Anthony Tolliver fell out of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ regular rotation after the team acquired Dario Saric, but the Wolves should find a way to get him on the floor more often.
The Minnesota Timberwolves‘ regular rotation is a simple math problem, really. After all, there are only so many minutes to go around.
But would it be such a crazy idea for Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau to take more of a matchup-based approach to his lineups? The Wolves have their deepest team in well over a decade, with at least 11 players worthy of rotation minutes when fully healthy. Couldn’t Thibodeau plan to mix-and-match his wing players based on opponent matchups?
With that in mind, let’s talk about Anthony Tolliver.
Tolliver signed in Minnesota over the summer after shooting a career-high 43.6 percent on 3-point attempts last year with the Detroit Pistons. We lauded the signing at the time, as the Wolves finished last in the NBA last year in both 3-point attempts and makes and sorely needed to add shooters to the rotation.
Tolliver had an up-and-down first 14 games of the season, shooting a nice 40.4 percent from beyond the arc but only shooting 3.7 attempts per contest while logging 19.1 minutes per game. Somehow, he played in two games (19 minutes in one game and 16 in the other) in which he didn’t even attempt a 3-point shot.
As soon as Dario Saric was acquired from Philadelphia along with Robert Covington, however, Tolliver was out of the rotation entirely. Saric, who was a starter on the 76ers’ Eastern Conference Finals squad from last spring, is a better all-around player with a bright future next to Karl-Anthony Towns in the Wolves’ frontcourt, and Taj Gibson adds requisite toughness, rebounding, and defensive ability to the starting lineup.
Tolliver was an afterthought, appearing in just three of the next 14 games, all in garbage time. Gibson missed the Dec. 15 game in Phoenix for personal reasons, meaning that Saric started and Tolliver played 13 (mostly uneven) minutes off the bench. Tolliver appeared in four of the next eight games, all either in garbage time or as a 3-point specialist for a last-second play drawn-up out of desperation.
Following Covington’s latest injury, a bone bruise in his knee that will apparently take some time to heal, combined with Derrick Rose‘s ongoing ankle issues, Tolliver reentered the rotation as the de facto backup at small forward.
Tolliver has played almost exclusively power forward in recent years; the last season that saw him play the majority of his minutes at the three-spot was 2013-14 with Charlotte, according to Basketball-Reference. He did play more of the three in his younger years as his athleticism allowed him to stay in front of many other threes around the league.
Timberwolves fans may remember former coach Rick Adelman deploying Tolliver to guard the likes of Kevin Durant when the Wolves would matchup with Oklahoma City. This was as much due to a lack of talent on the Wolves’ roster as anything else, but Tolliver was a decent perimeter defender back in his early and mid-20s.
Now, Tolliver is 33 years old and has morphed into a 3-point specialist. He’s always been a below-average rebounder as a power forward, but that’s palatable when shooting north of 43 percent from beyond the arc.
That said, Saric is a better player in every area except 3-point shooting, and he’s still a capable shooter in his own right. It isn’t reasonable to expect Tolliver to steal minutes away from either Saric or Gibson, so it makes sense that Tolly was the odd man out.
But when Rose returns from his ankle injury, which could be as soon as Sunday’s matinee against the Lakers, will rookie Josh Okogie remain in the starting lineup with Rose returning to the bench? And if so, will Tom Thibodeau stick with a nine-man rotation, allowing Okogie, Rose, and Andrew Wiggins to split the wing minutes three ways?
The suggestion here is that instead of locking into a nine-man rotation, Thibodeau should continue to use Tolliver at small forward — but only based on matchups. Tolliver is not a trot-him-out-every-night-at-small-forward type of player; he simply can’t guard many wings in today’s NBA. But he can hold his own against some wing units, such as the Magic’s subpar collection that they trotted out on Friday in Minneapolis.
Some nights, Tolliver might see a few spot minutes at power forward. And other nights, he may not play at all.
The same goes for Okogie, who is a fantastic defender and is absolutely dynamite in transition but a liability in halfcourt sets. That will hopefully change in the future, of course, but if the 2018-19 edition of the Wolves has designs on the playoffs, than Okogie probably doesn’t need to be an every-night player.
The ask is simple: deploy the No. 10 and 11 guys in the regular, healthy rotation based on matchups. It will keep them both fresh and ready to go and maximize both of their strengths while hiding weaknesses as much as possible. And most nights, it would be entirely in play to inform them each before the game regarding their minutes, avoiding the objection of uncertainty and unpreparedness that often causes coaches to lock-in to a regular nine or 10-man rotation.
The Wolves have a legitimately deep team, and in order to maximize the talent on the roster, Thibodeau must be open