On Monday, the Minnesota Timberwolves starters received their 2023-24 first semester grades while being compared to the greatest team in Wolves history, the 2003-04 Western Conference finalists. After comparing the starters using PER as a time traveling metric, the 2003-04 Wolves starters had a slight lead of a combined PER of 83.6 to 81.8. Let’s see if 2023-24 Timberwolves bench can mount a comeback!
Bench Scorer: Wally Szczerbiak (15.3) vs Naz Reid (16.9)
“Wally’s World” vs “The Big Jelly”. Like Naz Reid, when Wally came into the game, he wanted the ball and he wanted to score. While the screams for Reid when he enters the game are some of the loudest at Target Center, if you close eyes and listen carefully, you may still be able to hear the swoons from years past due to the chiseled jaw and head of hair owned by one Szczerbiak. Two All-time bench favorites that make for a really fun matchup that ultimately is going to tilt in the direction of the man that you honk for if you love; Naz Reid.
Advantage: 2023-24 Timberwolves
Bench High IQ Veteran: Fred Hoiberg (13.6) vs Kyle Anderson (11.7)
“Dead-eye Fred hits the nail on the head” was one of those great Tom Hanneman calls that just makes you smile. This matchup is between two trusted vets that could expect starters minutes depending on matchup or foul trouble. One is an outside sharpshooter and the other is a defensive duct tape who can come into a game and plug any holes on the defense. The edge here tilts Hoiberg’s way with his more well-rounded game, but despite polar opposite games, they offer something very similar off the bench.
Advantage: 2003-04 Timberwolves
Bench Junkyard Dog: Mark Madsen (9.4) vs Nickeil Alexander-Walker (9.4)
Junkyard dog here is meant as a full-on compliment. Ready to throw a player into the muck of an NBA who is going to give 100% effort and try to do all the little things to help a team win? May I present to you Mark Madsen and Alexander-Walker. While for many of Timberwolves fans, our main memories of Madsen may be a slew of 3-pointers at the end of the 2006 season that has become notorious for tanking, he played key minutes for the 03-04 squad, including 15 shot-less minutes in the Game 7 victory. Despite the same PER here, NAW’s a better offensive and defensive player who comes in with a similar “mad dog” type of effort.
Advantage: 2023-24 Timberwolves
Bench Wild Card: Gary Trent Sr. (12.9) vs Jordan McLaughlin (15.3)
And finally, one of the strangest comparisons to make. Two unique role players that don’t/didn’t have guaranteed minutes in big games, but when they came in, they altered the feel of the game. Gary Trent offered brute force and physicality, while Jordan McLaughlin offers pushing the tempo, quick decisions, and a pesky brand of off-ball defense. In polar opposite ways, they use their physicality to offer something different for the team.
Advantage: PER sways Jordan McLaughlin since this was Gary Trent’s final year in the league, but in his prime, Trent was a monster to deal with.
My biggest takeaway from this exercise? Despite conflicting styles of play in different eras of basketball, these two teams had a lot more in common than I expected. The biggest difference? 2003-04 Timberwolves have an unassailable Hall of Famer at the height of his career, while the 2023-24 Wolves have an overall well of talent that is consistently higher.
This conversation will ultimately be decided based on the postseason this year, but halfway through the regular season, the 2023-2024 Minnesota Timberwolves are making their case.
Next up, on every bench article I like to check in on the trends on the team for estimated plus/minus. Unlike the stats that I individually track down below, the numbers are always season long, while I’ll just post the updates and trends.
The top three risers:
- Naz Reid (1.1)
- Anthony Edwards (0.7)
- Mike Conley (0.6)
The bottom three fallers:
- Karl-Anthony Towns (-0.7)
- Shake Milton (-0.6)
- Rudy Gobert (-0.4)
The number that most jumps out to me are the defensive metrics of KAT and Reid that have zoomed past each other in completely different directions. It matches the eye test that Towns has taken a step back, but the Naz propulsion feels a little too good to be true? If he’s a 78th percentile defender in the league, look out NBA!
It is important to remember that the second quarter of the season started with the sixteen game stretch against .500 or better teams, eleven of which were on the road. While the estimated plus/minus statistics take the caliber of opponent into account, the ones I’m tracking below do not. The second quarter of the season was always going to be marked by going up against consistently tougher competition on the road.
Let’s get to the player grades.
A few brief reminders:
- These grades are roles-based, so the stats I’m looking at for each player are different.
