Minnesota Timberwolves: Playing big has made a massive difference

Juancho Hernangomez of the Minnesota Timberwolves ha been a big part of the Wolves playing big. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Juancho Hernangomez of the Minnesota Timberwolves ha been a big part of the Wolves playing big. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Timberwolves were one of the league’s worst rebounding teams throughout the first half of the season, but new head coach Chris Finch has made significant tweaks to the rotation that have made a measurable difference.

In turn, the Wolves’ defense has improved despite playing several unique lineup combinations and shuffling several players in and out of the rotation.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Playing big has made a massive difference

At the start of the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves started the 6-foot-7 Robert Covington at power forward. Pre-trade deadline, Jake Layman and Keita Bates-Diop were the two other primary options at the 4. None of the three options are known for their rebounding prowess.

After the trade deadline, the Wolves gave the primary power forward minutes to Juancho Hernangomez, a modern-day stretch-4 with defensive shortcomings and a history of being an adequate (at best) rebounder.

But after re-signing in restricted free agency and going through an unconventional offseason with little on-court activity, Hernangomez started the season painfully slow. Then, he missed 12 consecutive games due to health and safety protocols and it was almost as if he was starting from square one.

In the midst of Hernangomez’s early-season struggles, former head coach Ryan Saunders was comfortable playing the undersized Josh Okogie at power forward, along with Layman, and for brief stretches, rookie guard Anthony Edwards.

Predictably, the Wolves were a bottom-five team in total rebounds per game and defensive rebounding percentage while Saunders was head coach during the first part of the 2020-21 campaign.

Enter Chris Finch.

Finch has been eager to play much bigger lineups than his predecessor. Saunders did not want to play Naz Reid at the 4, for instance, due to concerns over defensive versatility. Finch has had no such concerns.

While Reid doesn’t play power forward every night, Finch has been more than willing to slot the big man in next to Karl-Anthony Towns. Both big men have the ability to stretch the floor and score in the post, and they each have plus passing ability for players of their size.

The willingness to play big doesn’t stop there, either. Hernangomez and rookie Jaden McDaniels have both slid down from their natural power forward spot to play significant minutes at the 3. According to Basketball-Reference, Hernangomez has now played 20 percent of his time this season at small forward and McDaniels has played 19 percent of his minutes in that spot.

Finch has gotten away with playing these bigger lineups for stretches but often favors closing games with two points guards in Ricky Rubio and D’Angelo Russell alongside Towns, McDaniels, and Edwards. In Saturday’s loss to New Orleans, the Wolves gave up three big offensive rebounds late in the game with a smaller lineup on the floor.

Considering the personnel he has at his disposal, Finch has been creative with his rotations and lineup combinations. His willingness to play big at times and also pair multiple point guards together has been vital to the Wolves’ recent success.

The Wolves haven’t been worse than a -1 on the glass dating all the way back to the April 18 loss to the LA Clippers. That’s seven consecutive games with a combined +38 on the glass. Unsurprisingly, they’ve gone 5-2 during that stretch.

Overall, Minnesota has vaulted themselves all the way to No. 21 in total rebounds per game and No. 23 in defensive rebound percentage. It’s still not great, but it’s progress.

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It will be intriguing to see how drastically Finch’s rotations change when Malik Beasley eventually returns from injury, but for now, he’s content to keep shuffling lineups and being creative. And with six wins in their last nine games, it certainly appears to be working on some level.