Chris Finch has been incredibly transparent since taking the helm as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Early in the season, he clearly stated that he intended to play an 11-man rotation to begin the year. Thus far, Finch has stuck to his word, playing at least 11 players in every game except the win against the Milwaukee Bucks. Finch has said that he believes that there are 14 guys who can contribute to this team and fully intends on trying to play as many of them as he can. But I have to wonder if this is the right move.
The Wolves have gotten off to an impressive 3-2 start this season, and they’ve largely achieved that relying on their defense. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Wolves have a defensive rating of 96.9, which filters out garbage time. (That’s important because any team that has faced the Houston Rockets needs a garbage-time filter. Bazinga.) That defensive rating ranks second in the league.
Obviously, the Wolves don’t have top-tier defensive personnel. Coming into the season, the biggest question this team faced was how they would stop their opponents. But Finch has this group playing a hyper-aggressive brand of defense, getting after the ball and forcing a ton of turnovers. Again using Cleaning the Glass, the Wolves are first in turnover percentage.
The Wolves can do this in part because of that 11-man rotation. The general principle is simple: Fewer minutes overall means that players can exert more energy on the defensive end without giving too much up offensively. The only problem is, the Wolves’ offense stinks. They’re not scoring very many points, turning the ball over a lot, and generally missing shots.
Before I get too ahead of myself, it’s important to note that offense league-wide has been way down since last season. The league is averaging 44.5% shooting from the floor, which, if the season were to end today, would be the lowest mark since 2003-04. Of course, that is the season Kevin Garnett won MVP. That is also the season in which Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, and Paul Pierce were among the top-five scoring leaders in the NBA while shooting below 44% from the field. For a little modern-day context, no one among the top-five scoring leaders last season shot below 45%.
With that in mind, one might diminish the Wolves’ offensive woes, writing them off as a symptom of some larger issue plaguing the league. But I think there is more to be worried about beyond a league-wide trend. Finch has spoken about players being unsure of where their shots are coming from and how many shots they will get. He’s also talked about a lack of flow within the offense and inability to find a rhythm. Both of those issues are indicative of the core problem with playing 11 guys every night. There are too many players trying to find their groove each night without enough playing time to find it.
Take Taurean Prince, for example, who has yet to find his footing in the offense this season. He is posting career-low stats across the board, most notably shooting 15.4% from the field. It looks like Prince hasn’t figured out his role with the team. He doesn’t look comfortable in the flow of the game. It’s no coincidence that he is also averaging a career-low 13 minutes per game.
But the issues extend beyond Prince to players who should have more established roles with the team. Josh Okogie hasn’t hit a three yet this season. Malik Beasley couldn’t buy a bucket before his performance against the Denver Nuggets. Naz Reid hit two 3-pointers against Denver, which felt like his first two all year. He has only made four 3-pointers in five games. When there is inconsistency and uncertainty surrounding minutes and shots, it’s hard for players, especially young players, to get going.
Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns have been stellar to start the season, which is no coincidence because they are playing regular and predictable minutes. If Finch wants to maximize the offensive talent on this roster, he will have to tighten his rotations so some other players can hit their stride. Even if it means giving up a little on the defensive end, the Wolves will struggle to make the playoffs if their offense stays in the bottom 10 in the league.