Ryan Saunders has been given a box of puzzle pieces. Some edges mesh. Some edges match in color. There are even some pieces that both mesh and match. But the puzzle set is incomplete. There is no possible way Saunders could possibly perfectly frame this Minnesota Timberwolves roster. Pieces are missing.
Such is life for the head coach of a team that just won the NBA lottery. The price of landing the No. 1 pick is carrying a fractured roster. Selecting Anthony Edwards first overall theoretically began the mending process. Coupling Edwards with offensive dynamos Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, both of whom are locked-up long-term, hints at the suggestion that positive connections are set to come for the Wolves. But cultivating those greener pastures will require a masterstroke of puzzle work.
Complicating the puzzle on Draft Night while also invigorating the fanbase (and improving the team) was the acquisition of Ricky Rubio. The now 30-year-old Rubio has a history with Saunders, Towns and the fanbase. Optimistically, he also projects to be the team’s third-best player this season. But the acquisition of Rubio complicates the puzzle because he plays the same position as the Timberwolves’ second-best player, Russell.
What to do with a roster whose second- and third-best players is a puzzling proposition for Saunders. In ways, it’s a no-win situation. There’s no perfect answer to balancing a roster that is lopsided. The 2020-21 Timberwolves both skew too slight of build and too offensively-minded. But, even in a no-win puzzle, there are outcomes that are more optimal. It’s critical that Saunders effectively finagles this group towards optimization because the long-term impact could be profound.
Saunders needs to put in place an infrastructure that allows Edwards to grow while also convincing Towns that Minnesota is a place to grow old. That infrastructure will be defined this season by Saunders’ rotations.
It’s not about Rubio leading the second unit or about KAT and DLo holding up the starters; it’s about happy mediums found through optimized two-man pairings comingled into a jagged set of positional distinctions. That is Ryan Saunders’ great challenge this season: putting the pieces together.
There are five different pairings of players that will have a meaningful impact on how that challenge is ultimately graded, and they all directly or indirectly connect to the Wolves’ three best players — Towns, Russell and Rubio.
- D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns: The Offensive Engine
- D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley: The One-Dimensional Backcourt
- Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver: The Wing Stoppers
- Ricky Rubio and Malik Beasley: The Stagger
- Ricky Rubio and Anthony Edwards: The Donovan Mitchell/Devin Booker Corollary
D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns: The Offensive Engine
As is the case with all teams, the Timberwolves’ identity will be largely defined by their two most impactful players. In the shadow of Towns and Russell, this team will strive to identify with the ethos of the 2019-20 Dallas Mavericks, who were defined by otherworldly offensive production and limited defensive capabilities. Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porziņģis led the Mavs to be the top offense in the NBA last season while finishing 17th in defense. That is the ceiling for this Towns and Russell-led group this season.
Through a dynamic pick-and-roll game initiated by Dončić’s creation ability and emboldened by Porziņģis’ ability to spread the floor, the Mavs were alarmingly efficient on the offensive end last season. They also struggled to be mediocre defensively given Dončić’s shortcomings on that end and Porziņģis’ inability to consistently match opponent’s physically.
It would be a dream come true for this Timberwolves team to achieve defensive mediocrity. It would also be surreal for the Wolves to be the best offensive team in a league that is arguably more offensively potent than any year in league history.
So… can they do it? Let’s start with the offense.
The roster outside of Towns and Russell doesn’t provide a ton of faith in the notion that this team can be truly elite offensively. But Towns by himself surrounded by third-stringers is an above-average offensive team. And speaking of third-stringers, the Wolves were fourth in the league in offensive efficiency during The Jimmy Butler Season. Those 2017-18 Timberwolves scored 113.3 points per 100 possessions.
Surface-level logic would lead to the belief that this offensive output was in large part driven by Butler. But remove Butler from the equation and the Wolves were still elite offensively that season. In the 1367 possessions Towns shared the floor with Jeff Teague that season while Butler was on the bench, the offensive output held the elite status quo — scoring 113.2 points per 100 possessions, according to CleaningTheGlass.
Is it too much to ask for Towns and Russell to be as good together offensively as Towns and Teague were? It better not be — otherwise this Luka-Kristaps parallel is a pipe dream.
Honestly, given the imbalance of this current Wolves roster, achieving defensive mediocrity might be the real long shot. But the answers on that end will be found (or lost into the ether) outside of the Towns and Russell pairing.
