Wolves Bench: Trying to Find a Balance
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.
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.