Earlier this week, I wrote about the developing identity of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ starters. The underlying feeling of the article was optimistic - the current group of five starters are finding chemistry within unique roles.
In a complete reversal from earlier in the year, that has not been the case for the bench unit. These are the lowest bench grades I’ve given all season. If I had to guess for reasons why this is, two immediately come to mind:
- Injuries. Injuries to Karl-Anthony Towns, Jordan McLaughlin and Taurean Prince have left the backup unit a bit more jumbled as Anderson has moved into a starting role and two of their most reliable players have missed time.
- The Wolves best offensive player, Anthony Edwards, no longer does a “bench” rotation to start the second quarter. This is going to be especially detrimental to guys like Jaylen Nowell and Reid who benefit greatly from the defensive gravity that Edwards demands.
With the team as a whole beginning to right the ship towards the direction of the playoffs, I’ve been thinking more about what this team needs to extend their season past the first round. As a thought experiment, I looked at the finals from the last two years to see what types of bench roles a championship team needs to be successful. I’ve used last year’s champion, the Golden State Warriors, for my comparison points, but most of these roles could be found on each of the teams. As an added bonus, the Wolves and Warriors play tonight, so feel free to make your own comparisons and comment below.
For the grades themselves, three important reminders:
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. Third quarter grades will only involve stats accrued in the twenty games between January 11th and February 16th (the All-Star break).
Jaylen Nowell Third Quarter Check-In: 60% (D-)
Potential Playoff Role: The Microwave Scorer (Jordan Poole)
You just have to feel a bit for Nowell. He’s playing for his first big NBA contract (and potentially his future viability in the league) and things just haven’t been clicking. This has probably been his worst stretch of basketball in the Chris Finch era.
It doesn’t seem to be a lack of opportunity as he has been third in the team in usage rate over these past twelve games - just a tick above D’Angelo Russell. He’s just not consistently having the offensive impact he is capable of when he’s on the floor.
Here’s hoping Nowell returns to form and puts together a good series of games to solidify his future - whether it is with the Wolves or not, hard to not root for the former 2nd round pick to succeed.
With multiple sources now reporting the Wolves interest in Nuggets guard Bones Hyland, it is very possible that this bench role may be something that the team is looking for come the trade deadline.
Naz Reid Third Quarter Check-In: 74% (C)
Potential Playoff Role: The Backup Big Ready (no facsimile on Golden State since they play so small, maybe closest to Grant Williams on Boston)
What separates Reid from the “break glass in case of emergency” guys down below, is that he has proven his ability to be an effective player in the league with a larger minutes load.
It is interesting to note that last year’s NBA finals really didn’t have any true backup centers. When Kevon Looney or Robert Williams were off the floor, both teams were content to play smaller. Especially if the Wolves have a healthy Towns, Reid’s playoff minutes may become more foul trouble/matchup based rather than a permanent fixture of the lineup.
All that said, these twelve games haven’t been Reid’s best stretch of basketball. He’s shooting just 19% from 3-point range and just hasn’t had the same impact that we are used to seeing. He has a long enough track record of success that it is fair to consider this just a blip, but just like Nowell above, there could be an element of pressing knowing that there is trade chatter and an offseason payday looming.
Taurean Prince 3rd Quarter Check-In: 75% (C)
Potential Playoff Role: The Calming Veteran Presence (Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr.)
Prince does all of the little things, has a proven veteran track record, and just knows how to win. The biggest question for him going forward may just be his availability in games - of the 53 games the Wolves have played, he’s made appearances in 29 of them. Unlike McLaughlin and Towns, Prince hasn’t had a major injury but rather has had a series of minor injuries that have taken him out for smaller chunks at a time.
Like most check-ins have been, take the above stats with the “small sample size” warning since he’s missed time. When he’s on the court, he’s one of the team’s most important players.
Austin Rivers Third Quarter Check-In: 66% (D)
Potential Playoff Role: The Defensive Matchup Substitute (Gary Payton II)
Numbers wise, Rivers has come off the hot shooting streak that he was on for the last month, but his season long corner three percentage is still in the mid forties. The defensive rating is pretty meh, but those are stats that are lineup oriented.
With a fully healthy team, Rivers’ use will most likely be matchup-based. He is a defender that can chase players around screens and offer McDaniels some respite from guarding the other team’s best perimeter player. In the case of a team like Golden State having three perimeter guys that can score (Curry, Poole and Thompson) he may even be a crunch time sub to help slow a spread offense.
He’s already proven his value as a veteran leader and communicator, but even when the team is healthy, he may still have his big moments on the court too.
Nathan Knight 3rd Quarter Check-In: 84% (B)
Luka Garza 3rd Quarter Check-In: 83% (B)
Potential Playoff Role: The “Break-glass In Case of Emergency” Energy Guy(s) (Nemanja Bjelica, Moses Moody)
Insert Spiderman pointing meme here. Garza and Knight have both been subbing in on nights where there is either injury or foul trouble, both flashing moments of upside and moments of youth. It really feels unfair to give a grade to either of them considering the small sample size both have played, but I’m giving a slight edge to Knight based on him playing almost twice the amount of Garza over these past twelve games.
Both guys are going to burst onto court full of energy and desire to prove themselves - the question is how that energy translates once they are between the lines.
On a good night? Their unique blend of passion and skill perfectly matches what the game needs as they translate the energy of the crowd into a monster dunk or pick and pop three.
On a bad night? They press and try to do too much causing chaos on the court. They foul, turn the ball over, or miss defensive assignments in an attempt to make an impact.
For these twelve games, there have definitely been more good nights than bad ones!
Missing Playoff Role: The Floor General
What stood out to me in looking at the past four finals teams was the fact that the bench unit hasn’t had a floor general out there to help organize things and spread the ball around. When Edwards is off the floor, the offense can careen off of a cliff.
The obvious answer to this is McLaughlin, but I also wonder if Kyle Anderson doesn’t fit more into this role when the team is fully healthy and he (presumably) slides back to the bench. For instance, the Warriors used Draymond Green as their backup floor general when Steph Curry left the floor, and you can make some comparisons to what Anderson and Green both offer a team.
The great thing about Anderson is that he really can slide into any role, but the Green comparison did jump out to me when looking at last year’s championship roster. In the meanwhile, we’ll just continue lighting the candles for the prayer circle that brings us back a healthy McLaughlin.
The Minnesota Timberwolves 3rd Quarter Check-In: 85% (B)
Staters Average Grade: 90% (A-)
Bench Average Grade: 73% (C)
Only the Denver Nuggets (12-4) have more wins than the Timberwolves (11-5) in 2023. Four of those wins aren’t reflected in this check-in, but overall the point remains the same: This has been an improving team since the calendar turned even as the schedule has gotten harder. The reality check of the Western Conference: You are a game and a half way from hosting a playoff series… and a game and a half away from missing the playoffs entirely. They need to maintain this level of play.
I’ll be back after the All-star break to finalize the third quarter grades and offer a preview of how we’ll wrap up this season-long project. A little hint: Every school year has finals that can make a large impact on your overall grade. See you soon!