D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley: The One-Dimensional Backcourt
Lost in the abiding narrative of D’Angelo Russell being one of the league’s worst defenders is the fact that he acquits himself quite well offensively. Russell is a special offensive player — to the tune of ranking 14th of 520 players in the NBA last season by ESPN’s offensive real plus-minus statistic and by a rank of 8th in the same metric during his All-Star season the year before in Brooklyn. It’s unfair to note Russell’s defensive shortcomings without acknowledging his offensive impact.
Similarly, Malik Beasley stacks up well on that end as well. Offensive real plus-minus saw Beasley to be 56th best offensive in the league last season and 30th the year before when he was in Denver. Nothing to scoff at, and the justification for the four-year, $60 million contract Beasley signed this offseason.
The problem is that the narrative of Russell being a defensive sieve is also true. Worse yet, it’s also true for Beasley. Out of the 520 players ranked by ESPN defensive real plus-minus statistic, Russell ranked 483rd last season and Beasley ranked 415th. The year before, Russell ranked 499th and Beasley ranked 483rd.
Those metrics, particularly on the defensive end, are imperfect. But two years is a trend — for the better and the worse. And the numbers, in this case, meet the eye test.
Both players are explosive offensive threats, who can provide efficient offensive production at a high volume. Beasley has made 39% of his 3s in his career, including 43% accuracy from deep after the trade deadline last season on over eight 3-point attempts per game. Russell can self-create offensive for himself and for others. His volume shooting is matched by his ability to rack up assists as a pick and roll distributor. Russell averaged seven assists per game in his All-Star season in Brooklyn and nearly matched that number after joining the Wolves last season.
Russell and Beasley are also both clear defensive liabilities on film. Russell’s lacking physicality on the defensive end is only matched by his indifferent attitude. He absolutely needs to be hidden off-ball as much as reasonably possible. Beasley gives more effort on that end, but not much more success. He is also overmatched physically in the majority of his defensive assignments. Worse, Beasley wherewithal in terms of ability to read opposing offenses is at a level that suggests there just isn’t much of a defensive ceiling there. Trying hard only goes so far.
The reality of Russell and Beasley being Towns’ partners in the starting unit’s backcourt don’t inspire much hope that defensive mediocrity is attainable — unless other meaningful measures are taken. This brings us to Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver, the Wolves’ two best defenders.
Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver: The Wing Stoppers
Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver are every bit as one-dimensional as Russell and Beasley. However, in their case, that dimension is defense.
Okogie was hands down the Wolves’ best point-of-attack defender last season. He’s the guy you feel as good as you can about defending a James Harden or Luka Dončić. The defensive side of the floor was Culver’s better side last season, but that was mostly by default. His performance in both training camp and in the Wolves’ three preseason games has been legitimately inspiring. Culver put on 15 pounds of muscle this offseason, and it showed in preseason matchups against Ja Morant and Dončić.
If Okogie and Culver can both be legitimate options as stoppers on the wing this season, that will do wonders for the Wolves’ defense simply by minimizing the number of possessions Russell and Beasley need to be checking the opponent’s best perimeter creator. The catch is that Okogie and Culver were almost unplayable together last season.
Of the 209 players who took over 100 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season, Okogie ranked 209th, converting only 26.6% of those looks, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data. Culver ranked 201st, making 29.3% of his catch-and-shoot 3s. Playing those two together absolutely cratered the Timberwolves’ offensive spacing. The Wolves got destroyed when Culver and Okogie shared the floor last season, where they were outscored by opponents by 6.1 points per 100 possessions. When they were out there without Towns, it wasn’t even fair — getting outscored by 13.0 points per 100 possessions.
So why should Saunders be considering playing those two together this season?
Well, here’s the deal: Towns needs them out there defensively. There’s also reason to believe the Wolves’ offense could survive with both Okogie and Culver on the floor provided it was exclusively in the minutes Towns was also on the floor. When the Okogie-Culver duo shared the floor with Towns last season, the Wolves actually outscored opponents by 1.3 points per 100 possessions. That production was fueled by a devastating offense. Yes, offense. Towns is that good offensively. He can literally be surrounded by two of the worst shooters in the entire NBA and still lead his team to elite offensive standards. The Wolves scored 119.5 points per 100 possessions when Towns shared the floor with both Okogie and Culver last season. That’s a better offensive rating than the Dallas Mavericks No. 1 ranked offense.
