The Minnesota Timberwolves were physically and psychologically full of themselves at the start of Wednesday night’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. For the first time since Dec. 17, the Wolves roster was Covid-free. The rebuilding Thunder were an inferior opponent. Led by the belated return of max-salary stars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, the squad thirsted to be frisky and assert their supremacy with fashionable elan.
Less than 90 seconds into the game, KAT splashed a three-pointer from the top of the arc. DLo followed with one of his sideways jumpers off an inbounds pass to ignite a 14-0 run, which he culminated by going coast-to-coast and threading his way through a trio of Thunder defenders for an up-and-under layup. After trading baskets a couple of trips up and down the court, the Wolves tacked on another seven straight points. It was 30-10 at quarter’s end.
The other member of the “Big 3,” Anthony Edwards, feasted via ambush, with four steals in those twelve minutes and nine points. He also had a pair of boards and an assist to boot. And the catalysts of chaos in the Wolves starting lineup likewise sowed their wild oats. Jarred Vanderbilt injected some brain cells into his perpetual motion with a pair of pretty dimes, dispensed right near the rim to better shooters after credibly pretending he was going to test his errant form on layups of his own. And Patrick Beverley buried a couple of treys and doled out a trio of assists while hectoring the Thunder backcourt into hurried ineptitude.
This starting five came into the game sporting a ridiculous net rating of 49.6, meaning that spread out over the one-hundred possessions by each team that comprises a typical NBA game, their joint performance together thus far this season would typically generate a 50-point victory. After nearly three weeks off amid a nine-game stretch where all five missed at least three games due to COVID protocols, the quintet’s 15 minutes as a unit on the court together Wednesday actually boosted that rating another notch, to 50.5—136.9 points scored per 100 possessions minus 86.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. That’s the best offensive and the best defensive rating in the NBA. The two most-effective starting fives in the league (with a minimum of 140 minutes on the court simultaneously) after the Wolves quintet have net ratings of 34.8 and 17.8, respectively.
A kindred synergy
That the Wolves have unearthed the most complementary juggernaut among all the starting units in the NBA is the feel-good story of their 2021-22 season thus far. Head coach Chris Finch succinctly, and accurately, describes it as “three high-usage guys and two energy guys.”
For example, KAT is the nonpareil sharpshooter from the rim out to the three-point arc who traditionally has been found wanting in the classic mode of a rim-protecting center playing drop-back coverage in defensive schemes. Enter Vando, the banshee whose alert scrambling enables KAT to get involved in pick and roll defense further away from the hoop, just as Vando’s grossly inept involvement in patterned half-court sets is mostly rendered moot by KAT’s phenomenal accuracy at that end of the court. As a bonus, KAT’s long-range shooting and ability to draw multiple defenders anywhere in the half-court creates space for Vando to prowl and pounce for offensive rebounds, which he has learned to snare and seamlessly then kick out to open perimeter shooters.
The backcourt of PatBev and DLo enjoy a kindred synergy. DLo accurately imagines himself as a keen student of the game, but performing as a self-styled savant has its pros and cons. On offense, he needs to stave off boredom by giving vent to the full range of opportunities he sees, which makes him most effective as a combo guard — variously a shooting guard who explores seams in the defense for his own catch-and-shoot jumpers or cat-and-mouse games off the dribble and a point guard drawing defenders for the purpose of making one of his devastating pocket passes off the pick-and-roll or tilting the floor with an unexpected skip pass to the weakside corner.
PatBev is capable of accommodating both ends of that combo-guard equation. Although the surety of his dribble and breadth of his court vision don’t match DLo’s skill set, he too is a brilliant strategist who can be an instigator or willing accomplice, freeing up DLo and other teammates for open looks with a fundamental-heavy style of execution that looks pedestrian but gets the job done with a minimum of turnovers. And when DLo is running the offense, PatBev understands spacing and movement and, by the way, is one of the team’s most versatile shooters, with accuracy on catch-and-shoot jumpers or floaters off the dribble.
But where the backcourt tandem really sings is on defense. DLo’s scholarship has transformed him into a very solid off-ball defender, able to anticipate and call out set plays by opponents, leading to better team choreography and his own frequent disruption of his foes’ supposed passing lanes. PatBev can do all that too, but also does the dirty work, the nose-bloodying on-ball coverage that torments the opponents best perimeter playmaker, or the suffocating double-teams and savage (but somehow foul-free) poke checks that variously scramble the poise and dislodge the ball away from the other team.
That leaves Ant, who best embodies the dictum often expressed by Finch, most recently in the postgame press conference on Wednesday: “Young is just a synonym for inconsistent.” On offense, his hops allow him extended aerial shenanigans that should be foreign to mortal man, complemented with an increasingly accurate three-point stroke that no longer seems like a foolhardy default position. Even so, his shot selection — both in terms of where he shoots and whether he should be the one shooting at all — remains a reminder that he is still not old enough to be legally entrusted to drink alcohol.
