Timberwolves

The Wolves Can Turn Their Power Forward Platoon Into An Advantage

Photo Credit: Thomas Shea (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Timberwolves entered the 2021-22 season with more non-vaccine-related questions than any other NBA franchise. One of the team’s nagging questions for the last few years is who will be the longtime answer at power forward? Last year, shooting guards Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver were forced to step up and play the 4. Jake Layman and Juancho Hernangómez tried to space the floor next to Towns, and finally, Jarred Vanderbilt provided some stability for Minnesota’s most volatile position.

Over the offseason, Culver was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies to rehabilitate his career, Juancho is in a new Adam Sandler movie, and Layman is at the end of the bench. The gaping hole at power forward now comes down to Okogie, Vanderbilt, second-year defensive ace Jaden McDaniels, and Taurean Prince, who came over via the Ricky Rubio trade. With more talent to throw at the position this season, Chris Finch will likely platoon his power forward rotation as opposed to employing one definitive starter, and that might be a good thing.

The old saying in the NFL goes something like this: “If you have two quarterbacks, you have none.” On the surface, that makes a lot of sense when you transpose it to basketball. In a perfect world, one player would rise above the rest in every facet of the game and lock down the position for 30-plus minutes a game. The Wolves don’t have a superstar power forward, but a platoon approach might be the next best thing, giving Finch some much-needed roster flexibility along the way.

Finch elected to go small to open the season on Wednesday night with 6’4” Okogie starting alongside McDaniels and Towns in the frontcourt against the severely undersized Houston Rockets. The ability to play small worked to devastating effect. Okogie and McDaniels led a defensive barrage that forced 24 Houston turnovers and recorded 13 blocks in the 124-106 victory.

The small ball approach should work for Minnesota’s next two games against the Zion Williamson-less New Orleans Pelicans. They were forced into a similar lineup with 6’5” Josh Hart playing an Okogie-like small ball forward. But what happens when the Wolves finally play a properly constructed team in Game 4 against the reigning NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks? They employ the best power forward in the NBA, Giannis Antetokounmpo. You’ve probably heard of him. How can Okogie and McDaniels, who is listed at 6’9”, 185-pounds, hold up against the Greek Freak?

A small ball strategy is out the window against the Bucks. That’s where Vanderbilt comes into play. The biggest of the power forward platoon at 6’9”, 214-pounds, Vando is still smaller than your traditional power forward. However, he is at least in the same zip code as the 6’11”, 241-pound Greek god. Finch can utilize Vando against bigger, more athletic forwards and feel comfortable with the results. The third-year Kentucky product is an excellent rebounder for his size and competes for every possession. His rebound rate of 15.3 last season was within shouting distance of Giannis’ rate of 16. Finch can move Vanderbilt around the defensive rotation, even using him on the perimeter against the Rockets. The defensive versatility reminds some of Ben Simmons lite, with a similar downside as last year’s Defensive Player of the Year runner-up. Vanderbilt offers the least offensive upside of Minnesota’s forward rotation.

When Finch needs a bucket from one of his forwards, Vanderbilt and Okogie won’t be called upon. McDaniels is young and still improving his shot, but Taurean Prince can answer the call. Prince is undersized to play big minutes at the 4. But at 6’7”, 218-pounds, he can be called upon to knock down a three late in a close game. The new arrival who spent last season with the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers is a career 37 percent 3-point shooter and hit 40 percent from deep last year. Prince came as advertised on a team that’s been desperate to find anyone who can space the floor next to Towns. He is a floor-spacing 4 and hit his first three in a Wolves uniform during his 16 minutes off the bench in the opener.

So Finch doesn’t have one do-everything power forward who can play big and small, guard 1-5 on the other team, rebound, block shots, and step out and hit a three when needed? That’s okay, most teams don’t, but he has options. And those options unlock a level of roster flexibility that Minnesota hasn’t seen since Kevin Garnett was the premier power forward in the league almost two decades ago.

If Finch wants to play Vanderbilt against a big, athletic forward, he can throw Malik Beasley in the backcourt to keep the offense humming. Does he want to utilize McDaniels’ two-way powers? Great, you can throw Okogie or even Patrick Beverley in the backcourt to keep defensive continuity alongside Edwards, Towns, and DLo. Need a bucket? Prince can step in, and Finch can slide McDaniels to small forward. Need switchability on defense? A Towns-Vando-McDaniels-Edwards-Okogie lineup could wreak havoc on opposing ball-handlers.

The great Minnesota power forward conundrum has been one of the most prominent questions marks for this team since Taj Gibson was getting yelled at by Tom Thibodeau. While no one player on the roster can end the search for a full-time star four by themselves, the four-man platoon can come together like Voltron and finally lock down Minnesota’s most volatile position.

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