Wolves Bench: Trying to Find a Balance

Tim Faklis —  September 4, 2014 — 10 Comments

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When a team trades its star, it isn’t uncommon for that team’s starting lineup  to look completely different the following year. When Kevin Garnett was traded in 2007 to the Boston Celtics, the only starter that remained somewhat consistent  in the same role the following season was Marko Jaric. Besides Al Jefferson, there was uncertainty surrounding who would be opening day starters in 2007-08. Craig Smith? Sebastian Telfair? Rashad McCants? Theo Ratliff? Ryan Gomes? Greg Buckner? Randy Foye?

Even Kirk Snyder started 18 games that year. Yeesh.

After Kevin Love was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, however, there was little doubt in what most of the starting lineup would look like. Once the trade went down, it was assumed that Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Thaddeus Young and Kevin Martin would be starters from day one. Most teams who rid themselves of their star see a completely new starting 5. This team’s isn’t going to be all that big of a mystery. It’s the rest of the rotation that is so fascinating. And it starts with the final starting spot.

Wiggins or Brewer?
The first big question is the only one surrounding the starting lineup: will Andrew Wiggins take over starting small forward duties from the beginning, or will he ease into the NBA off the bench, with Corey Brewer remaining as the team’s starting 3?

Ultimately, it probably isn’t going to matter. Both guys are going to be relied upon heavily, and their status of starter vs. 6th man probably won’t make much of a difference on their minutes. Still, most guys taken 1st overall (let’s not talk about last year) end up as opening night starters, and considering the strength and reputation of this draft, and Wiggins’ compatibility next to a guy like Kevin Martin, his odds are pretty good.

On top of all that, as much as most of Minnesota loves Corey Brewer and his attitude, ticket sales aren’t hitting record-breaking numbers because of an overwhelming demand for more Corey. It’s unlikely that Flip Saunders will make his decision based on fan preference (see: Rick Adelman during Ricky Rubio’s rookie year), but it’s safe to assume he knows what the fans want to see.

The Big Fellas
Gorgui Dieng, Ronny Turiaf, Anthony Bennett. One of these guys, almost certainly one of the latter two, is going to be on the short end of the rotation stick.

Obviously, Nikola Pekovic and Thaddeus Young are safe. Not only are they the presumed frontcourt starters going into the season, they’re also two of three players on the team with the capability of scoring a somewhat consistent 17+ points per game. If Gorgui Dieng is able to continue the productive play that he put forth last year (and has continued for the majority of this summer’s FIBA World Cup), he’ll have no problem getting big minutes off the bench.

So, we’ve already marked off a pair of centers. In that case, where does Ronny Turiaf find his minutes? Other than the occasional big lineup with Dieng moving to power forward, it may be difficult for Turiaf to find consistent minutes in this rotation. If Anthony Bennett is able to work in as a productive rotation power forward off the bench, Turiaf’s minutes would likely shrink even more.

Bennett going from where he was last year to a productive rotation guy is no guarantee, though. He’s clearly gotten himself into better shape, and tonsil surgery he had will reportedly help wit his asthma, but he still has to prove that those were the reasons why he was so frequently given DNPs. An inconsistent summer league showed him slimmer and more agile, but still showed that he’s adjusting to his body, trying to figure out what he’s best at. Training camp and the preseason will provide a better barometer.

If Bennett doesn’t work out, what happens? They can’t use Dieng as the backup power forward in all circumstances. So, does Shabazz Muhammad, whose skillset is that of a power forward, play (physically) out of position and placed at the 4 in stretches? Do they make a move and bring someone in? It’s too far down the road to confidently consider, but it is a very possible scenario.

Guards and Wings
This is where things may be the most interesting. The non-starter between Wiggins and Brewer is likely to get the most wing minutes off the bench, largely due to their ability to play either wing position. Also in part to the rest of the wing core. It’s also safe to assume Mo Williams will tackle duties as the team’s primary backup point guard.