Ditto the defense: Young = inconsistent. Ant’s four first-quarter steals Wednesday is the bright side, the desire to exploit his extraordinary athleticism in service at that end of the court. But be it the rotational accountability of team defense or the steady rigor of on-ball coverage, his attention span can be short, his decisions heedless, his timing a split second too early or late due to lack of repetition. On Wednesday, he was caught literally flat-footed as the Thunder inbounded the ball to his man, camped more than ten feet away from him, setting up for a corner three-pointer.
That’s what happens when you are 20-years old. But the current starting lineup absolves Ant of the weight-bearing loads that his youthful inconsistency can’t yet sustain. Finch has accurately described him as a “home run hitter,” the kind of scorer whose explosions can be swift and munificent, but when the corresponding strike-outs predominate, the team still has KAT’s shooting, DLo’s wiles, and the points off the turnovers Vando and PatBev generate to weather the drought. And on defense, the bark of PatBev, the play-by-play of DLo, the antic sealant of Vando and the size and growing commitment of KAT variously inspire, inform, correct and synergize the pros and cons of Ant’s play.
So if the Wolves starters are performing as a unit that can thrash opponents by 50 points a game, why is this team still two games below .500, at 18-20?
Because even the most commonly deployed starting lineups play together less than half the game, and endure many games when one or more of the quintet are unavailable to the injury or virus-related protocols. Thus far this season, the most frequent lineup in the NBA — the starters for the Utah Jazz — have logged 446 minutes, which is less than a quarter of the 1824 minutes Utah has played overall.
In Minnesota, the stupendous five have played 142 of the Wolves 1839 total minutes: 7.7%! Sure, their collective time has been mostly diminished by the omicron wave, but the fact is that PatBev is a ten-year veteran aged 33 who has missed more than a dozen games in four of his past five seasons. KAT and DLo have had their seasons shortened in the past few years. Vando’s courtship of collisions is akin to a crash test dummy. Only Ant seems safely immune from a trip to the disabled list.
Even if all five are healthy, however, it is not an ideal strategy to hoard all of their collective resources, no matter how glorious, for the big bang of even 20-25 minutes or so per game. The Wolves roster is laden with one-way players, teasing mediocrities, untested youth, and in general folks whose confidence and skill sets require the intervention of a higher power — maybe a deity, but more likely smart, intuitive coaching and the situational injection of better teammates joining them on the court.
It is already standard operating procedure for DLo to sub out early in the first quarter so he can captain the second unit either at the end of that first stanza or early in the second. In similar ways, Finch understands that PatBev needs monitored stints, KAT can be susceptible to foul trouble, and, by the way, there are players with egos and legitimate expectations clamoring to have their minutes and roles elevated.
Most prominently, for example, prior to this season Malik Beasley had been in the starting lineup for all but one of the 51 games he was eligible to play after being acquired in a trade from Denver. His $14.4 million salary — the first season of a 3-year, $46-million deal he signed in November 2020 — makes him the third-highest paid player on the roster. This season, he came off the bench in every game until Covid protocols ravaged the roster. And with the spectacular starting unit now healthy and available again, this typically proud and loud veteran returns to his early seat on the pine, where, thus far, he has been a good soldier.
But on Wednesday, his chief rival for designated scorer off the bench, Jaylen Nowell, closed out the win over OKC at the expense of Beasley’s time.
The changing composition of the Wolves’ lineups
As well as the starters have performed — and frankly, they have nowhere to go but down from their ridiculously lofty results thus far — the key to the Wolves sustained push for a playoff spot this season is how well Finch is able to fashion what he calls his “blended lineups.” The word “blend” has a double meaning in this context. It simultaneously refers to the blend of starters and reserves and the blend of hopefully complementary skill sets that will occur. That these two blends are also blended contributes to the swirl and churn of player rotations and the pundit/fan critiques and speculations about how they should ensue. It’s all great fun unless you are ultimately accountable for the results.
Back in October at the start of this season, Finch opened the portals to an 11-player rotation, a significant addition from the standard NBA approach of using as few as eight or as many as ten in the lineup shuffle plans. Granted, the coach occasionally fudged the number by using a different tenth player according to the needs of the game instead of deploying a full eleven, but there were also times when he opted for the whole hog.
“Yeah I’m pretty happy with it,” he replied after game two, when asked how he felt the expanded rotations was unfolding. “Generally we have a structure based on our opponent, based on how we want to try and match up a little bit, but we also go by feel. Which, you know, we’re not always going to get right. But yeah, it’s a challenge and there might be a time when we have to make a tough decision and drop somebody from the rotation. But again, right now we are still committed to trying to make it happen.”
Inevitably, the 11-player plan was culled back. Some of it was due to relatively poor performance by players near the bottom of the list; some of it simply attrition via injury; and some of it the glowing success and need to maximize certain combos of two, three or four players.
Then omicron caused havoc, and finding a sturdy eight or nine became a resourceful chore. Guys on the fringe, with two-way contracts (G-league and NBA) or languishing outside even the original eleven, were thrown into the fray along with short-term signings like free agent center Greg Monroe, once a near all-star who hadn’t played an NBA minute for more than two seasons.
