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Deep Diving into the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Starting Lineup

The projected starting lineup for 2023-24 Minnesota Timberwolves have played very few minutes together. Let’s take a deep dive look what their time on the court last year can tell about them as a group moving forward.

Star Tribune

Last season, the Minnesota Timberwolves had very little lineup continuity throughout the season. Karl-Anthony Towns missed most of the season with a Grade 3 calf strain suffered in November, which limited the amount of time he got to play with new acquisition and fellow three-time All-Star Rudy Gobert.

The Wolves also had a point guard change mid-season as they swapped D’Angelo Russell for Mike Conley in a trade that also brought Nickeil Alexander-Walker to Minnesota. While the transaction has already paid dividends for the Wolves, it also led to less cohesion in the immediate short-term.

When Towns did return from injury, Anthony Edwards was still recovering from an ankle injury, which meant the Wolves would have to wait even longer before getting to debut their new-look starting five for the first time. To add insult to injury, in the final game of the regular season, Jaden McDaniels broke his hand punching a Target Center wall in frustration, ending his season.

In total, the lineup of Conley-Edwards-McDaniels-Towns-Gobert, played in only seven games together, totaling just 75 minutes together as a five-man unit. Let’s take a deep-dive into those 75 minutes and see what went well, what didn’t go well, and what we can expect to carry-over into next season.

Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Half-Court Defense

The main strength of this lineup, and by extension the 2022-23 Wolves as a whole, was its half-court defense. The defensive rating of that lineup last season was 100.0, a number that would rank best in the NBA, albeit in a very small sample.

Gobert unsurprisingly led the great defense after having a very slow start to the season. By this point in the season he had been dominating the defensive end of the floor like we’d seen him do back in his Defensive Player of the Year days with the Utah Jazz.

He was often able to almost single-handedly blow up pick-and rolls by dropping into coverage, and defending both the ball handler and the roller, which forced offenses into difficult mid-range shots.

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Gobert was consistently such a presence in the paint that shooters wouldn’t even think of challenging him at the rim. In the clip below, Booker seemingly had an open layup, but Gobert’s lurking presence made him think twice and forced him into a bad pass that led to a turnover.

Jaden McDaniels served as the other main piece of the Wolves defense last year. The perimeter stopper guarded each team’s best perimeter player each and every night, often shutting them down to season-low production. He was often a very good defensive pick and roll partner as they would often blow up plays as seen below.

McDaniels does a great job fighting around the screen and, while trailing the play slightly, gets his hand in the passing lane to force the turnover.

Also important to note on that play, Conley making a heads up play getting into the passing lane as well, without completely leaving his man in the corner. His defensive awareness in the point guard spot was a boost on the defensive end compared to what Russell brought on that end.

If there was a defensive weak spot of this lineup in the half-court, it was Towns and Gobert guarding out of the perimeter. Towns, now playing forward for the first time in his career, had some difficulty guarding in space when matched up with a quicker player.

Gobert also had some issues guarding on the perimeter, as he would often be slow to close out on 3-point shooters, something he has often struggled with in both Minnesota and Utah.

Even despite some of the defensive limitations caused by playing two centers, the defensive strengths of this lineup far outweighed any defensive liabilities. This lineup should continue to be a great defensive lineup in the half-court throughout the 2023-24 season.

Transition Defense

The biggest glaring issue defensively with this lineup was in transition. Opposing teams were able to find the most success when they pushed the ball any chance they could get, hoping to catch the Wolves players off-guard.

The main reason for the lack of transition defense was the Wolves not getting matched up after a missed shot or turnover. KAT especially struggled in this area, as he was guarding and being guarded by a completely new set of players then in previous seasons.

In the clip below, KAT does not realize that he is supposed to be guarding Josh Okogie, who just simply attacks the rim as no one picks him up. While not his man, Gobert also could have helped on this play, with his assignment trailing the play in the backcourt.

With KAT playing a new position, there was always expected to be a learning curve defensively as he learned to guard a different position. Towns missing so much time with his calf strain meant he wasn’t able to develop this skill as transition defense was a problem whenever he shared the floor with Gobert.

Sometimes though, the poor transition defense wasn’t a matter of matchups, but more the fault of guys not putting in enough effort to get back quick enough.

The Wolves were able to force a missed layup on the play, but were unable to grab the rebound with KAT and Gobert still in the backcourt. You can even see Kyle Anderson get up from the bench to yell at his teammates to get back on defense.

Matching up defensively in transition was always going to be an issue defensively with Towns and Gobert on the court, but hopefully with some time, and especially with a little more effort, transition defense is an area where the Wolves can improve with their new starting lineup.

Offensive Spacing

While the lineup of Conley-Edwards-McDaniels-Towns-Gobert succeeded on defense, the offensive end of the floor was a different story. The lineup had an offensive rating of 106.4, a number that would be, by a good margin, last in the NBA, again with the very low sample of just 75 minutes together.

The main issue offensively was a lack of spacing under and around the basket. With Gobert needing to stay close to the rim, it caused more traffic to be in the paint as Rudy’s defender often would be able to help off Rudy and block the shot.

Edwards struggled most with this during the season, as he had become used to more open lanes to the rim with Towns playing center and spreading the floor. Now with Gobert and his defender clogging up the paint, Ant often struggled to adjust to the new changes.

Not only does the above clip show Edwards getting blocked by Gobert’s defender, but it also highlights the Wolves poor transition defense as Edwards and Gobert were not able to get back quick enough, which led to a Cam Johnson 3-pointer.

This will be a big hurdle for this Wolves lineup. They will need to get better offensively if they want to make big strides next year. Ant and others played better offensively with Rudy as the season went on, but will need to do so again as they add another center alongside Gobert.

It is important to note that this same lineup, except with Kyle Anderson swapped in for Towns, was a fantastic lineup for the Wolves last season. It had much less issue scoring on offense, while not giving up too much on the defensive end.

That lineup played 253 minutes together over 19 games with an offensive rating of 119.1 and a defensive rating of 110.7, both very solid marks.

Towns, who is a fantastic all-around offensive player, should be able to fit in with this offense at least to the level of Anderson while also keeping up the solid defense on the other end.

Offensive Bright Spots

It wasn’t all doom and gloom on offense as the Wolves did showed signs of being able to run high quality sets with their two All-NBA bigs as the focal points.

The best way the Wolves did this was by using the gravity that each player possesses. KAT, one of the best shooters in the NBA, and Gobert, one of the best screeners and rollers in the NBA, are able to affect defenders, and get teammates and themselves open, without having the ball.

The Wolves often ran sets where both KAT and Gobert would set screens on the ball handler up top. This made it difficult for the defense to guard the ball handler, KAT flaring out for 3, and Gobert diving to the rim all at once. In this play, it led to an open look for Conley.

The next possession, the Wolves were again able to get Conley an open look off of a Towns post-up with Gobert setting the screen, taking Klay Thompson out of the play.

The Wolves should look to use both of their bigs as screeners as much as possible as not only does it lead to open shots in the first action of the play, but it can lead to open shots on the backend of the play.

In this play, the Lakers do a pretty good job of guarding the original action, but LeBron James took a little bit too long in the paint protecting against the lob to Rudy, allowing Jaden to take an open 3-point shot from the corner.

As this lineup gets more comfortable with each other, and the minutes continuing to build up, the Wolves should hopefully be able to run more actions like this where they are able to get more open shots for everyone and less plays where ball handlers are trying to drive straight into traffic.