Right around the end of November each year, people start discussing and evaluating each team’s roster, trying to find their holes that are in need of improvement. Being that it is the end of November, I figured now would be an appropriate time to look at the Wolves’ roster and determine the team needs that have presented themselves thus far.
Perhaps the most obvious need for the Wolves that has emerged is that of a veteran presence. By now it is well-known that the Wolves are a young team – three of their starters are 22 or younger, after all – but it isn’t just the starting lineup that is young. Nemanja Bjelica and Cole Aldrich, two of the Wolves first subs off the bench, are the ancient elders among those who play regularly (technically, Brandon Rush is the oldest at 31, but he’s sat out almost half of the games thus far in thanks to a toe injury) and even they are a youthful 28-years-old. Although the argument that the Wolves’ struggles are derived from the fact that they are young may be growing a bit stale among the fan base, it just simply cannot be denied. It is difficult to win in the NBA when your starting lineup is the youngest in the league and your veterans are 28-31-year-old career role players. That’s just fact.
The Wolves could really use a veteran – a 29-33-year-old with experience other than that as a niche role player – that has the leadership ability to calm the young guys down when things are going haywire on the court, be a positive influence in the locker room, and, ideally, be a stabilizing presence on defense. Yes, Kevin Garnett could have been that type of player, though it’s legitimate to wonder if he would’ve been able to stay healthy and contribute enough on offense to completely fill the void. Regardless, Kevin Garnett is not walking through that door. It would be wise of Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden to kick the tires on acquiring a well-seasoned player to be a stabilizing force on the team.
A more tangible need that would provide a more obvious improvement on the court is that of a rim protector. As it stands right now, the Wolves rank 28th in opponent field goal percentage on shots less than five feet (opponents are shooting 63.7%), 22nd in opponent field goal percentage on shots from five to nine feet (opponents are shooting 43.5%), and 28th in defending post-ups when looking at field goal percentage (50%) and 20th when looking at points per possession (.90). Essentially, the Wolves interior defense has been a garbage fire.
The bulk of the center minutes on the defensive end have gone to Gorgui Dieng and the aforementioned Aldrich with Karl-Anthony Towns logging most of his minutes against the opposition’s power forward. Both Dieng and Aldrich have struggled mightily at defending the rim (for this article’s purposes, defined as defense against shots six feet or less from the hoop; all numbers are from NBA.com) as evidenced by the chart below:
|Player||Opp. FGM||Opp. FGA||Opp. FG%||Diff%|
The easiest solution on paper would be to shift Towns over to the five on defense, though that may cause problems in two ways. First, Dieng would have to defend further out from the paint more frequently, which would allow for teams to take advantage of his poor speed and perimeter defense, while continuing to exploit his poor pick-and-roll defense.
As an aside, this is the crux of the quandary with Dieng going forward; he often get’s outmuscled against centers and is too slow to defend modern day fours. Ideally, Dieng would be the team’s first big off the bench, a role that would help minimize his defensive insufficiencies while taking advantage of his offensive versatility. But with the current roster construction, that move doesn’t make much sense as Dieng would most likely be replaced with Aldrich (poor rim protector thus far) or Bjelica (same problem: too slow to consistently guard threes and get’s bodied by fours; Towns would move to the five).
Second, Towns’ body is simply not quite developed enough to defend fives for 35-40 minutes on a nightly basis. Towns has been an average rim protector this season – -.07 Diff% on shots less than six-feet and -.02 Diff% on shots less than 10-feet. – and his long-term prospects are brightest as a five, but as of this moment, I fear Towns would be worn down over the course of single games and the entire season. I’m not sure playing Towns at the five is in the Wolves’ best interest at this point.
The third, and arguably least important, need is that of another outside shooter. The Wolves could really use another threat from deep when things aren’t clicking for Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins. Ideally, this player is already on the roster in the form of Brandon Rush, but he has struggled from beyond the arc thus far, not doubt due in part to his toe injury. This need becomes even less pressing if Rush can become a consistent threat, but until that happens the Wolves are in a vulnerable position. The acquisition of one more shooter would help relieve some of the pressure on LaVine, Wiggins, and, to an extent, Rush and Bjelica and would make the Wolves’ offense that much more dangerous.
The big question is, should the Wolves make a move this season or would they be better off waiting until the offseason? In short, it truly depends on how Thibodeau views this season. If he looks at this season as a time to evaluate the team’s situation and their needs going forward, it would probably be best to wait until the offseason to make a move; the Wolves will have plenty of money to throw at players that could come in and fill specific gaps without sending off talent in a trade. If Thibodeau views this season as a time to win, it would make sense to not only make a move but to make one soon, in an attempt to offset their slow start. In reality, Thibodeau probably views this season as some combination of the two.
The recent trade rumors stating that Thibodeau is looking at trading one of his “young stars” for a player that will help the team win now are too vague to be taken seriously, but making a move at some point this season (not necessarily soon) makes sense in my mind. The roster, as discussed above, has its holes and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to fill them in some capacity. Any move the Wolves make doesn’t necessarily have to net a starting caliber player; acquiring a bench player or two to balance the roster and fill some gaps could prove to be just as impactful as trading for one solid starter.
But in order for a trade to occur, the Wolves would have to part ways with a player or two (I know, crazy concept, right?). So, who on the Wolves’ roster would be most likely to be moved? One would have to imagine Adreian Payne would be moved if a suitor could be found. It may also make sense to move Shabazz Muhammad if it means filling bringing in a solid veteran. However, although it would still shock me and throw me into a minor bout of depression, I’m starting to get the feeling that a trade involving Ricky Rubio is becoming more and more likely.
Rubio has not looked like the Rubio of old this season and much of that is due to how he is used within Thibodeau’s system, both offensively and defensively. On offense, Thibodeau often utilizes his point guards as off-ball shooters rather than as the chief initiator of all sets. This is counter to Rubio’s strengths, which are heavily dependent on being the main facilitator on offense. Rubio struggles with shooting and isn’t a particularly strong slasher, which further hinders his ability to perform within Thibodeau’s system.
On defense, Thibodeau teams often switch on screens and, when functioning properly, rely on good team defense rather than good individual defense. Rubio has struggled with switching effectively at times this season (keeping players in front of him off screens and rotations, mostly) and is perhaps just a little too aggressive and gambles just frequently enough to be detrimental for playing good, consistent team defense. If Rubio doesn’t stay in front of his man and force him to the sideline, the opposing point guard can get into the paint and wreak havoc against the Wolves marshmallow soft interior defense. If Rubio isn’t performing well on defense it only exacerbates his deficiencies on offense.
We can argue until we’re blue in the face about whether Thibodeau should shape his system to his personnel or if he should shape his personnel to his system, but the fact of the matter is that Thibodeau’s system has a proven track record of working. Although he is a very solid player, I don’t think Rubio is good enough overall to merit Thibodeau molding his offense and defense around him. In other words, I think Thibodeau would be more likely to trade Rubio than to trade for Rubio, so to speak. So, while it would pain me deeply to see Rubio moved, I’m starting to wonder if a trade won’t happen within the next year (though I maintain that the Wolves would have to net a legitimate point guard in return somehow, which could be difficult as teams are often not super willing to let players of that ilk go).
Regardless, the Wolves’ roster is a work in progress and we’ll just have to wait and see how Thibodeau and co. mold it.