Months before they pursued veteran free agent Donatas Motiejunas to bolster their bench, the Timberwolves signed veteran free agents Cole Aldrich, Jordan Hill and Brandon Rush to sensible contracts during a wild salary-cap summer when other teams spent drunkenly.
Now 34 games into the season, Aldrich is part of coach and basketball boss Tom Thibodeau’s rotation, playing as many as 27 minutes and as few as four and five, or not at all.
But Rush and Hill have become fixtures on the sideline.
An eight-year NBA veteran, Hill played more minutes (18½) in a Christmas game at Oklahoma City than he had all season before then. Sidelined in November by an injured big toe, Rush has not played in 10 consecutive games and has played very limited minutes in 11 appearances with the Wolves, after he played on a Golden State team that won the NBA title two seasons ago and a record 73 regular-season games last year.
In July, Aldrich signed a three-year contract guaranteed for nearly $22 million. Rush signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract and Hill signed a two-year deal with only this season guaranteed for $4 million.
Rush said he had the same offer to return to the Warriors, but signed with the Wolves because he considered it an “opportunity” to have a bigger role.
Thibodeau has searched for answers to a bench that often has been underused, either because of his reliance on his starting five or because it was overmatched by the opponent’s bench.
Sometimes it has been both, at least until recent days, when Shabazz Muhammad and Nemanja Bjelica primarily have produced better results.
Apart from that Dec. 25 game, neither Hill nor Rush has been a part of that.
“The thing is, it’s how you fit into a team,” Thibodeau said. “Right now, they might not be in the rotation. It doesn’t mean it will end that way. When they’re called upon, be ready to go. You can’t play 15 guys so you have to decide who your best eight or nine are and you go with that. Then you look at how the team is developing.
“Over the course of a season, everyone gets a chance. Just stay ready. If you’re not in the rotation, your job is to practice well and stay ready.”
In a move that could have strengthened their bench, the Wolves summoned unrestricted free agent Motiejunas to town, but never got the chance to work him out and meet with him. Instead, his agent on Sunday agreed to a contract with New Orleans after the Wolves and the Los Angeles Lakers, among others, showed interest.
For now, Thibodeau relies upon a shortened bench, mostly calling upon Muhammad, Bjelica and starter Zach LaVine for second-unit offense and Kris Dunn and Aldrich for defense.
Aldrich hasn’t played in four of the past 11 games and his playing time sometimes has been limited when opponents play small lineups.
He was asked last week if he expected a bigger role when he signed with his hometown team last summer.
“My role is to go out there every day and find a way to win, whether it’s playing or not playing,” Aldrich said. “It’s a team and we’re all in it together and I’m in it. I’m having fun with these guys, learning with these guys. When Coach calls my name, I’m ready.”
With his bench playing better in recent days, Thibodeau now has options for a team on which LaVine leads the NBA in minutes played (37.5), Andrew Wiggins (36.7) is fifth and Karl-Anthony Towns (35.3) is 15th.
When asked how much he needs an improved bench to help rest his starters, Thibodeau said, “I think everyone’s good. We just want to be consistent with our starters and our bench. We have young guys that need to play. They need to learn. I’m good with what they’re doing. It’s a group that has worked really hard and they’re in great shape. I think it’s a plus.”