How Will the Timberwolves Sustain Success When Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins Return?

Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

As they board the team plane headed for Cleveland, it’s fair to argue that the Minnesota Timberwolves are coming off their best three-game run of the season since the first three games of the season. Way back then, the Wolves went 3-0 riding the coattails of Karl-Anthony Towns, who scored 96 points in those first three. The changes to the system — and, apparently, the Bahamas? — were not a joke. Towns made seven 3s on 11 attempts on opening night in Brooklyn on his way to scoring 36 points. He topped that performance in game two, dropping 37 points in less than 28 minutes of play in a blowout against Charlotte. And, finally, back home in Minnesota, KAT again took 11 shots from deep as the Wolves knocked off a Jimmy Butler-less Miami team in the home opener.

These last three games have featured almost completely different characters. While Towns (32.0), Andrew Wiggins (20.3), Jeff Teague (13.0) and Robert Covington (11.3) were the leading scorers during those first three games, those four have combined to 50 total points over the last three games. Covington has scored 41 of those 50, playing in all three. Teague has scored nine, missing the last two games with a knee sprain. And Towns and Wiggins have, of course, scored zero, missing the run (and more) with a knee sprain and illness, respectively.

With the majority of the team’s scoring verve sidelined, Jarrett Culver has been thrown into the role of volume shooter this week. Like Covington, Culver has scored 41 points over the last three, but he’s done so at the expense of an additional 22 shot attempts. The real offensive invigoration has come from Shabazz Napier and Naz Reid.

In 45 fewer minutes played than Culver, Reid has impressed on the offensive end, scoring only four fewer points than Culver’s 41. The even bigger boon, though, has come from Napier, the efficient scoring option in the backcourt of late. Napier has averaged 22 points, six assists and four rebounds per game over the last three, making 52.9 percent of the 19 shots he has attempted from deep. Just as Towns’ dominance showed up in the first three games of the season in the Wolves outscoring those opponents by a total of 28 points with KAT on the floor, in the last three games, the Wolves have outscored Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Golden State by a total of 27 points with Napier on the floor.

Whether or not it is on Sunday in Cleveland, Towns and Wiggins’s returns to the lineup are imminent, head coach Ryan Saunders said prior to the Wolves game against Golden State on Thursday. When asked if Towns and Wiggins are close to returning, Saunders said, “yes,” again refraining from setting a specific date. Both were at Timberwolves practice Saturday, and both will be flying with the team to Cleveland.

With their return comes a bit of a conundrum. Saunders refers to Towns and Wiggins as the team’s “two best players,” so those two are sure to return to the same heavy-minute, ball-dominant roles they held prior to their absences. Making the question: How do the other pieces that have been inspiring of late — not limited to Napier and Reid — re-integrate themselves around Towns and Wiggins? Napier says that process isn’t on Towns and Wiggins to figure out.

“I think the biggest reason why we’re 13-21, is because we, as a whole, have to do a better job helping them out,” Napier said Thursday. “KAT and Wiggs are some great scorers and they’re leaders of this team. Us role players, we have to do a better job of figuring out ways to help them out.”

Before Towns and Wiggins went down, their play seemed to have rightfully lost faith in the players surrounding them. Considering that Towns has made 41.8 percent of the 196 3-point attempts he has taken this season, it almost doesn’t seem possible that the Wolves are shooting 33.9 percent from deep in the 459 minutes that Towns and Wiggins have shared the floor.

The lack of competent shooting that has circulated Towns on his post-up attempts, in particular, has left him with two options: continue to “trust the pass” to dismal ends or bull his way through double and triple teams in the lane.

And with Wiggins, who has sporadically shown improved distribution chops this season, his options are also limited when he does opt to pass while attacking the rim. A kick out to a shooter when Wiggins drives has been similarly fruitless to a Towns post-up, leaving him with the job, when he doesn’t pass, of beating his man off the dribble, navigating through help at the nail and blasting through a shot-blocker at the rim. These drives look exhausting, and a big reason Wiggins’s effective field-goal percentage dropped from 54.7 percent in November to 46.5 percent in December, when teams began flogging him.

Towns and Wiggins need help on the defensive end, too. This may be more of an equal blame situation between the stars and the role players, but the need is there regardless. When Towns and Wiggins have shared the floor this season, the Wolves have allowed more points to be scored per possession (1.126) than they have any of the other four seasons the two have been paired together. Considering the Wolves have ranked 24th (1.112), 25th (1.078), 27th (1.115) and 28th (1.082) in defensive rating those four seasons, a defensive drop off is concerning.

