Who Gets the Minutes? Projecting the Timberwolves' 2020-21 Rotation

Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

After two dismal performances, Minnesota Timberwolves fans have been left in a state of anxiety trying to decide if Jake Layman can be the starting power forward on the 10th seed in the Western Conference. I mentioned last week that I liked Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to finish games for the Wolves with his length and energy, and after being perfect from the field and adding a couple of stocks (blocks/steals), I feel almost as vindicated as Chelanga does about Isaac Okoro. He literally cannot stop sending me preseason clips of his defense.

But when RHJ defibrillated the Timberwolves in the second half of the second preseason on Monday night, I came to life as well. I decided to find out how many of the 17,280 court minutes are available for Rondae, so I created another model to calculate lineups and positions.

I would like to first acknowledge the obvious: the pandemic, along with not being in a bubble, is going to make all of this impossible to actually predict. Nonetheless, I started with the 15 players who I think will make the roster. I chose their minutes based on previous minutes played and how many minutes, minutes per game, and games I predict players to play (based on health history, age, role, etc.).

These 15 players’ minutes had to add up to 17,280 (72 games, multiplied by 48 minutes in a game, multiplied by five players on a court). Instead of creating more of an algorithm, I played coach (and guess n’ check), and I took away or gave minutes to players based on my own inclinations. For example, I predict Hollis-Jefferson to play 100 more minutes this year than last because I am SMITTEN. My next step was making sure that I didn’t give too many minutes to certain positions, so I made a side chart where I could track how many minutes I gave to each position. There are 3,456 minutes per position this year (48 times 72):

Each time I changed the numbers in the top graph, the numbers in the bottom graph would move in sync. Now let’s explore the whole rotation, and for organization purposes, I’ll split the players into groups:

The Pillars

Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell are the two pillars. They will play as much as they can and start every game they play. We all know this. As I’ve said, KAT’s minutes are written in diamond, while DLo’s are in more of a limestone. I have KAT going for 68 games at 33.1 minutes per game (MPG) and DLo for 65 games at 32.6 MPG.

The 6th Man

I think Ricky Rubio could start a bunch of games, especially with Malik Beasley probably facing a suspension down the line — but maybe even with him on the court. So far, though, the coaching staff has decided in both practice and preseason that they need him to initiate the offense for the second unit. Here’s to hoping for some Billy Donovan three-guard lineups. I’ve got Rubio with 24 starts in 63 games for 27.1 MPG.

The Low Minute Starter

Josh Okogie has looked unimpressive and some fanatics are calling for Jarrett Culver to get a shot at the start. Sure, try that in the preseason, but I’m not fully buying in yet. More on that later. For now, although Okogie hasn’t looked like himself on defense and exactly like himself on offense (both in negative ways), I have to give the benefit of the doubt to the player who actually had a pulse last season. I like Okogie to start 60 of 64 games played (at SMALL forward lol) with 25.2 minutes per game.

The Troublemaker

We are unaware of the disciplinary action that the NBA will take against Beasley, but last year John Collins and Deandre Ayton were both suspended 25 games for violating the leagues’ anti-drug policy, so I started from there, and I figured he’d at least miss a couple of games during this compressed season. For me, Beasley is a starter, starting 42 of his 45 games played while giving the Wolves 31.3 MPG. Why doesn’t he start in three games? My thought is that Saunders at least tries him off the bench, especially if his defensive efficiency stays fickle.

The “Power Three, Five, and Forwards”

Juancho Hernangomez played 40% of his minutes at the 5 last year (power five-ward)! Maybe all of that was with Towns injured, but I could still see him getting a chance at some backup center minutes, especially if they keep Layman in the starting lineup. Layman is more of a power three-ward with his alligator arm 6’9” wingspan. The dark horse here is Hollis-Jefferson, who — with his Elastigirl arms, Mr. Incredible strength, Dash speed and somehow Violet invisibility to NBA front offices — STILL HAS A CHANCE TO START despite his non-guaranteed minimum contract.

He’s a power threeve-ward who has played most of his minutes at the 3 and 4 in his career, but on this team could make the transition to the 5 in a big way. I have Hernangomez playing the most total minutes (albeit many at center) with 33 of 64 games started at 22.9 MPG. Layman starts at the 4 most often in my model, but he has more injury concerns, starting 39 of 58 games at 23.3 MPG. Hollis-Jefferson is the starter in my heart and gets the nod in six of 64 games played at 19.1 MPG.

The Youngbloods

Ready or not, here Anthony Edwards comes with 14 games started of 68 games played and 21.5 MPG. He hasn’t shown us the No. 1 pick value, and he has mostly looked bleak both ways in transition, but I’m not giving up on a kid who just turned 19 in September and can chase down like this:

Culver is slowly carving out a role. He went 4-for-4 from the free throw line in a game! This could change everything. Last year, he was 46% from the line. If he can make that even 60%, he can stop shying away from getting to the basket, and that has been his best offensive skill. I do want Saunders to experiment with giving Culver full starter minutes this preseason if only to help his trade value. I’ve got him as the ninth man in a deep rotation starting nine of 68 games played at 19.5 minutes a game.

The Fringe Festival

I once was in an opera at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We probably didn’t deserve to be there. These fringe players might not either. There simply aren’t enough minutes at the 5 for Naz Reid with my projection of the Wolves playing small ball. Jaylen Nowell falls victim to the same story with Rubio and DLo hogging point guard minutes. To be honest, I think the Wolves will try Okogie, Culver or Beasley over Nowell in case of injury. They’re all various levels of combo guards. I haven’t seen anything too interesting out of Jarred Vanderbilt yet, and Jaden McDaniels has looked like he should be looking for a year-long apartment lease down in Des Moines.

Finally, at the farthest, warmest end of the bench, we have Ed Davis. I know he complained about having to quarantine in his Minneapolis hotel room when he arrived and that he wasn’t able to get in shape as a result, but Davis’ only role with the Wolves thus far is setting screens. My dream is for him to be the Jared Dudley glue guy for the Wolves as they contend for the 10th seed.

Hopefully, they can turn things around Thursday in Dallas. The Mavericks looked great against the Milwaukee Bucks, so let’s not count on it. This season could be a big exercise in patience. Find your joy in the little things, like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

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