The good news is that many of those players hustled their rears off, and/or performed really well. The bad news is those performances can further muddy the waters, exacerbate tensions on team chemistry. As the starters return from virus-related protocols and work themselves back into shape and rhythm, the frequency and composition of the Wolves blended lineups will undergo further scrutiny.
Sudden situational depth
Arguably the most important moving part of this complicated equation is overall team performance. More than a third of the 2021-22 season has elapsed. Consequently, the sample size on team performance has grown to yield a more credible data base. Some of the assumptions, and wishful thinking, about the strengths of this team, especially on offense, are being called into question.
All season long, Finch has maintained that the Wolves have been getting “good shots,” meaning the schemes have set up desirable situations. But the Wolves remain one of the eight worst offenses in the NBA mostly due to inaccuracy on those shots. Before the game against the Clippers on Monday, I asked Finch if these chronic offensive woes might loom larger in his decision-making, and tilt the “blended” lineups more toward the need for offensive production.
He reasonably replied that it would be premature to draw many conclusions before KAT and DLo returned to the rotation. But he did acknowledge that, “sometimes we struggle to get the right combination of offense, defense and ball skill out there. That’s on me; I’ve got to do a better job of trying to find those combinations that help accentuate each other’s game out there.”
That night, Finch inserted veteran Taurean Prince into the game in the first half and the little-used forward responded with his best game of the season, helping the Wolves to a crucial win to conclude their recent road trip. Less than 48 hours later, at the morning “shoot-around” before the game Wednesday, Finch led with Prince when detailing the success stories off the bench during the Covid-related disruptions.
“Look at Taurean’s last performance. If he can build upon that, that gives us a way better bench,” he said. “Jaden McDaniels has really taken a step forward. Naz [Reid] has put together some consistent games. Jaylen Nowell had cracked the rotations and played well in short minutes before the Covid crisis but has now lengthened those minutes and played really well.”
At this point I asked him if he enjoyed having all this sudden situational depth.
“No,” he deadpanned, and was only half-kidding. “It makes it harder because it makes you think, ‘Should I do [or] this should I do that?’”
Distressing issues reappear
After the 30-10 first-quarter blowout, the Wolves spit the bit and allowed the youthful Thunder back into the game. “It was one of those typical games where you start well and then lose focus,” Finch said in the postgame presser. “And when you lose focus, you lose intensity and purpose. That’s what happened.”
That dispassionate recitation, accurate though it may be, was only leavened because the Wolves still managed to win ugly. But some familiar, distressing issues regarding this team reappeared. KAT allowed the officiating and sudden double-teams to get into his head, leading to fouls, turnovers, and what Finch has referred to as “stray voltage.” After making two of his first three shots, DLo missed eight of his next nine, finishing 3-for-12. He is currently shooting 38% from the field and 32.8% from three-point range, both career lows.
Yes it can be argued that both of these max-stars were knocking off some rust, but the bottom line is that the Wolves stabilized only when Finch inserted PatBev back into the game after the Thunder had closed the deficit to a mere two points with seven minutes left in the game. He proceeded to block a layup attempt by Thunder big man Mike Muscala, slap the ball off the knee of Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for another turnover, and feed Ant for a nifty layup. Beyond the details, he brought a commanding sense of gravitas to a team desperately in need of emotional equilibrium—a heightened focus without panic, decisiveness coupled with deliberation.
Patrick Beverley is really the only player on the current roster who has played meaningful minutes deep into the playoffs. That fact has become glaring too often this season.
In other words, even among the best-performing starting lineup in the NBA, there is less room for error than one might imagine. And as for the bench rotations, well, the wheel keeps turning. Monroe helped the Wolves win a game against Boston during the omicron siege with stellar low-post play. For a minute there he looked deserving of a longer term deal. But he was waived this week and immediately picked up by Washington. Meanwhile, Naz Reid had another fairly solid game as the backup center after an extended slump, and two-way frontcourt player Nathan Knight stayed glued to the bench.
Taurean Prince was unable to capitalize on his success against the Clippers and was not brought back into the game after a fairly disastrous stint in the second quarter against the Thunder. The tension between playing time for Beasley and/or Nowell had a dramatic twist when Beasley couldn’t buy a bucket in the first half and Nowell couldn’t miss, leading to Nowell closing at the expense of first Beasley’s minutes and then DLo’s. Indeed, Nowell’s fourth-quarter scoring spree made him the game’s crunchtime star behind PatBev. Beasley — who had seen the Wolves net rating collapse by 20 points when he was on the court compared to when he was off it over the previous seven games — has gone from high-volume starter to someone fighting for his niche role.
Through it all, Finch remains extremely popular with his players — PatBev, Beasley and Ant bathed him with effusive praise during the omicron scourge, as DLo did earlier in the season. The Wolves have two winnable games upcoming — a rematch with the Thunder on Friday and a trip to Houston to play the Rockets Sunday — that could get them to .500 after 40 games.
It amounts to a heady amount of success for this chronically dysfunctional franchise. And Chris Finch is spinning the wheel to keep the mojo flowing.