PORTLAND, ORE. – When Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders inserted Shabazz Napier into the starting lineup Friday against Denver, he created the 11th different starting lineup in 27 games.
Some of that is Saunders playing matchups, but a big part is just who’s available.
Like any NBA team, the Wolves have had their share of injuries, both ones that have sidelined players for short and long lengths (Napier’s hamstring injury, Jake Layman’s sprained toe) of time. Andrew Wiggins and Robert Covington have been away following deaths in their families. Currently, the Wolves are dealing not only with Layman’s lingering injury, but also with center Karl-Anthony Towns’ sprained left knee, which has sidelined him for three games.
This Wolves group is not an established bunch. It is a roster full of players who are just getting to know each other off the court and getting to know each other’s games on it. Perhaps that’s one reason the Wolves are mired in a 10-game losing streak.
“We’ve got a number of new rotation players, and a lot of our new rotation players are young guys, too,” Saunders said. “So they’re learning the speed of the NBA. They’re learning just the grind of the NBA, but they’re also trying to learn their teammates, too. … There’s going to be some slippage as the season goes on. But we need to make sure we get back to being a more solid basketball team.”
The players were split on whether the injuries and the lineup shuffling were viable excuses for their drop-off in play since earlier in the season. For instance, Wiggins said, “I don’t really see that as a problem.”
“It’s the NBA,” he added. “Guys are going to get hurt. Now it’s time for the next man up.”
But guard Jeff Teague said the constant juggling has affected team chemistry.
“We haven’t been healthy all year, so it is difficult to try and get a rhythm,” Teague said. “Seems like every four games something happens. It’s part of the NBA. Just try to keep adjusting, keep making things happen. Hopefully we can get all on the same page one of these games.”
Saunders said amid the losing streak he has also been “looking for a spark” in different lineup combinations and rotations.
“I’m looking for guys to separate themselves, and I thought we had some guys had productive minutes coming up here recently,” Saunders said. “But you want to see it consistently.”
It’s hard to get that consistency when the available personnel is inconsistent. Of late, Towns’ absence has loomed large over the offense. The Wolves miss a lot of things about his game, but mainly the overall effect he can have on stretching the opposing defense.
“He gets guys easy shots,” Wiggins said. “The lane is a little bit more clogged up.”
Gorgui Dieng has stepped up as a starter in Towns’ absence, averaging 15.3 points and 8.7 rebounds over the past three games.
“[Injuries] gives guys the opportunity,” Robert Covington said. “We’ve always had the mentality of the next guy up. We’ve had a lot of different lineups and stuff. Just got to keep playing and there’ll be some point where all the guys will get back healthy and we’ll be back.”
But when that happens, will it already be too late to make a playoff push?
“Guys are playing in different places and have to take on a lot more pressure,” Covington said. “Just got to be able to adjust and sustain.”