The Wolves communication has been particularly poor this season, and that has shown up most in transition defense situations. When Towns and Wiggins were healthy, there were numerous transition possessions that featured players looking around to solve the who has who question as opposed to that being consistently communicated verbally.

“Yeah, it’s both,” said Saunders of what needs to improve. “It’s going to be all of those things. And that’s why, I think a lot of times, it’s very easy to say if a team is shooting the ball well, ‘well, they’re not playing any defense.’ And then if the team is defending, they’re saying, ‘well, we need to shoot the ball better.’ Sometimes you gotta pick and choose. You gotta make decisions based on what you need at that moment.”

That picking and choosing by Saunders will have a great impact on the success or failure of the group in the next chapter of the Wolves season. How Saunders handles Napier and the point guard minutes going forward will be impactful. Also how the frontcourt forms around a deep big man group that now may include Reid will also be informative. Here’s what could happen in those two position groups, specifically looking at things through the lens of Napier and Reid.

Shabazz Napier, Starting PoinT Guard?

The belief within the Timberwolves coaching staff is that Napier’s shooting of late is more likely to sustain than it is that he reverts to the 21.5 percent he was shooting from deep prior to these last three games. During every practice, Timberwolves players have a tracking tile weaved into the back of their shorts. This device coupled with cameras above the rim track not only where the players shoot from but also where the ball enters the cylinder of the rim. This data is then compiled not only into makes but also “good” and “bad” misses. If a player is frequently peppering the inner portion of the cylinder on their misses, the staff is more encouraged by the notion that those looks will eventually begin falling for that player than they would be of the alternative of persistent clanking. Because Napier has had a comparatively high portion of misses fall into the good misses bin (both in practices and games this season), the staff has held faith all year that his effectiveness would eventually turn — as it has.

“We can see where their misses are coming from. He’s a guy who his misses are almost like makes,” Saunders explained Saturday morning. “When you elude to maybe bad luck, it’s, for a lot of guys, where the shot is hitting the rim within the hoop for a lot of them. With [Napier], a lot of them have rimmed out.”

If all this magical data proves to be an accurate measure of future shooting success, Napier’s presence on the floor next to Towns and Wiggins going forward could be meaningful. Saunders could make rotation tweaks going forward that are intentional about playing Napier more with those two, particularly Towns. Before Towns’ injury, Napier and Towns had their minutes staggered; the two players have only shared the floor for 77 minutes all season. Comparatively, Napier and Gorgui Dieng shared the floor for 76 minutes in just the past three games.

It will be interesting to see whether or not Saunders does in fact prioritize giving minutes to Napier while Towns is on the floor. Will Napier continue to start? Or will Saunders, instead, try to double down on the synergy Napier and Dieng have shown playing together these last three?

From Zach LaVine to Jamal Crawford, Dieng has a history finding a vibe with gunning combo guards. That same ethos has really popped with Napier. Dieng is good at positioning his body on dribble handoffs. He also has a keen understanding of defensive floor balance that leads him to set screens that open profitable areas of the floor, as he does here.

The result? A Crawford-esque 3-point shot where he jumps forward so much that he lands on the defender, drawing an and-one. The Timberwolves tracking data notes that Napier jumps forward more than any other play on the team when he shoots.

Earlier this week, I wrote about how Towns would do well to technically emulate what Dieng has been doing on the defensive end of the floor of late. The same can be said for elements of Dieng’s offensive game, like this screening intention he shows in the above clip.

The primary motivator, though, for determining two-man pairings on the floor when the roster is healthy will be defense, says Saunders. Offensively, he is looking at what a five-man group can do; not just two. Defensively, Napier has more than acquitted himself on that side of the floor, though. He enthusiastically buys into the defensive scheme that prioritizes running shooters off of the 3-point line and into contested midrange jumpers or floaters. And that has led to individual success. The Wolves have given up a very stingy 89.6 points per 100 possessions over the last three games with Napier in the game. But even prior to this boomlet, Napier has been a part of some of the Wolves’ most successful defensive groups — allowing 102.9 points per 100 possessions in the other 18 games he has played in prior to this past week.

Saunders has questions to answer with who exactly he wants to play Napier with going forward, but it should be assumed that Napier remains a major part of the rotation even once Wiggins and Teague return to full-strength — potentially even as the starting point guard.

“When Andrew is available, it’ll be natural that Shabazz won’t have the ball as much as he has,” said Saunders. “You also don’t want to have just one ball-handler on the floor. Anytime you can get more ball handlers on the court, the better.”

