Timberwolves Roster Overview
Just days ago it looked like a certainty that the 2011-2012 NBA season wouldn’t happen, but an eleventh hour deal between the owners and players brought the league’s fourth lockout in their history to a close. With that behind us we can now begin looking forward to a compressed season which will feature a hectic free-agency period, limited camp time, only a few preseason games and a compressed schedule. That compressed schedule should put more pressure on thin and aging rosters and theoretically could favor the Timberwolves and their young legs.
Will that along with an infusion of young talent (Derrick Williams, Ricky Rubio) be enough to help them rise above the .238 winning percentage they’ve posted in the four seasons following the Kevin Garnett trade?
Though Minnesota remains a talented team (8 lottery picks, 6 top 5 picks) they suffer from an extreme roster imbalance that has arisen due to a number of factors including Beasley’s high value acquisition and Minnesota’s legendary awful luck in the lottery. In particular they have only one natural shooting guard on the roster and far too much of their talent is concentrated in natural power forwards.
- Their two most productive players (Love, Beasley) both are tweener forwards who fit most naturally at PF.
- Anthony Randolph and Derrick Williams, representing some of the extreme young talent on the team are both also natural power forwards. Williams has tried to cast himself as a SF but playing the 3 at 6’8″ 241lbs will be a challenge.
- Anthony Tolliver is one of the Timberwolves better, smarter reserves and again is a natural 4 though he does play the 5 well.
- There is only one natural SG on the roster, Wayne Ellington, who has largely been a disappointment.
The net effect of that imbalance is players consistently playing out of position. For some players this isn’t a huge disadvantage on offense, in fact Love may be more effective offensively against the 5, but where this miscasting really shows up is in defensive production. Let’s take a look at each positions PER for 2010-2011 compared to the Opponent PER they allowed, which will give us an idea of each position’s net impact on the team.
The first thing you notice when looking at this chart is that every single position has been unable to hold opposing players under an average PER. Additionally only two positions (PF, C) have a positive Net PER. The two worst positions for opponent PER (SG, SF) feature the most players playing out of position. SG is often manned by Wesley Johnson who is more of a natural 3 and SF gets major minutes from Michael Beasley who is more of a natural 4.
Not all of their struggles can be pinned on players being played out of position, but it certainly contributed to one of the worst defenses (111.1 Def Rtg, 27th) and offenses (104.2 Off Rtg, 24th) in the NBA last season.
Starter: Luke Ridnour, Primary Reserve: Ricky Rubio
Offensively Minnesota suffered a lot last season from the point’s inability to set up the offense and establish consistent offensive flow. It’s unclear how much of this was due to the play of Ridnour, the primary starter at the position, and how much was attributable to Rambis’ notoriously convoluted offensive system but a move towards a more traditional offense should see major benefits here. The position will also benefit from the long-awaited arrival of Ricky Rubio. While his offensive game remains a work in progress his athleticism, size and awareness will immediately upgrade the position defensively.
While two injury-hampered seasons have dulled some of the enthusiasm about Rubio he remains an exceptionally talented prospect whose development will be key to Minnesota’s future.
Malcolm Lee also has the potential to give some quality minutes to the position as a primarily defensive player. He has a good handle for his size and does his best work offensively in transition, but his key asset is his defensive ability.
His athleticism and size (6’5″ 200lbs) should help him defend some of the larger points and even some twos.
Starter: Wesley Johnson, Primary Reserve: Wayne Ellington
Shooting guard has been the weakest position for the Timberwolves for years and it remains so heading into the 2011-2012 season’s free-agency period. Wesley Johnson is a natural 3 who was miscast as a jump shooter in Rambis’ mess of an offense. Johnson is at his best in transition and when he attacks the basket with his length and athleticism, but last season 89% of his shots were jumpers. Unless he sees a shift back to the 3 he should continue to struggle.
Wayne Ellington came out of North Carolina with a reputation as a slick shooter but has been mostly disappointing as a perimeter player in his two seasons as a pro. In his rookie year he posted a disappointing .527 true shooting percentage (235th in the league) and followed it up with an even worse .488 TS% in 2011 (343rd). Ellington is undersized, depends exclusively on his outside shot and so far has not shot well enough to justify a position as a specialist.
If he’s getting more than 10 minutes a game for Minnesota this season that Net PER for the SG position will still look awful.
