Phoenix Suns get 1st impression of new supersized Minnesota Timberwolves
PHOENIX — It’s always a good time when an NBA team goes outside the box and we aren’t exactly sure what the results of the experiment will be. Everyone will have their ranging opinions it, like when Mike D’Antoni’s 2019-20 Houston Rockets traded center Clint Capela in the middle of the season and fully committed to small ball, not playing anyone who would have qualified as a power forward or center 20 years ago.
That’s the direction the league has continued to trend, so it was a surprise (and not a surprise) to see someone do the complete inverse. The Minnesota Timberwolves roll into Phoenix ahead of Tuesday’s matchup with the Suns after making the biggest trade of the offseason, acquiring 7-foot-1 three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to pair him in a frontcourt alongside 6-foot-11 three-time All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns.
It is particularly notable for Phoenix since it could very well see the Timberwolves in the playoffs this coming April or May.
Towns is not just an elite shooter for a big man, he’s an elite shooter period and his off-the-dribble game gets slept on. So, in theory, this makes a bit of sense. But it’s the No. 1 “we just need to see how it looks on the floor before crafting too many conclusions” roster across the NBA.
Seven games in, the Timberwolves have not been tested. They are 4-3 with a pair of wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder plus one each against the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers. The three defeats came at the hands of the Utah Jazz once and the Spurs twice.
While the Jazz and Spurs are off to nice starts, those project to be four of the worst teams in the Western Conference.
Minnesota’s group is top-heavy after sacrificing a lot of its depth to get Gobert, and the numbers on a starting lineup that should be top-tier aren’t great.
D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Towns and Gobert are getting outscored by -0.8 points per 100 possessions across 112 minutes. And head coach Chris Finch is still clearly tinkering with his rotation, as only one other lineup combination has double-digit minutes, and a few games missed for some key reserves haven’t helped. For reference, the Suns in one less game have 10 lineup combinations with at least 10 minutes played.
We talk ad nauseam about continuity for Phoenix but the reason we do is because of how important it is. Right now, the Timberwolves are in the process of establishing it with a player like Gobert that changes so much about a team’s identity on both ends of the floor.
Suns head coach Monty Williams made a smart point after practice on Monday about the Timberwolves’ knack under Finch for maximizing players.
“Minnesota’s made such strides in their program the last couple of years,” Williams said. “And one of the things they’ve done is they’ve just adapted to the people they have. They use Karl’s ball-handling ability, they use Anthony’s ability to just break people down and space the floor well around him. So I’m sure they’re looking at Rudy and he’s Defensive Player of the Year multiple times so you probably look at him and say let’s just let him do what he does and we’ll figure it out around him because he’s so good on that end of the floor.”
The Suns will get their initial impression of the dynamic without center Deandre Ayton (left ankle sprain), a crucial piece of the matchup and a guy who has historically had his troubles against Gobert.
Part of the discussion naturally turns to if Phoenix will go with bigger lineups to match the Timberwolves’ size or instead look to take advantage of it more with smaller lineups, like the Suns’ starters with Cam Johnson.
The safe bet is the latter. In the first round of the 2021 playoffs, you’ll remember how the Suns put forward Jae Crowder on the move a ton when big man Anthony Davis was tasked with defending Crowder.
Assuming Gobert takes the Suns’ center, Towns will probably mark Johnson.
One element that could come into the fold to create more opportunities for the Suns’ edge in speed is using someone other than the center as a ball screener.
This is something the Suns have done way more of six games in, putting Mikal Bridges in that short roll spot and featuring it more in the final stages of a game.
It’s another change in this year’s team that shows how the Suns themselves know what went wrong at the end of the last two postseasons and they are trying to fix it by creating more threats offensively.
“It’s just another thing that we feel like we can grow that we didn’t have in last year,” Williams said postgame Sunday. “And that is on me for not taking the risk to do it. Now we’re taking more swings, more bites at the apple as it relates to getting he and Cam the ball, Landry (Shamet) the ball and allowing those guys to make plays to give us a bit more balance.”
Bridges said Sunday it gives him a chance to make a read, a space of the floor where he can pick and choose as the de facto point guard for a second.
The fifth-year wing is an underrated passer. Point guard Chris Paul said Sunday he and Bridges have talked about this two-man game since Paul’s first year in Phoenix.
“We both getting better and better at reading that and that’s another weapon for us,” Paul said of it.
Bridges is also the best finisher on the team.
Most of the time, this concept it used against a team switching, to get that ghost screen hip swivel motion through past the ball-handler’s defender that is supposed to take Bridges.
It can also just throw off the geometry of the floor.
“Usually they try to throw the third defender or fourth defender on him and I think a guard-guard screen isn’t something that people typically see every night,” guard Devin Booker said Sunday of Bridges. “But it’s the angle. Mikal has found the angle and we have spacing on the backside and it’s kind of pick your poison type of thing.”
Speaking of angles, look at this sneaky extra pass by Damion Lee.
To go back to what Williams said about taking risks to develop more layers in the regular season, the Suns can disguise these looks into what they normally run.
Here are two examples.
This set below looks like the Suns are going to run through one of their many elbow motion variations, with Bismack Biyombo and Johnson floating around there. And yes, the motion is coming, with Booker zooming around the incoming screens and oh no Bridges is open at the rim.
“It’s just different,” Booker said, noting how a lot of the nuances come down to scheming and scouting.
This last one is beautifully designed.
Booker is about to jet toward Ayton for the usual dribble handoff after Johnson sets the screen before the screen. The Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry knows that is coming and switches early to cut it off entirely.
But that leaves Johnson open on the roll, and Ayton not only feeds Johnson quickly but rolls himself to add another threat. Bridges sees his defender serving as an extra helper and viola.
The Suns love to test players in positions like Towns and Gobert who are naturally in uncomfortable (and new) situations right now. Paul has been feasting on Gobert’s drop coverage for nearly a decade. The chess match with two entirely different sized pieces would be riveting to see unfold over a playoff series, and we will get our first hints at what that could potentially be like on Tuesday.