Timberwolves

The Wolves Will Have To Be Ruthless With Playoff Minutes To Go On A Run This Year

Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With less than three weeks left in the regular season, NBA teams are barrelling toward the playoffs. For the first time in a generation, the Minnesota Timberwolves are more concerned with seeding than just getting into the postseason. The Wolves are in a three-way battle with the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder for the top seed in the West, with a half-game separating one through three. Minnesota is 7-3 since Karl-Anthony Towns was sidelined with a meniscus injury by getting contributions up and down the lineup.

Naz Reid is filling in for Towns with eerily similar numbers to the four-time All-Star. Anthony Edwards has rocketed himself into “next face of the league” conversations. Rudy Gobert has all but locked up his fourth career Defensive Player of the Year award. And the Wolves are getting the best out of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kyle Anderson, Monte Morris, Jordan McLaughlin, and the rest of their bench.

But the playoffs are a different beast, where the pace plummets and rotations shrink. The Wolves are one of the deepest teams in the league. With KAT’s return looming, Chris Finch will have some difficult decisions in his third straight playoff appearance. He will have to squeeze some deserving players out of the rotation.

Taking a look back at last year’s first-round exit at the hands of the eventual champion Nuggets, it’s evident that Finch kept a relatively consistent eight-man rotation with a few exceptions when the Wolves were getting blown out — a few spot minutes for JMac and Austin Rivers, and 10 seconds for Nathan Knight in the closing game five. Last year, the Wolves were missing two of their best seven players, Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid, and were without Kyle Anderson in Game 5. Still, they gave the champs a decent headache for a 42-win team. The Wolves should be favored in their first-round matchup this season, and they will be at or close to full strength depending on when Towns can return to action.

If Towns has to sit out the first found, the starting lineup should remain intact from this last handful of games with Edwards, Mike Conley, McDaniels, Naz Reid, and Rudy Gobert lining up for the opening tip. That leaves three bench rotation spots split between NAW, Anderson, Morris, JMac, and T.J. Warren. If Towns is good to go by the start of the postseason, that should slide Reid back to the bench in his sixth-man role, and everyone else slides down one more position in the bench rotation, leaving three spots for six players. Too much talent is a great problem, but Finch and his crew will have to be ruthless in the minute distribution and lineup combinations to ensure the Wolves get everything they can out of a team that should make a deep playoff run for the first time since 2004.

Edwards played almost 40 minutes per game in last year’s playoff series. Conley, KAT, and Gobert were all around 35 minutes per game, and NAW, Anderson, and Taurean Prince were all over 20 per contest. Expect Finch to ride Edwards as long as he can because Ant has been nearly indestructible throughout his four years in the NBA. Conley and Gobert will factor heavily into the rotation, but they’re both in their 30s, so they’ll need breaks. Trust me, as a semi-in-shape 32-year-old man who gets lightheaded walking up my stairs, breaks are important for millennials.

If KAT returns in the playoffs, the Wolves will likely reduce his minutes from the usual 33 he was getting during the regular season. Naz Reid is averaging a career-high 23.7 minutes per game this season and has increased to almost 29 minutes a game since Towns went down. Jaden McDaniels is hovering just under 30 minutes per game, while Anderson and Alexander-Walker are just under 25.

There are 240 minutes available to be played by each team during a regulation NBA game. Let’s say you give Ant 40 minutes, 35 to Conley and Rudy, and 30 to Naz Reid, McDaniels, and KAT when he returns. That leaves 40 minutes to be divided between NAW, Kyle Anderson, JMac, Warren, and anyone else who might come off the bench. My gut would tell me that NAW and Anderson will cannibalize most of those minutes with the potential for JMac to carve out a four or five-minute stretch if the offense gets sticky, and Warren could receive some spot minutes if they need a scorer with Edwards on the bench.

The Wolves have enough talent and a deep enough roster to go deep into the playoffs with or without Karl-Anthony Towns. Still, it will be up to Chris Finch and his coaching staff to make sure the playoff rotations are air-tight if this team is going to do what no Wolves team in history has done before and make an NBA Finals appearance.

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