The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 7

In which we review the preseason, prospects for the regular season, and Mike Penberthy.

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Bennett & Rubio Lead Wolves Over Pacers (WOLVES 107, Pacers 89)

For the second and final time, the 2014-15 Timberwolves played in front of their home crowd, in a game that did not actually matter. Like their first preseason home game, the Wolves were victorious; this time convincingly so. Anthony Bennett and Ricky Rubio led a balanced scoring attack in the Wolves 107-89 win over the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers sat David West and Rodney Stuckey, and are notoriously without Paul George for an extended period of time. The Wolves sat Andrew Wiggins with, as Flip Saunders described it, a swollen butt. “He has a third butt,” Saunders explained. Wiggins apparently fell on his rear end in the recent loss against the Bucks. He’s likely to sit out of tomorrow night’s game as well.

But even with those key absences, there were some interesting takeaways.

First and foremost was the play of Bennett. The 2013 number one pick continues to show promise. Tonight he scored 17 points on 7-9 shooting, along with 5 rebounds in just under 17 minutes of action. He scored in a variety of ways around the basket: a tip-in, a cutting finish off a Pekovic hand off, and three buckets in the 4th Quarter off of Mo Williams assists. Also, and less impressively, he (appeared to) accidentally bank in a long jumper from the wing in the first quarter.

In the early part of the game, Bennett looked a little bit anxious, and –aside from that accidental bank — he wisely went about setting screens to get comfortable. When he caught a pass at the top of the key, he quickly swung it around to the other wing. As the game went on, he sought out more scoring opportunities. His jumper comes quick off the catch, with a high release. While he is rapidly developing chemistry with Williams and the second unit, he could form a nice 1-4 pairing with Rubio as well.

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Bill and Jalen on the Timberwolves

Bill and Jalen

Bill and Jalen

Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose are back with their NBA Preview. Shot in countdown-style Youtube videos that go team-to-team, from projected best to projected worst, you get a 15-minute read-in to what these guys really think about each team. As such ubiquitious basketball personalities, whose “meta” usually covers the entire league, it’s a different thing when, each season, Bill and Jalen “drill down” into their rankings and outlook for each and every NBA team.

Today, Bill and Jalen posted their annual video about the Wolves. Here’s what I thought they were off and on about:

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Connecting the Dots that Might Determine Ricky Rubio’s Future

rubiodots

A lot is happening in the life of Ricky Rubio. The Timberwolves point guard is entering his fourth season in the NBA, and the first without head coach Rick Adelman and sidekick power forward Kevin Love. Replacing Love are players who’re more athletic but less skilled and far less developed. The new narrative surrounding the team has naturally cast Ricky as its next leader.

But the story is more complicated than one young man’s ascension to leadership.

Rubio and his agent Dan Fegan are in a stage of negotiations for a contract extension with the Wolves; the deadline is October 31st. If they don’t strike a deal, Ricky will play this season knowing he will become a (restricted) free agent, next summer.

On top of that off-court distraction, his jump-shooting struggles warranted the hiring of a special shooting coach.

And perhaps most importantly, all of this is happening in the wake of a franchise crossroads where — largely out of necessity — the team is rebuilding around youth instead of seriously competing for a playoff berth. Even though it seems natural that the Wolves will become Ricky Rubio’s team, it might not happen. Rubio was notably absent from the team’s offseason marketing campaign. How he fits into a fresh rebuild remains to be seen, and his future as a player is cloudier than many would have expected a short time ago.

Let’s begin with the “dots”; the issues and factors that surround Rubio as Timberwolves point guard, and then analyze how those dots could be connected for different purposes.

The Dots

Rubio’s Contract Situation

First of all, Rubio will earn about $4.7 million this season. That much is certain.

The question is what about after this season. Rubio and the Timberwolves have less than three weeks to reach a deal, else they have to wait until next summer when he will be a restricted free agent. The latest report is that the Wolves have offered him the handsome sum of $48 million for a four-year contract. Rubio–almost certainly at the direction of his agent–is demanding a five-year “max” salary. The Wolves are unwilling to give him this deal right now, which almost every pundit agrees is beyond his market value.

This means that Rubio will probably play this upcoming season with an (effectively) expiring contract, and the knowledge that his performance on the court will go a long way in determining his financial and residential future.

Can Ricky Learn to Shoot?

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Searching for Simple

Grantland’s Zach Lowe, to Pacers Coach Frank Vogel: “Who dribbles the ball into the paint for your team? How are you guys going to create offense this year? That has to be a concern. Your two best off-the-dribble guys are gone, and Rodney Stuckey is on the team, George Hill is talking about taking an increased role, but you’ve gotta… and you can penetrate the defense with the pass, which you guys do with post-ups, and stuff, but you’ve gotta be a little bit concerned about, ‘How are we driving and kicking? How are we getting into the teeth of a defense?'”

