Harper: What can the Wolves do to improve anemic bench production?
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The Minnesota Timberwolves starting unit can be pretty deadly. As we discussed on Monday, the first three games showed how incendiary the unit of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Kevin Love, and Nikola Pekovic has been while still showing the potential to get even better.
However, that potential may not be good enough if the second unit and reserve players aren't capable of providing the supplementary effort and production necessary to allow Rick Adelman to rest his starters when they need to sit down. Through five games, the impact from the bench players has been devastating to the Wolves' effort. And it sunk them into a hole again Wednesday night against the Golden State Warriors.
Not including Ronny Turiaf because he's now injured, J.J. Barea has been the best reserve for the Wolves this year and the team is getting outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court. It gets a lot worse from there with Derrick Williams (-11.7), Dante Cunningham (-16.8) and Alexey Shved (-23.8) rounding out the rotation. Gorgui Dieng (-38.9 per 100 possessions in just 23 minutes) will fill in for Ronny Turiaf (+21.2 in 19 minutes) until he returns.
Part of the problem with the Wolves' second unit is that while the team has a bevy of options with the starters on the floor, the reserves are very limited in the amount of broken basketball plays they can execute. If the offensive system breaks down (which can happen quite easily on any given possession), the Wolves rely entirely on Barea to make something happen because there just isn't a secondary ball handler on the floor.
This leads to a lot of fans getting frustrated with Barea's play because he's "forcing" things on the court. Typically he is but it looks like it's entirely out of survival instincts within the flow of trying to create a shot and not just some selfish shot-hoarding tactics. The reason for that is he doesn't have someone he can kick to and trust they'll be able to take their man off the dribble.
Ideally, Chase Budinger would be on the court with this unit in order to balance out some of the scoring but since he's gone for quite some time, the team has to rely on Alexey Shved to accomplish this. Shved's play so far this season has been less than stellar. He's taken 15 shots in the five games and only four of them have been at the rim. He's been resigned to taking jumpers instead of working for drives to the basket. It's not a shock that he's made only 20 percent of his attempts so far this season.
If you can break down the defense with dribble penetration that leads to a kickout pass and more dribble penetration, you can't get the defense moving. If you can't get the defense moving then you're left with a stagnant lineup which lives and dies on contested and well-defended shots. That's no way to live, especially with your bench unit.
A defense that doesn't have to move also means that Derrick Williams is either taking spot-up jumpers -- which he's still struggles to make -- or he's dribbling into the teeth of the defense and hoping whatever he tosses toward the rim drops home. You can hope the Dante Cunningham pick-and-pop midrange jumper is falling but that's an easy area of the floor to defend. The Wolves simply can't get shots at the rim that are good looks, which means you can't get the defense to collapse and open up the perimeter.
The bench unit of Barea, Shved, Williams, Cunningham, and Dieng has only played 15 minutes together in three games, but it's been a disastrous 15 minutes. They're being outscored by 17.5 points per 100 possessions. The offense has produced an almost impossibly low offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 56.1. For reference, the Washington Wizards were the worst in the NBA last season at 97.8. That's mostly due to the high turnover rate of 28.1 percent (league average is around 16.3 percent) and making 26.3 percent of their field goal attempts.
Granted, this isn't even close to a big enough sample size of data to properly analyze, but this team may not have a lot of wiggle room if they're going to fix this on the fly while hoping to make the playoffs. Every game matters for the Wolves and letdowns in November could lead to sitting at home watching the first round in April. And therein lies an early predicament that could face Adelman in his rotation decisions.
At what point do you bail on getting Shved involved in the game? His time has dwindled the past three games from 33 minutes combined against the Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder to 17 minutes in the last three contests. It could be time to bring A.J. Price in for a two-point guard lineup to ensure dribble penetration and maybe even find a way to get Robbie Hummel some minutes to spread the floor.
It doesn't mean committing heavy minutes to either Hummel or Price, but the current course of action with the rotation seems to be putting the starters in danger of having to extend their minutes and risk wearing them down early in the season. This is the danger of Shved being passive on offense and settling for jumpers. If you can get him to commit to attacking the interior of the defense to create shifts in the coverage, he belongs on the court.
Otherwise, staggering the rotations and running the risk of not having the starting unit together as much as possible over the course of a basketball game could be the only way the Wolves find a rhythm for a full 48 minutes.