The Minnesota Timberwolves returned to a familiarity zone. They use the end of the bench again to stay competitive as the team struggles to stay perfectly healthy. In some ways, this has been a great way to assess talent. But this is not a model of sustainable action for a team desperate to win.
It’s been nice to see hidden gems like Leandro Bolmaro find their rhythm in the regular rotation as injuries pile up. Naz Reid started off as a deep undrafted reserve, and Jarred Vanderbilt earned his minutes the hard way. It is useful to have this time to evaluate players, especially when there is a big rise that might otherwise go unnoticed.
This season is a little different for the Timberwolves when it comes to their bench skills. The reserve unit has been one of the strengths of the team, and the rotation has been fairly established with little roster turnover compared to last year. An initial rotation of 11 men was aptly reduced to nine before the last wave of injuries, although that number has started to rise as Chris Finch slowly runs out of options.
The last name to resurface as a mainstay of the rotation was Josh Okogie. He started the first two games for Minnesota before retiring from the rotation in favor of younger and more talented players. While I had originally predicted that it would have been difficult for Okogie to find minutes this year anyway, he has been a situational gadget that has produced mixed results.
Recent injuries to Karl-Anthony Towns, Patrick Beverley and a flu for Jaden McDaniels have paved the way for players like Okogie to get some playing time. The team know exactly what’s in him. He is a defensive specialist with well documented offensive limitations. Sometimes these offensive limitations have been crippling. They’ve been offset by Okogie’s defense at times, but the lack of consistency most often hurts the Timberwolves.
The Okogie experiment is consistent with that of a pendulum on a schooner at sea. It is a mixed set of results that a team with a tiny margin of error cannot afford to trust. Good times are always good, but bad times are costly.
Okogie averages 17 minutes per game off the bench during Minnesota’s two-game losing streak. He has scored a total of four points in those games, shooting 1 of 4 from the field and 2 of 4 from the line. Okogie also has a +/- box of minus-10 on average. He was minus-11 in DC and minus-9 in Brooklyn. BPM never tells the whole story of a player’s performance, but it has been a more polarizing experience this year than in previous years.
Okogie’s defensive impact this year is almost unmatched. According to Cleaning the Glass, Minnesota allows just 98.9 points per 100 possessions when Okogie is down, which sits in the 97th percentile of all teams. Opponents also return the ball on 19.9% of their possessions, good for the 99th percentile. He lives up to his reputation as a defensive specialist, and this drastic impact greatly helps the Timberwolves maintain their new defensive identity.
Conversely, Okogie’s offensive effect directly thwarted his defensive prowess. Minnesota is down 10.5 points per 100 possessions when on the ground, at the eighth percentile. The team’s effective field goal percentage stands at 47.7% (ninth percentile), as teams can completely ignore Okogie on the offensive end. Because Towns have struggled with doubles teams this season, it’s not in the team’s best interests to allow these two players to split the floor. Cities take the lion’s share of minutes when they are healthy, making it difficult for Okogie to see the ground.
With all the injuries, Finch has no choice but to sprinkle Okogie wherever he sees the clashes being in good shape. Okogie is still arguably the best 1v1 defender on the team, and he will likely be a key plug-and-play specialist going forward.
However, its time as a consistent option may cease to exist when the Timberwolves are in full health. With an offense struggling as much as it has been compared to the dynamic star power they employ, Minnesota can’t afford to let the offense move further away in favor of Okogie minutes.