What happened to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ starting lineup?

The Minnesota Timberwolves starting lineup has struggled defensively over the past few weeks. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
The Minnesota Timberwolves starting lineup has struggled defensively over the past few weeks. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports /

The Minnesota Timberwolves’ starting lineup went from the best in the league to a unit that has struggled to be consistent. What happened?

What happened to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ starting lineup?

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been a strangely volatile team all season. Their strengths and weaknesses seem to flip every few months; for example, their borderline elite defense carried them through offensive struggles to start the season, but in recent months the scoring attack has been unstoppable while the defense has floundered.

The team’s preferred starting lineup of D’Angelo Russell, Patrick Beverley, Anthony Edwards, Jarred Vanderbilt and Karl-Anthony Towns is another area Minnesota used to be able to hang its hat on. In 142 minutes played over 13 games through Jan. 10, it was perhaps the best lineup in the league, outscoring the opposition by 50.5 points for every 100 possessions.

In its 194 minutes over 14 games since Jan. 11, though, the script has flipped completely. According to NBA.com, the lineup has been getting outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions and has seen notable drop-offs on both ends of the floor. Its offensive rating fell from 136.9 to 112.8 and the defensive rating went from 86.4 to 119.1.

So yes, Anthony Edwards will hopefully get healthy and that will make the Wolves a better team than they are without him, obviously. But getting that five back together is no longer the world-beating edge it was to start the year. Let’s look at some of the lineup’s other stats to see what has gone so wrong.

The Timberwolves starting lineup’s defense

The defense is the bigger concern here, because the starters’ offensive rating since Jan. 11 would still rank seventh in the league. Going from an 86.4 defensive rating to 119.1, however, is a jump from an unprecedented success to easily the worst unit in the league.

Some of this is simply down to shooting luck. This five held opponents to a 41.7 effective field goal percentage in the first stretch, a wildly strong number. The starters’ tenacity to open the season certainly played a role, but teams were simply missing an inordinate percentage of shots; progression to the mean was always going to happen, as opponents’ effective field goal percentage is up to 58.2 in the second stretch.

There are things more within the players’ control that have faltered, though. Both the opponent turnover percentage (18.6 to 13.4) and free throw attempt rate (.161 to .286) are significantly worse since Jan. 11. The five is also allowing 21.3 fast break points per 100 possessions during the downturn as opposed to nine during the strong start despite only a one percent increase in the lineup’s own turnover percentage.

All that indicates that opposing offenses are dictating the lineup’s defense, not the other way around as it was to start the season. This is why you see Chris Finch and his staff experimenting more with switching and drop coverages depending on the matchup: Other teams have figured out how to beat the Wolves’ base, high-pressure pick-and-roll coverages that put the onus on the backline to close out to shooters.

The Timberwolves starting lineup’s offense

There are two major issues with the offense. The first mirrors one of the defensive setbacks, in that Minnesota is no longer dominating in points off turnovers. Whereas the first 13 games saw the group average 28 points off turnovers per 100 possessions, that number dropped to 16.2 in the last 14. Due to issues on both ends, the points off turnovers battle went from a 16.9-point advantage every 100 possessions to just 1.2.

The other problem is the drop in offensive rebounding and corresponding loss of second-chance point production. In the first stretch, the starters grabbed a whopping 41.8 percent of available offensive rebounds and turned that into 21.9 second-chance points per 100 possessions. Since then, though, those numbers have dropped to 29.7 percent and 12.6 points, respectively.

The group has also seen a drop in its own effective field goal percentage from 63.3 to 54.4, but again, that regression was always bound to happen. The worse mark would still rank sixth in the league, anyway.

There is no quick fix for these issues because they mirror the Timberwolves’ problems as a whole. The entire team struggles with fouling too much because of the emphasis on defensive aggression, and opponents’ shooting and turnover numbers are rising because the NBA has had time to counteract that scheme. The lineup’s offense is still good, but no longer the juggernaut that would be needed to offset the faltering defense.

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However, if Finch can coach the team into being able to run multiple different schemes based on the opposing attack and if the offense can get back to taking advantage of turnovers and offensive rebounds, we may see a return of the “Greatest Lineup Ever” along with a true playoff threat coming out of Minnesota.