- Injuries. Injuries to Karl-Anthony Towns, Jordan McLaughlin and Taurean Prince have left the backup unit a bit more jumbled as Anderson shifted 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 Nowell and Reid who benefit greatly from the defensive gravity that Edwards demands.
But the end of the season isn’t time for excuses, it’s time for solutions. So with that, let me present to you my “I promise this isn’t click-bait” solution to the team’s bench woes: Bring Towns off the bench for at least his first ten games after returning from injury.
Here are three reasons why I think the Timberwolves should consider this:
- Alleviation of pressure. This allows Towns to return slowly to the lineup while he is working his way back into game shape and reintegrating into the identity of the team. Towns can find his game as the focal point of the bench, being the first sub in for Rudy Gobert and running with a unit that would include McLaughlin, Edwards, Prince and Kyle Anderson. That would be a lineup full of basketball IQ and a desire to work Towns back into the flow of games. The questions about fit next to Gobert can be set aside, and Towns’ main focus can just be regaining his basketball footing.
- No immediate disruption to the starters’ chemistry. As evidenced by their grades, the current unit of starters have begun to gel. Putting Towns immediately back with this group means bumping Anderson down (most likely) but now Gobert loses minutes with one of his best running mates. The offensive pecking order of usage gets shuffled around a bit more, and the team has to go back to working on some of their early season transition defense struggles. If this had happened early in the season, there would be time to iron things out. During this final stretch? Any cluster of games with poor play due to integration issues could single-handedly cost the team playoff seeding and potentially even the playoffs.
- The bench group needs a jolt. Anderson will end up as a key component of the Wolves bench unit, but his biggest value is how he meshes with other players, not the ceiling of talent that a player like Towns has. Ten games with Towns as the main identity of the bench helps set a natural pecking order, something that could still be utilized after the games are over and Towns returns back to the starting lineup.
By the time the postseason rolls around, Towns will be back in the starting lineup.The ceiling for this Timberwolves team is higher when he is there. However, you can’t start working on the ceiling when the floor could crumble beneath you.
To the grades.
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) unless otherwise noted by an asterisk. As we get to the end of the season, I’ll be mixing in some season-long advanced metrics that better track defensive prowess and aren’t as much of a prisoner of the moment.
Jaylen Nowell Third Quarter Grade: 68% (D+)
Third Quarter Check-In: 60% (D-)
I’d still put it above a coin-flips chance that Nowell will see regular playoff minutes. The bench needs the scoring punch he can bring on nights where he is in rhythm. The big question about Nowell’s best minutes is how does the gravity of his usage (third on the team for players that get consistent minutes) line up with effective offense. If the shot isn’t falling, is there something else he can consistently bring to the court?
It’s the other side of the ball that may prove to be the biggest threat to Nowell’s minutes. With Bryn Forbes being waived, he’s now last on the team in defensive estimated plus/minus. During the trade deadline, the Wolves brought in a player who has some defensive versatility: Nickiel Alexander-Walker flashed defensive upside in his brief minutes against the Washington Wizards.
Naz Reid Third Quarter Grade: 65% (D)
Third Quarter Check-In: 74% (C)
The big question for Reid surrounds whose minutes take the biggest hit with Towns back in the rotation. Will his playoff minutes be more matchup based? Will he be relegated to a foul trouble sub only? It has been a roller-coaster season for; started out of the rotation, began to play his way in even before Towns’ injury, had some monster games when Gobert missed time, and is now coming off probably his worst stretch of the season.
Selfishly, I want more Naz Reid moments. Every NBA season has its ups-and-downs, let’s hope we catch him back on the upswing to start the last quarter of the season.
Taurean Prince Third Quarter Grade: 86% (B)
Third Quarter Check-In: 75% (C)
While the rest of the bench has struggled to find rhythm, Prince continues to be a reliable veteran that comes in and makes the right plays. His outside shooting has been awesome all year. He’s going to be in the playoff-rotation as one of the most trusted reserves.
Jordan McLaughlin Third Quarter Grade: 75% (C)
Third Quarter Check-In: NA
It takes time to reintegrate to an NBA team. McGlaughin has had flashes of playing like himself, but for the most part, his presence on the court has been pretty nondescript with some uncharacteristic turnover flubs.
The sample size here was only six games, so like others, take some of these numbers with a grain of salt. The Timberwolves’ bench is going to need him looking like himself for this bench unit to become an asset.
Austin Rivers Third Quarter Grade: 70% (C-)
Third Quarter Check-In: 66% (D)
Rivers took a step back this quarter with some cooled off shooting and defensive stats that don’t exactly leap off the page. For the season, he’s right in the middle of the team for his estimated defensive plus/minus.
If I had to guess, Rivers will end up being a situation sub for this team come playoff time. Even if his defensive numbers haven’t leapt off the page, the eye test at least points to his hussle and screen navigation know-how being a huge asset to the team. If the Wolves end up seeing a team like the Warriors, he’ll get major minutes chasing around Steph Curry.
Nathan Knight Third Quarter Grade: 78% (C+)
Luka Garza Third Quarter Grade: 83% (B)
While the numbers themselves have separated a little, it’s still pretty hard to distinguish the roles between these two players. There is no expectation for either to get playoff minutes this year barring injury, but both have had moments this season that have helped the team win games.
And yes, maybe some chaotic moments as well, but that is the fun of high energy players off the bench. If I had to put money on a bench player having a random Corey Brewer-like fifty point game, my money is on the Next Up game captain, Luka Garza.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker Third Quarter Grade: INC
Since I started this with some speculation, I’ll finish it with some too. Above are Alexander-Walker’s season long stats - that is the outline of a player that could crack into the Wolves lineup at some point before the end of the season. The bench could use a re-worked identity, and that player profile next to a Taurean Prince and Kyle Anderson would offer a pretty formidable defense. I would not write off the possibility of him finding a way into the playoff rotation.
The Minnesota Timberwolves Third Quarter Grade: 83% (B)
Staters Average Grade: 88% (B+)
Bench Average Grade: 75% (C)
While the Washington Wizards game before the break still leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, the reality of the last quarter of play was that it was good, not great. Without its All-NBA player, the Wolves found a way to win more games than they lost (11-9), including going 8-5 against the other teams competing for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
One more quarter before the end of the regular season; let’s see what this team has left in the tank.