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Which Key Roles for 2023 Playoff Teams Should the Wolves Try to Fill?

From Bruce Brown to the Miami Heat’s sharpshooters, role players have been immeasurably valuable to this year’s Playoffs. Can the Timberwolves replicate any of those roles?

2023 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Once the Finals are over, the offseason really kicks into gear. While some are advocating for the Minnesota Timberwolves to make wholesale changes both for basketball and financial reasons, the front office has been open publicly in their desire to essentially run it back with their current roster.

Outside of the projected $12.2 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception (what the Wolves used to sign Kyle Anderson last offseason), President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and the Minnesota front office have limited mechanisms to improve the roster.

Waiving the non-guaranteed final year salaries of the Wolves’ three expiring contracts — Taurean Prince’s $7.4 million (becomes fully guaranteed on June 28, per Spotrac), Jordan McLaughlin’s $2.3 million (June 30) and Nate Knight’s $2.0 million team option (January 10) — would unlock $11.7 million in added space below the luxury tax line. Given that the team owns Naz Reid’s bird rights, they can feasibly use that $11.7 million to sign a player (or players) with the MLE, and re-sign Reid afterwards without dipping into that MLE money.

So, if Minnesota went about spending those savings on free agents, it presented a question: Are there valuable roles that players fill for other playoff teams that the Wolves don’t really have, and would be useful to fill as they build out their roster for the 2023-24 season?

If the Wolves re-sign Reid and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, it will be tough to make any additional moves when taking the new CBA into account with the penalties the Timberwolves are projected incur for hitting the second apron over the luxury tax come the 2024-25 season.

However, if the Wolves keep both Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns — as the front office has stated is their intention — it feels unlikely they also re-sign Reid and keep him long-term. I love Reid, but he could get more minutes and a larger role elsewhere, and it would be hard to justify paying your third-string center $10-15 million per season long-term (yes, even if he shares the court with Towns and Gobert more often than a typical third-string center). With that said, they would be smart to pay him, play him for a season, and trade him next offseason in order to 1) avoid facing more restrictive team-building penalties that kick in then, and 2) net a better return than a sign-and-trade would net this offseason.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some roles the team could look to fill if they do free up money to sign a free agent or two this offseason.

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

Miami Heat | 3-Point Specialist

The Timberwolves started this past season off cold from behind the 3PT line, but were the second-best 3PT shooting team (by percentage) after the All-Star break. Jaden McDaniels shot 39.8% from 3 for the season and was money from the corners, Anthony Edwards was a high-volume 3PT shooter, Reid was effective behind the arc for his size, and Towns return from his calf injury added another weapon from deep.

Yet for all Malik Beasley’s warts — and it should be noted he played very few minutes for the Los Angeles Lakers this postseason — including zero minutes in the second-round series against the Denver Nugget — the Wolves missed his high-volume outside shooting. He was great sprinting to the corner in transition, and he created space for others to operate in the half-court with his shooting gravity. The franchise would benefit greatly from replacing his 3PT prowess.

A player such as Miami Heat sharpshooter Max Strus or (a cheaper) Duncan Robinson would add a weapon the Wolves’ bench is currently lacking and allow Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch to truly bend an opposing defense. That would create more space for Edwards, Towns, and Gobert, and allow for easy kick-out passes when running pick-and-roll. The Heat have been successful moving the ball, hunting advantageous matchups, and trusting their teammates to either take and make open shots, or attack close-outs and work to create a better look. Add a shooter to the Wolves roster and their offensive ceiling goes up considerably.

Denver Nuggets v Minnesota Timberwolves - Game Three Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Denver Nuggets | Bruce Brown’s Do-It-All Play

Kyle Anderson may be the best free agent signing in Minnesota’s history. He was crucial to some of the Wolves’ best lineups, and was one of the few players who showed great on-court chemistry with Gobert, punches be damned. He provides necessary defensive versatility, ball movement, veteran leadership, and shot creation. However, the Timberwolves need another player like Slow-Mo, a super role player who can seamlessly step into the starting lineup when needed due to a matchup or covering for an injury.

Bruce Brown deserves his own category. Acquiring a talent like Brown, one of the final pieces added to Denver’s championship roster and someone who adds value in so many areas, would be a boon for the Wolves. He does everything well and makes his teammates better.

On offense Brown shot a respectable 35.8% from 3 this past season (40.4% from 3 the previous season with the Brooklyn Nets on lower volume), but he is most effective in the pick-and-roll game as a screener who dominates in the short roll. He has a strong floater and is an adept passer. Brown can also attack the basket when the defense doesn’t respect his athleticism. Yet it is on the defensive end where Brown truly shines. He is a strong wing defender who has a 6-foot-9 wingspan to clog passing lanes and harass ball handlers. He can switch onto most anyone and his high basketball IQ allows him to direct his teammates into the proper coverages.