- Roles on the team can change as the roster and playing time changes—I will alter or add statistical categories throughout the season as needed.
- The below stats are broken down into three pieces: Quarter 1 (the first twenty-one games), Quarter 2 (the next twenty) and First Semester (all games through the first half of the season which goes to Game 41 vs Memphis on January 18).
Kyle Anderson First Semester Grade: 83% (B)
Well, there is something to be said about Kyle Anderson’s consistency this season. The team, the opponents, the fans - everyone knows exactly what he is going to bring on a night-to-night basis: Superb defense while being a floor space killer on the offensive end. On the right night (maybe even more often than not?), his offensive IQ and playmaking will offset spacing issues,
This will be an interesting next couple of weeks for Anderson. He is a favorite of Finch’s and is clearly in his circle of trust, but his 9.2 million expiring deal would almost certainly have to be included if you went after $15-25 million dollar player at the trade deadline. Like the Rozier/Lowry deal that dropped Tuesday morning, Slow-Mo, some picks, and a young player with upside may be enough to net you a player of Rozier’s caliber, but the big question after Monday night’s debacle; Does this team want to trade one of their adults in the room?
Nickeil Alexander-Walker First Semester Grade: 89% (B+)
Do you know what stood out to me from Monday’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets? There was one player that didn’t get fully caught up in the chase to 62 and did his job at a high level on both ends of the floor: Nickeil Alexander-Walker. He seemingly cannot help himself from bringing it on every single night; even if the shooting is going to wax and wane.
He has ball handling limitations - teams consistently pressure full court when he’s the main offense initiator on the floor. He’s a perfect backup for the Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels combo - when teams think they can take a deep breath and get a break from that starting duo (when they are engaged), in comes NAW to offer another physical perimeter defender who won’t back down and is going to be engaged every second he’s on the floor.
Knowing what you are going to get every single night? That is huge for this team.
Naz Reid First Semester Grade: 88% (B+)
Umm, consistency is king! Am I beginning to sound like a broken record yet? At this point, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the first three off the 2023-2024 Timberwolves bench have clearly defined roles.
Want to know the most encouraging thing about Naz Reid’s season? His defense. It certainly helps that he is getting more minutes next to Rudy Gobert, but he has gone from a potential defensive liability to someone who is getting better and better at moving his feet without fouling.
Now I want to keep my praise here a bit more measured as its only half a season and I spent most of the first 21 games praising KAT’s defensive improvements (it’s had a pretty precipitous downfall off as mentioned above), but the signs Reid can be an above average or even a good defender in the league are certainly encouraging.
Jordan McLaughlin: 85% (B)
Ball security, playmaking, pesky defense and inconsistent outside shooting; that is the Jordan McLaughlin package. McLaughlin getting more minutes is an interesting conundrum; he is the answer to one of their biggest weaknesses (ball security) but also works against their strength of defensive length and can heighten issues of floor spacing in half-court offense.
He currently is the ninth man in the rotation, but with the trade deadline looming and Finch seeming to be non-committal to consistent minutes, these next seven games may be the biggest of the season for McLaughlin to make his case as a playoff guy.
Troy Brown Jr. First Semester Grade: 78% (C+)
Troy Brown Jr. can bring the floor spacing and rebounding, but he’s also the lowest-rated defender on the team according to estimated plus/minus. On a team that has set its identity in defense, he’ll need to make a splash on that side of the ball if he wants to get another run in the rotation.
Shake Milton First Semester Grade: 65% (D)
For the semester grades, Shake Milton does down as the lowest grade through the first half of the year. Not a lot has changed since the first quarter grade due to lack of playing time.
In the second quarter of the season, Milton only played a total of eighty-eight minutes, the majority of which were in garbage time. Not enough data to make any sweeping statements about his play (good or bad).
The most interesting thing was his time on Monday night against the Charlotte Hornets - he actually ended up playing more minutes than both Naz Reid and Jordan McLaughlin. That may have been something matchup dependent, or it may have be an indication that Finch wants to give him one last run to see if he can make any noise before the deadline arrives.
Minnesota Timberwolves First Semester Grade: 94% (A)
It’s hard to maintain perspective after a bad game that emphasized some growing warts on the team that we’ve seen for the past couple of weeks. Yes, the warts are there. But as I mentioned when grading the starters, the good, great, and potentially even elite parts are real too. It is far better to identify warts in January than April, as there is still half of a season to iron things out. This is a team that has the potential to have the greatest season in Timberwolves history; enjoy the ride.