The Minnesota Timberwolves still have to play basketball Tuesday night in Oklahoma City. And because the Wolves sit two games out of the eighth seed in the West, what happens on the floor — not off of it — is also a pretty big deal. Let’s take a look at a few things that can change as the Tom Thibodeau construct (slowly) becomes a thing of the past.
It didn’t take more than a handful of games in the beginning of Tom Thibodeau’s tenure for the “old school” adjective to be emblazoned on the new coach’s breastplate. The key tenets Thibodeau used to find success in Chicago were immediately apparent in Minnesota, and when bumps in the road came along that old school description quickly evolved into something more pejorative: “antiquated.”
But here’s the rub: the offense worked, even in his first year when the team won 31 games. A system that “put pressure on the rim,” as Thibodeau was known to say, derived layups/dunks and got to the free throw line. That system rendered the 10th ranked offense in 2016-17 and the 4th ranked O in 2017-18. The defense, however, did not reap the benefits expected. In Thibodeau’s first two seasons in charge, the Wolves defense ranked 27th both years. Not gonna cut it.
But wait, low-key, the defense was a lot better this season — almost good. Since Robert Covington and Dario Saric made their debut in mid-November, the Wolves have had the ninth-best defensive rating in the league, per NBA.com/stats.
However, one thing did remain old school and deserved the antiquated demarcation: The minutes.
In comparison to every other coach in the NBA, Thibodeau was the only taskmaster in the league who implemented a rotation that looked eerily similar to substitution patterns of the mid-aughts. The starters were relied on immensely a season ago. As a group, Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns played a league-leading 1,131 minutes together last season — more than double (539 minutes) of the sixth-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder starting lineup. But that wasn’t the biggest problem; it was how those minutes were strung along into marathon stretches that, at times, spanned multiple quarters in length.
Robert Covington has missed the last three games for the Wolves and in those games, Andrew Wiggins has moved into a super-marathon rotational role. Against Boston, Wiggins played the first 15.5 minutes of the game; against Orlando, the first 14.5 minutes; and against Los Angeles, the first 16.
I asked Josh Okogie — who has been the one (finally) checking for Wiggins — about this shift. With a chuckle, Okogie said, “Wiggs be coming to the bench like a dog that hasn’t drunk water in like three days.”
Can’t have that. This is one (simple) adjustment Ryan Saunders can make that will instantly modernize one portion of the system. It’s OK to play your best players for heavy minutes when you need them, but that can come in moderation, and also in quicker and more frequent shifts.
If there is one, simple thing to point to for why the Wolves defense has improved, it would be a diversification of the team’s defensive coverages. Thibodeau is on-the-record for saying the squads he had his first two seasons in Minnesota simply did not have enough “switch partners” to be able to get creative with the ways in which his team defended opponent’s screening actions. The defense was about evading those screens, not eliminating them.
Robert Covington’s presence changed this, ten-fold. To Thibodeau’s credit, he allowed his defensive infrastructure, with Covington in tow, to shift freely. The game against Charlotte on December 5th (Covington’s 11th with the team) was particularly juicy in the ways Covington was allowed to manage the defensive board.
Look at this: a triple switch! Get outta here.
Um, yeah, I’ll let Kemba Walker take that with Covington in his face. Think about it: How does this play go if Covington is Jamal Crawford or Nemanja Bjelica?
The good news — and opportunity — for Saunders is Crawford and Bjelica have been replaced by Josh Okogie and Dario Saric. More switch partners! It would be great to see Saunders unharness the leash that Thibodeau had already begun to loosen.
To mixed results, and by necessity, Anthony Tolliver has been freed from the doldrums of the bench and inserted (back) into the rotation in 2019. This time, however, at a new position: small forward.
Sure, Tolliver got cooked by Lance Stephenson in the first half of the Lakers game, but his 3-point shooting brought a missing ingredient back into the recipe. The free passes for Stephenson were taken care of in the second half when Tolliver switched over to defending Svi Myhailluk in the Lakers’ second unit while Wiggins — who was out there, duh — moved over to Stephenson. Mixing it up doesn’t unilaterally work but it opens up the opportunity, again, for diversification.
Saunders can take this a step further by mixing things up with the bigs. For so much of the Thibodeau era, there has been specific positional distinctions for the bigs in the rotation. Saric checks in for Taj Gibson, Gorgui Dieng checks in for Karl-Anthony Towns, and vice-a-versa. The perplexing part about this rigid rotational structure of the bigs has always been the way that Taj often functions as the center in the offense and Towns the power forward, yet the rotation speaks to a specific positional distinction.
Stripping the rigidity, particularly if paired with swifter rotations, could break up what has been a massive logjam in the frontcourt. It could present an opportunity for Saric to receive a 35-minute night here and there. (Saric has only played over 31 minutes in a game once this season — the game Gibson missed for personal reasons.) Dieng could also, situationally, play alongside Towns — as he did for 2,161(!) minutes in 2016-17 , tallying a plus-2.2 net-rating (the best of any two-man lineup that played over 780 minutes) — if the matchup presents an advantage. And Tolliver could get back into the mix at his traditional position. Blast the logjam.
One of the wildest development’s of the 2017-18 NBA season came out of New Orleans who found a way lead the league in pace in spite of playing Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins next to each other for 1095 minutes. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry forced this code shift not by simply waving his arm on the sideline like a third base coach sending a base runner home. No, he instilled the change in practice.
From the beginning of training camp Gentry changed the rules. He classically conditioned his team to move with vigor by practicing with an 18-second shot clock and 6-second half court violation clock. Voila, you have a team who jumped from 27th in the league in pace under Monty Williams into a team who actually did send every baserunner reeling to the plate.
“A faster pace, that was one thing he put an emphasis on today,” Derrick Rose said Monday of a stylistic fingerprint Ryan Saunders put on his first practice. “Offensively, he wants a faster tempo.”
The Wolves have had the 15th-slowest pace in the league since Covington and Saric got to town. Middle-of-the-pack. But the pace calculation is kind of like the minutes question, it’s how the pace comes. The Thibodeau-led Wolves shot 312 of their field goal attempts with four-or-fewer second left on the shot clock this season, per Second Spectrum tracking data, actually a slight downtick from a league-leading 705 shots from “very late” in the shot clock a season ago.
The Wolves would certainly stand to eliminate as many of these shots as possible. Their effective field goal percentage in these situations is 37 percent, fifth-worst in the league this season — 3.3 percent below league-average. In theory, more pace leads to a lower quantity of these detrimental offensive possessions. The Wolves roster just doesn’t have the late shot clock creators they did a season ago.
With a little bit of heat on his heels, even Jeff Teague can actually be really good in these situations. It’s on Saunders to apply the heat.
“You never want to try and slow somebody down,” Teague said after the Lakers victory. “It’s contagious throughout our whole team.”
I mean, he said it. His words, not mine. It’s time to break out a no-huddle offense in Minnesota — amongst other things.