Starter: Michael Beasley, Primary Reserve: Martell Webster
Gambling on Beasley was a perfectly logical move, but so far as a Timberwolf he hasn’t impressed. He did put up 19.2 PPG last season, but it took a 28.3 usage rate to get him there. Beasley finished at #10 in the league for usage rate just ahead of Dirk Nowitzki. Yes, Minnesota gave Beasley more of their offensive opportunities than Dallas did Dirk Nowitzki.
In terms of efficiency giving over a quarter of your looks to a player who is barely above average in offensive efficiency (15.5 PER in 2010-2011) is not going to win you many games.
If Minnesota’s going to win at all this year Beasley cannot continue to take that many shots or absorb that many minutes at SF. His 19.3 opponent PER was miserable and speaks to his inability to keep up laterally with quick 3s.
Martell Webster is a nice reserve player with good range who should see some improvement in 2010-2011 assuming he’s now finally past his back issues and he’s not forced to play the 2. A position he simply doesn’t have the speed or athleticism to play.
Starter: Kevin Love, Primary Reserve: Derrick Williams
Love is clearly the most effective offensive player on the Timberwolves roster but is a flat out awful defender. In order for Minnesota to improve in 2011-2012 more offensive looks need to go to Love (24.3 PER, 22.9 USG% last season) rather than Beasley (15.5 PER, 28.3 USG%). Love’s standout rebounding should remain consistent next year, but he needs to work on his defensive game and his ability to finish down low without getting blocked.
Williams is yet another combo forward in the Timberwolves forest of combo forwards who will be best used at the 4. His minutes should grow as the year goes on depending on how his defensive game develops. Playing primarily as a face up PF Williams reproduces many of the offensive skills of Love, so figuring out how to play them together should be a challenge. It’s likely that when Williams sees the floor that Love will shift to the 5.
Anthony Randolph is an obviously talented but inconsistent player whose 18.5 PER was second best on the team. The Timberwolves may be best served if he can add more bulk and shift to the 5, but for now he’ll have to try to carve out most of his minutes in a clogged 4.
Anthony Tolliver is a nice role player who while primarily a 4 should see minutes both here and at the 5.
Starter: Darko Milicic, Primary Reserve: Nikola Pekovic
Darko has been one of the more disappointing experiments of the past few years for Minnesota. The thought process behind it made sense: bring in an athletic, shot-blocking 5 with good passing skills whose defense would help off-set the defensive shortcomings elsewhere in the front court. If Minnesota drops his usage rate and uses him as a primarily defensive player his efficiency should improve, but looking to him in the post to score will continue to net mediocre results.
Pekovic is a bulldozing center and a good finisher around the basket who couldn’t stay out of foul trouble last year. Pekovic averaged 7.3 personal fouls per 36 minutes last season and struggled to transition to a league where he could not longer physically dominate his opposition.
The roster also features the late Brad Miller.
Next to SG this is the position the Wolves most desperately need to upgrade. If they shuffle the roster to play players at their natural positions it will help some, but they need a consistent defensive presence to cover for Love.
The roster is not without talent, but there are clear issues here that need to be addressed through a combination of free agency moves and coaching changes. The shift to Adelman’s much simpler offensive and defensive systems should help get more out of the talent on the roster, and Rubio and Williams both offer obvious upgrades to the team, but in order to improve dramatically on last year’s winning percentage a few things need to happen:
- Acquire a defensive center in FA (Chuck Hayes) who won’t demand the ball to be effective.
- Look for a SG to help move Johnson back to his natural position. Even though his PER dipped last season in Orlando, Jason Richadson might be a nice short term option assuming a contender doesn’t pick him up.
- Stop giving Beasley big time minutes. Beasley needs to earn his time on the floor with smarter, more efficient play. It’s time to move him out of the starting lineup and let him try to earn minutes at the 4 while only playing the 3 in the second unit.
- Move Johnson back to the 3. Moving Beasley out of the starting lineup and acquiring a SG would allow Adelman to shift Johnson back to his natural position. Minnesota simply needs more out of Johnson and they’re not going to get it from the perimeter.
- Stop trying to turn Martell Webster into a shooting guard. According to 82games.com Webster allowed opposing players to put up a 21.7 PER at SG. In contrast he only allowed a 9.4 PER at SF.
Adelman has a lot of work ahead of him reshaping this roster, but a few simple tweaks should help them improve defensively and make better use of their offensive possessions. There are a number of roster experiments that need to die and fortunately Adelman has the experience to see that. If they can resist the allure of giving too many possessions to low-efficiency players like Beasley they could actually take a step up in 2011-2012.