If two constant themes have emerged from the Timberwolves during Gersson Rosas’ first year as President, they are these: 1) The Wolves intend to be patient with their top-down and then bottom-up makeover, eschewing shortcuts or Band-aids to solve problems; 2) Among the biggest goals in Year 1 is to implement a new system and style of play so that as the team acquires more talent to fit that system, the centerpieces already here will be well-versed in playing that way.
Both of these seem like reasonable ideas that are in harmony with each other, but I would offer one philosophical caveat:
Sometimes a short-term answer can be a critical step to solving a long-term question. Good is not always the enemy of great.
And it’s within this idea that my biggest critique of this year’s Wolves emerges. I don’t think they went into the season with a good enough plan at point guard. And by failing to address that problem, even in the short term, they have proven vulnerable to this question: Can you adequately implement a system and evaluate how it’s working when you don’t have the point guard — or at least 48 minutes worth of them — to run it the way you want to?
The main issue, of course, was that their most experienced, expensive and credible option to start the year was Jeff Teague, who seemed an unlikely fit to play the way the Wolves wanted to play –“we need our lead guard to be a guy who pushes tempo, is more of a creator than a scorer,” is how Rosas described it after Teague was finally traded.
But they spent half a year letting it play out, when it was obvious after a small fraction of those games and likely when zero games had been played.
The main appeal of Teague this year as an asset was his $19 million expiring contract, which the Wolves understandably didn’t want to deal away for a more onerous contract with longer terms. But a deal like the one they finally made for Allen Crabbe’s nearly identical contract seems like it could have been made at any time. Had it been sooner rather than later, maybe the Wolves could have started the year with two point guards of the Shabazz Napier type — inexpensive but established veterans who have a track record to prove their fit in this system.
Napier himself has been a worthy addition and a good move by Rosas; in 20 games as a starter, he’s averaging 11.2 points, 6.2 assists and 3.9 rebounds with a dead even plus-minus — all while making less than $2 million in the last year of his contract.
But he’s probably best suited for a 15-20 minute backup role, which he had at the start of the year while Teague dribbled away and made his floaters.
Jordan McLaughlin has had some encouraging moments while getting more playing time after the Teague trade, and he plays more how Rosas wants to play, but he’s probably a No. 3 point guard — adequate in a pinch of one of your top two goes down.
Are those really the two guys you want handling the bulk of the point guard duties — save for a few minutes here or there where Ryan Saunders might turn those duties over to Jarrett Culver or Andrew Wiggins — for an important final 35 games of this season? Especially when you’re already in the midst of your second double-digit losing streak of the season and your franchise cornerstone went the entire months of December and January without participating in a victory?
Maybe the answer is yes, but at this point that answer would probably be by default because as Chris Hine and I discussed on the latest Timberwolves Talk podcast I’m not sure what the Wolves could do — outside of a blockbuster D’Angelo Russell trade deadline deal — to make themselves better at that spot between now and the end of the season.
Perhaps there’s another move to be made, and it would be applauded if it happened. (But if you’re holding out hope that the Wolves’ rumored interest in Dennis Smith Jr. might result in a low-level trade with the Knicks before the deadline, I might point out that Smith is dead last out of 69 point guards in player efficiency rating this year. If real plus-minus is your preferred advanced stat, he’s dead last there, too, among 86 point guards).
The best time to do it, for the sake of starting to build this system, was several months ago. That the Wolves couldn’t finesse a better plan after swinging and missing on Russell in early July is their biggest shortcoming and the most significant critique of the Rosas master plan to date.