Prior to the start of training camp, the conventional wisdom about the Minnesota Timberwolves’ starting lineup this season was that they would blend veterans and high draft picks, leaving a few older players and some younger players with more question marks to come in off the bench. With Ricky Rubio returning from injury, Andrew Wiggins guaranteed to log a lot of minutes and Kevin Garnett’s starting position carved into granite forevermore, the wild card spots seemed to belong to veteran (and lone established shooter and scorer) Kevin Martin and the franchise’s first #1 overall draft pick, Karl-Anthony Towns.
But after just a few days of camp, interim coach Sam Mitchell named Zach LaVine the team’s starting shooting guard after an impressive showing in camp. After a less impressive showing in his first few preseason games, though, Mitchell moved LaVine to the bench, going with more size on the wings by starting Wiggins at the shooting guard position and Tayshaun Prince at small forward.
This is certainly a lot of lineup upheaval to go through in just a few weeks, but remember this is the preseason. To really get a sense of how the Timberwolves’ lineups will shake out in the regular season, I harnessed the greatest simulation tool known to man: NBA 2K16’s MyLeague mode.
I set up the mode thusly: One season, all simmed by the computer, with no injuries and no trades (to keep things as even as possible), and I would set the starting lineup before the season started and keep it intact all the way through.
I began with the lineup of Rubio, Martin, Wiggins, Garnett and Towns, leaving the default minutes allocation intact. This meant about 28 minutes for Rubio, 28 for Martin, 32 for Wiggins, 20 for Garnett and 26 for Towns. Nikola Pekovic was slotted as the sixth man, with about 20 minutes a game — again, no injuries — leaving Shabazz Muhammad, Zach LaVine, Nemanja Bjelica, Gorgui Dieng and Tyus Jones to mop up the rest. (By default, Andre Miller, Adreian Payne, Tayshaun Prince and Damjan Rudez get zero minutes. Sorry guys.)
This lineup carried the team to a 37-45 record, good for 9th in the Western Conference. Martin led the team in scoring with 15.5 ppg while Towns led them in rebounding with 9.2 rpg. The team’s offensive rating was 101.5 and it’s defensive rating was 102.1, good for a net rating of -0.6. This is actually a MASSIVE improvement on their real world stats from last year, where their ORtg was 99.8 and their DRtg was a league-worst 109.6.
37 wins is nothing to sneeze at, and I’m sure just about any Wolves fan would be quite happy with that for this group this year, but it’s not going to happen that way. First of all, the greatest challenge for this team will be the learning curve for the rookies, the growth curve for the second- and third-year players, and integrating veterans in a smart way that harnesses their talents and keeps them happy while still letting the young guys run a ton. None of that matters in 2K16. They can simulate guys complaining about playing time, but they can’t simulate the cumulative effect of all that personality juggling.
With the lineup they’ve been playing most recently — Wiggins sliding to shooting guard and Prince coming in at small forward (with Prince taking Martin’s minutes and Martin getting none) — they only notch 34 wins, which in that particular simulation was only good for 11th in the West. With Martin only averaging 1 minute per game now, Towns becomes the go-to offensive option for the Wolves and leads them in scoring with 15 ppg, plus 8.9 rpg. (Worth mentioning here that — with one exception we’ll get to — Rubio always leads the team in assists per game, with about 8.) Even more impressive, though, is Towns PER, which is 21.2. Not hugely surprising, since PER definitely favors big men, but it’s nice to see. Bjelica and Jones (both of whom 2K16 seem really high on) come in second and third on the team in PER with 16.5 and 15.8, respectively.
They lose some of that scoring punch without Martin, though, managing just a 96.2 Ortg while giving up 100 points per 100 possessions. This is actually a legitimate concern with the starting lineup the way it is. Mitchell is interested in getting more length on the floor, but with Rubio, Wiggins, Prince, Garnett and Towns out there, it really is possible that Towns is your best shooter. Kind of a scary throwback to the way the team was built around Kevin Love. Yes, he was a good scorer, but he couldn’t do it on his own, and when no one else was there to take the pressure off, it was often very easy for teams to stop him toward the end of games.
Here we get to my personal favorite lineup, and I concede it’s unlikely to be successful in the real world. It’s simply the most appealing: Rubio, Wiggins, Muhammad, Garnett, Towns. This lineup leads them to a 39-43 record and also puts them 9th in the conference. Towns is again the leading scorer and rebounder, with Wiggins and Muhammad coming in second and third in scoring. Having more offensive options probably helps lift Rubio to a PER of 17.6, which would be a career best for him. The offensive rating gets up to 99.1 and the defensive rating inches up to 101.7. In short, not as good as the conventional wisdom lineup, but still not bad. -2.6 is about as good overall as the Heat were last year, which isn’t terrible.
The big surprise comes with the lineup the Wolves seemed to be going with, with LaVine starting at shooting guard in place of Martin. That team got to 43-39, although they still just missed the playoffs. In this scenario, Wiggins led the team in scoring with 14 ppg, followed by Towns and then Rubio, with LaVine coming in at 12 ppg. Their offensive rating of 101.6 was the best of any lineup I tried, and their 102.3 defensive rating means their net rating of -0.7 was just a hair worse than the conventional wisdom lineup.
Here’s the thing, though: LaVine is just oceans better in a video game that values athleticism and scoring more than playmaking and defense. 2K16 has consistently made strides to better represent the real life game, but it still rewards attacking the basket, and that’s something you can easily get digital LaVine to do even when the real life LaVine doesn’t as much. Even last year, when he was an unknown commodity, he was pretty good in 2K15 just by virtue of his athleticism.
I also wanted to throw out two weird lineups. Here’s the youth movement:
No player over 30 gets any minutes and your starters are now Jones, LaVine, Wiggins, Dieng and Towns. They end the season 39-43 and in 11th place in the West, but Jones is a beast, surprisingly. He leads the team in scoring (15.7 ppg), assists (5.8 apg) and PER (18.6). Their offensive rating is 100.3, their defensive rating 102.7.
Then at the other end of the spectrum is the “Get Off My Lawn” squad:
I had to give some minutes to guys under 30, but your starters are Miller, Martin, Prince, Garnett and Pekovic. Their 36-46 finish is nearly as bad as the lineup they’re actually putting out there right now, earning them 12th place in the West. A meager 96.8 offensive rating doesn’t offset a decent 100.5 defensive rating. Martin leads the way in scoring, Pek in rebounding and your surprise leader in PER is Zach LaVine, although that might be because he only average a minute a game.
The conclusion to all this is that there really isn’t a conclusion: we’re talking about a video game here. But video games value offense, and 2K16 definitely feels like the Rubio, Wiggins, Prince, Garnett, Towns offense is going to struggle and that the defense won’t be good enough to rescue it. I’m inclined to agree. Neither Prince nor Rubio are enough of a shooting threat to make space for Wiggins to work, and Wiggins isn’t enough of a shooting threat (yet) to make space for either of them. On offense, this lineup is going to shrink the court and clog the area under the 3-point arc, while likely not being elite defensively simply because of a lack of athleticism from older players and a lack of experience from younger players.
My advice to the digital Wolves? Start it over and sign Michael Jordan from the ‘96 Bulls. He seems good.