One of the many disastrous effects of last season’s spate of injuries was that the Wolves were unable to develop a consistent second unit. Players who should have been on the bench were forced to start, and the makeup of the squad in the second quarter varied on an almost nightly basis.
Rick Adelman will hopefully be able to establish some consistency this season. This will allow the second unit to be able to build chemistry and flexibility. A consistent second unit could even allow for a complete line-swap early in games if the starters aren’t playing with the right energy. This is a tool employed by the brightest coaches in the NBA (Gregg Popovich, in particular), and it was something Adelman aimed for last season before injuries derailed his plans.
The actual makeup of the second unit is still up in the air, which is actually good news—the players who impress the most will get playing time. Training camp, preseason, and early season battles will determine who becomes the team’s sixth man, and who ends up on the end of the bench. Here is one potential lineup for the second unit:
JJ Barea – PG
If you had League Pass last season, you heard road announcers talk about Barea’s role in the Mavericks 2011 championship run. A lot. Well, those days seem far away now, but Barea can still be a key contributor off the bench. He is the definition of a spark-plug, a high-energy pest that confounds defenses, managing the most improbable layups even when draped in defenders; a fierce competitor who wants to win any way he can.
This doggedness is a blessing and a curse for Barea, and we saw both sides last season. Early on, with a healthier rotation, Barea energized the offense when he came into the game. He wasn’t Ricky Rubio, but he got the team running in his own way, and the kick he delivered off the bench was a big part of the Wolves’ early success. But when the weight of injuries set in, Barea’s game took on a worrisome edge. He became too eager to dominate the ball and too ready to shoot the long three—even though he would occasionally knock one in from well beyond the arc. However, far too often a ridiculous heave early in the shot clock left Wolves fans groaning, especially when Barea tried to put the team on his back in crunch time.
So, the good news? With a healthy roster, Barea should have an abundance of chances to be Good Barea, and an extremely short leash should he attempt to be Hero Barea. Luke Ridnour’s steady and productive hand will be missed, but JJ Barea will bring a flair and intensity to the second unit that should set the tone for the whole group.
Alexey Shved- SG
There are a lot of reasons to believe that the ‘rookie wall’ that Shved hit last year (40% FG before January, 35% after) was a real phenomenon. Besides adjusting to a new style of play and the grueling and lengthy NBA season, Shved faced competition that was truly physically overpowering for the first time. His natural skills carried him at first, but as the season wore on, teams realized that they could out-muscle the 185-pound Shved. While he doesn’t have the body to bulk up in a huge way, working with NBA-caliber training staff should help adjust Shved to the marathon gauntlet that is the regular season.
If he can adjust, Alexey Shved will be a hell of a steal for the Timberwolves. Undrafted, out of CSKA Moscow, he immediately impressed last season with his playmaking skills and flashy drives. He shot best when he was able to play consistent minutes and find a rhythm. His shooting splits bear this out: he shot over 40% when he played more than 30 minutes, and a disastrous 28% when he got 10-19 minutes. While there might not be 30 minutes a night for him, if he can curtail the shooting woes, he should find a regular spot as backup shooting guard, where his passing skills will allow him to be the main facilitator of the second unit. His defense has been a surprising bright spot, and shouldn’t be a question moving forward.
It’s not often the Wolves manage to snag a player out of nowhere like Alexey Shved. The next time he surveys the court for an open man while hanging in mid-air, take a moment to cherish it. Oh, and he’s got one of the best nicknames in the league—Tiny Kukoc.
Chase Budinger – SF
Nicknamed “Meatball” by Pek, Chase Budinger brings the same upside that Kevin Martin does: he’s worked extensively with Rick Adelman and knows Adelman’s offense extremely well. This familiarity will probably earn him a starting spot on opening night, but Bud’s best role would be in the second unit. There’s plenty of offense to go around in the starting 5 between the two Kevin’s and big Pek, so Budinger can keep up the scoring in the second unit like Harden did for the Thunder.
Even with all of the other options on the market at the beginning of free agency, I was extremely bullish on Chase Budinger. He’s a great fit for the Timberwolves. He’ll bounce back from a season mostly stolen by an injury (thankfully not one with any lingering concerns) to find his shooting touch again. Thrown off by small sample size, his three-point numbers from last season were shaky, but pencil in 40% from downtown for the coming year. Besides the perimeter shooting, Budinger’s best asset is his off-ball movement, where he is always active and ready to make the heady play. Sometimes this nets his team a basket; other times it nets his team a win. It was a shame Wolves fans only got to see 20 games out of Budinger last season, but watching Budinger continue to grow and come into his prime over the next few years should make up for it.
Derrick Williams – PF
Dante Cunningham is probably the go-to backup power forward based on his play last year, but since we’re talking best case scenarios here, let’s imagine Derrick Williams takes this slot. How can he do it? He needs to continue to build on the real defensive progress that he made last year, and find the quickness to cover small forwards as well. Since he showed a lot of improvement on the defensive end in his second year, this isn’t a huge stretch.
He will also need to refine his game on the offensive end, which has looked rather sluggish in the past. Dante Cunningham makes his money with a consistent-as-hell 18-foot shoot—this won’t ever be Williams’ game. He needs to increase his three-point accuracy, but most importantly he needs to learn how to get to the rim. Too many drives by Williams ended in charges or sloppy turnovers last year. But the talent and the athleticism are there. When he learns to move with the ball as well as he can off the ball, he will be a formidable threat.
The improvements Williams made last season gives me hope that he will continue to work on his game. Hopefully, some friendly competition for minutes will fire him up rather than discourage him. If he can find the drive and the right path to take to keep perfecting his skills, he can start living up to the expectations that follow a #2 overall pick. If he can’t, Dante Cunningham will be right on his heels looking for those minutes.
Chris Johnson – C
But seriously, Chris Johnson looks to come into this season with serious improvements. He had a solid jump shot and a deft passing touch in Summer League. The former we’d seen bits of, but the latter came basically out of nowhere (Johnson put up 8 assists last season—total). If this isn’t just flash-in-the-pan Summer League magic, this will be a huge boost to his chances at earning playing time. A talented passer at center has long been a hallmark of Rick Adelman’s system: think Vlade Divac. If he shows a willingness in training camp to bring ball movement to his game along with ball destruction, he could have a serious chance at earning the backup center position.
No one expected a passing game from Johnson. So what gives? Well, Chris Johnson is a career-long journeyman who just played the most NBA games of his career in front of a fan base who went absolutely nuts for him. He was a bright shining beacon during the darkest stretch of the past season, and the fans responded. When he helped lead the Wolves to a victory over the Rockets, we even gave him an MVP chant. CJ is going to be working hard as hell in the offseason because this season is probably his best chance at earning a real place on an NBA team. He just might get it.
The Second unit
What will the second unit actually look like? Well, for one, we’ll probably see a lot of small ball, with Love at center. Beyond that, a lot is up in the air—Shved could end up at point guard, Shabazz could earn playing time, and Turiaf or Dieng could end up in the backup center spot. But the group laid out here could be seriously fun to watch. Barea and Shved will bring the energy and playmaking, and DWill and Chris Johnson will be there at the rim to slam it down, with Budinger trailing as a deadly presence on the wing. But whatever shape the second unit ends up taking, it’ll be one that Adelman thinks both features players who’ve earned the minutes, and the players who work the best together. Expect a lot fewer collapses this season when the starters take a rest.
What is your ideal second unit lineup? Share in the comments below!