended stretches won’t be a prerequisite for a playoff appearance. Not only should the Wolves position themselves nicely for a run in terms of their seeding, but they should also be able to do so at full strength, provided they can effectively maximize their depth.

Beyond Gobert reducing the beating Towns will take inside, each of the Wolves’ bench depth signings this offseason will make life easier for the team’s returning “Big Three” next season.

Taurean Prince

Leading the pack here is Taurean Prince, whom the Wolves re-signed shortly before the opening of free agency. His calming presence as a well-respected veteran voice in the locker room and pressure-relieving knockdown shooter will do wonders on nights Towns is unavailable.

Prince has no issue coming into the game firing from 3, either; he shot 7.0 3s per 36 minutes at a 37.6% clip, one you can rely on to fill the shooting void an inactive Towns would create. Furthermore, the floor spacing he provides serves as an important bridge between Jaden McDaniels (or Anderson) and Gobert inside.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies
Taurean Prince guards Kyle Anderson
Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Kyle Anderson

Minnesota acquired a versatile defender in Anderson who displayed in last season’s playoffs his chops to aptly defend players from quick guards to bruising bigs, and most in between the two. He’d fit well as a small-ball 5 next to Towns, too. Those skills, coupled with his ball-handling and creation abilities, will make him an option to fill in not only in the front-court, but also in the back-court, where he can support the offense as a floor general. Anderson’s assist-rate-to-usage-rate ratio (0.97) ranked in the 93rd percentile last season, per Cleaning the Glass.

How his role would change depends on which of the aforementioned Edwards, Russell and Towns miss time. But given his diverse, supplemental skillset, and vast experience as a starter and bench engine, the Wolves can trust him to throttle up or down accordingly. Plus, he fits seamlessly alongside players who would be assigned a heavier workload in those cases, such as Jaylen Nowell, McDaniels, and Prince.

Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors - Game Two
Austin Rivers guards Steph Curry in the 2022 Playoffs
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Austin Rivers and Bryn Forbes

Rivers comes to Minnesota from Denver, where he served as the team’s primary defender on opposing lead ball-handlers while he was on the floor (Canis Hoopus contributor Aidan Berg wrote about Rivers’ defensive chops yesterday here). The former Duke star can also create his own shot off the dribble at times as a complementary guard, and has a good understanding of space playing around stars. That alone can drive impactful minutes in blended bench/starter minutes alongside Towns or Gobert on nights Russell or Edwards are out.

Along the same vein, Forbes is a lights out shooter. He likely needs to be out there alongside either Gobert or Anderson because he isn’t a plus defender, but can readily fill in as a scoring bench guard. On nights the back-court needs a night off, hopefully coming on nights against substandard defenses, he can fill it up from beyond the arc. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him play in stretches alongside McLaughlin (and a jumbo front-court), against smaller teams that J-Mac can pick apart with his drive-and-kick game.

Nate Knight and Eric Paschall

It’s safe to say that Knight and Paschall are upgrades from Jake Layman and McKinley Wright IV at the end of the bench, and figure to impact the game with their offense.

Knight proved during the height of the league’s COVID outbreak that he has the potential to be a contributor at the NBA level because of his rare blend of physicality and athleticism as a reserve player. He scored a 20 points, grabbed 11 boards and dished out four dimes — all career-highs — in a win over the Boston Celtics on December 27.

He has the size to fill in as a backup 4 and the required aggression and instincts to contribute offensively on nights a front-court player is absent. His defense is likely to be spotty, but if his 3-point shot can evolve into a more consistent form, he will be a capable fill-in off the bench.

The same goes for Paschall, whose shooting and scoring will be is pathway to reviving his career as an overqualified two-way player with plenty of NBA experience. He figures to get plenty of reps as a featured piece of the Iowa Wolves, which should help his conditioning and confidence, while also ensuring he’ll be ready to play when he’s called up to the NBA roster.

The Wolves are uniquely positioned to survive and thrive on nights that their premier players need off for load management purposes given the strength of their bench. Despite an understandable eagerness to gun for the No. 1 seed in an absolutely stacked Western Conference, it may be smarter for the Wolves not to push the likes of Edwards and Towns in the regular season when they are banged up, and instead rely on the depth of a shrewdly reshaped roster.

While the typical long game the Timberwolves have played has involved ping pong balls, Minnesota’s acquisition of Rudy Gobert (and a loaded bench as a result of the move), has unlocked a new level of the long game. Instead of playing a long game aimed at optimizing lottery probability, this one is won by optimizing a legitimate championship window, and that starts with ensuring its stars will be ready for war when playoff NBA basketball returns to Target Center next April.