With a new roster comes recalibration. And questions: How many of the with-Butler stats do we need to throw out? Is this the rotation coach Thibodeau is actually going to use? More broadly: What exactly is this team’s identity? With a breath of fresh air comes a breadth of new questions. Let’s dig into four.
I’ve long been working on a theory about Timberwolves followers/fans. The hypothesis goes: The dark days chiseled down the fanbase and in the process hardened those who stuck around. By dark days, we’re not talking about the “Butler cloud,” we’re talkin’ Mike Beasley, David Kahn fog. You know, those days where it was actually uncool to own Timberwolves gear.
Yeah, back then, the franchise lost a lot of fans — understandably so. But a unique legion stayed. This group was highly intellectual; effectively argumentative; and, often insufferable. They’re still here. And they’re ticked Josh Okogie isn’t in the Wolves rotation.
Tom Thibodeau said after Friday evening’s win against the Portland Trailblazers that this team has “eleven players” worthy of rotation minutes. The implication being that Okogie — one of those self-propelling lawn mowers cutting through the thick grass of opposing offenses — had earned his keep, and that Anthony Tolliver — shooting 40.4 percent from three — also deserved run. The subtext was that those two are out of the rotation indefinitely in the name of a shorter rotation.
Thibodeau believes a nine-man rotation is the way to go. While this sounds a little militant, if not antiquated, let’s allow him to speak his part.
“You’ve got to strike the balance,” said Thibodeau at Thursday’s practice, after the Wolves first game with the new roster in place. “Most teams are usually in nine-man rotations. There’s a few that are eight. Sometimes when you try to spread it more than that, what happens is then you’ll get those guys not playing as well they can. You want them to have a rhythm of a nine-man rotation, and then you go from there.”
Let’s break this into two parts:
Ok, fair. Before Sunday’s loss at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, this point was holding true. The Wolves not only handled two formidable opponents in New Orleans and Portland but the squad’s clicking was evident. Stretching the group thinner, in those games, could have had adverse effects.
But Sunday… The Grizzlies came to town and flattened the energy in Target Center to a pulp. In that game, the bench unit survivors (Tyus Jones, Derrick Rose, Dario Saric, and Gorgui Dieng) couldn’t put two sticks together to create anything that resembled a spark. The logic was: insert self-propelling lawnmower here. It seemed if there was ever a game that felt like it needed Okogie, it was Sunday. And let’s not forget Tolliver — second only to Steph Curry in true shooting percentage last season — who would have at least got some shots up from deep. The Wolves made a mere four three-pointers in the first half, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson combining to shoot one the entire game.
What does “go from there” mean? Well, Thibodeau brought up the idea of “situational subs,” before Friday’s game when pressed further. I asked Coach if this could be something similar to the Marcus Georges-Hunt role last season. (For those unfamiliar, Georges-Hunt was utilized in a way similar to lefty-specialist out of the bullpen in baseball — focused on utilizing his best strength to counter-punch an opponent’s attack.) Thibodeau said he sees the two now-defunct rotation pieces as “maybe more so than that.”
Then what does that mean? Friday against the Blazers, when Robert Covington picked up his fifth foul, Thibodeau tipped his hand that Okogie is not even the next wing up. Derrick Rose replaced Covington in this scenario, leaving the Wolves with a miniature backcourt triumvirate of Rose, Tyus Jones, and Jeff Teague.
If Okogie didn’t go in there, then when will he? To be determined, I suppose. Tolliver’s “more so” is even more ambiguous — and probably ominous — with Dario Saric having carved out a big space behind Gibson.
With having more capable rotation players than minutes available, it’s hard to not consider the trade market.
Let’s get this out of the way right away: Josh Okogie isn’t getting traded. With the addition of Saric, the Wolves now have a spawning crop of youth. The Butler acquisition aged this team quickly last season, as did the signings of Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague. The Wolves need to keep an eye on future windows, and Okogie should be a part of those.
Anthony Tolliver may be a different story. The 33-year-old stretch big signed in Minnesota after the Wolves rescinded the qualifying offer on Nemanja Bjelica, sending the Serbian big into the free agent abyss. There was a need for Tolliver’s services then. Now? Not so much. Saric, in ways, is really a combination of Bjelica and Tolliver.
But what could Tolliver fetch? The answer here is likely just a second round pick, if we’re talking about straight up trade value. Related: one maybe undercovered nugget from the recent Butler trade is that the pick they got back with Saric and Covington is basically worthless. A 2022 second round pick from a team with two budding superstars is about as fruitless as it gets. What’s the projection for that pick? 50th overall?
This is all to say, Thibodeau clearly didn’t place any sort of premium on acquiring future assets with that deal. The assumption should likely be that this trend continues. I highly doubt Thibodeau jumps on moving Tolliver for a second round pick if the Wolves are remotely in contention for the playoffs come February.
That said, Tolliver could be grouped in part of a bigger deal. What about a Tolliver and Gorgui Dieng package? The Wolves would do well to get off of Dieng’s money (averaging $16 million per year) through 2020-21. Perhaps a team that craves Tolliver’s services would accept both players for another sub-optimal, but better than Dieng, contract.
Together, Tolliver and Dieng count as a $20.9 million cap hit. Here are a few players in that price range who could be a building block of a deal:
Allen Crabbe (Nets) — $18.5 million in 2018-19 and 2019-20
Crabbe is a shooter; not a big man; and his deal is a year shorter than Dieng’s. Three pluses that offset some of that ridiculously high salary.
Robin Lopez (Bulls) — $14.4 million for 2018-19
Wolves would likely need to sweeten this with a draft pick, probably a future first. Chicago has cap space to absorb some additional salary. Lopez may be out of the rotation with the Bulls, but his contract serves as a cap relief gift card.
