Running With Wolves: Minnesota’s aversion to depth

Three Minnesota Timberwolves – Jimmy Butler (3rd), Andrew Wiggins (8th) and Karl Anthony Towns (13th) – rank among the NBA’s top 20 players in minutes per game. Relax the list to include the top 35 players, and the remaining two Minnesota starters, Jeff Teague (28th) and Taj Gibson (35th), join the ranks.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say there are 450 players in the NBA (30 teams, 15 per squad). That means Wolves Team President and Head Coach Tom Thibodeau manages to run five of his guys more than 92 percent of the league.

In Thibodeau’s case, this is the norm. He’s frequently cited as a minutes hound, and even Butler hinted at his excessive usage earlier this month.

“Yeah, we need to talk to Thibs,” said Butler after a win over the Los Angeles Clippers. “These 40 minutes are starting to add up.”

Thibodeau’s choice to play starters excessive minutes dates to his days in Chicago. His best Bulls team (62-20), which took the court in 2010-11 and reached the Eastern Conference Finals, had a quadruplet of players running over thirty minutes per game with cornerstones Luol Deng (39.1) and Derrick Rose (37.4) holding up the brunt of the effort. While this combination of minutes worked that year, the Bulls failed to recreate that success as an underdeveloped bench limited the Bulls’ options.

Despite forging ahead with a streamlined rotation in Minnesota, the Timberwolves aren’t convincingly successful. While their offense (5th) can hang with the best of the best, a substandard defense (26th) has birthed a 19-13 record that while respectable, signals problematic matchups with the league-best Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

As teams play faster and careers last longer, appropriate rest has been inherent to long term success. This past season the NBA reworked the schedule to reduce back-to-back games and completely eliminate four games in five night situations.

The type of basketball Thibodeau plays, with its defensive-mindedness, slower pace and limited rotations is antiquated and distinctly reminiscent of the 1990s Chicago Bulls. En route to their sixth title, the Phil Jackson Bulls were still running a tight-knit seven-man rotation ending with Steve Kerr’s 22.4 minutes per game. With the Triangle Offense and Michael Jordan the Bulls could afford to trim the fat in the lineups, but other top teams needed to reach deeper to keep pace. The Houston Rockets ran 11 players at least 20 minutes a game for their second title in 1995, and the 1990 Champion Detroit Pistons only ran Isiah Thomas over 35 minutes per game for their second title in as many years.

Currently, the depth of the Rockets and Warriors have forced teams across the league to dig out their benches. Without Steph Curry the Warriors strung together a seven-game win streak, while the Rockets dealt an 11-4 record without Chris Paul thanks to their depth.

Even in the East, teams are focusing on building success through larger lineups. The oft ignored Toronto Raptors are rolling deep, with rookie Og Anunoby, as well as second years Pascal Siakam, Fred Van Vleet and Jakob Poeltl making a healthy amount of appearances north of the boarder. Similarly, the Cleveland Cavaliers have soared after Dwyane Wade’s move to the bench. After Wade’s voluntary choice to come off the bench the Cavs jumped from 15th to 5th in net rating, in part a testament to the added depth to Cleveland’s second units.

As the leaders of the west begin to separate from the rest of the pack, the Timberwolves will have to adapt to a deeper rotation to keep pace towards a playoff run. Preventing injuries should be of utmost importance in Minnesota, as extended DNP’s will immediately impact any chances of a Wolves midseason run.

Inexplicably, the Timberwolves have Nemanja Bjelica, a 51 percent shooter from beyond-the-arc, who has not dressed or seen action since November 22. Meanwhile, the Wolves are playing worse with Jamal Crawford on the court, but he continues to take precedence over the younger and more consistent Bjelica.

Whether trust issues or pure mania is driving Thibodeau’s rotations, the Timberwolves will need to prioritize roster longevity if they plan to run in the West.

 

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