Waiving Hollis-Jefferson Shows the Wolves Aren't Ready For Positionless Basketball

Photo Credit: Jerome Miron (USA TODAY Sports)

So they did the most predictable thing. Once again, the Minnesota Timberwolves broke my heart. They cut the king for which I chose to simp on this roster: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. I apologize for leading anyone astray. Complaints in my DMs will receive DBNR responses from my intern within 48 hours. But most pertinently to the rest of this article, he was the most versatile player on a roster where the coaching staff boasts about positional versatility being key in roster decision-making. On one hand, I get it. Having a full 15 player roster makes two-way contracts essentially worthless, so you want the extra spot available, but this is still a confounding decision for these reasons:

  1. I don’t know what the coaching staff saw in Jarred Vanderbilt to guarantee his contract on July 15.
  2. The Wolves’ guard depth ahead of Jaylen Nowell, in addition to having McLaughlin on his 2-way for injury insurance, makes me question the validity of keeping him on his non-guaranteed contract instead of RHJ at the biggest question mark position on the team.
  3. Naz Reid has a better shot to play backup center minutes because of his size, but I feel more unsure about where he fits on a playoff contender than I do with Rondae (who has played effective minutes with a small role in each of the last two playoffs).
  4. When Jake Layman and especially Juancho Hernangomez put up pedestrian-at-best performances during the preseason, the coaching staff didn’t even try Hollis-Jefferson with the starters. He almost went perfect from the field (8-of-9) in the preseason, and he was second in Net Rating to Nowell (38.2 and 45.7, respectively).

Net rating here is obviously a goofy statistic or a “sample bias” in that the limited minutes came during garbage time against mostly non-rotation level players in the preseason, but the point is that they didn’t even try to give him more minutes in the third preseason game. Why bother signing someone at all when you’re just going to cut them after they play flawlessly in every minute of basketball they’re given? He’s also only 25 years old! There’s plenty of time to improve his lack of skill on the offensive end. To me, this is the clearest misstep of the Rosas Era so far (we’ll see what happens between Coby White and Jarrett Culver or Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball).

Here’s what J-Kraw had to say:

Let’s say this is true, even though it’s Timberwolves PR trying to smooth the edges of the sword they thrust into my back. It still doesn’t adequately explain the move:

  1. Why are the Wolves performing a trade where they will need more roster spots? This really only happens when you trade a good player on a medium/large contract for assets. The only contract like this on our team is Karl-Anthony Towns’ (insert shudder). As a team supposedly trying to win games this year, the obvious moves would be to find more immediate talent. That means sending two players for one. Talent is improved, and depth is sacrificed. OR is Gersson Rosas preparing to rebuild?
  2. From what I understood, The Timberwolves could have stayed under the luxury tax with RHJ’s contract, and it didn’t have a guaranteed date, so his cap hit increased with each bi-weekly paycheck. If you strike gold, then the worst thing he is is a future trade piece. If you don’t, and you want to open up the roster spot, then you can cut him whenever.
  3. I just don’t see the downside to keeping him around with a thin power forward rotation already. Is there a trade for a PF coming soon?
  4. What happened to positionless basketball?

We’ve been hearing for two years about this “positionless basketball.” Over the last couple of weeks, Vanderbilt has talked about how the power forward and center positions are essentially interchangeable in Ryan Saunders’ system. Layman said the same about small forward and power forward. But the only player who possessed the ability to feasibly switch on defense from 1-5 was Hollis-Jefferson. Towns still drops back on screens, and even if Ja Morant was 33% from 3 last year, everyone on ball seems to fight through Jonas Valanciunas’ screens. Hey, at least Juancho switches! Here are some examples. Every other time, basically without fail, the Minnesota defender fought through the screen and ended up on Morant’s hip, exactly where he wanted them (Why not try going under on a streaky shooter?).

Now, Hollis-Jefferson isn’t giving you much on offense, but when he is cooking, he gives you a little bit of everything (except 3-point shooting). His best fit offensively is also as the power forward or center in a multiple ball-handler system with plenty of cutting, ball movement and shooting around him, but the Wolves aren’t running that kind of motion offense (yet). Towns is running pick-and-pop, and everyone stops moving with their hands out and ready for the hot potato that D’Angelo Russell will serve as the shot clock expires.

Who am I kidding? He is going to shoot that thing. This isn’t positionless basketball. It’s rudderless basketball.

It’s possible that this played a part in Hollis-Jefferson being exiled to the waiver-wire. The Timberwolves have neither the personnel nor the coaching scheme to be ready for true positionless basketball. It would help this team if they defined roles, rules and positions for these players. Sorry, here comes a music analogy.

While learning music theory, every engaged student realizes that Bach, Mozart and especially Beethoven break the “rules.” It sounds better when they break the rules, though, and it’s because they first mastered the rules. The same can be said for free jazz and Charles Mingus. Mingus’ “team” had such clearly defined positions that they moved together as one in collective improvisation. It takes a good composer or bandleader, grounded in fundamentals, to run a team that breaks the rules or plays “positionless.”

For now, our bandleader is NOT Charles Mingus but Saunders. He’s like when Felix Mendelssohn was gifted an orchestra at the age of 12, but instead of practicing his counterpoint and music theory, he’s decided that his young band is ready to collectively improvise like the Mingus Big Band. And just as is the tendency with young musicians, this collective improvisation on the court during these preseason games has led to a lot of soloists with the four other guys standing around. I hope that, in the last week of practice before the home opener, Saunders focuses on the rules, the counterpoint, and maybe that’s why they cut Hollis-Jefferson! The Wolves weren’t ready for his free jazz. And maybe the whole league isn’t ready because on Monday, he fell through the waivers, unclaimed. Well, here’s to hoping that one day he finally gets his shot.

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