The Ideal Power Forward to Close Games for the Timberwolves
The hottest debate topic for Timberwolves fans leading into the 20–21 season training camp seems to be the power forward position. The team did relatively little to address a position that was a perceived hole in the lineup, but the front office seems content going into the season with their current options on the roster. Below we will analyze the different power forward archetypes from around the NBA discussing how this type of player would fit with the Wolves closing lineup, and whether the roster currently has any options that fit the archetype. A real player will be listed as a human template for each of these options to better paint the picture of the effect each archetype can have. For reference, the closing lineup we are predicting to start the season will be Ricky Rubio, D’Angelo Russell, Josh Okogie, and Karl-Anthony Towns surrounding the power forward position.
PF Archetype 1. Bouncy Athletic Defender: Derrick Jones Jr.
Beginning with the first and in my opinion most likely type of power forward to close games, the athletic defender. Derrick Jones Jr. is chosen as the template for this archetype because he is a Swiss Army Knife defender who flies around the court playing help defense and can also be the rim running finisher on the offensive end. Jones Jr. went from a dunking phenom and athletic marvel to a real asset on the defensive end and in transition offense during a couple of seasons in Miami’s developmental system. Although he fell out of the rotation later in Miami’s surprising run to the NBA Finals, he was a valuable piece to their ascent through the Eastern Conference. So how would a player like Jones Jr. fit in the closing lineup with the current Minnesota Timberwolves? One of the main goals of crunch time strategy is to force opponents into difficult shots by playing sound on and off-ball defense, and rebounding all misses to eliminate second chance points. This player archetype provides an excellent complement to Karl-Anthony Towns as someone who can plug any leaks in the defense, switch out on to the perimeter competently, and be a vacuum on the defensive glass. The projected closing lineup of Rubio, Russell, Okogie, and Towns already has the necessary skill and spacing ability to execute in the half court on offense during crunch time, so a bouncy rim runner who sets hard screens and draws the defense to the basket could be the perfect complement to the existing offensive skillsets. What options currently exist for this type of player for the Timberwolves? On the roster they have two power forwards who fit this description, and there is also an intriguing option that remains unsigned. The players on the roster that could fill this role are Jarred Vanderbilt and Ed Davis. Vanderbilt is certainly a bouncy athlete who is a coordinated finisher at the rim, can run the floor in transition, and is defensively capable of holding up against other team’s big men. He has also been a prodigious rebounder in the G League and his lone season at Kentucky. The main question will be the help defense and mastery of the defensive strategy. If he has spent the offseason learning and executing this system to the point where the coaching staff feels he can cover up team defense leaks in the perimeter and post, then he is the ideal option to fill this role. Ed Davis is the other option on the team, having been acquired recently to likely backup Karl-Anthony Towns at center but also could play some spot minutes at power forward. While he is less of the bouncy athlete compared to Vanderbilt, he has always been regarded as a good help defender who rebounds his position well. Offensively, he can set solid screens for shooters and ball handlers and is an effective rim runner. A Davis-Towns pairing may not quite have the foot speed to defend teams that close with smaller lineups, but Davis may be an early season option in closing lineups as they continue to get Vanderbilt up to speed. The final option would be current UFA Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (EDITORS NOTE: This story was written prior to the Wolves signing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to an unguaranteed contract). RHJ spent last season in Toronto as a do-it-all defensive specialist that can credibly guard the 1–5 positions on the court. Timberwolves fans saw this up close last season when he primarily guarded Towns, one of the best offensive centers in the game, for most of the game and made life difficult on the big man. Hollis-Jefferson would likely be the best defensive option for this team, but his lack of offensive polish in all facets would make it hard to justify playing him in closing lineups. If the coaching staff trusts Jarred Vanderbilt on defense, he could be the best option if they choose this power forward archetype to close games this season.
