The Timberwolves' offseason unfolded in a way that left them with plenty of reasons for optimism about their starting five but also left some questions about their depth — and without much cash to answer them.
It was a risk, to say the least — one that left them exposed to injuries or at least to having to have their best players log minutes beyond what is ideal. Having what in many ways was the worst bench in the league last season, a factor that contributed mightily to a disappointing season, made the risk of having a similar problem this season even greater.
Whether their gamble was calculated or simply a by-product of the players available early in free agency, though, it appears it is starting to pay off.
The Wolves renounced the rights to Shabazz Muhammad early in free agency, helping to free up the money used to acquire Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. They then waited as Muhammad was squeezed out of a free agent market by teams dealing with a lower-than-expected salary cap. Earlier this week, Muhammad agreed to a one-year deal at a veteran minimum price ($1.6 million) to return to the Wolves.
Minnesota reportedly is now looking to do the same thing with versatile forward Dante Cunningham, a former Wolves player who spent the last three seasons in New Orleans, while also nabbing a low-cost point guard. If the Wolves can make both of those things happen, fans who fretted about their depth will be able to calm down. As it stands now, even the signing of Muhammad starts to bring the team’s roster depth into focus a little more.
*Let's assume the starting five, when healthy, will be Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and either Gibson or Gorgui Dieng. We can pagree on that, right? Wiggins, Towns and Butler (last year with Chicago) all ranked in the top six in the NBA in minutes played per game. We can agree it might be nice if they got a little more rest, right?
*That brings us to the bench. The first wing off the bench likely will be either the veteran Jamal Crawford or Muhammad depending on the situation. Between those two, Butler and Wiggins the Wolves should have enough quality minutes at shooting guard/small forward. They could even sustain a short-term injury to one of those four and feel OK about the distribution of minutes.
*The wild card at small forward is Nemanja Bjelica, who could see time at that spot but is also coming off an injury. Here's where you see the value, too, in potentially signing Cunningham — a guy who, like Bjelica, can play both forward spots and shot 39.2 percent from three-point range last season.
Even just a power forward-center rotation of Towns, Dieng, Gibson, Bjelica and Cole Aldrich (not factoring in injured rookie Justin Patton) is enough to mix-and-match against different lineups, but Cunningham would sure look nice for versatility and quality depth. Figure on Bjelica (if healthy) and whichever of Dieng/Gibson doesn't start getting the first looks off the bench among the bigs.
*At point guard behind Teague there's Tyus Jones. I've now listed every player on the 15-man roster who has a guaranteed one-way deal (this doesn't include someone like Anthony Brown, signed to one of the NBA's new two-way contracts by the Wolves, or Marcus Georges-Hunt, who signed a non-guaranteed deal last month). The Wolves almost certainly will sign veteran point guard X, which makes a lot of sense even if you think Jones is capable of being a viable backup.
So a 10-man rotation potentially looks like this: Teague, Butler, Wiggins, Towns, Dieng, Gibson, Bjelica, Crawford, Muhammad, backup point guard.
Cunningham (if he signs), Jones (unless he wins the backup point guard spot, in which case point guard X is the guy here) and Aldrich would be nice insurance policies against inevitable injuries and/or spot duty players against certain lineups. Cunningham in particular could play a big role in various scenarios. Last we heard from coach/personnel boss Tom Thibodeau a couple weeks back, he said he was hoping Bjelica would be ready when camp opens. That’s now nine days away, so we shall see.
It's hard to say how the rotation comes together exactly, but that's what training camp is about. One of the many nice things about having both Wiggins and Butler is the Wolves should never have to give both of them a rest at the same time unless a game is out of hand. That would leave them with a scoring wing starter on the floor at all times. Teague is a veteran who can get his own points when needed — like, say, if he's on the floor with two or three reserves — or be more of a complementary player when with the starters.
But overall, I'm of the firm belief that unless the game is a blowout in the fourth quarter or unless one of these four players is injured, the Wolves should always have at least two of these four players on the court: Teague, Butler, Wiggins and Towns. In ideal games, they will probably all be on the court together for about 20 minutes of each competitive game: first 6-7 minutes of each half and the last six minutes of each game.
That said, for a team that blew so many leads last season and leaned so heavily on its best players, quality depth will be vital. Getting Muhammad at such a low price so late in the offseason was a coup, and if they can replicate it with a couple more signings the Wolves should feel very good.