Brown’s motor and desire to win are evident on both ends of the court. His skills were under-appreciated on the Brooklyn Nets, but now in this Finals run it is clear what number 11 for Denver brings to the table. How fun would it be to root for a player like Brown in a Wolves jersey?

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Three Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Los Angeles Lakers | Spark Plug Off the Bench

It often felt like coach Finch needed to mix and match starters with bench players to get the needed offensive output. Many had hopes last offseason that Jaylen Nowell would fill the microwave scorer role off the bench; but after a hot start, he faded, and was either injured, ineffective or both for much of the 2022-23 campaign.

The Lakers don’t make the Western Conference Finals without some great performances from several key bench players. Lonnie Walker IV won them Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors with his 15 points in the fourth quarter, and he might have clinched them the series with that performance. Rui Hachimura and Dennis Schröder had their special moments as well. The Lakers’ ability to mix and match role players based on who got hot was a key to their playoff run. You could include D’Angelo Russell’s one good playoff game in this category.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

Boston Celtics | Grant Williams’ Impression of Prime P.J. Tucker

The Wolves halfcourt defense was clearly superior to their transition defense, but sometimes the Wolves struggled to combat the opponent’s offensive gameplan. They would hunt for Minnesota’s defensive weak links like D’Lo or Nowell, run KAT through screens on the perimeter and put Rudy in actions that forced him to need to run at outside shooters. Adding a switchable defender who doesn’t crater the offense would be a nice weapon to have in Finch’s arsenal.

Prime P.J. Tucker used to be one of my favorite role players (no disrespect to current 38-year-old, P.J. Tucker of the Philadelphia 76ers). He was a switchable defender and strong rebounder who shot over 37% from deep in six out of his last eight seasons. Boston’s Grant Williams reminds me of what Tucker added to the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks.

If you can forget what Grant Williams brought out of Jimmy Butler in the Eastern Conference Finals (although Tucker liked to let the opponent know he was there as well), having a player like Williams on your roster is a huge asset. Williams is a rugged defender who can guard anyone on the opposing team. The former Tennessee star is also a strong 3-point shooter on offense (over 37% every year since his rookie season) and he constantly talks both on defense and on the bench — two things Tucker was known for. Heck, Williams even got his head smashed into the floor by the full force of Joel Embiid jumping and landing on his skull, and he stayed in the game! That likely kills me. Sign me up for a player like that.

(Side note: Williams is actually available this offseason, and I’m curious to see what type of contract he will command as a restricted free agent. I was thinking over the mid-level exception and closer to $15 million/year, but the new CBA restrictions will very likely impact that number.)

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

Sacramento Kings | Rim Pressure

There are few players on the Wolves who attack the basket outside of Ant and KAT. Yet getting to the line is a great way to stop the momentum of an opponent’s run- and in slimmed down playoff rotations you can steal a game by putting their key players in foul trouble.

Adding a threat off the catch like Malik Monk would elevate the Wolves’ offense. Monk isn’t afraid to shoot from deep, attack the basket, or cause havoc in transition. Trey Lyles (who beat the Wolves in overtime at the end of January, and was Towns’ roommate at Kentucky) is another weapon who would could add value to Minnesota next to Reid off the bench.

Kentucky v Kansas State Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Bonus Wolves-Centric Draft Options

Oscar Tshiebwe

If the Wolves keep Naz Reid, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe is the perfect fit as a second big next to him when the second unit is called upon. Tshiebwe could be had with a second-round pick or maybe even as an undrafted free agent, so he could be around with the Wolves are on the clock at No. 53. His strengths (rebounding and defense) and weaknesses (outside shooting and rim protection) mesh well with what Reid brings to the table. Having someone with elite rebounding chops to end possessions for the other team would be a welcomed sight for the Wolves. If the 2022 consensus national player of the year gets his hands on the ball, it’s his. His historic college rebounding numbers will remind folks of Kenneth Faried. If he develops any semblance of an outside shot (and he is a decent free throw shooter at 72.9%) you might have something on your hands. His fit is poor next to Gobert, but I could see him getting minutes when KAT or Naz are on the floor given their ability to space the floor.

Amari Bailey

UCLA’s Amari Bailey could potentially fill Jaylen Nowell’s role. He came into UCLA as a five-star recruit known for his scoring, but Bruins Head Coach Mick Cronin values defense and team-first play. Bailey grew as a playmaker, improved his outside shooting, and became a very competitive on-ball defender over the course of the season. He looked more poised in UCLA’s NCAA tournament run, and there is some positive buzz coming out of his strong performance at the NBA Combine in Chicago last month. Bailey is a bit small in stature for a combo guard role (6-foot-3, 190 pounds), but opened some eyes with point guard skills in the combine scrimmages.