The freedom of movement Jimmy Butler’s departure inspires is simultaneously invigorating while also wrought with questions. The consummation of the trade is only step one of a grander assessment process. Yes, assets were swapped, but their true value is not yet a known commodity. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Let’s dig into the bowl with five subplots that come with the presence of Dario Saric and Robert Covington in place of Butler.
At Sunday afternoon’s Wolves practice, the first since Butler’s departure, Tom Thibodeau did not make his plans clear to his players of who is going to be starting going forward. Andrew Wiggins said he did not know who he would be sharing the wing with and Taj Gibson acknowledged the possibility that he may no longer be starting at power forward. The situation is fluid, as Thibodeau often likes to say.
One thing we can bank on with Thibodeau is little ingenuity in the process. Since coming to Minnesota, necessity — namely injuries — have been the only thing that has forced invention. Wolves fans were only given a glimpse of Gorgui Dieng alongside Karl-Anthony Towns last season when Nemanja Bjelica was hurt early on. And Bjelica was only given substantial run on the wing when Butler went down with his injury. Which is to say, whatever Thibodeau chooses, whether that happens Monday against the Brooklyn Nets or Wednesday against the New Orleans Pelicans, will likely be the plan for the long haul.
The safest assumption to be made is Covington stepping into the starting small forward role. Though he has the size to play some small-ball power forward, the 6-9 and 215 pounder has played the majority of his minutes in Philadelphia at the three. Saric versus Gibson is the question. And there are two schools of thought here:
Whichever route is taken, some invention will be required by Thibodeau to find minutes for not only Saric and Gibson but also Dieng and Anthony Tolliver in the big man rotation. Thirty-five-or-so of the 96 available big man minutes a night are earmarked for Towns.
One tweak that could be seen, regardless of who starts, is sliding Saric and/or Tolliver into minutes at small forward. Covington will likely receive the bulk of those minutes, but finagling 15-or-so minutes a night for a jumbo style lineup could be an optimized utilization of the roster at hand. What’s preventing Saric from finding similar success at the three akin to Bjelica when he stepped in for Butler last year?
The first game’s rotations will be fascinating.
With whatever rotational wringing occurs, the Wolves would do well to find as many shifts as possible that include both Saric and Covington. While the two have put forth a negative net rating (minus-1.7) in the 310 minutes they have shared the floor this season, that number is disingenuine. The Sixers have underperformed as a team, and Saric specifically has played arguably the worst basketball of his career in these first 14 games — Saric has been an analytical negative on both sides of the floor this season when measured by box plus-minus (BPM).
The two should play together because the tandem absolutely killed it in the 1598 minutes they played last year. The Sixers had a team net-rating of plus-4.6 last year; Saric and Covington were plus-11.8. Those are almost stat darling Tyus Jones-level numbers. When the two newest Wolves were flanked by Joel Embiid for 876 of those minutes, the triumvirate exceeded even Jones’ magic dust.
|2017-18 Lineups||Minutes Played||Net-Rating||Differential of Improvement|
|Covington + Saric||1598||plus-11.8||7.2|
|Covington + Saric + Embiid||876||plus-17.0||12.4|
|Covington + Embiid||1274||plus-15.3||10.7|
|Saric + Embiid||1199||plus-12.5||7.9|
|All Philadelphia Lineups||plus-4.6|
Like the Wolves, the 2017-18 Sixers were a kill you when the starters play together and falter when they’re off team. Covington and Saric were particularly special, even by the Wolves sieve bench standards.
|Lineups||Minutes Played||Net-Rating||Differential of Improvement|
|Jones + Gibson + Wiggins||543||plus-14.1||11.6|
|Jones + Butler + Towns||494||plus-13.6||11.1|
|Butler + Towns + Gibson||1522||plus-11.6||9.1|
|Butler + Towns + Wiggins||1512||plus-10.7||8.2|
|All Minnesota Lineups||plus-2.5|
In the past five real-life, NBA games Derrick Rose has played in, he has combined to make 16 three-point shots on… wait for it… 26 attempts. That 61.5 percent is in line with Andrew Wiggins’ free throw percentage last season — you know the undefended 15-foot shots a player gets when the game stops and says, here take some free ones. Those are worth one. And threes, well, they’re worth three. Further, Rose’s efficiency from deep is approaching his, often mocked, 70 percent he shot from three in five playoff games last spring.
Still, the concern of Thibodeau not trimming the thorns of his former and current guard’s game looms. On the floor, Thibodeau treats Rose like he did Butler off of it: blindly allowing him to do whatever the hell he wants.
I was watching back the Wolves most recent game against the Sacramento Kings and the Kings television crew dropped a hilarious, and unfortunately true, line on their viewers. It went like this:
“Minnesota is odd. They don’t run any sets. Whoever has the ball, they just shoot it.”
So true, Doug Christie! Rose is chief amongst the scrambling chuckers in a Timberwolves jersey. Particularly, and almost even more so, when he isn’t hitting at this, still, unsustainable clip.
