After a whirlwind NBA summer, it’s finally time to zoom in and prepare for a fresh crop of mind-boggling and hair-pulling coaching decisions.
Per usual, Tom Thibodeau will ride his starters while cautiously prodding his bench for trustworthy players. For most of last season, Thibodeau stayed afloat with nine players—usually staggering Zach LaVine as the bench unit anchor before his injury—and never developed any consistency with an ill-equipped bench that struggled from start to finish. Consequently, the Wolves bench finished last in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and minutes played for all NBA benches.
But with the new additions of Butler, Gibson, and Crawford, the Wolves suddenly have a roster that can stretch ten deep. Perhaps Thibodeau will allocate minutes with a slightly less demanding touch. Last season, Towns and Wiggins were the only players to eclipse 3000 minutes played in the entire NBA, and only nine total Wolves played over one thousand minutes. During Thibodeau’s five-year stint in Chicago, he played just two players more than 3000 minutes: Luol Deng and Derrick Rose, both in his first season as the Bulls coach.
Entering his second year in Minnesota, Thibodeau is desperate to make the playoffs. The West will be an absolute bloodbath, and Minnesota will be hard pressed to fight for every win. But pay close attention to which players—youth vs. veteran, guard vs. big—Thibodeau employs in tight situations.
Jeff Teague—Andrew Wiggins—Jimmy Butler—Taj Gibson—Karl-Anthony Towns
Butler, Gibson, and Teague inject the starting line-up with needed veteran savvy. Butler and Gibson alone guarantee a defensive improvement, but just as importantly, these two will shift Wiggins and KAT’s responsibilities.
Butler will continue his nightly battles with opposing superstars. This is nothing new for him. However, Wiggins, who was the Wolves’ primary wing defender, will become a secondary defender—an option much better suited for any 22-year-old.
On the interior, Towns can finally shift to his natural position at center. KAT has been rated as one the worst defenders over the past two seasons (with a DPRM rank of 44/51 and 61/61 of all centers in his first and second seasons, respectively). While young, big men routinely struggle defensively, but KAT was also cornered into guarding power forwards as he played alongside Dieng. At center, Towns can avoid the twist and turns of guarding small-ball units while potentially leveraging his athleticism with Thibodeau’s mentorship into some form of rim protection.
Finally, Thibodeau’s patience with Teague and Gibson will be worth monitoring. They should remain starters regardless of brief slumps, but if Teague clanks a couple of threes or Gibson stumbles defensively, they might find themselves benched for the entirety of multiple fourth quarters.
The Bench Unit
Tyus Jones—Jamal Crawford—Shabazz Muhammad—Nemanja Bjelica—Gorgui Dieng
Have the Wolves finally put together a passable bench unit? While a bit deprived defensively, Gorgui Dieng (sixth-best DPRM for centers last season) should provide enough insurance with his stable rotations and gangly rim-protection.
At point guard, Jones will receive his opportunity to lead a bench, and if he fails Thibodeau can resort to journeymen, and ex-Bull, Aaron Brooks.
Crawford will hum about chucking threes and using his highlight inducing handles to move across the court as he pleases. His veteran presence should boost an otherwise adolescent bench, but hopefully, he can avoid father time strapping him to the bench for another year or two.
Muhammad and Bjelica round off the bench. Muhammad can catch fire for weeks at a time, and his corner three commands just enough respect to provide positive spacing. However, four seasons in and he is yet to develop anything but a straight-line drive left and quick left-shoulder finish from the block. Perhaps his failed contract negotiations will light a fire under him to develop his arsenal and throw more than a measly 8.8 passes per game and 0.4 assists per game.
Bjelica’s three-point conversion rate dropped from 38.4% to 31.6% on all three-point attempts and 39.2% to 33.5% on catch and shoot threes in his second season. To emphasize his capable drive-and-kick, play-making ability, he needs to revert to year one and hover in the 35-40% range.
Altogether, the bench unit should finally perform at about league average. After finishing dead last in the aforementioned areas, the backup unit may become an underappreciated point of improvement in Minnesota.
Closers and Variations
Before completely separating the bench from the starters (à la Doc Rivers), Thibodeau has indicated a level of enthusiasm surrounding mixed units. In a summer press conference, he mentioned the offensive firepower of a Teague—Crawford—Wiggins—Butler—Towns lineup saying, “I don’t know how you would defend that group.” In offensive battles against smaller opposing lineups, those five could find themselves closing games.
Let’s consider a couple more.
There will be nights that Crawford lacks energy, but Thibodeau needs to remain small in the final minutes. Replace Crawford with Muhammad and the southpaw wing can still bring a scoring punch and keep up with most fours on defense. Against teams with dynamic backcourts, Crawford will struggle to keep up defensively in late game situations. Against the likes of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, James Harden and Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, John Wall and Bradley Beal, just to name a few, Minnesota needs Teague and Butler assuming those defensive duties. Instead, stick Muhammad with a Golden State wing (good luck), Ryan Anderson, Al-Farouq Aminu or Markieff Morris and there is at least a prayer for late-game stops.
While a bit far-fetched, Thibodeau can bask in his anti-small ball glory. At 6’5—6’7—6’10—6’9—7’0, this line-up is large at all positions with the possible exception of Gibson at power forward. For the sake of size, go ahead and replace Gibson with Dieng, but for hypothetical effectiveness, let’s keep Gibson.
Gibson and KAT should provide enough interior defense to disrupt quicker point guards that squeak by, while Crawford, Butler and Bjelica’s size can disrupt spacing and shooting around the arc. If Towns is struggling to protect the rim, substitute Dieng and good luck scoring.
Bjelica spent a few games last year at the three and appeared surprisingly comfortable. He made heady plays from the wing and was able to rebound effectively against wings in comparison to opposing power forwards. He would struggle against quicker wings, but with the proper dosage, this lineup can work.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have their eyes rightfully set on making the playoffs for the first time in thirteen years. Bumps in the road will be met with lineup adjustments, and Thibodeau will be condemned for overusing his starters, regardless of results. The bench unit will struggle at times. However, altogether, there may finally be enough depth and line-up variations to vault Minnesota into the playoff picture come May.