A couple of weeks into this Minnesota Timberwolves’ season, we have seen many different lineups utilized by Tom Thibodeau. How will this positively impact the team moving forward?
In past seasons, the Minnesota Timberwolves have constructed a roster that has lacked adaptability to the many different ways that opponents can attack over the course of a game. Names like Chase Budinger and Martell Webster are littered throughout Wolves history as the guys who were depended upon to bring versatility from both a positional and stylistic standpoint (the truth of this statement clearly depicts why the Timberwolves have been a perpetually embarrassing franchise for way too long).
Perhaps one of the most encouraging signs from this young season is how the coaching staff is able to mix-and-match their roster to counter what teams are throwing at them.
Need some toughness and rebounding on both sides of the floor? Perfect, throw Taj Gibson out there and let him go to work. Is the game flow calling for a veteran off the bench who can handle the ball and knock down difficult shots? Get Jamal Crawford in the game and let him do his thing.
Miami head coach Eric Spoelstra would seem to agree. Here is a telling quote on his impressions of the Wolves after his overtime loss to the to them on Monday:
“They’re an impressive team. They have a lot of weapons. They have a ton of versatility. They can play however you want to play. They can play big, they can play small, they can play fast. They can play just a super-physical brand of basketball. They have a lot of guys that can get their own, especially at the ends of possessions.”
It’s still extremely odd to hear positive words from opponents about the Timberwolves that don’t include ‘potential’ or ‘will be good in the future’, but this quote is a telling narrative from a source outside of the typical Timberwolves bubble of information on how this team is viewed from a broader perspective. Spoelstra’s comments are intriguing to hear for Wolves’ fans as his views likely reflect those around the league as to what this Timberwolves team is and what they can become.
Potentially the most exciting thing mentioned in these comments isn’t that the Wolves have an assortment of individual weapons at their disposal; that much was already abundantly clear. The more captivating aspect of these words is that the Timberwolves have the potential to play multiple different styles, many of which other teams will have a difficult time matching up with over the course of a game if blended correctly.
Instead of being forced to bend to the will of their opponents this season, Tom Thibodeau will be able to dictate the style and pace of play he wants his team to play. We can see this develop throughout each stage of the games, as many times Thibodeau uses substitutions of his veterans to match the situation at hand (here is a brief example – notice end of game personnel).
Not only can he use specific players for particular situations, but he can also mix up his rotational players to create almost any sort of style he wants.
Possibly the most noticeable change in lineups from years past is the one that Thibodeau employs for end of game offensive situations. The quintet of Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, and Karl-Anthony Towns has the ability to stretch opposing defenses to their absolute limits. Every player has the ability to hit difficult shots extending out to the 3-point line. Each has the ability to create their own shot with ease. All of these team members have proved the aptitude to play off of their teammates through spot up shooting and cutting. And, perhaps most importantly, they have all shown the capability to hit big shots when the game is on the line.
How long has it been since the Timberwolves franchise has had the luxury with five of these players playing at the same time?
A similar set of circumstances can be noticed with the closing defensive unit. Substitute Taj Gibson for Jamal Crawford and you have a lineup that features two veteran defensive anchors, a couple of young athletic freaks who have shown an ability to defend at a high level when they have the desire to do so, and a point guard who, although he has his limitations on that end, provides an level of instinctual intelligence that covers up many of his flaws when needed. Although they are far from an impenetrable unit, they have shown the ability to get stops when they are needed most and will undoubtedly improve as the season moves on.
Players such as Nemanja Bjelica also provide the Wolves with something unique. His balance of playmaking skills, outside shooting and solid team defense are fortified by positional versatility at both forward spots. It has been noted by many smart Timberwolves media members how he has probably earned more playing time as things just seem to operate at a higher level with him on the floor.
Moving along, guys like Tyus Jones, Shabazz “Just Call Me Bazz” Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng all have their warts and have come out of the gates stumbling, but have showed the ability to utilize their niche skills to become valuable rotational pieces.
Jones with his cerebral yet unspectacular play, Muhammad with his tunnel vision but thirst to score and offensive rebound, and Dieng with his (hopefully not regressing) all around skill set from mid-range shooting to supplying solid team defense and rebounding.
Mix all of these pieces together and you can start to see what Spoelstra was getting at in his postgame comments. Most lineup combinations have not showed statistical dominance as of yet, but the potential is there. It is still too early to put real stock into the numbers as the lack of relevant data hasn’t allowed for a regression to the mean, but just know that most on-court combinations for the Wolves teeter between hideous to repulsive when it comes to defensive rating and reputable to elite on the offensive end.
However, even with all the criticism that this team has endured through just seven games, the good news is that they still own winning record. It seems as though progress on the defensive end is more a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ and the second half of the Heat game showed positive signs.
For fans who are frustrated with the Timberwolves seeming to flip the proverbial ‘on-off’ switch too frequently, think optimistically and notice that even having a switch to flip is progress from what we’re used to. Let’s keep the faith that this newfound lineup versatility is still in its preliminary stages and will only improve from here.
The good news is that Wolves’ fans get to witness winning basketball even while we are waiting for this to happen, and that is a definite step in the right direction from past experiences.