It’s time. With a playoff push having largely become a reverie baked in naivety, it’s time for the Minnesota Timberwolves to use the final quarter of the season to learn. It’s time to not just ask questions about what is and isn’t effective but to act, so as to discern answers. It’s time to use the final 19 games of the season to completely shed the identity of what this team once was — under their previous coach — and to craft who they are going to become.
If they want to shoot more 3s, do it — hold those who don’t accountable. If you want to run, do it — bench those who won’t. Recognize the process may become uncomfortable but act in the name of the opportunity to learn. Here are three questions that the Wolves would do well to gather every bit of information on this March and April.
Perhaps the most perplexing lineup split of the past two seasons is the effectiveness of lineups that include Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Tyus Jones. A season ago, the most successful 3-man lineup Wiggins was in with Towns included Jones as a third wheel. This season, that trio is (by far) the Wolves’ least successful 3-man lineup to play over 250 minutes together.
Having an idea of what can actually be expected from this trio going forward is a critical calculus. Wiggins is under contract for the next four seasons, Towns for the next five and Jones is restricted free agent at season’s end. If the Wolves opt to put their faith in Jones this summer by signing him to (up to) a four-year contract — even if it is in a backup role — the Wiggins-Towns-Jones trio could play thousands of minutes together over the next handful of seasons.
With little to lose down the stretch of the season, Ryan Saunders can lean into this lineup without completely ostracizing Jeff Teague. (Which, also, wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. The Wolves can’t be excited about Teague opting into $19 million player option for next season.) Instead of Derrick Rose functioning as the team’s sixth man, which often manifests as the first substitution of the first and third quarters, Saunders could have Jones take over this role — subbing in for Teague earlier in the half, rather than Rose for Josh Okogie. This would boost the total sum of minutes that Jones flanks Wiggins and Towns. Robert Covington’s return is imminent, which could simplify the framing of Rose’s role adjustment, while also painting a more informative picture. Even if it is deemed that Rose needs that role, he and Jones should come in at the same time. Just get Jones in there. They need to learn what they have in Wiggins, Towns and Jones together. Decision time on Jones is coming.
Further, when that trio is on the floor (and just in general), the Wolves would do well to increase the frequency of pick-and-roll actions. An increased volume of ball-screen action is the next horizon for Towns. KAT’s dominance as a post-up threat has been established during the post-Thibodeau era but his fluency in the pick-and-roll remains relatively unclear. Another opportunity for learning.
Theoretically, Towns — a three-level scorer (post-up, roll/pop, beyond-the-arc) — could be further unleashed through these type of actions. The Wolves need to learn if Wiggins and/or Jones can be his pick-and-roll dance partner. The wizardry of Al Horford and Kyrie Irving in Boston provide a blueprint for what could at least be attempted. The floor balance and decisiveness is executed to perfection here by the Celtics.
Irving is obviously a more dynamic distributor than Wiggins or Jones but Towns is a funky, souped-up Horford. The Wolves need to learn what level their (potential) backcourt-frontcourt pairing of the future can run this action at.
Since Towns returned from his car accident, the Wolves have begun to experiment more with these actions. KAT is a poor screener and his perimeter footwork is nowhere near Horford-level. Still, he’s a beast if they can just get him a touch on the move.
Jones is not the penetration weapon Wiggins is — and certainly is not Irving-level — but he understands how his movement can magnetize the defense away from KAT. Until Jones beefs up a bit to better finish around the rim, or polishes out his floater game, simply creating space for Towns to get off 3s in ball-screen action is a win. Time for more of it.
In a similar vein, the Wolves should be asking themselves why Luol Deng has helped unleash the offense when he shares the floor with Wiggins and how they could get more out of the Dario Saric and Wiggins pairing — another duo that could define the future.
These numbers don’t paint many discrepancies. That, however, doesn’t mean these stats are useless. Notably, the volume of pluses in the far right column should serve as a testament to Wiggins — a player who is often derided for his inefficiencies. Wiggins has been nothing to write home about this season, at all. But he’s not been as bad as his clunky midrange game suggests.