After that, you have Chase Budinger (and the injury-related questions that come with him), Zach LaVine, JJ Barea, Robbie Hummel and Shabazz Muhammad. It’s also fair to assume Thaddeus Young may play some spot minutes at the 3 from time to time.

Mentioned in great detail by Steve yesterday, Shabazz may be the most interesting case the entire bench. Because of his power forward-like skillset and his inconsistent play, his role remains a pretty big mystery.

After Shabazz, the Wolves have a pair of lifelong point guards with mindsets of a shooting guard. JJ Barea’s role last season would be tough for anyone of his ability. He was asked to both serve as the main scoring option off the bench, all while needing to remain the team’s floor general. All this with a historically bad, injury-riddled bench. His most successful role, the one that got him paid, was as Dallas’ 3rd guard off the bench. With Williams now on board, perhaps this will provide a chance for Barea to get back to what he does best: serve as a spark plug in spot situations.

Alternatively, the Wolves may simply be waiting for the World Cup to end so they can safely trade (or buy out) Barea.

If he’s around, he’ll go up against some freakishly athletic competition in rookie Zach LaVine. Flip may not think he’s ready to go right away, but it seemed pretty clear that he’s enamored with his skillset. In addition,  the options the Wolves will have at the point and shooting guard make that task even tougher.

All of this could change completely if Chase Budinger is able to reclaim his catch-and-shoot stroke, and even more so if he’s able to regain his crafty off-the-ball maneuvering we saw in Houston. Not only is he (sigh….when healthy, of course) the second team’s best fit next to Brewer and Williams, he would also help make up for 3-point shooting that the starting lineup is going to be lacking in.

Conclusion
It’s possible, even likely, that the bench will go extremely deep this year. It’s possible that Flip Saunders will be using 9, 10, even 11 guys per night for different situations and matchups.

Flip has a tough task ahead of him. Maybe a trade is still in the works to further clarify what the regular  rotations will look like. If not, there is going to be some fun competition at training camp, in the preseason, and throughout the opening stages of the regular season. The hope of any coach is that this type of competition will bring out the best in everybody.

It’ll start during training camp in Mankato, will continue into the preseason, and continue to shuffle as the regular season presses on. It  won’t be easy, either. It rarely is.

Tim Faklis

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10 responses to Wolves Bench: Trying to Find a Balance

  1. I agree, Tim, that it’ll be fascinating to see how the rotation shakes out. I can’t imagine we won’t see another trade or a roster cut coming down the pipeline. The Wolves have 15 guys under contract but I’d be a bit surprised if they didn’t try to open up one of those spots for GRIII. If Flip is convinced LaVine can log minutes as the 3rd PG right away, then Barea is the odd one out (but he’ll be expensive to buy out and other teams might demand additional assets to take his contract in a trade). But after Martin, Brewer, Wiggins, LaVine and Budinger get their minutes on the wing, the roster may not be big enough to carry Hummel, Shabazz, or GRIII either. Maybe if there is a preseason injury, there might be some unclogging in the rotation.

    I thought Ronny played really well last year when he was healthy and was an even better complement to Love than Pek or Gorgui. I hope that he gets minutes over Bennett at least right away.

  2. It’s a good problem to have. After what happened with injuries 2 seasons ago, I’m not going to assume that they’ll have minutes problems because it’s unlikely their rotation guys will each be healthy for 70+ games. Think of how many minutes Cunningham played at C last season because 2 of the 3 centers were injured.

    The biggest concern is not having a 3rd PG, even if JJ is still on the roster. Except for Memphis, teams don’t start 2 post-up bigs, let alone have more coming off the bench. They’ll be able to go small with second units in many situations, which means playing Young or Hummel at the 4 against other teams’ benches.

