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The Wolves’ Rotation is About to Get Weird

With Karl-Anthony Towns return inching closer and closer, it raises questions about the Timberwolves’ rotation down the home stretch of the season.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Depth is a good problem to have.

It is especially true for a team that — just a couple months ago — had no real long term solutions at point guard or consistent options beyond the eighth man in the rotation. And yet, here we are, awaiting a Karl-Anthony Towns sized return, while also trying to figure out what this team looks like come playoff time. Depth is a good problem to have, but it remains an issue needing to be worked out nonetheless.

The Front-Court

The biggest question mark here comes from the timing of Towns’ return. The current Minnesota Timberwolves rotation at center has been a binary situation of Rudy Gobert as the starter and Naz Reid as the backup since the All-Star break, with the two playing almost no minutes together.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Outside of them, the fourth and fifth-string centers in Luka Garza and Nathan Knight have seen a total of only 12 minutes since the mid-season recess, all of which came in the one game Gobert missed. Quite simply, the Wolves are playing a starter and a backup at the five. What happens to Reid’s 20ish minutes a game when KAT returns? Reid has played well enough to deserve at minimum 15 minutes a game, but those minutes may not be there for him.

I hear you all saying that Towns is a power forward now and, as such, the rotation is far simpler. Kyle Anderson goes back to the bench, Prince sees a smaller role as the backup small forward, and NAW becomes exclusively a backup guard, with no forward minutes. All of this sounds easy, especially with Austin Rivers being cut out of the rotation over the weekend, but it fails to account for this: the Slow-Mo/Gobert pairing has been fantastic, and far, far better than the anticipated duo of all-NBA bigs was in an admittedly small sample size.

It would obviously be weird to keep franchise cornerstone Karl Anthony-Towns on the bench for (beloved) journeyman Kyle Anderson, but it makes sense to do exactly that especially while KAT is ramping back up. The Wolves have spent the whole year trying to find their equation for success and it feels dangerous to abandon it when they’ve only just found it. Does the solution lie in between, starting a different power forward depending on the matchup? Is that too unsettling for the roles of everyone involved?

The strength of the Anderson - Gobert lineups has been its consistency. The strength of the Towns - Gobert lineups are its potential. There’s not really a good answer there, but this late in the season, I’d personally take a base hit over a botched swing. However, that leaves the ego of Towns at the center of this. With all the injury weirdness, what does KAT expect from his role when he returns, and does keeping him on the bench cause or even exacerbate said problems?

Even then, how would a benched Kyle Anderson even look at this point? Are the minutes there? I can’t not mention that both Taurean Prince and Nickeil Alexander-Walker have been vital to the wing depth and overall bench success since the team acquired Alexander-Walker and returned Prince from injury and a personal leave.

Now, there are those on Wolves Twitter who don’t think KAT is coming back for the remainder of this year. And while I don’t believe that is true — especially with a President of Basketball Operation trying to save face, a coach trying to solidify his job, and Jordan McLaughlin returning from a similar injury without any hiccups a few weeks ago — there are other questions worth pondering as well.

The Back-Court

This is a team that has a top-three record in the Western Conference since the start of the new year. However, the story that record tells is borderline lying and at best disingenuous. The Wolves lost their first three games after the All-Star break against poor competition, each time bowing out of tight games that a top-three team in the West would’ve won.

Editor’s note: If you like Jaden McDaniels, please skip this next graf and cover your eyes

Replacing D’Angelo Russell with Mike Conley Jr. brought some much needed consistency and some additional defense, but has also left a void in terms of shot creation. While Jaden McDaniels (I’m sorry, I like the nickname “Seatbelt”) has taken up some of those extra opportunities, it’s not a perfect swap. D’Lo would sub out early to add some spark with some largely bench lineups. Without Russell, that role has been left to some combination of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaylen Nowell, and Austin Rivers before his excommunication from the top-nine.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Additionally, since returning from injury, McLaughlin, once the embodiment of calmness and fundamentals along with the “got that dog in him” approach that a six-foot, undersized guard needs to survive in the NBA, has looked inconsistent at best. The guard who used to relentlessly push the pace is now seemingly reserved in his quickness to attack the break. He inhabits a very similar play style to Conley, which is simultaneously a strength and a weakness. He offers a consistency in role for the starters alongside him, but cannot offer the change of pace players like Alexander-Walker can.

While the two actually complement each other quite well, it’s been Nickeil’s willingness and bullishness to play downhill and through contact that has made him such a revelation to the bench offense. For those minutes of both together or just Jordan to work out, McLaughlin needs to rediscover what his new teammate has uncovered.

To follow up, you will not find a bigger fan of NAW than me, so I won’t complain about his growing opportunities and role, but it’s not hyperbolic to say that he is a supplementary piece, and not the shot creator and maker that is still needed off the bench. This was the role Nowell was expected to thrive in, but his season has left everyone, himself included, disappointed. And yet, his archetype is still incredibly needed on this team. Time will tell what happens with the former Washington Husky, but I am not convinced that he won’t get another chance with how badly this team needs a bucket getter.

Even after examining the questions of a potential KAT return and a couple of young guards off the bench, we are still left with even more quandaries.

Should Minnesota continue to red-shirt their rookies?

How sustainable is it to play only nine players in a game, as the Wolves did in the first night of a back-to-back against the Los Angeles Lakers?

Whereas last season, the Wolves made their run throughout the last 20 or so games due to their relative health and well-established roles and rotation, this team will have to go on a similar stretch with those former strengths as weaknesses. With 17 games left in the season, two-and-a-half games out of both the four seed and the 11 seed, it’s time to go.

The Timberwolves have intriguing pieces at almost every position, an All-NBA player returning at some point soon, and two trade acquisitions to finish acclimating. It’s a lot to put on the plate of Head Coach Chris Finch, who some pockets of the fanbase want replaced by the time the season ends. Sometimes, strength comes from stability and the slow build of a team understanding themselves. Other times, it takes a chemical reaction, an explosion, to push a team to their best. Last season, we got to experience the joy of the former. Now, with every option on the table, we’ll be getting a Wolves team above the chasm of disappointment, with some serious questions on what to do going forward. And that question mark may be just as exhilarating as it is anxiety inducing to end a season that has been an emotional rollercoaster from the first jump ball.