However, the other important number — and, likely, the greater driver of those pluses — is the overwhelming total of minutes Wiggins shares the floor with Towns. After pairing with Towns for 76.2 percent of his minutes last season — and deriving a plus-6.3 net-rating in those 2268 minutes — Wiggins has shared the floor with KAT for 77.1 percent of his minutes this season.
A common refrain echoing around Minnesota parts these past few months has been the idea of moving Wiggins to the bench. This idea holds some logic in the way of accountability, but don’t get it confused, moving Wiggins to the bench would very likely drop his (and the team’s) efficiencies further. Instead, the rotations (and playbook) should be tweaked to develop a chemistry between Wiggins and certain archetypes of players.
One specific player — who is an archetype in and of himself — is Anthony Tolliver. It’s concerning that the offense has stagnated in the minutes Wiggins has shared the floor with Tolliver. This is a bit of a trend for Wiggins. Last season, of the six players Wiggins shared the floor with for more than 760 minutes, his worst offensive pairing was with Nemanja Bjelica (107.1 offensive rating). It’s critical that Wiggins acquaints himself with stretch-fours. Even if Tolliver isn’t long for the team, it is likely that the franchise looks to insulate Towns with stretchy bigs — be that Saric, Keita Bates-Diop or some player who is currently not on the roster. So Wiggins needs to learn how to co-exist.
One thing the Wolves could look to run is more penetration actions with Wiggins on the attack and Tolliver/Saric/Bates-Diop spotted up on the weak side. When Wiggins is rolling the drive and kick is a dynamic action in the arsenal.
The last time Wiggins assisted on a Tolliver bucket was in Saunders’ first game as head coach, January 8th. The two have shared the floor for 139 minutes over that span. That’s ridiculous.
Asking for more production from Towns is silly. That’s not what I’m doing. Instead, my suggestion is an even greater diversity of the ways in which Towns is utilized — on both ends.
Towns had a nice little isolation shimmy on Thomas Bryant in the first half of Sunday’s game against Washington. More of that, please. I also loved the little 1-5 pick-and-roll Saunders ran with Towns and Jerryd Bayless out of a timeout in the first quarter of the Atlanta game.
But these dollops of artistry are exceptions to the norm; Towns’ proddings are, still, predominantly clinical and stuffy. The coaching staff and the players that surround KAT need to be constantly asking themselves how do we do more, different things for Karl?
Towns’ dominance out of post-up situations has been stellar the past few months — he’s decisively ripping through double teams or patiently assessing the floor to find the open man — but there’s more to be tapped into. Maybe things like allowing Towns to handle the ball more or to be more aggressive on defense will have negative externalities — turnovers and fouls — but those things will only get polished through additional reps. Diversification can be sandpaper to KAT’s still raw game.
The most meaningful evolutions could happen on the defensive end. What if Towns excels in a defensive scheme that suggests he doesn’t need to be a “dropping” big — like Joel Embiid, Andre Drummond and Jusuf Nurkic — against pick-and-rolls? What if Towns shows you he can hold his own on switches and aggressive hedges? What if this whole Tom Thibodeau (and now Saunders) dropping scheme has been limiting who KAT is as a defender?
As Jim Petersen pointed on the Sunday evening broadcast, Towns has shown instances of thriving as a switch partner. The play Petersen highlighted wasn’t a pick-and-roll, but it was a screening action where KAT and Keita Bates-Diop seamlessly switched a screen, putting Towns on Bradley Beal. Towns moved his feet, forcing Beal into an 18-foot step-back that clanked off.
But there were other instances where Towns remained bound to the Washington centers, forcing Bates-Diop to trace Beal around the floor. Plays like this one below, would make some sense to have Towns jump out on the wing. Bates-Diop is big enough to stay with Thomas Bryant and Towns may be quick enough to show onto Beal.
Towns doesn’t need to become some sort of Swiss Army Knife, let’s just see what other tools he has — particularly on the defensive end. Covington’s return empowers so much of this, and should certainly extend the rope for KAT — away from the drop. Aggressive Towns and Feisty Cov have been a dynamic defensive(!) duo. The final quarter of the season should have a ton of that. Foul trouble be damned.