Vogel: “If you bring two to the ball, if you screen appropriately, you bring two to the ball, and then you pass it, or you attack the help, I think anybody can get in the lane and we’ve got guys that are more than capable… George Hill, C.J. Watson at the point guard spot, are good penetrators. They can get in there off the bounce… Rodney Stuckey, that’s his specialty, and he’s gonna be a big-minutes guy for us this year. So he’ll be able to get in the lane, and then obviously you can attack with the pass. You know, bring two the ball, attack, draw help, share it, and then when you have a defense in rotation, you have them right where you want them, you can attack the paint at will. So it’s gonna be about bring two to the ball and forcing rotations to get where we want offensively, this year.”

Lowe: “So, pick-and-roll solves all problems. Screening solves all problems. You can generate it even if you don’t have a one-on-one…”

Vogel: “Well, we have to. And obviously for some teams, it’s easier. Some teams have players that can do it on their own. And some teams need to rely on ball movement, player movement, and screening, and that’s what we’re going to have to become.”

I had some scattered thoughts about last night’s preseason win over Philly when I listened to Lowe’s excellent podcast this morning. I thought it might help frame a discussion at a time when there are so many more questions than answers. The quoted back-and-forth gets to the heart of a fundamental challenge in basketball:

The offense trying to get defenders out of place, and the defense trying to stay true to its principles and prevent efficient shot attempts.

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Wolves Drop Preseason Opener: A Few Notes

The Timberwolves first preseason game could best be described as sloppy. This isn’t unexpected, given the fact that they were playing so many young guys. (Minutes for first and second-year players: Wiggins: 32; Dieng: 29; Muhammad: 25; LaVine: 25; Hummel: 23; Robinson III: 12; Heslip: 1.) But that excuse is partially removed by the fact that the starting unit — and some of the veteran players in particular — did not look good. They fell down by more than 20 at times, and ultimately lost 103-90.

Ricky Rubio’s unit looked out of sync for much of its time on the floor. Ricky shot 1-6 in 18 minutes. He had 4 assists and 3 turnovers and never had the space to operate that we would all hope to see, this year. Thaddeus Young came out hot and finished with a solid 12/4/2 in 18 of his own minutes, but was unable to stop the bleeding when the Pacers started to pour it on. Gorgui Dieng had 16 & 10 and looked very good at times, particularly in the second half. But the number one concern for him — his ability to hold his position on defense against big centers — was not put to rest by the way Roy Hibbert backed him down on the block in the first half.

The bright spot for the Timberwolves was Andrew Wiggins. The rookie looked more like a veteran than most of the veterans did. He put together an impressive stat line of 18 points (on 11 field goal attempts), 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 blocks, 1 steal and 0 turnovers in 32 minutes of action. Wiggins made multiple threes, and then made the rest of his living at the foul line, where he shot 8-10 for the game. Aggressive drives to the basket — even without the smoothest handle in the world — was my “thing I’d like to see” from Wiggins, in my last post. That’s what he delivered in Exhibition 1. At Kansas, despite some less-than-elite metrics, Wiggins shot 6.5 free throws per his 32.8 minutes per game. If that carries over quickly to the NBA, his transition will be made pretty easily.

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What I’d Like to See from the Timberwolves: A Player-By-Player Breakdown

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Kansas Practice

I don’t know if we’ll do any sort of formal “preview” of this upcoming Timberwolves and NBA season. We’ll probably come up with something, shortly before the regular season begins at the end of October. But for the next three weeks until that point comes, just about everything posted here can be considered previewy content.

Along those lines today, I felt like writing about each Timberwolves player and list one thing that I hope to see from him, this season. My only rule is that it has to be realistic. (No Pekovic 360 dunks, in other words, even though they would be cooler than anything that I list below.)

So with that for introduction, here goes, in reverse order of importance:

J.J. Barea: I’d like to see J.J. waived, bought out, traded for a future 2nd Rounder, or otherwise off of the roster, so that Glenn Robinson III can be one of the fifteen Timberwolves, this season. Barea has a place in the NBA, and that place is (Marcellus Wallace voice) “pretty f&*king far from” the role he would be asked to fill on this year’s Timberwolves roster; that being a mentor of young players who does not mind sitting out of games, sometimes in their entirety. So I would like the Wolves to get rid of J.J. (Sorry, @brianjacobson!) Continue reading

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