The Squad is Signed and the Wolves’ Rotation Takes Shape
Jarred Vanderbilt and Jordan McLaughlin each have re-signed with the Wolves on team-friendly 3 year contracts which locks in a couple more roster spots and potentially fills out the team’s rotation when the season kicks off. 2020 draftee Leandro Bolmaro also officially signed and was introduced this week. While most fans assumed Vanderbilt would be back, it was nice to officially lock in a 22 year old up-and-comer/fan favorite as training camp nears. Jordan McLaughlin re-signing helps to fill out the guard depth, and Leandro Bolmaro officially inking his deal is icing on the cake. With only a few weeks until preseason games tip off, we can begin to analyze the Wolves rotation and depth to start the year.
***There is of course a “Ben Simmons” sized caveat to this entire article… For now, we’ll proceed with the players we have under contract!***
September 10th, 2021 was one of the most important days in Minnesota Timberwolves franchise history. It will forever be remembered as the day that Jarred Vanderbilt and Jordan McLaughlin resigned with the team and set the Wolves on a championship course.
Ok that is probably not true… But Wolves fans certainly felt better about rounding out the roster by locking up a couple of trusted role players as the beginning of the season nears. Jarred Vanderbilt, the long and versatile power forward, signed a 3 year contract worth about $14 million over the life of the deal. For a 22 year old with plenty of untapped upside this is a great deal for the Timberwolves as they attempt to plug a huge roster hole with a familiar player. For Vando, he has been in the league for 3 seasons but injuries and rehab have kept him buried in rotations until the middle of last season, so getting $14 million over a few years is nice for him! He came on strong as a much needed burst of energy and defensive versatility for a team with a dearth of those qualities. Without any improvement from Vanderbilt over the duration of this deal, it is still a quality signing for Minnesota and he can fill a role as a defensive and rebounding specialist. Chances are the young and athletic big man IS going to improve though, and any jump in offensive capabilities to mix with his defensive acumen will make this deal look like an absolute bargain for a squad in need of team-friendly deals.
Jordan McLaughlin (JMac) resigning with the Timberwolves came as a bit of a surprise to me and likely other Wolves fans. It seemed like he may have been a casualty of the Beverley trade which netted a backup PG and added a bit of money to the payroll. Although the Wolves wanted him back, it was difficult to see how that would happen when they would assuredly pay Vanderbilt first. Well, with JV’s salary being lower than I expected, suddenly there was JUST enough room under the luxury tax for JMac’s 3 year $6.5 million deal.
JMac returning is not anything revelatory on the court. He may be a bit overstretched as a primary backup PG that needs to start in case of injuries, but he is perfectly suited and overqualified for the 3rd string PG role that the Wolves currently have him in. With a fully healthy roster, he may not see many minutes other than specific situations when the Wolves need a spark, but as we know injuries WILL occur and JMac will be relied on to play important minutes at some point this season. Generally I think Wolves fans are happy with that role for him, and at just over $2 million per year and a team option on the 3rd year it comes at a great price.
And now we come to the final piece of an outstanding 2020 draft class for the Wolves. Selected with pick 23, Leandro Bolmaro played last season in the Euroleague and Liga ACB with Barcelona. After the details of his buyout were worked out with the European club, Bolmaro officially signed his rookie scale contract and was introduced this week. His contract starts around $2.3 million this season and will total about $12 million over 4 years. Similarly to Jaden McDaniels who was selected 28th in the same draft, if he can provide positive minutes over the next few years of this contract it will be a boon for the cap-crunched Wolves.
The Bolmaro signing officially leaves the Wolves with 14 roster spots filled and somewhere between $800-$900K below the luxury tax line. As they did last year, I expect that 15th roster spot to stay open heading into the season to maintain flexibility.
Who Should Start Games?
