How the Timberwolves Guard Rotation Could Shake Out
Prior to the 19–20 NBA season, Timberwolves fans were left wondering who would start in the backcourt next to Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins. If that wasn’t bad enough, the thought of who would sub in for those guys was even worse. Veterans Shabazz Napier, Treveon Graham, and Josh Okogie were all options along with rookies Jarrett Culver and Jaylen Nowell. While we were optimistic, these choices were not ideal. Teague and Wiggins were average 3pt. shooters at best, and the rest of the options were worse shooters. The outlook was bleak. Fast forward to the 20–21 season, and the Timberwolves guard personnel has completely turned over and provides reason for actual optimism. Whether acquired by trade or through the draft, the Timberwolves front office has managed to improve the depth, talent level, and 3pt. shooting in the backcourt. This is especially important considering the NBA playoff bubble that we all just watched. The ability to create half court offense and create your own shot is of the highest importance to advance in the playoffs, and having a star offensive ball handler who can get hot and win a game on their own has suddenly become a must-have (see Murray, Jamal & Butler, Jimmy). With that, here is a look at the strengths and weaknesses of five guard trios (SF is included as the league has shifted to this position being bigger guards instead of forwards) that Head Coach Ryan Saunders can play.
D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Josh Okogie
We begin with the projected starting lineup for opening day as these players finished last season in the starting lineup together. Although undersized, this trio provides a balance of offense and shooting along with defensive intensity. Okogie has proven to be one of the most ferocious point of attack defenders in the NBA, and Malik Beasley plays hard, albeit relatively inattentively off-ball, so he is useful on that end. Russell’s struggles on defense are well established, and while he is likely too thin to become a defensive asset, he has positional size and length to be an average defender with requisite effort. The main issue is the lack of size with this unit. Russell is the tallest, but Okogie is the best suited of the trio to guard the bigger wings in the NBA. Those bigger wings just happen to be some of the best players in the league including Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George to name a few just in the Western Conference. While Okogie is a fan favorite and can make life difficult for the opposing team’s lead ball handler, he would be unable to deter shots from the league’s best players during crunch-time. The Wolves lack of consistent wing defenders has been a hinderance during the most important part of the game year after year as the opposing team’s best player will create their own shot and shoot over our smaller defenders. Okogie can certainly handle these assignments throughout the game until crunch time, where one can imagine Kawhi Leonard bullying his way to his spot to hit a midrange jump shot to putting the dagger into the Wolves. While the Russell, Beasley, Okogie trio can be useful in starting games due to Russell’s distribution, Beasley’s shooting, and Okogie’s energy, it will likely not be the closing lineup against the best teams.
Ricky Rubio, Anthony Edwards, and Jarrett Culver
While Ryan Saunders likely will not run full line changes with his substitutions, Rubio, Edwards, and Culver are likely the backups at their respective positions. This would be a guard trio with size, length, athleticism, and enough defensive IQ to effect opposing team’s perimeter offense. Offensively, this group is limited in 3pt. shooting capabilities. Rubio has never been a good shooter off the dribble, and Culver is coming off of a horrid shooting season from the three point line and free throw line, although he improved from three at the end of last season. Edwards is the wild-card offensively. He shot 29% from 3 in college on over 7 attempts per game, but shot 77% from the free throw line. Those are two positive indicators with Edwards’ shooting potential, as free throw percentage and three point attempts are strong indicators of future 3pt. shooting growth. If he can credibly hit spot up three pointers and continue the step-back shooting flashes from his lone season at Georgia, he improves the offensive ceiling of this group tremendously. He suddenly would turn into a spot-up threat and a cutting and finishing menace in the half court, along with his super athleticism that will be on display in transition. Defensively, this group could be the answer to defending the best guard tandems in the NBA. Rubio is the smallest of the three, but at 6′ 4″ he still has solid positional size and is the smartest off the ball while being an on-ball pest defensively. Culver showed during his rookie season that he is not overmatched on defense against the best wings, and with improved strength he could be exponentially better as he already shows great hands and instincts on the defensive end. He is reminiscent of Robert Covington at times with his ability to strip the ball from drivers without fouling. Once again, Edwards is the wild-card. Reports have come out suggesting he is closer to 6’6″ with a 6’10” wingspan and 230lbs. If true, Edwards has one of the most impressive combinations of vertical/lateral athleticism mixed with prototypical wing size in the NBA. This could be incredibly valuable to a team that has been long starved for credible wing defense, and would be one of the few elite two-way players on this team. Rubio is a known commodity, Culver is trending as an average offensive player mixed with solid defense, so Edwards needs to blossom on both ends to make this lineup viable. If he nears his potential on both ends, this lineup can wreak havoc even in the loaded Western Conference.
