So far, so good for Timberwolves' second unit
In recent years, the Minnesota Timberwolves' second unit could be summed up as such: Shabazz Muhammad would try to single-handedly provide the offense, the defense would pray for misses on the other end and the Wolves' coaching staff would close its eyes and hold its breath until enough time had passed that the starters could come back into the game.
Tom Thibodeau got a chance to live through the experience last season, and he decided to do something about it this offseason. He signed Jamal Crawford to serve as Minnesota's sixth man and inked veteran forward Taj Gibson, which allowed former starter Gorgui Dieng to anchor the reserve unit.
Early results have been mixed. In general, the bench still isn't getting a lot of playing time and advanced stats for the reserves as a whole aren't flattering. But the eye test suggests the bench is more stable and capable. And, anecdotally, there have been bright spots.
The only reason Minnesota beat Utah—its opponent Monday, Nov. 13—in October was because Crawford went off for 17 fourth-quarter points. And while the starters were miserable in Saturday's loss to Phoenix, Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica were the two best players in Wolves jerseys.
And there is one stat—maybe the one that matters most—in which the second unit has succeeded. The five-man lineup of Jones, Crawford, Muhammad, Bjelica and Dieng has played nearly 54 minutes together this season, often at the start of the second quarter. That lineup has outscored its opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions.
In short, the bench is often building on leads or closing deficits.
"That's huge when you have a bench that's locked in and that solid," starting center Karl-Anthony Towns said. "When you can trust your bench to go into a game and do not only as good, (but) even better job than the starters, that speaks volumes about, one, our front office, and two, our team."
Thibodeau likes the way the bench executes as a group, and that is only improving as the unit's familiarity with one another grows. Jones, Muhammad and Bjelica had some chemistry stemming from last season, but the dynamic has changed with Crawford and Dieng tossed into the group.
"So just that team chemistry, it's going to continue to get better," Jones said. "We're just trying to show that."
Crawford said the reserves "understand what our job is. ... And I think we're figuring out what works for us on both sides of the ball, and that's where we're having some success."
Jones said their goal each day is simple.
"To try to be better collectively as a unit," he said. "Not looking at 'I', but looking at what we do as a second unit coming into games."
Each player has brought something to that second unit. Crawford is a leader who provides a scoring punch, Jones gets the offense organized, Dieng has been good defensively and on the glass, Bjelica has hit the outside shot and defended, and Muhammad is still good for a scoring spark.
"I can share the load now with Bjelly and Gorgui and Jamal and those guys," Muhammad said. "Last year it was just me, basically, trying to do a lot of the scoring load. That's why we're so good now. We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of things."
How good is this group?
"I think we have one of the best second units in the league," Muhammad said. "We have a really, really good second unit, and if you want to be a good team, you've got to have a good second unit, and that's something that I think we have."
Thibodeau also likes the versatility the added depth gives the Wolves. They can go big, playing someone like Bjelica at small forward, or they can play small, mixing in Muhammad or Crawford with the other starters.
"If we want to match up with somebody that they have, I think we have guys," Thibodeau said.
No bench player is averaging 20 minutes a game, though guys like Bjelica and Dieng have been exceptional in their short stints. If the second unit continues to play well, more minutes could be on the horizon.
"The better the bench plays, the longer they'll play," Thibodeau said. "I like the way they've been playing."