The Timberwolves are still figuring out who they are. They have the no. 5 seed in the West and a 12-8 record, but they have the point differential (minus-0.3) of a .500 team. Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes haven’t made much of a difference. Minnesota has the no. 6 offense in the NBA and the no. 24 defense. The team’s identity comes from its players, not its coach. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are only 22, and despite their incredible physical tools, neither knows how to play elite defense. Thibodeau added Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, and Taj Gibson this offseason to accelerate the learning process, but there’s only so much they can do.
The one thing a coach can control is playing time, and that is where Thibodeau’s influence is felt the most. Minnesota’s starting five of Towns, Gibson, Butler, Wiggins, and Teague leads the league in minutes played this season by a staggering amount. Their 415 minutes together is 142 more than the Pistons’ starting lineup, which is in second place. All five starters are in the top 65 in minutes per game. Thibodeau has actually relaxed a bit from last season, when Towns, Wiggins, and Zach LaVine were in the top six in minutes per game, but there’s only so much an old-school coach is going to change. Thibodeau made his name by grinding out regular-season wins and playing his stars as much as possible.
Few coaches lean as heavily on their starting fives. Most prefer to stagger minutes so that one or two starters are always in the game, allowing their best players to carry lineups with less talented reserves. The five-man second unit is becoming obsolete, and for good reason. Only two lineups made up entirely of reserves have played more than 70 minutes this season: one in Minnesota (Tyus Jones, Jamal Crawford, Shabazz Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica, and Gorgui Dieng) and one in Washington (Tim Frazier, Jodie Meeks, Kelly Oubre, Mike Scott, and Ian Mahinmi). They have net ratings of minus-12.4 and minus-14.3, respectively.
There are two bigger problems with the way Thibodeau built his bench. A team with a defined second unit needs reserves who can create their own shot and be primary options in an offense. Minnesota has two guys who can function in that role in Crawford and Muhammad. Crawford leads the team in shots per minute, with 15.8 field goal attempts per 36 minutes of playing time, and Muhammad, despite playing the fewest minutes of the Wolves’ 10-man rotation, is fifth at 13.1. However, there’s a reason they are coming off the bench. A lineup that features those guys won’t be very efficient, particularly when they are facing lineups that run their offense through legitimate stars.
To make matters worse, neither Crawford nor Muhammad is comfortable in a smaller role. They are all-or-nothing players who don’t provide much value if they aren’t holding the ball. Crawford was never a good defender, and at age 37, he can’t keep anyone in front of him. Muhammad is a poor outside shooter (4-for-19 from 3 this season) who wants to post up and hunt offensive boards, and it’s hard to build lineups around him that function effectively. They are both bleeding points as soon as they step on the floor this season. Teams have outscored the Wolves at a rate of 11.6 points per 100 possessions in Crawford’s 356 minutes, and it’s even worse for Muhammad, who has a net rating of minus-20.9 in 247 minutes, one of the worst of any rotation player in the NBA.
A poor bench could be an alibi for why a coach relies so heavily on his starters, but not when he doubles as the president of basketball operations. Thibodeau has as much control over the basketball decisions of an NBA team as any one person in the league, and he may be the last coach given that much authority for a while. Doc Rivers and Mike Budenholzer were both recently stripped of their front-office gigs, while Stan Van Gundy has been very up-and-down in his time in Detroit. The parallels between Doc and Thibodeau are fascinating. Doc, like Thibodeau, ran his second unit through Crawford and rarely staggered the minutes of his starters, and both pursued reserves in free agency who could create their own shot at the expense of more well-rounded players.
The irony in how Thibodeau has built this roster is that few teams would benefit more from staggering minutes than Minnesota. Towns, Wiggins, and Butler are all excellent individual scorers. Playing on the same team has forced them to sacrifice. The Wolves’ Big Three are each averaging two fewer field goal attempts per game than last season. There are only so many shots to go around on one team, which is all the more reason to split up your stars to feature each of them. With so much talent on hand, there’s no reason for the Wolves to ever run the offense through Muhammad, Crawford, or Aaron Brooks.
Not only are Minnesota’s best players all more comfortable holding the ball, they aren’t as effective playing off it. The Wolves don’t have any volume 3-point shooters in their starting lineup, one reason why they are second to last in 3-point attempts this season. Gibson is the only one of their starters who doesn’t shoot 3s, but none of the other four make their living from beyond the arc. They are all at their best when they can score in the paint, either off the drive or the post-up. The pieces in Minnesota don’t quite fit together. For as much talent as their starters have, their net rating is only plus-5.7. The Wolves are making it work, but they aren’t blowing teams off the floor.
While Thibodeau has started breaking up his starters more in recent weeks, he doesn’t have the bench players to fill out lineups in their place. The only reserves with positive net ratings are Jones (plus-3.5) and Bjelica (plus-2.7), and it’s not a coincidence that they can contribute without scoring. Jones is a pass-first guard, and Bjelica is an elite shooter. Neither one, though, is much of a defender, which is a common problem in Minnesota. Butler, Gibson, and Dieng are the only players on their roster known for their defense. The closest thing they have to a 3-and-D player is Marcus Georges-Hunt, a second-year player who has played only 14 minutes all season.
Thibodeau has been in the league a long time, but he’s still learning how to lead a front office. Building a roster and coaching one require completely different skill sets, and each position has to view the team from a different perspective. A coach can’t afford to look past next week, but a general manager has to build with one eye on the present and one eye on the future. Thibodeau is all in on making the playoffs this season, but he may not have as much of a plan for what happens once they get there. The Wolves don’t shoot 3s, they don’t play defense, and they have weak spots in their rotation that can be exploited in a seven-game series.
The biggest concern for Minnesota is that Thibodeau sacrificed long-term upside to boost short-term results. This mind-set makes sense when you consider that the Wolves haven’t made the playoffs in 14 seasons, the longest drought in the league. There was no patience to wait on the natural growth process for Wiggins and Towns, who have only scratched the surface of their potential. They won’t reach their prime for another five or six years. However, by the time Wiggins and Towns are 28, the same age Butler is now, Butler will be 34. He’s an inconsistent shooter who relies on athleticism, so his game may not age well. The timetables for contention for the new Big Three in Minnesota don’t align.
The similarities between the Wolves and the Lob City Clippers (who square off in Minnesota on Sunday) go beyond just the coaches in charge. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were too young to contend when Chris Paul was at his best, and the three were never better than the sum of their parts. In this analogy, the pieces that Minnesota gave up in the Butler trade (LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the no. 7 pick in 2017, which became Lauri Markkanen) are Eric Gordon and Eric Bledsoe, young players who were traded away to accelerate the team’s development. The Wolves may not have been playoff contenders this season if they’d kept all their young guys, but those players would have been in a better position than Butler to help Wiggins and Towns when they were ready to contend.
While it’s hard to blame Thibodeau for going with the sure thing, he put a lot of pressure on himself in the process. Wiggins's $148 million extension will soon kick in, and Towns will inevitably sign a max extension of his own this summer. Minnesota will soon be looking at a very expensive payroll, and a roster with more holes than they'll have money to fill. Thibodeau has put himself in the same financial bind Doc was in during the Lob City era. The Clippers never had a bench, and they were never able to find enough 3-and-D players to put around their core. They had the star talent to be a contender, but they never found the right mix to put them over the top. The Wolves need to make the playoffs first before they worry about trying to win a championship, but the window to win with Butler in his prime won’t be open forever.