One of my favorite talking points near playoff time is figuring out a team’s best eight-to-nine man rotations. Your starters’ minutes tick up, which means the bench rotation has to get shorter by default.
For instance, in the deciding game six of last year’s series vs the Memphis Grizzlies, do you remember what the rotation was? I’ll give you a moment to see if you can guess the nine players who played…
Okay, moments up. Here are the players and their minutes in order:
1. Anthony Edwards (40:54)
2. Karl-Anthony Towns (40:45)
3. Patrick Beverley (37:32)
4. Jaden McDaniels (33:27)
5. D’Angelo Russell (27:14)
6. Jordan McLaughlin (24:50)
7. Malik Beasley (15:58)
8. Jared Vanderbilt (12:15)
9. Greg Monroe (7:05)
These games reveal who a coach trusts most. Game six was infamous for McLaughlin getting the minutes down the stretch from Russell, but as I look at that above list, it is a reminder about how important Patrick Beverly was to this team last year. He started the season on the bench, but became an integral part of their identity down the stretch.
As an added wrinkle to this semester report, I’m going to order the article based on the players I think most likely to get playoff minutes. Pending any trade deadline changes, I would wager that the Wolves currently have six bench guys fighting over three or four spots. Assuming we all feel safe in giving one of those spots to the guy I have ranked first (Kyle Anderson could have just as easily been on the starters article), we’re down to five guys looking at two or three spots.
Let’s see how their seasons have gone thus far!
The necessary reminders before getting to the grades:
1. These grades are roles-based, so the stats I’m looking at for each player are different.
2. Roles on the team can change as the roster and playing time changes—I may alter or add statistical categories as we see this team step into their identity.
3. The grades below are broken down into three sections: 1st quarter grades (stats from games 1-21), second quarter grades (stats only from games 22-41) and semester grades (games 1-41 stats, with full season stats for all categories I’ve looked at).
*As a special note, the majority of these semester grades are going to be weighted towards the second quarter as most of the bench players saw increased playing time. The starters’ minutes stayed pretty consistent so averaging the quarter grades with their final stats came pretty close - not the case with some of the bench guys.
Kyle Anderson First Semester Grade: 90% (A-)
1st Quarter Grade: 76% (C)
2nd Quarter Grade: 93% (A-)
Anderson just continues to do it all for this team. Those 2nd quarter stats that I’m tracking are based on the idea that he had to become a little bit of a Towns-lite. He shot exceptionally well, developed the same kind of passing chemistry with Gobert, and has been a key presence on the glass during this current win streak.
I said last article that Slow-Mo is this team’s duct tape, and this seems a perfect time to restate it. He’s going to come into a game and bring your team whatever it needs - absolutely the kind of role player that a team needs to win in the playoffs.
Anderson is just as important as the starters on this team in terms of the impact on winning. While he may not start games when the team is fully healthy, I have a feeling he’ll find a way to be closing a lot of them.
Taurean Prince First Semester Grade: 94% (A)
1st Quarter Grade: 73% (C)
2nd Quarter Grade: 101% (A+)
Yes, the first ever A+ for a quarter grade this season. It needs some major asterisks in that it is only based on a four game sample size, but I also want to capture what Prince’s presence has meant to this team in real time. He came back, and the team has started winning.
In the starters article, I gave a shout-out to the player’s only meeting as a big turning point for the team - the second part of that was that Prince also came back by the next game. If he is able to maintain this level of play through the 2nd half of the season, he will be the 2nd most important piece coming off the bench come playoff time.
As a side note, a charge is one of my least favorite basketball plays, but it certainly was nice to finally see one go our way again with TP back in the lineup!
Jordan McLaughlin First Semester Grade: INC
1st Quarter Grade: 94% (A)
2nd Quarter Grade: INC
This may be the most controversial of my bench rankings, but I do think McLaughlin is going to be a key bench contributor come playoff time. For players who play at least 15 minutes a game. The trusted floor general ranks first in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, assist ratio, and pace. For a team that struggles with turnovers and the ball sticking in their hands, it’s hard to imagine a better initiator off the bench to get things corrected.