  3. Given his age and injury history (not so much the injuries themselves, which were freakish, but the time it took to recover), I’m OK with Ronny being more of a cheerleader/3rd center when Pek and/or Dieng get in foul trouble. I’d like to see them give Bennett every opportunity to be the primary backup to Young. Shabazz can earn minutes as a bruising SF/small-ball PF based on how well he plays and matchups.

    I’d like to see Wiggins start at SF just to get him as much time to develop chemistry with Rubio as possible. Chase should be part of the second unit just to help provide some scoring/spacing and Barea, if not traded or bought out, should sit at the very end of the bench.

    If they do manage to create a roster spot for GRIII, I’d sure hope he gets assigned to the D-League unless his play so far exceeds expectations that he forces himself into the rotation. I wouldn’t mind seeing LaVine start off in the D-League also if minutes will be that scarce otherwise.

  4. That’s a big challenge to flip. I would think if starts with Ricky, Kelvin, Thad, Pek and (Wigs or Corey) would be a big problem in their defense. I am from Hong Kong and no way to see many games of Thad. According to the stat, Thad gives me the impression with the SF style of play. Quick hands, fast, scores from many positions, but cannot protect the rims and get rebounds well. With Pek in the front court, it is not a surprise the defense will getter worse unless Wigs can produce much more defensive plays than expected.

    It’s interesting topic to me that whether we can start Ronny in stead of Thad, maybe the total mins can be the reverse. The rotations between Ronny, Pek, Thad and Dieng should depends on the matchup, but starts with Pek and Thad likely will reduce the flexibility and defensive threads. And Dieng’s game on late last season and the FIBA world games are really impressive. He should earn more mins. Although I would still want Pek as the starter becoz he can play the low post.

    At Wings, we can accept Martin as a defensive black hole as he is still the most consistent shooter in the team. I expect Mo, Wigs and Corey get most mins.

    Other than the usual rotations, we still have Shubazz, Chase, Bennett, Zach Lavine at our bench, I am glad that we are great in depth. The big question right here to me is that some wolve’s style is totally different from others. If you consider we are still in rebuilding, we would better rebuild with defense and athleticism. But we will sacrifice consistency if we rout out Pek and Martin. Trades may be considered, we have the trading chips. But I cannot find any specific player or position that we urge(For sure, I am not talking about we can trade in LBJ, Kobe, KD, Anthony Davis). The only wild thought to myself is that whether we can get back KG. it’s not joking. Trade back KG can earn defensive plays, veteran experience, intensity. And I can foresee a better salary structure in the future. After all, it’s interesting and full of flexibility to Flip how to build the T’wolves right now.

  5. Chill out everyone, this roster will continue to be made over. There are a lot of possible moves to make to bring flexibility and dump salary.

  6. @Fan – get KG back? Are you serious? Damn….I’m glad you’re a wolves fan from Hong Kong, but the KG era is over my friend.

    starters – Rubio, Martin, Wiggins, Thad, Pek
    2nd line – Mo, LaVine, Brewer, Bennett, Dieng
    plugs – jj, hummel (sigh), Shabazz, and Ronny

