We’re ten days into training camp and no team is feeling itself more than the Minnesota Timberwolves. A statement victory over the Zion-less New Orleans Pelicans perked up the ears of the NBA. The Wolves might be a team to be reckoned with. Anthony Edwards is three months away from becoming the NBA’s next big superstar. Ant Jr. is about to become the next mayor of Minneapolis. D’Angelo Russell’s two-way game is getting the attention of his teammates in camp. And Karl-Anthony Towns could be a dark horse MVP candidate.
Like Ryan Gosling mansplaining jazz, it’s very, very exciting. But Rome wasn’t built in a day (try 1,200 years), and Chris Finch has infinite tweaks to make to a franchise that’s qualified for the playoffs once since 2004.
Improving last year’s 28th-ranked defense is at the top of the list, but No. 2 should be finding the best way to maximize the effectiveness of his multi-talented bench unit. After KAT, Ant, and DLo, the rotation is anything but set in stone. Finch started Josh Okogie and Jaden McDaniels in the preseason opener with Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Taurean Prince, Jarred Vanderbilt, Naz Reid, and Jordan McLaughlin all playing more than 15 minutes off the bench. It’s worth noting that he said not to put too much stock in the first iteration of the rotation after the game.
There are plenty of lineups Finch could deploy as the season moves along. Okogie starting at the 2 or 3, Beasley could join Russell in the backcourt, Vando slotting next to Towns in the frontcourt, and move McDaniels to small forward. Finch will have to be careful with his starting lineups. If he leans a certain way, it could leave Beasley as the only scorer on a bench with limited offensive impact.
Last season the Wolves were third in the league with 40.2 points coming from the bench. But they ranked 21st in field goal percentage (44.4) and 27th in 3-point percentage (32.80). Beasley started 36 of the 37 games he played last season, so his presence will be a boon for a bench with limited offensive playmakers. Reid knocked down 35.1 percent of his threes last season as a reserve center. As a career 38.2 percent 3-point shooter, Beverley is a considerable shooting upgrade from Ricky Rubio’s non-existent outside presence. Vanderbilt is a non-shooter no matter how much he wants to feud with Dane Moore on Twitter about his new shot mechanics, and McLaughlin is an average outside shooter at 35.6 percent.
The player who could provide a spark is Prince, who hit 40 percent of his triples in Cleveland last season. The shooting off the bench isn’t the issue, but the lack of primary offensive creators could give Finch fits. Every player who stands to see big bench minutes is better as a catch-and-shoot scorer than a primary scorer with the ball in their hands.
How do you fix that and open up the offense without putting most of the burden on Beasley to score more off the dribble? Flipping Beasley with Okogie in the starting lineup would only exacerbate the issue. Russell had success coming off the bench down the stretch last season after returning from a knee injury. But DLo seems fully entrenched as the showrunner with the starting lineup. Ant became a sensation when he became a starter early last season and is too big of a rising star to play in the Lou Williams/Jamal Crawford role. It might not work out, but the answer might be to push Vando into the starting lineup and let McDaniels hone his two-way game alongside Beasley and Beverley off the bench.
McDaniels struggled with the ball in his hands throughout his rookie season with an effective field goal percentage of just 42.5 off of pull-ups vs. 55.7 in catch-and-shoot scenarios. Slotting McDaniels next to a flamethrower in Beasley and a mix of Beverley and McLaughlin on the ball could open up his offensive game instead of hiding him in a starting lineup with KAT, Ant, and DLo taking the bulk of the shots. Moving Vando to the starting lineup doesn’t relinquish a ton on the defensive side while not bothering the star trio’s offensive impact.
The other option is to keep McDaniels in the starting lineup and stagger Ant, DLo, and KAT’s minutes, so one of them is on the court at all times. Edwards or Russell can initiate the offense with the bench unit and act as the primary scorer while allowing Beasley and Prince to bomb away from the short corners. The downside to this approach is that you’re not getting the full impact of your marquee big-three, which scored 120.9 points per 100 possessions in 327 minutes together last season.
In a pivotal season for the franchise, Finch is facing pressure to hit the right buttons straightaway. By all accounts, he’s done that in his first eight months on the job, and finding the right bench combination will give this team the roster stability it hasn’t seen since Jimmy Butler and Towns were on speaking terms.