For Minnesota Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch, the question of which five players to start has been decided for some time now. Mike Conley, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert will be the starting lineup, availability provided. But if there’s one thing we learned from last year, it’s the group that starts isn’t always the most effective five-man pairing.
Finding the most effective unit isn’t the most challenging task. Balancing strengths — and weaknesses — in order to stay afloat when the best five isn’t out there is where elite coaches thrive. When the game is on the line you turn to your best five, simple. But when it’s the second quarter and your starters are resting, who do you turn to? Who do they play best alongside?
The puzzle becomes how to intertwine the talent you have on the roster, not in the starting five.
The Conley-Edwards-McDaniels-Towns-Gobert group played 156 possessions last season, scoring a middling 106.4 points per 100 possessions (17th percentile), according to Cleaning the Glass. It’s a small sample size, so a grain of salt is required.
On the other side of the ball, that five-man group was borderline elite. They allowed just 100.6 points per 100 percentage (93rd percentile) and held their opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 47.8%.
Gobert, Edwards, Conley and McDaniels are all plus defenders, so playing them together will compound their skills. But dispersing their collective skill across multiple units will ensure this team finishes as a top-10 defense.
With the starting five penciled in, attention flies to the bench. There lies four players that will begin the year in the rotation: Kyle Anderson, Naz Reid, Shake Milton and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Each of these four have been invested in financially and/or have forced Finch to play them, producing enough that he can’t not play them.
Milton adds to an already-difficult puzzle. However, he’s like an edge piece; you immediately have an idea of where it fits in. It isn’t as easy to figure out as the corner pieces, but you basically already know where it goes.
Everything up to this point has been the puzzle equivalent of dumping out the box and spreading out the pieces on the kitchen table. Now that we know how many pieces we have, here comes the hard part: putting the pieces together.
Kyle Anderson and Gobert formed the team’s highest-performing duo (minimum 650 minutes), with a net rating of +5.6 in over 1000 minutes played. It seems a good bet that Finch will play those two together as much as he can, perhaps having Towns exit the game in the first quarter to allow for Anderson and Gobert to play together (and to have Anderson play the four, his best position).
The question of a lineup with both Gobert and Anderson is clearly floor spacing. In the event someone other than Anderson or Gobert is having an off night from beyond the arc, the defense may succeed in packing the paint and forcing the Wolves to beat them from the outside.
Finch has options to curb any disastrous shooting woes, as he could take Gobert out and keep Towns in to see what the Anderson-Towns front-court pairing can do, one we didn’t see much of in 2022-23.
Conley might play the first half of the first quarter, getting subbed out with one of the bigs presumably for Milton. The former Philadelphia 76er can split playmaking duties with Edwards and Anderson in this scenario, while also leaving plenty of defensive ability on the floor with McDaniels, Edwards and Anderson.
Milton’s capable of playing alongside nearly all of Minnesota’s guards, and his playmaking and scoring juice could be a nice fit to Alexander-Walker’s defensive chops in a potential bench pairing.
Finding a place in the rotation for recently-paid Naz Reid will be more difficult with Towns back in the fold, leading us to predict the vast majority of his opportunities come at power forward this season. Although it might not be easy to work him into the rotation, he certainly will be playing every night after the Wolves invested in him with a three-year, $42 million extension.
Reid will share the floor with Towns and Gobert individually, both of whom he didn’t spend much alongside with last season. The LSU product played 21% of his minutes at power forward last season, and in the year prior it was 7%. Despite not being historically successful while playing the four, a new set of circumstances — and growth as a player — provide reasonable expectations that things will improve.
Playing the four on defense is much different than the five, which we’ve seen Reid struggle with in the past. Keeping up with perimeter players and spending time away from the hoop are among the challenges presented with playing power forward.
An NBA rotation is similar to those 500-piece puzzles you stare at and think about for hours on end. When it seems impossible to fit everything together, you step away, get a snack and get back to it later.
Sometimes you have to stop thinking about it for a day or two and revisit it with a clear mind and fresh attitude. But other times you have to feel the urge to swipe all the pieces off the table or back into the box just to completely reset.
For Finch and his staff, the questions of who to pair with who and at what times will be pondered for hours before opening night. And once that game begins, he might just have to wipe it clean and start from scratch.