Rose is actually a great asset for this roster. His on-court contributions have only been usurped by his effort and uniquely effective leadership style in the Wolves locker room. Every player on this team, and apparently everyone in the whole league, loves Derrick. But Thibodeau’s fawning for the former MVP is unmatched. And this could be concerning.
There is going to be an adjustment period here over the next few weeks as the pieces all shake together. One thing you can bet on in this purgatory is Rose jacking up his usage. Dude has no chill.
“‘The game will let me know what to do.’ That’s what Thibs always say,” Rose chuckled after Sunday’s practice.
“I been in games working on everything, preparing myself for this moment,” he continued when I asked if the trade means we should expect more out of him. “And if I get those moments, and those opportunities, I’m gonna run with it.”
Look out below. It’s line drive Rose three-pointers that will be bombs away. I have no idea if this is a good thing, the worst thing, or just gonna be totally nuts. But I’m here for it. That 50-point game, where Butler stayed in the locker room and off of the bench oiling his generally sore joints, was the one time this team looked like they were having fun. This team needs fun.
Because I think Rose’s usage rate might approach 40 percent going forward, he gets two of the five subplots dedicated to him. The now 30-year-old guard, who plays pretty much every position, is apparently taking on another duty: team leader.
“It’s kind of crazy to say that I’m a vet on this team now,” said Rose about the leadership void Butler leaves. “I played with guys like Kurt Thomas, he was on his 16th year. And Nazy [Mohammed], 20 years in the league. Those are vets, but it’s kind of crazy that I took their place with me being in my 11th in the league.”
What does that entail exactly? According to Rose, “tough love.”
“Tough love that’s all I show. But I don’t mean no harm by it. I’m just trying to do what’s best for the team.”
But Derrick, is this a group that can handle tough love? (Did you see what happened with Jimmy?)
“I mean I haven’t started [the tough love] yet, but you’ll see it. You’ll see it, for sure.”
On a serious and pretty cool note, Rose took 20-year-old Josh Okogie out on the town while the team was cooped up in Los Angeles this past week. (I’m sure it was just for some Fiji waters and buffalo wings — Josh is 20, Derrick.)
The two went out because Okogie has been struggling a bit with confidence in his shot, according to Rose. Watch this play from their four-point loss against the Lakers; Okogie is clearly not looking to step up to the three-point line for a jumper. And thus: death by Slender Man.
This because his previous shot, two minutes earlier, may have gone through the backboard had he shot it with the same velocity of Rose.
“Josh went out with me one night when we were in LA. I was just talking to him about his shot. Like, he has a great shot,” Rose detailed Sunday. He talked to Okogie about how early in his career there was just so much thinking that went into his own jumper. “I remember having to shoot the ball and used to have to remember fingertips, follow through, this and that. Just really broke down my shot.
“With him, he’s a natural good shooter. He has a great touch. So I tell him, like, ‘why you thinkin’ about your shot?’ That was one of the things I had to get over. Just stop thinking about it and just let it go. I shoot 20,000-some shots in the summer, so why the hell am I thinking about a shot when I get in a game. Once I understood that it was good.”
Only the Washington Wizards, the other team that has rivaled the Wolves dysfunction this season (shouts to Cleveland, though), has a worse defensive rebounding percentage than Minnesota. Towns, Gibson and crew are hauling in a dismal 67 percent of available rebounds on the defensive end. Down from 72 percent a year ago (25th in the league) and four percentage points worse than 2016-17 (also, 25th in the league).
We spend all this time (hand raised) wondering if the pick-and-roll defensive scheme is antiquated or not. We ask, should they probably switch a little more? But are we just missing the really basic notion that securing a defensive rebound is, like, pretty important? A board, literally, ends the possession.
A lot of this is about discipline — namely not scattering about pursuing blocked shots like they’re hundred dollar bills falling from the sky — but it’s also about want to. Rebounding is about positioning, sure, but you gotta want ’em.
Tyson Chandler wanted all of them in the Wolves’ loss against the Lakers.
The deeper roots of the problem are better illustrated on this play, however. Towns is, predictably, all about the Benjamins, going after Rajon Rondo’s layup. But Butler offers a mere hand check to Chandler in place of what should be positional battling. Yes, Butler needs to be in a spot where he can respond to the corner if Rondo delivers Brandon Ingram a zip pass. Still, he can at least lean on Chandler in an effort to not make this a tip drill.
The Wolves wings are terrible rebounders across the board. Only on defense, though. Throw an offensive shot off the glass and they’ll gobble it up along with the two points that often come with it. The Wolves are 12th in offensive rebound rate, per NBA.com/stats, and were fourth in the same metric the two previous seasons. Riddle me that.
There just isn’t the same hunger on the defensive end. Also, the Wolves just may not be good at boxing out — a tactic less used on the offensive glass. Watch Butler here — and the whole team, really — on this made Willie Cauley-Stein jumper. You gotta box out on Cauley-Stein Js — he missed 71.2 percent of jump shots he took from 10-16 feet a season ago.
Now is the time for the “do stuff” stats to rear their head. If this team wants to begin to drive winning, the sexy stuff has to take a back seat. Push some people around, grab a board. You know, try. Stop getting beat by the Kings. Nine losses is not an insurmountable hole. It’s a new day.