You don’t have to look hard to find a statistic that will tell you how bad the Timberwolves’ bench production was last season, especially on defense.
You can start with its league-worst defensive efficiency (111.1 points per 100 possessions). There’s the fact that it allowed opponents to hit a league-worst 70.8 percent of shots at the rim and had the fewest blocks per game of any bench unit (0.8).
But with some of the additions the Wolves made in the offseason, such as veteran Anthony Tolliver and rookie Josh Okogie, the bench has a chance to make significant improvement.
“It’s not just how you play individually, it’s how you perform as a group,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The challenge as I mentioned particularly with our bench, we were very good offensively last year, and it was a problem defensively, so we know we have to shore that up.”
If the Wolves are going to be competitive without Jimmy Butler, who remains away from the team after requesting a trade last week, the bench is going to have to play a big part in that success.
When Butler missed 17 games because of a knee injury late last season, Thibodeau’s most-used lineups over that stretch, which included regular starters Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague, had positive plus-minus ratings. But three of his most used lineups involving multiple members of the bench either had a negative plus-minus or zero.
“Some nights the bench is going to struggle, some nights the starters are going to struggle,” Tolliver said. “It’s up to the other unit to basically lift that other one up.”
Thibodeau is going to use training camp to figure out how rotations will work and how many minutes the reserves will play. The Wolves will get to test out some combinations in their first preseason game Saturday at Golden State. But Thibodeau has liked the defensive potential of the group, with Tolliver being capable of guarding multiple positions.
“We’ve done some drills where we’re switching everything just to familiarize ourselves with [guarding multiple positions],” Tolliver said. “And getting used to it offensively and defensively there’s so much switching going on nowadays, you start out on one person, the chances of you ending that possession on that person is sometimes pretty slim.”
How Thibodeau constructs the bench will also depend on the return he gets for Butler. For instance, with Butler missing from the team, Derrick Rose was playing with the first unit in a two-point guard lineup alongside Teague. But if the Wolves net a starting-caliber wing in return for Butler, perhaps Rose goes back to the second unit with Tyus Jones in a two-guard lineup.
“It’s been very effective for us,” Thibodeau said, referring to two-point guard lineups. “We have a lot of versatility. We have guys who can play multiple positions. You have to have the ability to play big, but you also need to have the ability to play small, and to be able to change the speed of the game.”
Added Tolliver: “We definitely have a formidable group that can play defense, be versatile and do some different things.”
The Wolves hope the results are different, too.
Trade chatter picks up
Trade chatter began to pick up for Butler around the league Wednesday as ESPN reported the Heat was the most aggressive in trying to pursue him. ESPN also reported that a third team likely would have to get involved in any deal involving Butler. ESPN also reported the Suns were trying to get involved in the deal but the Wolves’ asking price was too steep for the Suns.