A fairly overrated question, but one that matters nonetheless. Starting a game does not guarantee heavy minutes for a player. The LA Clippers have proved this with Ivica Zubac starting most of their games over the past 3 seasons yet never logging more than 22 minutes per game. Coaches prefer a starting group that has balance between offense and defense, fits different skills well together, and allows the best players to get in rhythm from the jump. If coach Chris Finch and the Wolves take that route we should see D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards as the guards, Karl-Anthony Towns at center, and Jaden McDaniels and Jarred Vanderbilt manning the forward positions.
Great minds can disagree about Vanderbilt as I would not rank him even in the top 6 or 7 best overall players on the team, but he helps to accomplish the goals of balancing offense and defense, meshing with the rest of the group, and emphasizing the team’s best players. For those reasons he is a perfect candidate to be a lower-minute starter on this team. In a starting lineup featuring 3 incredibly offensively skilled (but defensively challenged) players, Jarred Vanderbilt can combine with Jaden McDaniels as versatile clean-up men on defense to make life difficult on offenses to start games. Too often last year the Wolves ended up in shootouts to start 1st quarters allowing opposing teams to get in a rhythm offensively from the jump. Vanderbilt brings the size, energy, and defense to set the tone early and keep the Wolves from falling into early holes.
Again, Vanderbilt likely does not need to play 30 minutes per game like other starters, and he should not be thrust into a role that large. He averaged around 17 minutes per game last year, and only played 30+ 2 times. Settling somewhere around 20–22 MPG could be the goal with the ability to stretch him further when matchups call for it.
This starting lineup featuring Russell, Ant, Jaden, Vanderbilt, and Towns is a far-cry from last year’s preferred group to start the season which featured Russell, Beasley, Okogie, Layman, and Towns. That group was small, light on rebounding, and featured only the 6’4″ Okogie as the lone positive defender. This year’s group boasts 2 versatile defending forwards standing around 6’9″ tall who can defend all over the court, AND the Jaden/Jared combination fits much better offensively than the Okogie/Layman pairing. Most importantly, the Wolves will not be going into games with a significant size mismatch as they did for much of last season as this starting group trots out 3 players 6’9″ or taller.
Other options could include either Malik Beasley or Patrick Beverley starting in place of Vanderbilt. That would push McDaniels to the power forward position and Ant to the small forward position. I just think if we learned anything from last season it would be that the Wolves just cannot afford to spend long stretches of games as a significantly smaller team, especially against opposing team’s starting units. Sure, those units are offensively powerful, but what the team would give back on defense and rebounding could be detrimental. I have thought a bit about a fully healthy Taurean Prince being a solid starting option if the team is set on Jaden McDaniels as a power forward (which I do not think they are). Prince would be a solid low-usage floor spacer on offense and is big and long enough to survive on defense. That method just does not seem to accomplish the goals of truly having an offensive/defensive balance. The starting group of Russell/Ant/McDaniels/Vanderbilt/Towns is the most logical way to begin the year in my opinion.
Who Should Close Games?
An important question and generally a factor that can heavily influence wins and losses. A coach rarely has a predetermined lineup for closing games as the game flow and matchups usually dictate who finishes the game, but typically coaches like to lean on their star players with a mix of savvy veterans to finish things out. In many games, a common closing lineup for a healthy Wolves team could be Russell/Beverley/Ant/McDaniels/Towns. Essentially this is the starting lineup with Patrick Beverley substituted for Jarred Vanderbilt. Depending on matchups and game flow, one could easily see Beasley substituted for Beverley or even McDaniels in ultra small lineups to close games. While Malik Beasley could be very valuable offensively in crunch time (ex: game sealing 3 against the Knicks), several egregious defensive lapses last season makes it difficult to have confidence in him being a closing option.
In my opinion one of the main motivations for trading for Patrick Beverley was to be able to include him in closing lineups. This is a player with 59 career playoff games under his belt including 17 of them in the most recent postseason. Beverley has singlehandedly played in wayyyyy more playoff games than the entire rest of the roster combined. Adding his credible leadership, experience, and complementary skills to the rest of the talented core players to finish games should provide immediate value.
