How the Timberwolves Roster is Built for an Unpredictable Season

During the 20–21 NBA season teams will almost certainly be affected by COVID related absences of their players. The teams that are able to be most successful this season are the teams that are prepared by stocking the end of their roster with versatile depth pieces. The Timberwolves are one of those teams using their roster spots wisely to account for an unpredictable season.

 

The NBA has been watching other professional sports leagues closely as they gear up for the 20–21 season. As we have seen in the MLB and continue to see in the NFL, players are going to miss time due to COVID exposure at some point during the season. While the NBA has enacted exhaustive procedures for teams to follow throughout the season to prevent COVID exposure, nothing is guaranteed. The smartest teams are building their roster to prepare for player absences and ensure there is little drop-off in play. As they have signaled with their recent signing of versatile forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the Timberwolves are one of those smart teams. The front office has spent the offseason ensuring they will have requisite guard depth, wing depth, and big man depth when they inevitably need to replace their rotation players during the season.

Guard Depth: D’Angelo Russell, Ricky Rubio, Malik Beasley, Anthony Edwards, Josh Okogie, Jarrett Culver, Jaylen Nowell, Ashton Hagans

At first glance the point guard position seems to be the most vulnerable area on the roster if COVID causes Ricky Rubio or D’Angelo Russell to miss time because the team lacks a true third point guard on the roster. A closer look shows that the front office is most likely happy with their depth at this position. In Rubio and Russell, they have two starting-caliber point guards who can organize an offense and make plays for their teammates. If one of those two players needs to miss time, the other can step in and take on the role of the full-time point guard and play most of the minutes. At that point, the backup point guard minutes that are leftover could be handled by a couple of different options. Jaylen Nowell is a second year guard who spent most of last season in the G League where he played point guard and shooting guard. He could be a viable option at point guard if the team wants a shooter at the position. Another option would be second year guard/wing Jarrett Culver, who was groomed as a point guard early in the 19–20 season before the team switched him to a full-time wing role. He could provide more defense and playmaking than Nowell. If either Nowell or Culver are on the floor in that point guard role the team can use their best player, Karl-Anthony Towns, as their offensive playmaking hub as they did at times last year. That could help them navigate absences from either Rubio or Russell without a large drop-off in quality of play. The backup point guard to end last season was fan favorite Jordan McLaughlin, but he remains without a contract heading into this season. If the Timberwolves are able to work out a deal to bring him back, the team would have a true third point guard and likely would be very well set at the position in case of COVID related absences.

 

While the point guard position may not be perfectly set with high level depth options, the shooting guard spot is stocked with versatile rotation pieces to step in when others need to miss time. The top two options to begin the season will likely be Malik Beasley and rookie Anthony Edwards. If one or both of them becomes unavailable, D’Angelo Russell could be shifted to this position as he has the requisite size and shooting ability to fill the role nicely. After those three players, wings Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver can also fill the shooting guard position to provide more defensive versatility to this spot in the lineup. All of these players are at least NBA caliber guards and should prevent any major drop-off in quality of play on the court. With the guard position becoming more important around the NBA each year, the Timberwolves front office has made a concerted effort to stock the roster with versatile guards to survive the upcoming COVID season.

Wing Depth: Malik Beasley, Anthony Edwards, Josh Okogie, Jarrett Culver, Juancho Hernangomez, Jake Layman, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Jaden McDaniels

A wing player in the NBA can include several different types of players. Typically a wing will be a guard who plays off the ball, a small forward, or a smaller power forward. This may be the area of the team where the Timberwolves have the most high quality depth. Malik Beasley and Anthony Edwards will be competing for minutes on the wing along with both Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver. Each of those players are competent in their position. New addition Rondae-Hollis Jefferson is a bigger wing that has proven to be able to defend on the perimeter and at the rim, so he is an intriguing option if he makes the team out of training camp. The loss of one or two of those players at the same time due to COVID or other injuries would certainly hurt the depth of the wing rotation, but the offensive and defensive versatility at this position should not allow a severe drop in the quality of the team’s play.

