The Minnesota Timberwolves have played three preseason games, each time with a different starting lineup. That’s not necessarily surprising at this stage. Teams give certain players days off as they prepare for the games that count. There are minutes and minor injuries to manage.
But, traditionally, once the regular season starts, the rotation — beginning with the starting five — is cemented and order is restored.
That very well may not be the case in Minnesota this season. Because the Timberwolves have treated their preseason schedule — which wraps Thursday in Brooklyn — like regular-season games, sans minute restrictions for their marquee guys. As for the starting lineup shifting, well, that could very well be a precursor for what’s to come when the bright lights turn on against Houston next week.
Four starters have kicked off each of the first three preseason games, and appear set to be on the floor for the opening tip next Wednesday at Target Center against the Rockets: Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels. No surprises there.
But the fifth starting slot is very much in flux. Josh Okogie filled that role in the preseason opener against New Orleans.
“We thought he deserved to start based on the (start to training camp),” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “Wanted to reward him for that.”
Then Jarred Vanderbilt started in Denver, and Malik Beasley started against the Clippers. It’s anyone’s guess as to who will be the fifth on the floor when Minnesota plays Brooklyn in Thursday’s preseason finale, much less Houston. That’s been by design. Finch said early in the preseason the Timberwolves very well might trot out four different starting lineups over the four exhibition games.
And whoever starts against Houston on Oct. 20 may not start against New Orleans on Oct. 23.
“Everything we’ve thrown out there so far has been a legitimate option for us. We’re still unsettled in that category, to be honest,” Finch said after the Clippers game. “Just continuing to evaluate. It could very well be a matchup-driven thing for us. That could be the way it shakes out, what are our best matchups at that point.”
That’s not the norm in the NBA — or pro sports in general, where routine is king. Players like to know when they’ll enter the game, for how long and with whom, to the best of their knowledge. And Finch may eventually settle on a starting five and go from there.
“I think you’d always rather have a set rotation because guys feel a little more comfortable,” the coach said. “Having said that, depth helps you in a couple of ways. Being able to have 10-12 man rotations, if you can, you gotta be creative, or obviously survive a bunch of injuries which, knock on wood, we hope doesn’t happen to us. We’re not married to anything right now. We’re wide open on what we’re looking at.”
The uncertainty is a direct result of the Timberwolves’ weakness at power forward. Vanderbilt is the only legitimate four-position player on the roster, and he may not be best built to go 30 minutes. McDaniels doesn’t really size out to a power forward, and even if he did, he’s Minnesota’s best perimeter defender and often will be charged with guarding the likes of James Harden and Luka Doncic.
That leaves Finch to likely play the matchup game. On some nights, it may make the most sense to put another perimeter defender like Okogie out there to counteract a team’s second scoring wing. Vanderbilt may be a necessary starter against an imposing opposing frontcourt. Beasley gives Minnesota its most dangerous offensive lineup.
Others such as Taurean Prince, Patrick Beverley and perhaps even Naz Reid also have cases to crack the starting five on any given night. That’s the good news for Finch: At least he has plenty of options. The Timberwolves have enough depth so that the bench rotation can be reshuffled, and they have a number of players ready to step in where needed.
“We have some options for us right now. We may be matchup driven. We may pick a five and see how it goes,” Finch said. “Our intention is to play as deep as we possibly can. That’s at least 10 players. If you can find a way to productively squeeze an 11th onto the floor, we will. We have a very fortunate situation here. We’ve got a lot of guys that can go onto the floor and help us play, and we’ve got to figure it out. But we don’t have anything set in stone right now.”