Ricky Rubio and Malik Beasley: The Stagger
While I brought up the Ricky Rubio acquisition being a complicating piece to the greater puzzle, really, in the context of the imbalance of the roster at large, Rubio serves as a medium for splitting up some of the other potentially more problematic pairings. As I did, people will point to the positional overlap of Rubio and Russell, but the real stagger that needs more consideration is between Russell and Malik Beasley.
As we covered in the Russell-Beasley section, those two present a problem in having the same strengths and weaknesses, even if they don’t play the same position. Ostensibly, yes, Rubio is a point guard, but his game really isn’t all that similar to Russell’s. There shouldn’t be real basketball concerns about those two sharing the floor for 10-15 minutes per game. Saunders needs to use Rubio’s ability to mesh with others to stagger Beasley and Russell from each other.
Playing Rubio with Beasley as much as possible isn’t just a mitigation tactic; doing so should empower Beasley offensively. In the preseason, Saunders had Russell be the first sub out of games in the first and third quarters, and he will do the same in the regular season. This will both be about staggering Russell from Beasley and letting Rubio empower Beasley as the primary perimeter creation option when they’re both on the floor. As happened in the preseason, Beasley will play the entire second half of the first and third quarters with Rubio while Russell rests. This will be Beasley’s time to cook.
It’s in these situations alongside Rubio where Saunders can hope to see Beasley mirror his production levels from last season in Minnesota, where he scored 21 points per game on 43% shooting from 3 and 52% shooting from 2. This role for Beasley will also allow him to play with Juancho Hernangómez, who also looks like he will be coming off the bench with Rubio. Beasley and Hernangómez have a history and a close friendship that dates back to their time in Denver. Both of their games synergize well in tandem. Hernangómez scored 13 points per game on 42% shooting from 3 after coming to Minnesota last season, and he played 388 of his 411 minutes alongside Beasley.
Again, it’s Rubio, who also has a history with Hernangómez playing on the Spanish national team, that allows this to happen. The Russell-Beasley-Hernangómez group will likely become constipated on offense and serve as a defensive laxative. Rubio will be the fiber behind whatever success Beasley and Hernangómez have this season.
Ricky Rubio and Anthony Edwards: The Donovan Mitchell/Devin Booker Corollary
A realistic ceiling for the Wolves’ No. 1 overall pick is something between Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker. Like Mitchell and Booker, Anthony Edwards is neither a traditional point guard nor simply a wing. An optimized Edwards is a player who has the autonomy to be both a primary and secondary offensive initiator. Ricky Rubio is the type of point guard that can embolden this archetype of 2-guard. Better yet, Rubio played with both Mitchell and Booker the past two seasons.
As a rookie, Mitchell averaged 21 points per game. And in his second-year, he averaged 24. Rubio was Mitchell’s point guard both of those seasons. In both seasons, Utah’s offense went from middling to well-above-average when Rubio shared the floor with Mitchell. The elite Utah defense also improved both seasons when Rubio and Mitchell were out there together.
The Rubio Factor was even more profound last season alongside Booker. When Rubio was on the floor with Booker, the Phoenix offense became elite and the defense was solid, outscoring opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. When Booker played without Rubio, the offense and defense fell apart, and the Suns got outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. A massive 12.6-point swing.
Rubio’s history suggests he is an impactful two-way player that can also foster growth in young, offensively-inclined wings. The idea that Rubio could have a meaningful impact on the development of Edwards made it worth it in Gersson Rosas’ eyes to inherit Rubio’s sizeable contract in exchange for James Johnson’s expiring deal.
For Saunders, Rubio is a bit of a skeleton key. The puzzle pieces on this roster may not perfectly fit together, but Rubio as a piece is malleable. Towns is similarly supple through the sheer power of his offensive force.
Still, the challenge for Saunders is great. The other pieces around Rubio and Towns are rigid. And the imbalance of the roster is real. This will lead to uneven performances for a team with playoff aspirations. The expectation for Saunders is not completing the puzzle. That’s not possible. But finding a rotation that makes it possible to make out what the team’s identity is should be the expectation for the third-year head coach. This is Saunders’ chance to prove he is more than “a player’s coach” and that he deserves to continue manipulating the puzzle pieces beyond this season.