 

The Timberwolves will also typically use a smaller power forward for large stretches of games, so a wing player will likely fill this role. Juancho Hernangomez just barely qualifies as a wing player because he has played small forward in past years. He may be the starting power forward with multiple options backing him up such as Jake Layman, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, or even Josh Okogie. The coaching staff wants an athletic and versatile player at the power forward for most of the game, so they likely are happy with their options behind Hernangomez. Layman is a capable starter if Juancho needs to miss time and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has proven to be a high quality defender throughout his career at multiple positions, so he could slot in as a starter or bench player in a power forward role. The team has also publicly stated that they believe Josh Okogie is a viable power forward citing his great strength, athleticism, and wingspan to matchup with bigger players. If this proves true, the team would have even more depth at both forward positions going into the season. Rookie Jaden McDaniels will be used in the future as a big wing, but should begin the season in the G League and only used in emergencies. The Timberwolves should feel very safe with the quality of their wing rotation heading into an unpredictable season.

Big Depth: Karl-Anthony Towns, Ed Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Jarred Vanderbilt, Naz Reid, Tyler Cook

It is no secret that the Timberwolves struggled mightily last season when missing their best player, Karl-Anthony Towns. This is not unique to Minnesota, as most teams in the league cannot withstand the absence of their team’s best player. If Towns needs to miss time because of a COVID exposure or injury, it will be very difficult to replace him without a drop-off in team performance. To prepare for this possibility, the Timberwolves have taken a unique approach to filling his role. They will not try to use a center that replicates Towns’ game, as he is one of the best offensive big men in NBA history. Their intent seems to lean all-in to defense at the center position without him. Ed Davis will backup Towns to begin the season, and will see an increased role with any absences the team’s best player. Davis’ offensive game is completely dissimilar to Towns as he is best suited to set hard screens, role to the rim, and grab offensive rebounds. His true value lies in his defense where he could help to transform a starting unit that leans heavily into offense. The team’s performance would take a serious hit when their top player is absent, but when the entire team is built around one star a drop-off is inevitable when that player is missing. The difference between last season and this upcoming season is that the Wolves seem much better positioned to emphasize their other skill players when Towns has to miss time, and Ed Davis was acquired to help with that strategy.

 

Along with Davis, the team’s recent acquisition of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson hints that they could lean heavily on defense when they are missing their other bigs. He is a chameleon on defense that can provide value at several positions, but would be most valuable when used as a defensive specialist big man. Jarred Vanderbilt and Naz Reid may be best suited for the G League to start the year, but both players have received NBA minutes in the past and are solid 4th and 5th “break in case of COVID emergency” options. Reid is especially intriguing as he is the closest player on the roster to approximating Towns’ offensive style, but that does not make up for his lack of defensive ability enough to allow him more than emergency minutes initially. Tyler Cook, another likely G League big man, should only see the court with the NBA team in the most dire of circumstances. The Timberwolves should feel secure about the depth in their big man rotation to survive COVID related absences unless Karl-Anthony Towns is the player who is missing time. The team’s offensive strategy would need to completely change and an effort to bolster the defense would take place. The hope is that Towns can avoid long stretches of missed time to give the Wolves the best opportunity to sustain high quality play throughout the season.

Gersson Rosas and the front office have clearly taken advantage of this offseason to bolster the fringes of their roster with NBA caliber depth and versatile players to slide up and down the positional spectrum. The goal is clearly to minimize negative variables for the upcoming season. Along with many other teams, they know that playing a shortened schedule and missing players due to a pandemic can create unpredictable results. It will be as important as ever to keep NBA-quality players on the court at all times to potentially steal wins when COVID inevitably tears through the league. The Wolves roster seems to be built as deep as any in the NBA across all positional groups, and the front office has done well to add that quality depth. They are hoping they will not need to use it.

 

-Jerry W.