Timberwolves struggling without valuable role players

All of the shine from New Orleans’ 119-118 victory over the Timberwolves was rightfully directed toward Zion Williamson on Wednesday.

The all-world forward put up 33 of his 43 points in the second half, including scoring the Pelicans’ final 14 points. And yet it was a lesser-known figure who made the two most-important plays in the game’s closing 10 seconds.

Rookie guard Dyson Daniels soared over D’Angelo Russell to grab an offensive rebound for the Pelicans with the score tied 118-118. Daniels then hit a cutting Williamson, who was fouled on his way to the basket and hit the ensuing go-ahead free-throw attempt.

Minnesota had enough time to get off a potential game-winning shot on the other end. To no one’s surprise, the Timberwolves turned to Edwards. But it was again Daniels, the 6-foot-8 19-year-old, who stuck to Edwards like glue, forcing a tightly-contested missed shot at the buzzer.

Those are the types of key contributions from supporting cast members that help you pull out competitive basketball games. Those are the types of plays the Timberwolves have not gotten for the better part of the past month.

That’s because the guys who would give the Wolves those types of plays have been largely unavailable.

Jordan McLaughlin, Taurean Prince and Kyle Anderson are Minnesota’s “connectors,” the players who do the little things that help win games and make life easier for higher-profile players. They move the ball offensively, defend at a high level and generally play with the intensity and smarts that leads to winning basketball.

It’s no coincidence that Minnesota is struggling in a season in which those three have combined to miss 44 games.

The Timberwolves (16-19) are a .500 team with Anderson on the floor this season, and they’re 10-8 in games that Prince plays and in games McLaughlin is in action.

McLaughlin is the team’s runaway leader in net rating among rotation players, with Minnesota outscoring its opponents by 14.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Prince is No. 2 (3.3) in that statistic, and Anderson is tied for fifth (0.6).

With those three on the court, the Timberwolves are a winning basketball team. Without them, they’re not. Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell, Rudy Gobert, etc., all become better players with “connectors” on the floor.

McLaughlin sparks pace and ball movement on offense and is the Wolves’ top “chase” defender when it comes to tracking opponents flying around screens. Prince is a strong wing defender who is perhaps the best at playing off the catch on offense, and Anderson is a strong veteran defender and rebounder who also can help an offense hum via his prudent decision-making.

The absence of Karl-Anthony Towns continues to grab the majority of the headlines, but it’s the lack of the others that has sent Minnesota tumbling down a cliff.

When they’re all out at the same time — as has been the case since Dec. 19 — the Timberwolves’ depth deteriorates to the point where coach Chris Finch is left without depth. So rather than being afforded the luxury of going with players who fit certain scenarios or matchups, Finch is simply left to cobble together a lineup of available players, regardless of how well those players are or are not playing. Minnesota is being outscored by 9.5 points per 100 possessions in Bryn Forbes’ minutes this season, but where else is the coach to turn at the moment?

Since that Dec. 19 mark, Minnesota is 1-4.

A reprieve may be on its way as early as the Timberwolves’ game Friday in Milwaukee. Finch hopes Anderson returns to take on the Bucks. But McLaughlin (calf strain) and Prince (shoulder) remain out. So long as that remains the case, it’s on others to to step up in the winning-plays department, so the absence of “role players” isn’t so damaging.

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