On March 26 last spring – 16 days before the Timberwolves’ 2017-18 regular season came to an end – Jeff Teague addressed the media following a dispiriting loss to the tanking Memphis Grizzlies.
“That might be like my third time in my life playing like 40 minutes,” the Wolves point guard explained in a bout of characteristic honesty – in fact, he played 42. “It’s a little different.”
In this particular matchup – with Jimmy Butler sidelined – Wolves coach and president Tom Thibodeau relied on an even smaller than normal faction of his lineup. During the loss, the starting unit — with Nemanja Bjelica in Butler’s stead — and Jamal Crawford accounted for more than 92 percent of 240 possible minutes.
“I think some guys ran out of gas,” Teague continued. “I’m not going to lie. I was a little tired, but that’s not an excuse.”
It may not be an excuse, but it is a point of evaluation; one that gains relevancy when considered within the context of last year’s success.
In 2017-18, Thibodeau strategized the deployment of his starting (and closing) unit like a NASCAR crew chief who prefers that their driver skip pit stops to get out in front.
As a five-man lineup, Teague-Butler-Wiggins-Gibson-Towns played 1,131 minutes together in just 48 contests – the most around the league. Individually, each of the Wolves’ starters was in the NBA’s top-50 by minutes per game; three were in the top-15.
Altogether, the team’s first-half net rating was plus-4.7 – the seventh best mark in the NBA. Combined with a third quarter during which they produced a plus-3.0 net rating and the Wolves were, in fact, out in front.
But while the starters looped around the race track, their opponents were in the pit replacing tires, refueling and changing drivers. For that reason and others, the Wolves seemed to lose a step as they rounded a game’s final turn. Throughout the season, their minus-2.8 net rating in the fourth quarter ranked 24th compared to peers.
Wolves Performance by Quarters
A number of factors contributed to this stark decline in performance; a predictable offensive repertoire and waning defensive intensity undoubtedly bogged down the team. But Teague isn’t the only starter that raised an eyebrow toward his playing time during the season. And after that Thursday night matchup against the Grizzlies, his trepidation about fatigue seemed grounded in reality – the Wolves had just been outscored 11-23 in the game’s final frame.
“I think we have guys who are capable of playing and contributing to this team and making big plays,” Teague remarked in reference to the Wolves’ second-unit, “so hopefully they’ll get an opportunity.”
Based on the makeup of Thibodeau’s roster, he had little choice but to lean on his starters last year. In aggregate, the Wolves’ backups ranked 21st by net rating; they played just 13.5 minutes per game — by far the fewest around the league.
But into the 2018-19 season, the team’s embattled boss has finally acquired a more-or-less hand-picked group of reserves. Tyus Jones is a lone holdover from the Flip Saunders era while Derrick Rose, Josh Okogie, Anthony Tolliver and Gorgui Dieng have all been drafted, acquired or re-signed by Thibodeau.
As a result, he seems to be turning to them with increasing frequency and confidence. Through the first week of what is sure to be a turbulent season, Thibodeau has played his backups 17.5 minutes on average – a 30 percent increase year-over-year.
So far, it’s paid dividends.
After pregame introductions at the Wolves home opener saw a smattering of boos lobbed from an anxious Target Center crowd, the starting unit got off to a rocky start – they trailed 11-17 when Thibodeau began to integrate members of his second unit.
First, Rose entered for Butler. Then, Tolliver for Gibson. And over the next 10 minutes of action – spanning the end of the first and into the second quarter – a handful of bench-based lineups scraped back to take an eight-point lead.
Sans a couple of hiccups, the Wolves mostly strolled to their first victory from there.
The stint didn’t only shine light on a unit that could be a plus this season, it also introduced a lineup that is – to this point – Thibodeau’s second most used (29 minutes). In this particular game, the combination of Jones, Rose, Butler, Tolliver and Dieng played nearly 10 minutes together – and through five matchups, Butler and the backups boast an enticing net rating of plus-20.5 when sharing the court.
Though his scoring efficiency has waned, Jones is demonstrating a boost of confidence through meaningful increases in his points (11.5) and field goal attempts (13.2) per 36 minutes.
Not surprisingly, his plus-12.2 net rating leads the Wolves in a meaningful way.
Rose, meanwhile, is playing more than 28.6 minutes per game in a variety of first and second unit lineups. He displays highs that make his minimum contract look like one of the most valuable in the league and lows that make the clamors for Okogie grow louder and more defendable.
Rose’s somewhat volatile play is likely here to stay, and beyond that, it’s unlikely to impact the length of his leash for as long as Thibodeau holds its handle.
