As the Minnesota Timberwolves eagerly await the return of Robert Covington, head coach Ryan Saunders faces a new challenge of compiling the proper rotation for the rest of the season.
Robert Covington last played a professional basketball game on Dec. 31 before re-injuring his knee and forcing the Minnesota Timberwolves to shut him down for an extended period of time. Covington practiced with the Iowa Wolves this week and is expected to make his much-anticipated return in the coming days.
His return is a happy moment for him but also a crucial moment for the rest of the team.
When Covington was healthy, the Timberwolves had started to build a new identity built on his defense. Now, the team’s defense has regressed and a large void has been felt at the wing position.
Many players have had to fill in during Covington’s absence including Luol Deng, Anthony Tolliver, and even rookie Keita Bates-Diop. The Minnesota Timberwolves are expected to be healthy for the first time under Ryan Saunders but that also means a reduced role for the players who have been called upon as of late.
Presumably, the front court will remain the same with Karl-Anthony Towns and recently appointed starter Dario Saric. However the starting point guard position could be a point of contention for Ryan Saunders as the Timberwolves turn their eyes toward the future.
While Jeff Teague started for Minnesota on Thursday against Indiana, a case could be made for Tyus Jones to move into the starting role as many people believe he has a good opportunity to be the Day 1 starter for the 2019-20 season.
Jones has had his own share of ups and downs as of late but he has found a plethora success playing along Robert Covington in limited action this season. In fact, Jones is part of the Wolves’ top 3-man lineup on the season along with Robert Covington and Karl-Anthony Towns. Jones is also part of the Wolves’ top 5-man lineup with Covington, Towns, Wiggins, and Gibson.
The favorable numbers used to support Tyus could also be used to support moving Taj Gibson back into his former starting role. However, Minnesota gave the starting role to Dario Saric so that they could find out how well he fits next to Towns.
Fortunately for Dario, his fit next to Covington might be the spark he needed to make the starting unit shine. Last season Covington and Saric finished as one of the NBA’s leading 2-man lineups, posting a +5.3 net rating in Philadelphia. Hopefully their chemistry will help a starting lineup desperate for some stability on both sides of the ball.
Personally, I believe Minnesota would be best-served to use a starting lineup of Jones, Covington, Wiggins, Saric, and Towns. This lineup offers the best opportunity to win games now and hopefully stay afloat in the Western Conference playoff race. It also gives the coaching staff a front-row seat to analyze the cohesiveness of a group that could easily be the starting lineup when the Timberwolves open the 2019-20 season.
THE SECOND UNIT
Ryan Saunders has used every ounce of his creativity to manage the second unit during an injury-plagued season. Deng, Anthony Tolliver, and Bates-Diop have all seen their roles increased and have performed admirably.
t the guard positions, Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose have been major parts of the rotation since the season began. Once Covington returns, rookie Josh Okogie will be forced back to the bench after starting every game during Covington’s absence. Meanwhile, Gorgui Dieng and Jerryd Bayless have both fallen out of the rotation after seeing valuable minutes as recently as the beginning of February.
Saunders faces the difficult challenge of placing 13 deserving players into a standard 9 or 10-man rotation.
Teague and Derrick Rose continue to be important cogs of the Wolves’ offense and their roles in the rotation should be secure. Gibson, meanwhile, anchors the Wolves’ defense and it would be shame to see his role reduced from starter to out of the rotation completely. Josh Okogie has also seen his fair share of playing time in the starting lineup and the Timberwolves need to continue developing their young stud. That leaves a tough question for the coaching staff as the rotation is already at nine with the players listed above.
Luol Deng posted a team-leading 15.6 net rating in the month of February, proving that he still has plenty left in the tank. Bates-Diop also posted an impressive 12.7 net rating in his first meaningful minutes of the season. Anthony Tolliver has made his own case for playing time as one of the top 3-point shooters on the team. Lastly, Dieng has fallen out of favor recently but is still under contract through 2021 and could be a part of the team’s future simply based on his contract.
I believe the best course of action is to slot Luol Deng in as the 10th and final member of the Timberwolves’ rotation in an effort to win as many games as possible. Deng has played an essential role for the team under Saunders and has even closed many games thanks to his fine play. Deng gives Minnesota the best opportunity to stay alive in the playoff race during a winnable stretch of games.
Saunders must also keep one eye on the future if the Timberwolves continue to fall further behind in the race for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. Deng is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and his minutes in the rotation could easily be swapped in favor of rookie Bates-Diop to continue developing the team’s young talent.
And that is the most important thing for the Wolves’ rotation rest of season — finding the perfect balance between winning games and developing for the future.