On Monday, I took a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves point guard situation for this upcoming season. With Ricky Rubio and Kris Dunn essentially competing for the long-term solution at the position, there is both a depth of talent and a cloudiness surrounding the organization at point guard. Many assume Rubio is eventually on his way out because Dunn is younger and may end up fitting Tom Thibodeau’s schemes on both ends of the floor better.
For now, they’re going to coexist and bring two different styles of play to the table when they’re in the game. The idea is the Wolves will have times in which they play Rubio and Dunn together. Right after the draft, Thibodeau talked about the idea of playing two point guards together, but remained noncommittal on whether or not Rubio and Dunn WILL play together.
“I think they have good size; they have good toughness,” Thibodeau said. “It’s a different look. I think you’re seeing that more and more now, where you have two point guards on the floor. They’re both capable of playing off each other.”
So far in the preseason, we haven’t seen it happen. Dunn and Rubio have only swapped out for each other and haven’t shared the court at all, except during warm-ups. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen though. You don’t show all of your cards in the preseason (even if you’re Thibodeau and his maniacal sense of winning everything) and injuries happen throughout a year to unearth lineup combinations you have in your back pocket.
If and when it does happen, they’ll stagger those point guard minutes and hope to create some chaos on both sides of the ball (good chaos for the Wolves, in theory) when they go with the two point guards at the same time. Rubio and Dunn are about the same size in terms of height and wingspan. We know Rubio is a defensive impact player and Dunn projects to be one when he catches up to the speed of the NBA game. Defensively, the combination should be disruptive, but offensively is where the questions come about.
We know Rubio isn’t exactly Mark Price out there and Dunn’s shot is a work in progress (but he is at least a scorer). The spacing could be tricky with the two of them out there on the floor if the defense doesn’t feel the need to respect at least two of the shooters on the floor.
We’ll get into that in a bit though. For now, let’s look at where the league was last season with using two point guards in the same lineup. For this, I used the lineup data from NBA.com and the positional data from Nylon Calculus. There are undoubtedly going to be a few quibbles with some of the combinations I use in the chart below so let’s get that out of the way before we get to the chart:
- If you played more than half of your minutes at the PG position, according to Nylon Calculus, then I classified you as a point guard in this chart.
- I went with the combination with the highest total minutes together. So for example, Dallas used a lot of three point guard lineups last season because Rick Carlisle is a mad scientist. The highest combination was Deron Williams and Raymond Felton, even though JJ Barea was more of a point guard for them than Felton was.
- For the Miami Heat, I didn’t feel great about Tyler Johnson being the pairing with Goran Dragic, but he did spend a lot of time at point guard in the second unit before he got hurt.
- For the Indiana Pacers, I made an executive decision and refused to call Rodney Stuckey a point guard last season — no matter what the data said.
- Yes, I know. Austin Rivers…
- The arrows on the chart represent whether or not there was a change from their overall season measurement in each category. It’s not the difference between the two-PG lineup and lineups without two point guards. It’s simply the difference between their overall season offensive rating (for example) and the one with the two point guards on the court together.
- Green arrows represent improvement. Red arrows represent getting worse. Blue arrows represent no change.
- Pace is not shown as improvement or getting worse because it’s debatable whether or not more pace is beneficial to any and all teams. San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz want to play slow so them increasing the pace may not actually be improvement.
So here is the top combination of two point guard lineups for each team and how it affected them in offensive rating, defensive rating, net rating, effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, turnover rate, opponents’ turnover rate, and pace:
Before we get into further thoughts, here’s the breakdown of each category in case you don’t feel like adding them up:
Offensive rating: 21 green arrows up, 7 red arrows down, 1 blue arrow of no change
Defensive rating: 12 green arrows up, 14 red arrows down, 3 blue arrows of no change
Net Rating: 20 green arrows up, 9 red arrows down
Effective Field Goal Percentage: 16 green arrows up, 13 red arrows down
True Shooting Percentage: 19 green arrows up, 10 red arrows down
Turnover Rate: 18 green arrows up, 11 red arrows down
Opposing Turnover Rate: 15 green arrows up, 13 red arrows down, 1 blue arrow of no change
Pace: 20 teams played faster, 9 teams played slower
One thing you’ll notice is the Wolves are nowhere to be found on this chart. There’s a reason for that. They had exactly one minute of dual-point guard lineups last season in which Ricky Rubio and Andre Miller played together for the entire season. Maybe you get around that by saying they thought Zach LaVine was a point guard and they played LaVine and Rubio together quite a bit. This is the last time I’m going to explain this in this space:
Collectively, the Wolves never thought LaVine was a long-term point guard. They simply tried him there to help him get accustomed to different skills and a different way of looking at the offense. The goal was always to have him be a dynamic shooting guard who could make plays, not a scoring point guard with size.
This was stunning to me. Sam Mitchell never threw it out there, and maybe it’s because the combination of Miller and Rubio or Rubio and Tyus Jones or Miller and Jones just didn’t make sense from a personnel standpoint. That I actually buy if that’s the reason. It did make me daydream (daynightmare?) back to the days of Rubio and Luke Ridnour forced to share a backcourt together because of injuries to the wings, and Ridnour being forced to defend Kobe Bryant and Joe Johnson. Alas, the Wolves were the only team in the league to not really try out two points at the same time.
Even the Detroit Pistons used Reggie Jackson and Brandon Jennings together for seven minutes last season. Only seven teams failed to crack 100 minutes — some of it for personnel reasons and some of it because of injuries — but most teams seemed to see an improvement in their play on the floor, especially offensively, because of what you can do with two point guards on the floor at the same time. However, it’s important to remember and note that many of these combinations are very much used in small sample sizes.
In drive-and-kick situations, having two point guards on the floor makes a ton of sense. You’re increasing the likelihood of having another playmaker on the floor. That increases the chance of getting into the teeth of the defense, forcing them to make a decision, and then moving the defense out of position to leave them scrambling to reset their positioning. Get the defense moving side-to-side enough and you’re liable to break them, find an open shooter, find a driving lane to the hole, or find a cutter unaccounted for.
There seemed to be an overwhelming impact on the offense while the defense either suffered or just got trickier. Some of that is the size problem you run into, but I’m curious if having two long, 6’4″ point guards in the mix of it all changes that for the Wolves. There aren’t a lot of combinations on that chart that can match the size of what the Wolves would put out there, and I’d expect the defense to be the strength of such an experiment for the Wolves rather than the offense.
This has been the wonder of Wolves fans and pundits since Dunn was drafted and Rubio immediately wasn’t moved. Can they play together, and if so, how effective does it become? How often can you go to that well throughout the grind of an 82-game season? Does the combination become even more important if there is a dearth of wing depth on this roster?
I’d love to see it for a couple of games — nothing more than a three or four-minute stint — during this preseason, but it hasn’t been presented in the first three games. For now, we’re left wondering when it will happen and what it will look like. It works for most of the NBA, even if it’s just in small doses. It could be the kind of change of pace/wildcard that extends leads for the Wolves with the opponent wondering why they’re struggling so much to get into their offense.