Naz Reid and Jaden McDaniels’ injuries have hurt the Minnesota Timberwolves immensely. It is difficult for any team to lose rotational players, let alone their best defender and a spark plug off the bench. Although Naz is a big and Jaden is a forward, their injuries have opened up a deeper hole in the guard rotation while the Wolves attempt to sort out their playoff rotations. Coaches tend to tighten the rotation in the playoffs and play-in games. As a result, flaws become much easier to see. That has been the case with the back end of Minnesota’s rotation. Specifically, the swing spot where Chris Finch has used Jordan McLaughlin and Jaylen Nowell.
Finch has cemented Mike Conley, Anthony Edwards, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kyle Anderson, Taurean Prince, Rudy Gobert, and Karl-Anthony Towns in the seven-man playoff and play-in rotation. But it’s an open competition for playing time beyond that because nobody has stepped up and found rhythm in a playoff environment.
McLaughlin was a valuable rotation player a year ago, but it has been a rocky season for him. He missed 29 straight games midseason due to a calf injury, and he’s made less impact than usual after returning. JMac’s struggles became exaggerated in the two play-in games. Finch used him in short stints, totaling 10 and three minutes when filtering out garbage time, and McLaughlin struggled to find any rhythm.
Offensively, defenders completely disregarded him when he was off the ball in the corner. And they swatted his floaters when he attacked the basket. The Los Angeles Lakers game was a difficult matchup for him because of their size. But even in the Oklahoma City game, it was hard to find a steady role for him to be effective when teams could easily gameplan for his skill set. This was a bit shocking too because Finch elected to roll with JMac over D’Angelo Russell at times in last year first-round series vs Memphis.
Nowell has also had a rollercoaster season. At the beginning of the year, some people expected him to replace Malik Beasley as a bench scorer. The Wolves traded Beasley to the Utah Jazz in the Gobert trade, which gave Nowell more of a platform for success. He had an opportunity to become a staple of the rotation. Nowel played in the first 62 games of the season, averaging 10.9 PPG on 44.6/29.3/78.4 shooting splits in 19.5 minutes per game. However, a knee injury held him out most of the rest of the regular season. That took him out of rhythm. Then he returned during the season’s most important games, making it difficult to ramp back up.
Statistically, Nowell is a scoring guard who lacks a consistent three-point shot. Additionally, he doesn’t have the tools to be the backup point guard, and his defensive woes have added to the areas of concern. Nowell has seen some increased minutes with McLaughlin’s poor play. But you can see the issues with his game again when Finch puts him in those scenarios.
Finally, Alexander-Walker has become more of a staple of the rotation than Nowell and JMac, two longer-tenured players, even though the Wolves acquired him at the trade deadline. Alexander-Walker has exhibited his talent, mostly as a floor-spacer and defender. NAW lacks the skills to be a primary initiator on offense and is more of a smaller wing than a guard.
Anderson gets an honorable mention because sees many of these initiator reps. But he is rarely on the floor as the main proprietor of the offense, nor would that be a good idea. He is much more effective as a secondary option than a true point forward.
Minnesota’s lack of depth has exposed how tricky the backup guard position can be. When you match up their lack of sets and screens alongside their primary ball handlers, it’s hard not to wonder if they would benefit from upgrading their backup point guard. It was already difficult mid-season when McLaughlin got injured, and they only had Russell to run the offense. But that was still the regular season, so they could get by. When you are a team with playoff aspirations, you do not want to find yourself in this hole continuously. It can clog an already stagnant offense.
The front office should heavily consider investing either their Non-Tax Payers Mid-Level Exception of up to $11.38 million annually or their Bi-Anual Exception, which is up to $4.48 million annually, to stopgap this issue this offseason. At a minimum, they should consider using some of their two-way slots or vet minimum on a true point guard instead of holding as many centers on the roster as they did this season.