Ricky Rubio, D’Angelo Russell, and Malik Beasley
For all of their strengths and weaknesses, the guard lineups that we have analyzed already should thrive in transition offense and are likely to play very fast. A Rubio, Russell, Beasley trio could be lethal when the game slows down and half court sets are needed to generate offense. For starters, these are likely the three strongest spot-up 3pt shooters of our six options so spreading the floor as the offense is being run through Karl-Anthony Towns should be no problem. One can also envision Ricky Rubio orchestrating half court sets that include Russell and Beasley flying around screens for 3pt. shots and hard cuts to the rim. With these three on the floor with Towns and Juancho Hernangomez in the frontcourt, Rubio would be able to handle the ball probing the defense as all four good to great shooters relocate all around the arc. Against slower playing Western Conference foes such as Denver and Utah that like to control the pace and limit transition, this guard lineup should have the organization and shooting threat to execute when opposing defenses lock down. Defensively the Rubio, Russell, and Beasley lineup is undersized and will struggle to reach even average levels on that end of the floor. They may best paired with a more defensively minded front court as the offense should come easily to these three. The newly acquired Ed Davis along with forward Jake Layman could help these three on defense while providing veteran savvy on the offensive end. Against many of the best teams in the league this lineup could struggle to defend competently, but the offensive execution may be enough to offset the losses on defense.
D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, and Jarrett Culver
The trio of Russell, Edwards, and Culver will likely not see as much court time together as the other lineups listed, but they are included because at this point the team would look at these three as part of a potential future starting lineup. Russell acts as the veteran floor general with the ability to get his own shot along with the playmaking chops to setup the two versatile wings oozing with potential. If (HUGE IF) Edwards continues to build on the playmaking and scoring potential that he showed in his lone year at Georgia, and makes strides on the defensive end both on and off the ball, he would become one of the most versatile guards in the league with his size and athleticism. Maybe an even larger IF; Jarrett Culver’s 3pt. jump shot needs to come a long way. Whether it is mechanics, repeatability, confidence, or a mixture of those, he needs to improve to unlock the rest of his considerable tools. He is already showing instincts and incredible hands on defense against some of the best wings in the league. With credible spot-up shooting mixed with secondary playmaking on offense he can become the ideal low-usage wing to fit in with the two scoring guards. On the defensive side of the ball this lineup will have the size (6’5″, 6’6″, and 6’7″ respectively) and versatility to switch easily among opposing guards and wings. While Russell has proven to be a below average defender, this gives him the opportunity to guard the worst opposing offensive player during crunch time when player movement stops. The hope is Russell will have matured enough to play average defense by the time this lineup is fully realized. If they near their potential, this trio has a chance to beat up on the Western Conference’s best guard lineups.
Ricky Rubio, D’Angelo Russell, and Josh Okogie
We end the analysis with the likely closing lineup as the season begins. While Rubio is not believed to be a starter, he should still play enough to close games and use his basketball IQ and leadership to keep the team steady in crunch time. Russell is likely the team’s second best player so should be included, and Josh Okogie is the team’s most trusted defender. It may seem odd to leave out the 2020 #1 pick in the NBA draft, Anthony Edwards, as well as a young player who just signed a brand new $60 million contract this offseason in Malik Beasley, but that is the reality when a team has this many mouths to feed at guard. The different options available can provide some intriguing late-game options for Saunders and the coaching staff. When they need a single defensive stop at the end of the game, Rubio, Okogie, and Culver are the right choice. If they are down by three points with only a few possessions left, they can go with Russell, Edwards, and Beasley to make sure they can get a good shooter in a position to tie the game. These options simply were not available on this team over the past few years, so it is very exciting to have a deep set of guards with differing skillsets. Ultimately this closing guard trio of Rubio, Russell, and Okogie gets the chance to close games at the start of the season because of the trust the coaching staff will have in them to execute on both ends, along with the chemistry they have built or will quickly build with the team’s best player, Karl-Anthony Towns.
Overall it seems that Russell will receive the most minutes out of these six options as he will play point guard and shooting guard at times. He will most likely settle in around the same 32 minutes per game that he played last season. Rubio played more than 30 minutes per game last season, and was up near 33 minutes per game during his last season in Minnesota. It is expected that he will play closer to his Utah minutes, which would be 27–28 per game. Josh Okogie will be right behind Rubio and will likely keep his 25 minutes per game that he had last season on a team that is starved for his defensive prowess. Anthony Edwards and Malik Beasley are hard to predict as their minutes will be very performance based for both of them. With the median outcomes that we can expect from them, it would seem that they would not get any more than 24–26 minutes per game. After those five players, Jarrett Culver is left as the odd man out, allowing only 10–12 minutes for him, which may only amount to two short rotations per game. With the current lack of options at power forward, he may be in line for a few more minutes per game guarding opposing fours, so that could raise him up closer to 16 minutes per game. It will be very interesting to watch Ryan Saunders begin the season with certain rotations, and start to mix them up as he learns which units play better together. With so much young talent in the backcourt for the Timberwolves, we should be in for a lot of excitement for the 20–21 NBA season.