The nice thing about this year’s roster is the ability to shape the closing lineups based on matchups. The additions of Beverley and Taurean Prince help with versatility in that way. Teams typically go small at the end of games, so moving McDaniels to the power forward position should not be an issue, but there are a few teams in the league that stick to their identities throughout crunch time. One example would be the New Orleans Pelicans, a team that just acquired Jonas Valanciunas to combine with Zion Williamson. Going small against Jonas, Zion, and Brandon Ingram may not be a recipe for success late in games with their ability to attack the rim and control the glass. It could be an endless parade to the free throw line for those brutes. Even just adding a bit of length in place of Beverley by mixing in Prince, Vanderbilt, or even Naz Reid could be a logical way to combat the strength of a team like New Orleans.
Patrick Beverley coming off the bench to begin most games should allow him to close plenty of games without stretching his minutes too far, but the options available to coach Finch to play with closing lineups based on matchups will be very valuable. The core 4 of Russell/Ant/McDaniels/Towns will likely be the main closers for a fully healthy Wolves team, and the options available to fill that 5th spot should be very fungible.
Who Fills Out the Rotation?
In covering the potential starting and closing lineups, we have barely even mentioned Naz Reid. Not because he is not worth mentioning, but more because his role will not likely allow him to enter starter or closer conversations. Such is life when backing up the team’s best player. Naz figures to still play plenty of minutes this season, but I see him as a prominent “minutes eater” in the Wolves rotation. Similar to an “innings eater” in baseball, Naz is going to be the guy that can competently soak up minutes at center and power forward to keep the Wolves in the game when Karl-Anthony Towns sits or play alongside the star big man when matchups allow. Naz’s versatility and improvement in several key areas have turned him into the type of reserve big man that good teams covet, and he should allow the Wolves to play bigger and have an advantage against most big man rotations they face.
Along with my projected starters, I see the rest of the rotation including Beverley/Beasley/Okogie/Prince/Reid. It is doubtful that 5 man unit sees much time together overall, but it gives coach Finch reserve players with very specific and necessary skills to go along with their star players. This team’s depth stands out a bit from last season in terms of their personnel even past the 10 man rotation. Jordan McLaughlin and Jaylen Nowell are excellent to have as 11th & 12th men. If and when this team sustains injuries, especially to guards, they have real NBA caliber depth pieces to step in and contribute. While I have a hard time counting on Jake Layman to produce, he is likely a bit overqualified to ride the bench for the majority of the games.
Looking even deeper into the reserves, Leandro Bolmaro is a rookie who recently signed his contract and if he is better than expected out of the gate he could really add some wing playmaking juice to the bench units. Nathan Knight is another intriguing player buried on the bench. Knight is a 2nd year player who signed a 2-Way deal with the Wolves. He saw real minutes for the playoff bound Atlanta Hawks last season and can provide spot minutes of energy, athleticism, and skill as a big man.
There were a lot of “if’s” and “hopefully’s” for the bench rotation players heading into last season. We hoped for guys like like Jarrett Culver, Juancho Hernangomez, and Jake Layman to sustain skills they had never shown in the league. We needed Josh Okogie to be a 6’4″ starting power forward, and prayed that our 19 year old #1 pick would be ready to provide value without any Summer League and an abbreviated training camp. That is not the case this season. All 10 of the top rotation players heading into this year have at least 1 skill we can bank on heading into this year. If we are praying for anything right now, it is that Leandro Bolmaro is ready to contribute immediately so we can further boast about Gersson Rosas’ outstanding 2020 draft.
It is nice to look through the roster and find 10 guys that we want to see play, but what makes it even more impressive for the Wolves is how well some of these guys project to fit with the core players. Whether it is defense, 3pt. shooting, ball handling, or rebounding, we can make a case that players up and down the roster complement the best skills of the team’s top players. And that is the trick when it comes to team building. Getting good players is difficult, but surrounding those good players with others that emphasize their strengths and cover up their weaknesses can be even tougher. For the 1st time in several years I think the team’s stars have now been insulated with players that fit very well with them. Now it is up to the best players on the team to lead the Wolves to real winning.