Regardless, the longtime point guard will continue to be outmanned as a unit’s shooting guard on the defensive end – but that seems to be something his coach is willing to accept.
On the offensive side of the ball, though his inefficient scoring invites the ire of many, the attention Rose draws on the attack has opened a door for success among teammates. So far this season, Rose has assisted on seven of Dieng’s 16 field goals and four of Anthony Tolliver’s nine converted 3s.
“I mean Derrick is obviously a great guard, somebody who can break down the defense,” Tolliver said during training camp. “Guys like myself definitely excel with guys that can break down a defense. Honestly, he’s great with us.”
Tolliver has performed in a manner that meets almost all preconceived notions of the former Piston’s playstyle. His inability to haul in rebounds at an elite rate has been a cause for concern thus far, but he’s shot willingly from 3-point land (9 of 20) and has been excellent as a weak-side help defender.
Dieng, Tolliver’s partner in the Wolves’ second-unit frontcourt, has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts through the beginning of this brand new season – on the offensive end, the two-man game he’s developed with Rose has been a factor toward that success. But Dieng has also shown more of the defensive aptitude that led Thibodeau to pay the big-man in the summer of 2016; he’s been solid in pick-and-roll containment, sound as a scrambler and pesky in passing lanes.
What’s more, the on-court highlight of the Wolves’ season – Okogie’s emergence as a potentially capable NBA contributor and high-upside organizational asset – manifest itself through relative happenstance.
The Georgia Tech alum has already started in two games; he replaced Butler against the Mavericks and Wiggins last night in Toronto. In between, Okogie played 24 unexpected minutes during Monday’s victory over the Indiana Pacers after Wiggins exited the game with an injured thigh.
Through 80 short minutes, his abilities to fight through screens, create steals and switch on the defensive end have been all sorts of promising; if anyone is worth keeping your eyes glued to while the Wolves are on that end of the floor — assuming he continues to play — it’s Okogie.
At this point, the team’s five best players by net rating are almost all members of the bench. The second unit is playing fast, playing fun and hounding opponents on the defensive end.
The Wolves’ starting five, meanwhile, has struggled to find its footing after branding itself elite through an impressive 2017-18 campaign.
Teague and Butler have thus far exceeded expectations on the offensive end. Wiggins is having another hot start to a season. And while Gibson has been his normal steady self, Towns has been nothing of the sort.
The Wolves’ seven-foot center has displayed moments of his usual offensive brilliance, like a 31-point performance against the Mavs. But with similar frequency, he’s struggled through quiet and unproductive stretches like his 5 of 17 shooting performance against the Raptors last night.
And though an established pattern of defensive mistakes continues to stand between Towns and productive two-way basketball, he showed enough against the Pacers on Monday for Thibodeau to deem it “one of [Towns’] best defensive games.”
Issues of chemistry could be weighing on the unit’s ability to thrive because no individual player is a cause for paramount concern. If not that, the small sample of evaluation is an alternate explanation.
A number of factors have instigated this setback that shouldn’t be expected to persist; in their season-opening loss against the San Antonio Spurs, Butler appeared to be abnormally rusty and Towns fouled out after just 22 minutes. Against Dallas – the second night of a back-to-back – Thibodeau and the Wolves opted to rest Butler, and Wiggins has missed seven straight quarters after exiting Monday’s game.
Moving forward, it’s fair to expect a degree of positive regression from the Wolves’ starting unit. On the other hand, the bench probably shouldn’t be expected to dictate the result of games this frequently over the entirety of a season.
Regardless, the rotational competence of the 2018-19 Wolves has been a breath of fresh air. Through nine days of NBA action, their backups rank fourth by on-court by plus/minus (plus-2.2) and – somewhat encouragingly – 23rd by minutes per game.
Though the Wolves’ fourth-quarter production hasn’t risen in tandem with the team’s newfound division of playing time — they rank 18th on the season — their plus-7 net rating in the final frame over the last three games ranks eighth in the NBA.
A reliable end of the bench is a revelation that bodes well for the team beyond its ability to swing the balance of any given matchup. If Towns and Wiggins insist on displaying occasional lethargy, it’s important that quality backups are breathing down their necks.
Should chemistry constraints between the Wolves’ highest-paid players continue to bare out on the court, staggering their playing time among starters and reserves could aid in smoothing things over.
And the dark cloud that inches closer by the day – the one forecasted by Butler’s offseason trade request and the Wolves front office’s unwillingness to act – can only be weathered with a depth and diversity of talent behind the disgruntled star.
But for now, the bench is performing well to keep the Wolves competitive in games that might otherwise slip out of reach. And for now, that’s all that matters.
Dane Moore contributed to this story.