The team misses the dynamic that he brings. Now would be a good time to buy up some Jordan McLaughlin stock - possible his role substantially increases come the trade deadline.
Naz Reid First Semester Grade: 83% (B)
1st Quarter Grade: 75% (C)
2nd Quarter Grade: 84% (B)
Simply put, Reid is such a solid player. There are teams where he could absolutely be a starter in this league, but in terms of his role for this team, he just keeps playing his way into more and more minutes.
One of the original questions about the season was about whether or not he could find time on the floor next to Towns and Gobert - he has answered that with his play. He’s too good to leave on the bench. His quick decision making and ability to attack matchups stands in a bit of a stark contrast from the All-NBA bigs on the team.
Austin Rivers First Semester Grade: 85% (B)
1st Quarter Grade: D (65%)
2nd Quarter Grade: 88% (B+)
Rivers has gone from fringe regular season guy to making a case that he deserves to be a part of this team’s playoff rotation. His play on the floor is beginning to match his leadership role off of it as he’s been shooting a blistering 48% from corner 3s this season. For whatever physical tools he lacks, he cares on defense and is going to go out there and give it his all.
He has been the biggest voice championing Edwards in the media. If there are any issues with this team figuring out pecking order once they are all full strength, he (along with Prince) seem like the vets best suited to navigate those hard conversations.
Ultimately his higher semester grade comes down to the fact that the majority of his minutes have come in the second quarter of the season.
Jaylen Nowell First Semester Grade: 75% (C)
1st Quarter Grade: 79% (C+)
2nd Quarter Grade: 73% (C)
Yup. If the playoffs were to start today and the rest of the roster was healthy, my guess is Nowell would be the first player to get his minutes cut.
It is not the guess I would have made at the start of the season, but with the team establishing more of its identity and with a guy like Rivers showing his value as a team player, Nowell is going to have to play better to win that spot back.
For his second quarter grade, with the injuries that this team has sustained, this was the perfect platform for Nowell to step in and cement himself as an integral part of the rotation going forward. With increased minutes came… well, roughly the same kind of production. The first two games after Towns went down were 20+ point games, but since then? None. His stock right now may be at an all-season low after getting benched by Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch for some poor decision making.
If Nowell wants to be a part of the playoff rotation, two things need to happen. He’s got to go on a bit of a scoring hot streak - I would wager on that happening at some point if he can hang onto the minutes. But the second thing is harder - he needs to score while balancing better offensive decision making and not becoming a ball vacuum that only has a one-track mind. It’s a hard balance to strike for someone whose game is predicated on scoring, but it’s one he has to find if he wants to keep his spot in the rotation.
The Rest of the Bench: TBD
Apologies to the rest of the bench guys - but barring a trade or other injuries, this team feels pretty set in terms of its playoff roster. If any of them get an extended run, I’ll happily include their stat updates in future articles. I’ll continue to track them - feel free to ask about any of the other guys in the comment section!
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ First Semester Grade: 68% (D+)
1st Quarter Grade: 50% (F)
2nd Quarter Grade: 79% (C+)
If we only had the 2nd quarter of the season, the Wolves would be 6th in the west and rank inside the top 15 for both offensive and defensive ratings. Despite some rollercoaster swings, they have been showing signs of improvement and gelling into more of an identity as we head towards the all-star break.
The teams around them in the west all have their own issues. Outside of the Nuggets and Grizzlies, every other team is dealing with some kind of hardship, be it injuries or just settling more into the difficulties of bringing it every night for an 82 game season. The Wolves are currently three games out of the four seed, and just one and a half games above the 13th spot.
You can’t re-write the 20-21 start, but depending on how the next 41 games go, that is either a chapter in a story about a team building themselves up and finding their identity, or a chapter in a tragedy about the dangers of making an all-in trade.
I’ll be back in twenty games when we should have a lot better idea of what kind of story this season is telling.