  7. and robinson, not sure where he fits in

  8. This is a better place in the rebuilding process than it was in 2007 when the Garnett trade went down. Guys will know the place and roles and there won’t be any positional overlapping comparable to their talent (i.e. it’s not like Thaddeus Young and Nikola Pekovic play the same position and then Coach Saunders has to choose who to start, each of four veterans play their own positions with Young having the flexibility to play two). This wasn’t the case in 07-08 and pretty much every season up until Adelman got here. I like how McPherson frequently mentions how the youngins can learn some tools of the trade like Wiggins, LaVine or GRIII learning how to draw fouls like unathletic Martin does, maintain an activity level and conserve it like Brewer or learning how to gain strength and build an NBA body like Young, guys like Bennett and Muhammad learning how utilize and inside-outside game like Young and Dieng picking post moves from Pekovic or learning man-and-man defense tricks from Turiaf. Also, McPherson recently made a post about Rubio stepping up as a leader, which I’ve never seen him play before he got drafted (other than the Spain-USA Olympic final game in 2008) but I’ve read all the articles on him in DraftExpress, which I read a lot of, and I’ve never seen Jonathan Givony ever talk about any Euro prospect the way he did Rubio and his effect and command of a team at such a young age. Dude was literarily giddy writing up those profiles and now that Love is gone and that he has a contract coming up, I think we can say buh-bye to passive Rubio and welcome a much more vocal version in his new leadership role. This is a good mix between veterans and young players and on top of that, it workouts for the overall developmental process for the team since Young and Pekovic are going to be letting people get to the rim a lot this season and I don’t know if their is that much shooting on the team that they can pull a Phoenix or something. I see their max at 36 wins but probably at 30 wins instead, which is good because I don’t think you don’t be so bad where you create a losing mentality (Philly, I’m looking at you) but you want to be bad enough to get a good enough position in the lottery. Reports are Barea is gone before the season, don’t know if that’s happening for sure but let’s hope so. With that being said, I think the starters for the majority of the season will be:

    STARTERS: PG-Rubio, SG-Martin, SF-Wiggins, PF-Young, C-Pekovic
    BENCH: PG-Williams, SG-Budinger, SF-Brewer, PF-Bennett, C-Dieng
    3RD ROTATION: G-LaVine, G/F-Muhammad, F-Hummel, F-Robinson, C-Turiaf

    With the last two spots, I actually think it’ll be LaVine and Turiaf, since he’ll be the only solid man-to-man post defender on the roster while Robinson spending most of the season in the D-League. Hummel and Muhammad are going to probably be looking at DNPs.

  9. This is funny, in the game of basketball you can throw the first quarter out because every players adrenaline is kicked in. Every game is different and you have different skill style with each player that can be used during every game or every other. Players can be streaky. More the talented players you have the better your team will be. Common sense, WOLVES needed a roster exactly as this here, 82 games of basketball with fresh legs and talents that I believe will push for the playoffs and get after the “All-Stars.” At least now we will have players who attack the rim at both ends….

  10. I am a T wolves fan living in Los Angeles. 33 years I have lived here and respect the Lakers but always rooted for the puppies. Imagine this after the trade we get something we have never had a potential Superstar at the 3 and he PLAYS DEFENSE even if Wiggins is not pouring in points we can now harass the opponents back court with Rubio and Wiggins. I think the media has so far under rated this team without Love remember that Rubio and Pek created spacing for Love before and though Love is a excellent passer he couldn’t get back on defense. Now with Young who is actually able to defend his spot even though we lose points scored we gain points defended. If Flip wanted to he could install a small thoroughbred lineup on the court who can outrun and out jump 90% of the rest of the NBA does that translate to wins maybe but it does translate to other teams changing their defensive schemes to address the speed factor. I think a Pek,Rubio,Wiggins/Brew, Young and Martin starting lineup brings both veteran leadership and many fast break points off Rubios ability to see the court. The bench is better and i think the wild card isnt LaVine but Shabazz. This kid came out of high school as highly regarded as Wiggins played so/so for UCLA and all the hype he had to deal with. I believe if he is allowed to mature we will have another solid 3 small 4 who can hit the three and drive to the hole opening lanes for everyone else on the court. Shabazz needs to learn to pass and play less selfishly as he is no longer the golden boy but a worker Bee who needs to play team concept. Bennett is another wild card but I believe because of his friendship with Wiggins and desire to do what he has to do to improve opens a very viable stretch 4 position off the bench picking up some of the loss on rebounding losing Love created.Last but not least is LaVine. Play him out out the 2 hole along with Rubio the drive and kick would be amazing as LaVine would pull 1-2 defenders to him and the kick would open 3’s or easy baskets. LaVine’s natural speed has to be accounted for if he goes to the hole but man can he jump and that said makes him even more dangerous for the lob pass to the hole. Oh Flip as Coach errr…could be worse….

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