PF Archetype 2. Floor Spacing Shooter: Bojan Bogdanovic
The type of power forward that every team seems to be chasing is the floor spacer that can open up the lane for their ball handling guards and rim running centers. The Utah Jazz signed Bojan Bogdanovic as the perfect complement to their behemoth rim protector, Rudy Gobert. The purpose of the 3pt. shooting power forward is to allow the team to play a lane clogging big man during crunch time, so their rim protection does not suffer on the defensive end and they can keep the floor spaced with effective shooters on offense. Bogdanovic and other shooters like him serve their purpose well to allow their teams to play their best five players during crunch time. In the Timberwolves case, there are two different rationales for this archetype being either a great fit or a redundant skillset. Those who prefer this archetype would prefer to pair Towns, an elite 3pt. shooter and offensively skilled center with someone who also spaces the floor to completely open up the lane for ball handlers like Russell and Rubio to drive the seams and kick out to open 3pt. shooters. Playing the five out offensive system in crunch time would likely yield a host of efficient field goal attempts, but they may give it all back on defense. This leads to the counter-argument that the defense and defensive rebounding with this floor spacing lineup would be bad enough to offset any offensive gains. Many of the shooters that could credibly play at power forward are also sieves on defense, making this type of player a bit of an awkward fit on defense when the opposing offenses are focusing on executing and creating easy shots. If the coaching staff does prefer to space the floor with a five out system during crunch time, there is one obvious answer on the roster currently, and another sitting in unrestricted free agency. On the roster, they have Juancho Hernangomez who shot 42% on five 3pt. attempts per game in his fourteen games in a Timberwolves jersey. Unfortunately he only played two games next to the team’s best player, Towns, so we have a very small sample size to show how the two big shooters would work together. He can obviously shoot the three-point shot well, and will be an asset on offense, but pairing Juancho with Towns on defense will be detrimental to the team’s rim protection. He is also a below average rebounder and finisher at the rim, likely attributed to a lack of strength compared to other power forwards. While the offensive rating may skyrocket during crunch time with a Hernangomez-Towns front court pairing, they may give it all back and more on the defensive end. Outside of Juancho, there is one UFA on the market currently who could fill the floor spacing power forward position in the closing lineup, and that is Ersan Ilyasova. Recently cut by the Milwaukee Bucks, he provides experience and veteran savvy from years on playoff teams in the NBA and in Europe. Ilyasova is a career 36.5% 3pt. shooter and is a high IQ player that can do multiple things on the offensive end. Similar to Hernangomez, he could be a liability on defense. He is 33 years old and was already slow laterally earlier in his career. He knows where to be on defense and is very adept at drawing charges near the rim, but when switched on to the perimeter in crunch time he will get roasted by opposing guards. The Timberwolves are likely better off sticking with the in-house option, Hernangomez, if they choose to close games with a floor spacer at the power forward position.
PF Archetype 3. Wing Sized Forward: Robert Covington
This is not the first time the Timberwolves starting power forward has been a point of contention among fans. Just last season it was announced that Robert Covington, noted perimeter defender and shooter, would start next to Towns in the front court. The rationale was that Covington’s incredible hands and defensive instincts would plug any holes in the defense next to Towns, and he could execute any switches out on the perimeter. There was mixed results early in the season with a Covington-Towns front court. On offense they were the team’s two best 3pt. shooters and they spaced the floor very well. On the defensive side, Covington proved too small at 6’7″ and 209lbs to wrestle with some of the big men in the NBA, and against teams that played bigger such as the Philadelphia and Los Angeles Lakers the Timberwolves had a significant disadvantage on the offensive and defensive glass. Several teams around the league are starting a wing-sized player at power forward, including Covington’s new team, the Portland Trailblazers. To cover up for Covington’s size deficiencies, they have massive center Jusuf Nurkic to protect the rim and rebound effectively. Covington is then free to roam with his help defense instincts and truly maximize his skillset. A closing lineup with these Timberwolves could certainly benefit from the extra spacing and athleticism that a wing-sized power forward could provide, but they may not have the team defense surrounding that position to allow this type of forward to help them win games when it matters