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What’s with the Wolves’ short early-season rotation?

It’s been no secret that the Timberwolves have thrived since moving Jimmy Butler. The team is back to .500 at 12-12 on the season and just a half game from the eight-seed after a thrilling 19-point comeback win against Houston on Monday.

Seeing the Wolves defeat the Rockets as they trailed by 14 at halftime was difficult, but they made adjustments, were inspired by Coolio’s performance or something that led to the appearance of a different team in the final two quarters.

The Wolves did it with defense, taking away those open 3-point looks they saw early in the game. A year ago it would have been impossible to imagine holding the Rockets to 29 second-half points, including nine in the fourth, but it happened.

You’d also be surprised to learn that they didn’t just shoot 8-for-13 on 3-pointers in the game but just the second half. The personnel isn’t just different, they’re playing differently.

All in all, the Wolves did this with just nine players all game despite the Rockets hardly playing the final quarter. This wouldn’t be noteworthy if this were the playoffs when rotations always tighten up but we’re in early December and roughly one-third of the season is ahead of us.

If you’ve been reading me in this space, you’ve heard my complaints about the bench and its use. However, this time is different. I swear, I’m not just recycling columns here.

New year, new bench

Have you seen the numbers for the Wolves’ bench since the Butler trade? They may surprise you. The bench has been third in plus/minus and seventh-most efficient unit in the league. Per 100 possessions, the Wolves have the 13th-best scoring and 19th-best reserves core in the league.

What is arguably most impressive about this is that they’ve done this with mostly four players: Tyus Jones, Derrick Rose, Gorgui Dieng and Dario Saric. Two guards and two bigs. That’s it.

Think about this. The Wolves have had the seventh-best shooting bench since the trade despite Anthony Tolliver, a 40 percent 3-point shooter, playing once since November 12 and that was seven minutes in the blowout victory versus San Antonio. That’s in addition to having Euro League sharpshooter James Nunnally riding the pine each and every night.

Rookie Josh Okogie has made himself a fan favorite with his energy and hustle plays early in the season. With his defensive effort and nose for the ball, you’d think he be a perfect Thibodeau player but he, too, has found himself looking for a way to the floor.

Can you have too much shooting and depth in today’s NBA? Probably not. And these guys do want to play, something Tolliver has alluded to on social media.

But what may be difficult is disrupting the good thing the team has had going over these last 10-plus games by mixing it up too much. It’s a gamble either way, right? You risk interfering with this hot streak or you risk fatigue later in the season. If you go with the latter option, you have to make sure you’re keeping these guys happy so they’re ready when they’re eventually called upon.

Are these players depth or are they assets?

If you can’t keep the bench players happy or a team with an injury calls looking for help, does the team entertain the idea of trading someone?

Thibodeau has a glut of wings on his bench but the only one that he’s likely to tie himself too and that’s Okogie. Yes, Thibodeau traded Kris Dunn after drafting him the season before but that was to be able to acquire one of his favorite players. He probably doesn’t have that same connection to someone like Nunnally.

Since he likely wouldn’t part with Rose, would he prefer to move Jones for the right deal? Jones has expressed concerns over his role in the past and while dealing him would stir the fanbase, the team didn’t make much effort to sign him to an extension by the deadline. It’s also possible that they would like to skip the restricted free agency game that now lies ahead with Jones.

If anyone could be on the block, Tolliver makes the most sense. On a team-friendly, expiring deal, Tolliver is a proven commodity because of his shooting ability. Even when he got in that Spurs game, he took two 3-pointers in seven minutes and hit one of them. Someone would love to play him more often and have him do that for them.

Again, the Wolves have no reason to do any of this but a move could ease the logjam on the roster.

These acquisitions filled a need at the time

Since the trade, Timberwolves have taken nearly the same amount of 3-pointers per game (29.7) as the Warriors (29.4). The difference is that the Warriors are the second-best shooting team in the league to the Nuggets and the Wolves are seventh. Just 3.3 percentage points separate Minnesota and Golden State. This team is now willing and capable of shooting at a respectable rate.

Consider how this team came to be.

In 2018, no one took fewer 3-pointers per game than the Wolves at 22.5 per game. They were also near the bottom-third of the league in efficiency at 35.7 percent. When nearly all of the league is taking and making more valuable shots than your team, you’re starting each game at a disadvantage. What did Thibodeau do? He vowed to add shooting.

In came Tolliver, Nunnally, and Jared Terrell to help satisfy this need. Suffice to say, this plan worked for the first 13 games of the season. And when the Wolves returned shooters for Butler at those positions, these players got pinched. These three players and even Okogie have been unintended consequences of the trade.

Patience is key

The Wolves would be foolish to move on from any of these players too soon, even when December 15 comes and teams can trade the free agents they signed in the summer.

Players like Rose, who was one of the worst shooters in league history at the time of his signing, likely aren’t going to shoot as well as they have been. Rose, in particular, is likely to regress based on history and his age. It’s possible that he’s improved but players rarely go from historically bad to being one of the best shooters in the league. This does not mean that they Wolves shouldn’t enjoy his run.

Then there’s always the possibility of injury. Injuries don’t discriminate against anyone and can happen at any time in a game, practice or elsewhere. A team needs to be prepared to survive hits like this and the depth the Wolves have would be a benefit should catastrophe strike.

(Time to go knock on wood now)

Finally, and this will be important if they continue trending in the direction of a playoff team, it would be good to know what you have in the roster should it come time to whittle down the rotation for a playoff series or two. The Wolves should find a way to get creative to use some of that depth now and ensure that the starters and significant bench contributors are as fresh as possible.





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