Danilo Gallinari (Clippers) — $21.6 million in 2018-19, $22.6 million in 2019-20
Would need to sweeten this with a pick, also. However, the superstar-hungry Clippers may be enticed by the additional $6 million it would free up on their books in a Gallinari-Dieng swap.
Ryan Anderson (Suns) — $20.4 million in 2018-19, $21.2 million (partially-guaranteed) in 2019-20
The Suns are a team with some cap flexibility that might be willing to take on long-term money for the right price. That price might be Tyus Jones instead of Tolliver, and the Wolves may be intrigued by Anderson’s shorter contract.
Evan Turner (Blazers) — $17.9 million in 2018-19, $18.6 million in 2019-20
Thibodeau called Turner “one of the most underrated players in the league” when the Blazers came to town on Friday. Turner’s deal is shorter than Dieng’s, and Portland could be intrigued by Tolliver’s shooting.
As alluded to in the hypothetical Suns deal, Tyus Jones could be another name to throw in potential trade talks. The backup point guard is a free agent at season’s end and Thibodeau could cover up the backup guard minutes with Derrick Rose, sliding Okogie back into the rotation.
Time will tell how active Minnesota is in the February trade market. Whether they are buyers or sellers is an interesting in-bound subplot of the season.
Of the players who are in the rotation, no one has more eyes on them than Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s very clear both in the locker room and on the floor that this is now his team. With that also comes additional attention from defenses.
Here are Towns’ numbers in the four games post-Butler trade:
|BKN (W)||25 (9/11)||21||3||10||+7|
|NOP (W)||25 (9/17)||16||3||5||+9|
|POR (W)||14 (6/15)||9||1||3||+8|
|MEM (L)||15 (6/10)||20||2||4||-11|
The most staggering segment of these numbers is the turnovers column. Towns’ turnovers are likely up due to the additional attention he is rendering. With more double teams coming his way, Towns has been asked to distribute out of the post more often. As we learned in last season’s playoffs against the Houston Rockets, this can be KAT’s kryptonite.
The Rockets snuck additional defenders along the baseline all series and dared to Towns to go through two defenders if he wanted to shoot. Thibodeau told Towns to “trust the pass” in these situations and, in turn, Towns’ effectiveness dropped.
Sometimes just the idea of the lurking double deterred Towns from heading into the paint, making him reliant on fading jumpers.
This playbook of Houston’s has resurfaced against the majority of Towns’ opponents this season. With his back to the double, and an unpolished court vision, it has become a low-risk move for opposing defenses to slide over the weak side wing.
Even when it is just a big on the weak side, Towns is casting a bigger and bigger shadow that entices that big to come closer and closer. It does here against Boban Marjanovic and the Clippers.
While Towns is averaging a career-high 3.8 turnovers per-36 minutes, the results haven’t been all bad. Often, Towns is finding the right pass. This drives the offense; he might not always get the assist tally but his hockey assist numbers have to be up.
“I think we’re seeing more and more of that now,” said Thibodeau when asked about the prevalence of the baseline doubles coming Towns’ way. “I think he’s still working at it. He made a great play to start the [New Orleans] game. It resulted in a wide-open rhythm 3.”
“The thing is it’s hard,” Thibodeau continued. “He’s not getting any credit for that — he swings the ball to the top and you swing it to the backside but his decision to kick it out to the open man forced rotation. And that’s a big part of winning. I think he’s starting to see that. And when he does do it, it’s very effective for us.”
Entering Sunday’s game against the Grizzlies, Derrick Rose had a net-rating swing of plus-16.8 on the season — one-tenth of a point worse than Kevin Durant’s swing of plus-16.9. (A net-rating swing is a difference in net-rating with a player on-the-floor versus when a player is off-the-floor.)
For Rose, when he is playing, the Wolves have outscored opponents by 4.3 points per 100 possessions. When Rose is off, the Wolves are being outscored by 12.5 points per 100 possessions.
I’m skeptical to look too far into any aggregated data for the Wolves this season. For one, we’re going to need to draw a pre- and post-Butler line when it comes to measuring just about anything. Beyond Butler, both Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins have missed numerous games, forcing different players to have different roles seemingly every other game.
With Rose, this feels particularly true. He has started; come off the bench; played point guard; played shooting guard; played three-guard (that’s what he calls small forward, I guess). It’s been a bunch of different things. What I will say, though, is that for the good or bad Rose plays pretty much the same offensive style. He’s bombing threes (effectively) and flailing his way to the rim (ineffectively). Butler’s presence or lack thereof didn’t seem to change that. Rose has consistently moved to his own pace — a fast one.
If we believe in Rose’s net-rating swing, the greater point might simply be that pace helps this team. When Rose has been at his best, he’s not only hitting threes and (effectively) getting to the rim, he’s also distributing. Those distributions often come from swiftly forcing the defense to shift so as to find easy drop-offs.
This is the key difference between Rose and Teague. With Teague, less shifting happens. Both players dribble the air out of the ball, but Teague has been doing so like molasses.
To take another stat (that may or may not be flawed), Rose is a part of the Wolves most effective three-man lineup this season. He, Towns, and Okogie have a net-rating of plus-10.8. The Wolves worst three-man lineup, when measured by net-rating, is Teague, Towns, and Okogie — minus-9.8.
Again, the sample is going to need to swell before any of this can be digested with any sort of certainty. And moreover, how Rose can play alongside Covington and Saric instead of, say, Butler and Tolliver is another important question yet to be answered. But for now, the once devilish statistical figure has turned into this season’s Tyus Jones — an advanced stats darling.