Naz Reid And The Big Man Logjam

Before Towns’ injury, the one position the Wolves really had a logjam at was center. Dieng and Vonleh were providing strong defense when Towns rested (if they got in at all), and Jordan Bell was giving meaningfully positive energy in his minutes. Then Reid came in and asserted himself as what appears to be the best big man shooting option on the roster outside of KAT. Once Towns returns, the jam will be real, and it’s now five players deep.

Saunders is warming up to the idea of playing two bigs together at the same time. Bell has moved into a role where he plays almost exclusively with another big man. Of the 205 minutes Bell has been on the floor this season, he has been flanked by Towns (96), Dieng (25), Reid (14) or Vonleh (7) for 69 percent of those minutes. It hasn’t worked, though; outside of Bell and Towns, all of those two big pairings that include Bell have gotten destroyed.

The adjustment from Saunders may be trying different two big pairings. He knows that’s the only way to alleviate the jam given that Towns is going to play as much as he does.

“I’m also not counting out that you might play (them together) if you consider those guys two bigs,” said Saunders on Saturday morning. “Maybe there’s some minutes where they play a little bit together because you can stretch Naz a little bit, stretch KAT a little bit. So I guess I don’t necessarily consider those guys full-on fives.”

Saunders has functionally been using Reid these past few games as a Towns Light.

Like Towns, Reid starts possessions at the top of the key as a pseudo quarterback of the offense, swinging the ball and repositioning himself along the 3-point arc for spot-up looks. Reid got up 23 shots from deep in just 59 minutes of play during the last three games. (That’s 14.1 3-point attempts per 36 minutes — 155 percent of the volume KAT has taken 3s at this season.)

As Saunders alludes to, Towns and Reid functionally play the same position, even in two big sets; meaning it’s unlikely those two ever share the floor. This doesn’t mean Reid can’t play at all; he just would need to share the floor with Dieng or Vonleh when Towns is out of the game. But that’s no lock either. In that alignment with Dieng or Vonleh as the five, Reid would fill the “stretch” role. It’s, then, important to acknowledge who the stretch players he’d be replacing are. Covington is the starting stretch four, and Jake Layman, when healthy, has been the backup in that slot. Keita Bates-Diop has filled in the Layman role during his absence, and KBD has made 39.3 percent of his 3s this season (58.3 percent from the corner). In theory, Covington, Layman and Bates-Diop could shift down into small forward roles, but that, then, presents a new logjam. Those three forwards would be cutting into the wing minutes Wiggins, Culver and Josh Okogie have owned. Those stretch-forwards may be better shooters than those three wings but would Saunders significantly limit the run of either of the team’s first round picks the last two seasons? Unlikely.

Reid’s fate most likely includes more time in Iowa. If injuries persist in the frontcourt, particularly to Towns, the opportunity will be there, and it would be best for the growth of the system for Reid to get those minutes. Other than that, it will be very specific matchups that the Wolves feel they can not survive with numerous non-shooters on the floor that will lead to Reid minutes.

“Just because guys have played well for two games doesn’t mean that they are now officially in the rotation,” said Saunders. “I think it will be fluid and we’ll see how guys react.”

It’s a tough situation, and it won’t exactly be fair. It won’t be shooting over everything. Positions will be considered, particularly as they connect to defense — a major weakness for Reid, who says he’s never really defended centers before coming to the NBA (instead, checking small and power forwards at LSU). If playing two bigs at a time has been a stretch, don’t expect three to see the floor together anytime soon.

“I’d say it’s game-to-game. I acknowledge and I tell the players, too, that it isn’t always fair to them”, Saunders continued. “You don’t want to yo-yo guys in and out.”

At the end of the day, the rotations are going to have one driving factor: whatever gets the most out of Towns. He is the priority. Freeing Towns on the offensive end and supporting him defensively will not only determine the roles of Napier and Reid but everyone else on the roster. That’s always how it will go.

To some extent, that nullifies a lot of the data in this boomlet. But not everything. These recent games provide evidence that structures a stronger argument for giving Napier more of the minutes Teague and the other guards were playing. It also adds fuel to the notion that playing multiple bigs at the same time could be a profitable strategy. From fancy cameras in the rims to successful two-man pairings and back to overall execution on the film, Saunders and the Timberwolves coaching staff now has additional information to prevent another month like December from ever happening again. They now know that tweaks to the rotation could be necessary.

“When you have a number of guys playing well,” said Saunders, “you have to consider everything.”

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