Earlier in the week, the starters received their first quarter grades, and with a team that is 17-5 (17-4 when the stats were compiled) there were a lot of high grades. The starters as a whole averaged a grade in the “A” range - the first time that’s been done for any quarter report that I’ve written over the past year.
The bench is a bit more nuanced as it’s full of players who help this team win, but struggle on the offensive end. The Minnesota Timberwolves bench ranks 23rd in the league in offensive rating, an easy nit to pick for a team that has otherwise had a spectacular first quarter.
I’ll be using these bench articles to compile a season-long estimated plus/minus since that is a stat I tend to refer to for the bigger picture. The numbers below are updated through Monday’s loss to the Pelicans:
Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus Leaders:
- Nickeil Alexander-Walker (3.0)*
- Rudy Gobert (2.5)
- Jaden McDaniels (1.7)
- Karl-Anthony Towns (0.9)
- Anthony Edwards (0.9)
- Kyle Anderson (0.8)
- Mike Conley (0.3)
- Naz Reid (0.0)
- Shake Milton (-0.5)
- Troy Brown Jr. (-2.2)
Offensive Estimated Plus/Minus Leaders:
- Anthony Edwards (2.5)
- Karl-Anthony Towns (1.9)
- Mike Conley (2.1)
- Rudy Gobert (0.0)
- Naz Reid (-0.3)
- Jaden McDaniels (-0.8)
- Troy Brown Jr. (-1.5)
- Nickeil Alexander-Walker (-2.8)
- Kyle Anderson (-3.5)
- Shake Milton (-4.3)
*6th best in the league
“Bench” players are italicized (early season injuries have seen the traditional bench players start quite a few games), and the offensive struggles are clear to see. Naz Reid is the only bench player who has played above a league average player on the offensive end (with Alexander-Walker, Kyle Anderson, and Shake Milton all falling into the 25th percentile).
It’s too early to play any trade machine games, but not too early to note that offensive bench production is one of the most, if not the most, glaring weaknesses on this team.
Let’s get to the grades.
A few brief reminders about the grading system:
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 will alter or add statistical categories throughout the season as needed.
3. The below stats are updated through 12-8, the 127-103 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. The 2nd quarter of the season started Monday, 12-11. All the stats get a refresh and will be tracked independently over the proceeding 20 games.
Kyle Anderson Role: 82% (B-)
The elephant in the room for last year’s roles-based MVP is clear in the above stats. Slow-Mo has been an excellent defender and offensive initiator, but his lack of shooting (and hesitancy to take open threes) is noticeably affecting the team’s offensive potency.
Last season’s career high of 41% from deep was probably a bit of a positive-statistical-aberration, but the 11% he’s currently shooting is jaw-droppingly far from his career average of 34%.
In fact, out of players that have taken at least 15 3-pointers this season, Kyle Anderson ranks dead last in the league in 3-point percentage.
There is no reason to think this kind of shooting performance will continue for the whole season. Slow-Mo’s 3-point shot is never going to be a go-to facet of this offense, but he does need to be able to keep the defense honest by knocking down the occasional one. Starting next quarter, I’ll be tracking his 3-point percentage over true shooting and hoping to see a bounce back towards his career average.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker: 90% (A-)
The Timberwolves’ utility starter is Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Thus far, he’s been the starting lineup replacement for Edwards and McDaniels. It’s probably a good bet he’d be the replacement for Conley as well. And depending on the matchup, he might even be the starter for Towns or Gobert if McDaniels could slide up to the 4.
NAW is bringing the Wolves exactly what you want from a spot starter. He has been one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, doing not only a great McDaniels impression as a best-player magnet, but also maximizing his own, unique defensive skill set by being one of the hardest players in the league to screen.
Offensively, he’s been okay. He’s shot the ball slightly above his career averages and has done a decent job as a back-up offense initiator. Pair other-worldly defensive production with that competent offense; he’s fitting into his role quite nicely to start the season.
Naz Reid: 83% (B)
Naz Reid is an interesting one to look closer at — both my stats and the estimated plus/minus have him at a slightly better year defensively vs. offensively, but that doesn’t quite feel right according to the eye test.
It’s more fair to say that the team has been better defensively than offensively when he’s on the court, but that’s going to happen a lot when you have the first-ranked defense in the league.
Reid is one of the keys to this team getting their bench offense going, and that will come with adding some intentional variety to the offense. Right now, when the team changes things defensively, it’s noticeable: High wall, drop, zone. How about an offensive change-up with a pace-and-space group?
My suggestion? Jordan McLaughlin, Shake Milton, Edwards, Reid and Towns. These are five of your best transition players, and they allow the team to sing at a slightly different pitch offensively. More variety offensively to match what is being done defensively for about five minutes each half — (McLaughlin and his chemistry Naz Reid) could be the perfect combo to give the bench a bit of a jump start.
Shake Milton: 55% (F)
The good news for Shake Milton? Using the same stats for the last three games, he’d be shooting 42.9% from deep, would have a 2-1 AST/TO ratio, and a 45.7% defensive field goal percentage — all marked improvements from his season averages. These handful of games show evidence that he’s beginning to find his game.
The bad news? It’s a 21-game sample size, and most of the other eighteen were spent struggling to find his role and how he fits into this new scheme and team.
He’s fighting to stay in the current rotation with players returning back from injury, and as someone who was really intrigued by his unique skill set, I’m here, hoping the last three games are more of an indication of what the rest of his season will bring.
Troy Brown Jr.: 88% (B+)
This is the grade that most differs from the estimated plus/minus numbers. TBJ has brought some needed shooting and rebounding, even if the defensive metrics have been lacking. He’s also the regular rotation player with the least amount of minutes played, which is going to add some variance to the numbers.
Going to trust my stats and the eye test here for TBJ; he’s been addressing two of the team’s early season weaknesses: Outside shooting and rebounding. He’s played his way into the rotation and fulfilled the role of the 10th man exactly how you would want a player to do it.
Jordan McLaughlin: INC
Going to separate McLaughlin from the rest of the bench group as his role feels a little different.
This team needs a true backup point guard. This team needs offense and pace off the bench. Will J-Mac get more minutes over the next twenty game stretch to help address these needs? We’ll see, but the best version of McLaughlin in short bursts could be exactly what the doctor ordered.
The Rest of the Bench: INC
The Minnesota Timberwolves: 96% (A)
Through 22 games, the Minnesota Timberwolves are the best team in the West, with the top-ranked defense and an 18th-ranked offense. They have taken care of business vs. undermanned teams and teams that they are better than. They’ve missed games from key starters, and their bench guys have come in and performed admirably.
The next quarter of the season is going to be a statement quarter. The schedule is brutal in December; they are going to the buffet line and getting a full plate of playoff teams and superstars. They’ve built enough of a cushion that they can handle losses — but when these next twenty games are done, we’ll have a very good idea if the NBA finals talk was just an early-season-fever-dream, or a statement of arrival for this long erstwhile franchise.