most. If the coaching staff decides a wing-sized power forward is the ideal archetype to maximize the closing lineup, they have a couple of options in-house to fill that position. Jake Layman is likely the most obvious choice to fit this role. He is nearly exactly Covington’s size at 6’8″ and 209lbs while also being a better athlete. Layman is fairly strong for his relatively thin frame, is an excellent cutter, and an OK 3pt. shooter. He has the skillset needed to fill this position, but his size compared to the power forwards he may face could keep him from fulfilling the responsibilities of his position on defense and in defensive rebounding. Layman is likely worth trying in the closing lineup at power forward because of his low usage and high efficiency on offense, and length and athleticism on defense, but if he ends up looking like a worse version of Robert Covington in closing lineups, the Wolves will want to look elsewhere for this position. The other option on the team currently is G/F Jarrett Culver. Coming into the NBA, many fans thought Culver would be more of a forward than a guard, but so far he has not been able to establish a consistent role at either spot. He is 6’7″ with good length, but weighing under 200lbs kept him from being able to defend the stronger players in the NBA last season. If he has spent the COVID offseason improving his strength and shooting mechanics, he could be a long term fit as a power forward in the Timberwolves closing lineup due to his all-around skillset and defensive instincts, but at this juncture he will need to prove he can hold up against larger players before earning that role. After last season’s experiment with Covington at the four position, it is doubtful that the coaching staff would plan to have Layman or Culver closing games at the power forward position until they prove otherwise.
PF Archetype 4. Playmaking Point Forward: Domantas Sabonis
This is the most coveted type of big man in the NBA. One that can be used as an offensive hub in the half court by shooting and playmaking for others. The clearest example of this power forward archetype is Domantas Sabonis from the Indiana Pacers. They run many of their half court sets through Sabonis in crunch time by getting him the ball at the elbow and giving him options to pass, shoot, or drive. His versatility and basketball IQ make him a dangerous and unpredictable weapon at the end of games when offensive execution is most important. It takes a special kind of player to mix this combination of skills and athleticism with good positional size and the ability to defend and rebound their position. The playmaking point forward would be a sound fit with the Timberwolves closing lineup to add another element of unpredictability and have a player that is able to distribute to the scorers in Towns and Russell. With the added playmaking this player would bring, it would also likely allow for Rubio to be replaced with a better shooter like Malik Beasley, or a bigger defender in Jarrett Culver or rookie Anthony Edwards. Unfortunately with this skillset being so coveted as well as rare, there is no player on the roster or readily available in free agency for the 20–21 Timberwolves. One player that fits this archetype very well is a player that Timberwolves fans have lusted after throughout the offseason, Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. To learn more about how he would fit with the Timberwolves, read this article breaking down the fit by Jack Borman of Canis Hoopus. Simmons is a superstar so he is likely unable to be acquired for the foreseeable future, but would fit with the Timberwolves closing lineup (and of course the rest of the game) very well. Alas, this player archetype is probably not available to the Wolves any time soon.
So who will close games?
With the ideal closing lineup of Rubio, Russell, Okogie, and Towns surrounding the power forward position, Jarred Vanderbilt may be the best option to slot in next to them. Improved positional defending paired with energy and athleticism would make him a valuable final piece to the closing lineup that has plenty of scoring and playmaking already. First and foremost a closing lineup needs to execute offensively, and Vanderbilt can be the screen setting and rim running big to knock the defense off balance. On defense in crunch time the goal is to make life difficult on the opposing offenses, and maybe most importantly, finish off missed shots by securing the defensive rebound. This is where Vanderbilt may prove most valuable, as his rebounding numbers in college and the G League are off the charts. Between Vanderbilt and Towns they should be able to dominate the defensive glass. Jarred is also athletic enough to credibly guard smaller players on the perimeter, so he should not be a liability if he ends up switched out to the perimeter. Vanderbilt spent most of his COVID offseason in Minneapolis working with the coaching staff and gaining muscle, so the hope is that he was able to master the defensive system while also gaining enough muscle to matchup with some of the best bigs in the league.