In the final minutes of the Timberwolves' 100-98 loss to Cleveland on Monday, coach Ryan Saunders made a lineup decision that might have seemed unimaginable at the start of the season — but one that made sense if you have watched the Wolves lately.
Saunders left rookie power forward Jaden McDaniels on the floor in the closing minutes of a close game.
Earlier in the quarter, Saunders had McDaniels on the floor with fellow Washington Huskies alumni Jaylen Nowell, who helped the Wolves take a 78-77 lead with 8 minutes, 25 seconds remaining.
McDaniels, Nowell and Jarred Vanderbilt were on the bench when the season began, but their emergence while the Wolves have dealt with multiple injuries and players out because of COVID protocols has given Saunders some decisions to make as Karl-Anthony Towns, Juancho Hernangomez and Jarrett Culver near returns from their ailments and injuries.
"That's a good problem to have, and it can put people on notice, too," Saunders said. "If you're not doing the right things, we've got guys who are coming along that might be slotted behind you on the depth chart, but also guys that are able to produce some."
Even though the Wolves are only 5-15, Saunders will have to sort through some newfound depth that has developed over the past few weeks. When Towns returns, the Wolves figure to be more competitive, and Saunders has said the easiest way to get minutes is to play defense.
McDaniels has taken advantage of that opening.
"It's his defense right now that's keeping him on the floor, especially," Saunders said. "His length [6-9], he's still learning some of the rotations. … He adjusted shots at the rim and he converges when he is beat."
Vanderbilt has also added an element of defense and athleticism the Wolves were missing when the season began. With Towns coming back, however, Naz Reid — another player who has shown improvement this season — figures to slot back in as the backup center, a role Vanderbilt sometimes also played.
Power forward figures to be the biggest positional logjam as Hernangomez nears a return. Saunders showed he trusted McDaniels enough to play him late in a close game. Vanderbilt has been that guy at times as well. Once Hernangomez's conditioning returns, does he slot right back in to playing significant minutes? What happens to other players such as Jake Layman, who spend time at that position, and will the Wolves' small-ball lineups that tend to feature Josh Okogie at that spot be less frequent? How much will the fact that Hernangomez is making the most money of that group (around $7 million) influence his playing time?
Saunders will have to sort these questions out sooner than later, possible as soon as Wednesday's game against San Antonio.
"You're not going to have everybody be happy with their minutes, and I understand that, but guys have helped themselves through these opportunities right now," Saunders said.
The lineup decisions don't only exist in the frontcourt. Rookie Anthony Edwards' strong week has made him a player the Wolves can't afford to keep off the floor for very long. His emergence could mean some of the other Wolves' wing players could see their minutes go down since the Wolves also need Malik Beasley's shooting on the floor in big moments.
Saunders played 11 Wolves for more than 13 minutes against Cleveland. Those same players won't get the same playing time as the reinforcements become healthy, and those who were lower on the depth chart to start the season made their best case to move up while they had the chance.