Feelings Aren't Numbers: What might the new Wolves lineups look like?
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By: Steve McPherson
With the three-way trade between the Timberwolves, Cavaliers and Sixers consummated and Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young on their way to Minnesota, what kind of lineups are we actually going to see on the floor next season?
A caveat before we begin: Flip Saunders hasn't coached in the NBA since January of 2012. That might not seem like that long ago, but that gap represents a real sea change in approach in the NBA. Saunders was known as a coach for valuing open shots -- even long two-pointers -- above anything else, whereas the shift in the NBA over the last few years has been toward emphasizing 3-pointers and getting to the rim. In the press conference announcing the trade, he went out of his way to emphasize his belief in "two-way players."
"I felt [Wiggins] was the most ready-made two-way player in draft who had offensive skills but also had defensive ability," Saunders said, nodding toward the idea that Jabari Parker might be more polished offensively right now, but may always struggle on defense. He also said the team had "all of a sudden become athletic, exciting and fast instead of being maybe a little bit slower and more plodding." These are the only hints we've had about how he'll approach coaching the team, but it's all just talk until he puts the team on the floor.
Another caveat: Saunders refused to rule out further moves before the start of the season, repeating his line that any move they could make to improve their team for the short- or long-term would be considered. This means that the future of players like J.J. Barea and Glenn Robinson III (who has not even actually signed with the Wolves) are somewhat up in the air.
All that said, we can begin to get a sense of what we could see on the floor next year, from most conservative to some more specialized types of lineup.
If the Wolves want to return their lineup from last year more or less intact but without Love, they can do that. I would be disheartened but not entirely surprised to see this lineup on opening night. Coaches overall tend to hew toward a belief that rookies need to earn a starting spot, especially with well-established vets ahead of them. It took Rubio ten games to work his way into the starting lineup in 2011-12 and he only had to displace the more stalwart than stellar Luke Ridnour. (Miss you, Luke.)
So it's possible that Wiggins begins on the bench but makes his way into the starting lineup within a half-dozen to a dozen games if his play proves that he's ready for the spotlight. As Saunders said at the presser, "I've always said I give players as much responsibility as they can accept and continue to grow and improve then I give them more responsibility. If they can't accept that then they take a step back. I expect him to accept a lot of responsibility from the beginning and see where that goes."
MOST LIKELY STARTERS BY THE TENTH GAME
I asked Saunders if he viewed Wiggins as more of a shooting guard or a small forward or if that even matters, and he said it didn't, adding that he doesn't like to label players. "Players play," were his exact words. So there are some conceivable wrinkles here. If Wiggins is nominally the shooting guard rather than the small forward, that could mean Corey Brewer or Chase Budinger at small forward. Rubio-Brewer-Wiggins would give them a highly disruptive backcourt on defense, but also puts a lot of pressure on Pekovic (and Young, to a lesser degree) to carry a heavy scoring load. Martin strikes me as setting a better immediate balance with Wiggins, with Rubio and Wiggins' defensive instincts making up for Martin's complete lack of them and Martin's shooting helping with Wiggins' still-developing jumpshot.
Although the starters on any NBA team are often the best players at each position, it's helpful to think of the starting lineup as something more like the most well-rounded -- a balanced lineup that could most easily adapt to the game as it develops.
Mo Williams / Zach LaVine / Corey Brewer / Anthony Bennett / Gorgui Dieng
Call me crazy, but this lineup looks kind of fun, which is something the bench almost never was for the Wolves last year. Brewer is a much more natural fit in a sixth man role as a shot of energy both in transition and on defense, and LaVine is also appealing as a bouncy offensive option off the bench. Williams has his flaws -- including some of Barea's quick-fire tendencies -- but it would be hard for him to be anything but an upgrade over Barea in the role of primary ballhandler off the bench, and the Wolves seem confident that LaVine will also be able to shoulder some of that load.
Saunders praised Bennett's defense at the presser as well, saying that when he spoke to former Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, Brown said Bennett was one of the team's best pick and roll defenders. Synergy numbers don't really bear this out, with Bennett only defending 25 pick and rolls all season, but we'll give Brown the benefit of the doubt in terms of what he saw in practice. Dieng was one of the Wolves better defenders last year down the stretch when he blossomed, so this lineup could put up reasonably stiff defense against other bench units in the league.
This lineup would struggle mightily to score with Young as the most proven scorer here and little ability to spread the floor at all. But holy cow they would be a nightmare for other teams to score on. Check the wingspans going down the line: 6-8, 7-0, 6-11.5, 7-4, 7-2. And Pekovic aside, all those players have strong defensive instincts, either in terms of generating turnovers with steals or blocking shots. Even Pekovic is a reasonable paint defender as a big body.
If he begins to pan out, Bennett could also be a credible small forward in this lineup if his shot looks good later on in the season, or they could consider Shabazz Muhammad as a kind of "super two" in this situation, although he would hardly help the spacing with his love of dropping down on the block for lefty push shots. The main thing is that the Wolves had no lineup last year even close to this one in terms of defensive acumen.
There's no earthly reason to think Muhammad could be serviceable at the four but with a mentor like Young -- who's made a virtue out of being undersized yet strong at power forward -- it's possible that Muhammad could leverage his above-average rebounding, strength and post game into some run as a highly unconventional four. And if not, then Young is already one of the league's best smallball fours. Three-guard lineups were some of Minnesota's best last season in the small chunks of time they were used, and it would be a lot of fun to see what they could do with LaVine out there in place of Barea.
I'm optimistic about Muhammad's ability to grow into a unique player for specific situations, clearly, but I actually wouldn't expect him to begin the year on the active roster. The other odd men out right now would appear to be two out of three of Robbie Hummel, J.J. Barea and Glenn Robinson III. (We're looking at a pool of 16 players here, so something has to give with one of these guys to get it down to 15, but it's hard to know who it will be.)
This gives us the following depth chart with 12 active players:
PG -- Ricky Rubio, Mo Williams
SG -- Kevin Martin, Zach LaVine
SF -- Andrew Wiggins, Corey Brewer
PF -- Thaddeus Young, Anthony Bennett
C -- Nikola Pekovic, Gorgui Dieng
Turiaf is likely to stay active if he's healthy simply on the strength of how much energy he brings on the court and on the bench. He's the vet with the most of that indefinable "veteran leadership" to offer. Budinger is still an unknown quantity and it's possible that his knee troubles mean he will never be able to make a meaningful contribution to the team, but I think the Wolves have to at least give him a reasonable shot to prove he can help with shooting on a team not loaded with proven shooters.
Given a raw team dripping with athleticism and talent but little in the way of expectations, it would be nice to see Saunders get creative with lineups, putting players into a lot of different kinds of situations in order to expose both strengths and weaknesses that will help the team build a cohesive core going forward into the next several seasons.
Additional listening: Steve McPherson joins the Sports Over Beers podcast to talk about the trade before it happened. What are the Wolves getting with Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young?
Steve McPherson is a Wolves analyst for 1500ESPN.com. His work can be found in other publications such as Rolling Stone Magazine, Grantland.com and AWolfAmongWolves.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Steventurous.