Timberwolves

J-Mac's Absence Exposes the Roster's Lack of Resilience

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves went on a five-game winning streak that seemed to indicate they were finding their rhythm. However, they have since gone in the opposite direction, losing three in a row. Two of those losses were to competitive full-strength teams, the Golden State Warriors and the Washington Wizards. Both are 11-10. However, the loss to the Charlotte Hornets may be their worst this season. The Hornets (6-5) beat the Wolves without LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward, their two best players, and are currently 13th in the Eastern Conference.

In all three losses, there was a multitude of defensive possessions that left viewers scratching their heads. How were the opposing team’s players getting so many wide-open looks? The level of competitiveness that felt like it had risen during Minnesota’s win streak seemed to fall off again almost immediately. What is especially intriguing about this change in effort level? Jordan McLaughlin and Taurean Prince were out during all three losses.

McLaughlin and Prince may not be the most “talented” players on the roster. Neither has shown themselves capable of going iso for a whole quarter and carrying their team to a victory like Anthony Edwards has. However, these three losses made it clear that McLaughlin and Prince are some of the most important players on the team. Their constant high-energy play holds the team together when it struggles and gives them a resilient identity.

Last year, Minnesota’s ability to come ready to every game, play scrappy defense, and hustle harder than their opponent was perhaps the most important part of their identity as a team. It drove their ability to win games. In the offseason, they traded away two of the players who embodied this identity the most, Jarred Vanderbilt and Patrick Beverley. There were hopes that Kyle Anderson and Austin Rivers could offer some of the tenacity lost in the trade. However, that energy has not been the same.

Prince and McLaughlin were also significant contributors to this identity last year. They seem to be the primary veterans left on the team that still embody it on a nightly basis. In particular, McLaughlin seems to have become the new heart of hustle on the team. He provides a flow and movement to the offense that is not often seen when he is on the bench. He also gets his teammates open shots while rarely turning the ball over. In the last three games with McLaughlin out, the ball got stickier than ever because there is no one else on the team who is a true pass-first creator.

D’Angelo Russell is a good floor general. However, his role on the team often asks him to toggle back and forth between getting the offense moving into plays and scoring when the team needs him to. That’s a lot of responsibility. When he misreads a situation and shoots a hero-ball three early on in the shot clock or can’t hit shots when he’s open, both parts of his game become less effective. As a result, it has been essential for the Wolves to have a player like McLaughlin coming off the bench. He knows that his No. 1 job on offense is to get his teammates engaged and keep the ball moving.

Additionally, while it’s likely no one out-competes Pat Bev, McLaughlin is one of the few players in the league who can give him a run for his money. The regularity with which McLaughlin wins 50/50 balls with hustle or gets poke-away steals that lead to a basket makes him one of the most effective defensive players on the team, despite not having the physical tools many other players do.

While this type of impressive play doesn’t always show up in the box score and is hard to quantify with stats, it has shown up in his plus-minus this year. McLaughlin leads the team’s rotation players in +/- at a plus-4.7, which means that when he is on the court, the Wolves have outscored their opponents by a net 4.7 points. The next closest player to J-Mac is the other J-Mac, Jaden McDaniels, at plus-0.9. That demonstrates that the Wolves play a lot better when McLaughlin is on the court. Much of that seems to come from the contagious energy he plays with and the consistency of his game.

That isn’t to say that the Wolves starters this year don’t hustle or aren’t hard workers in their own way, because they certainly are. However, most of Minnesota’s regular starters, excluding McDaniels, are high first-round draft picks either on or soon going to get max contracts. Their natural talent at basketball has meant that most of their career, their runway to develop, and their margin for error has been much larger than that of a player like McLaughlin. J-Mac went undrafted out of USC and had to fight for every minute he earned.

There’s often a higher level of competitiveness that can be seen in players who have had to work harder to earn their position in the NBA because of their body type, development arc, or simply because they were overlooked in the draft. Jimmy Butler and Pat Bev are great examples of this. They both play with giant chips on their shoulders due to their slow rises to stardom and will take every opportunity they can to tell you how hard they worked to get to where they’re at.

Last year, it felt like over half of the Wolves’ rotation brought that intensity for all the minutes they played every night. However, in the last few games with McLaughlin and Prince out, it has become clear that they have very few players with that high of a motor who can right the ship when things go wrong.

Luckily, plenty of young players on the Wolves can still learn what it means to do the dirty work and bring their best effort to the court every game to earn tough wins. I fully believe Ant and McDaniels are well on their way to becoming consistent energizers for the team. Ant still makes mistakes, but he also shows in interviews that he is intentional about working on the things he needs to improve. Edwards has talked all season about working on rebounding better. Last week, he said he is working on his off-ball defense because he’s tired of getting called out in the film room. McDaniels already does a lot of the dirty work for the starting lineup. However, if he can maintain his composure and not commit frustration fouls, he may become the new face of hustle over time.

Not everyone can be as high-energy on the court as McLaughlin; it’s a part of what makes him such a special player. However, the rest of the team needs to learn to emulate his non-stop energy, or the front office needs to trade for some players who can. Otherwise, the team will continue to struggle throughout the rest of the season.

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