As soon as the Minnesota Timberwolves traded up to select Jarrett Culver in last June’s NBA Draft, it always felt like he was going to enter the starting lineup at some point during the 2019-20 season. Whether it was early or late in the season, it wasn’t known, but it was always going to make the most season to see him as a starter both in the near future and the long term.
Now, Culver has moved into the starting lineup after 16 games – six of which he actually started to due various other absences in the lineup – for what feels like for good. At some point this was bound to happen, but the reason for it happening probably isn’t what the expectation was for the Wolves. This isn’t to say Culver hasn’t earned the opportunity, but his performance has been up and down – which is to be expected for a rookie – and his numbers have been nothing spectacular. The reason the shift of Culver into the starting lineup isn’t for him or because of him. It’s for both Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins has experienced the sort of revolution so far this season that his greatest supporters had continued to hold out hope for and that his detractors thought would never come. He’s essentially ditched the uber-inefficient midrange jump shot and started shooting threes at a career-high rate and attacked the basket with a stronger will than has ever been shown by him.
Wiggins hasn’t played well each and every night. No one does. But he has strung together some really impressive performances this season, the most impressive stretch of which happened with Teague unavailable due to an illness.
Teague missed four games due to that illness, and then came off the bench against San Antonio upon his return to action. In that five-game stretch, Wiggins was at the peak of his powers. He averaged 31.6 points, six assists, and five rebounds per game on 52% shooting from the floor. He was finding teammates for open shots and was the best player on the floor for the Wolves each time out.
In each of those games Wiggins registered 25 points or more and five assists or more. Prior to that five-game stretch, he had only 11 games of 25 points and five assists or better in his entire career and had never done it in back-to-back games, let alone five straight. That sample size, albeit small, showed what the hope for Wiggins still is. Trying to capture that in a regular basis will be difficult for anyone, but the best chance of it happening is by putting Teague on the bench.
The pairing of Wiggins and Culver on the floor for the Wolves has been a successful one so far. They’ve shared the floor for 167 minutes to date and registered an offensive rating 115.7 together, which is the second highest two-man pairing with a minimum of 80 minutes played for the Wolves. The best pairing is Jeff Teague and Jake Layman with an offensive rating of 117.4 in 111 minutes. While Layman is out for the moment with a toe injury, moving Teague to the bench could suggest that he and Layman will share the floor more often when he returns from his injury.
The most common starting lineup for the Wolves this season has been Teague, Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Treveon Graham and Robert Covington. Due to various things that have forced all of them to miss at least one game this year, they’ve only started five games this year. The group was out there for the start of each of the first four games and then again in the loss to Utah on Nov. 20 at Target Center.
Despite that lack of continuity, it’s the most common five-man lineup the Wolves have had this season, logging 70 minutes. In those 70 minutes the Wolves have been outscored by 14.4 points per 100 possessions. The next most commonly used five-man group was Wiggins, Towns, Graham, Covington, and Culver which has logged 53 minutes across five games. That grouping has outscored opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions. Quite a difference that one small change can make.
This isn’t an indictment on Teague nor is it praise for Culver. This isn’t a move that even suggests that Culver is better than Teague right now as an NBA player. It’s a move based on fit. Off the bench Teague creation is much more needed than it is in the starting lineup. This is the way the Wolves can hope to get the best version of Andrew Wiggins each and every night, and right now that’s their best road to success.