A Winning Streak? Wolves win again, and random stats and jottings.

Combining a little bit of opponent-injury luck, a shorter playing rotation, and a rejuvenated Andrew Wiggins, the Timberwolves have won two games in a row against playoff-bound competition. On Wednesday night, playing in ESPN’s late-game slot, the Wolves beat the LA Clippers at Staples Center. This came fresh on the heels of a very disappointing loss in the same arena to Kobe Bryant’s Lakers. The 108-102 victory over the Clips is less impressive than it first seems, because Blake Griffin is sitting out with a busted hand. However, the Clips had won their 4 games heading into that matchup, and are surprisingly able to withstand an injury to Griffin due to their roster makeup, and the way Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan function as a combo, with JJ Redick spacing the floor with white-hot shooting. The Wolves won that game with late-game execution, Wiggins scoring 31 points, and Tayshaun Prince holding Redick to just 1 of 9 shooting from the field.

Last night, the Wolves were not on TV due to Minnesota’s hockey-day theme on FSN.  However, it didn’t seem to matter to the Wolves’ collective effort level, as they beat the Chicago Bulls 112-105, which means a season sweep against Fred Hoiberg’s squad. As with the Clippers matchup, the Wolves opponent was battling significant injuries. Chicago has been and will remain without Joakim Noah for a long time. But last night against the Wolves they were also missing All-Star wing, Jimmy Butler. Like the Clippers, though, the Bulls are able to field a pretty strong lineup even without their best guy – they had Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavey, and Derrick Rose — whatever shell of his old self he is now — all in the lineup last night. A Wolves win was far from a foregone conclusion and didn’t necessarily seem likely, given their struggles against decent competition for much of this season.

Against the Bulls, Karl-Anthony Towns (26 points, 17 rebounds, 3 blocks) and Gorgui Dieng (24 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists (!)) did the heavy lifting. Coach Sam Mitchell played each of Dieng and Towns 41 minutes, and after the game explained that when they are both playing so well, it’s hard for other players (cough, Nemanja Bjelica, cough) to crack the rotation. Mitchell always goes out of his way to praise Dieng, and last night he said that Gorgui is ahead of KAT as a defender, because of his experience level and understanding of concepts. He also mentioned that the two State-of-Kentucky college stars have become buddies off the floor and enjoy playing with each other. Interestingly, Mitchell used three-point shooter Damjan Rudez as his backup power forward, instead of Bjelica or Adreian Payne. Bjelica logged a DNP-CD.

Wiggins started off cold, going scoreless until a jumper finally fell with 2:28 to go in the first half. He ended strong, however, sliding back into that “Go-To Guy” role that he so awesomely filled in the early part of this NBA season when the Wolves were the surprise breakout team of the league at about the 1/5-mark of the season. Wiggins scored 17 second-half points to end with 21, and hit three straight shots with under two minutes to go; the first putting the Wolves up 1, then 3, then 5, which was a dagger jumper over two Bulls defenders. As the last jumper went up, Garnett could be heard yelling “ALL DAY! ALL DAY!” from behind the Wolves bench, before the shot fell.

We’re five days from All-Star Weekend. Before that, the Wolves play against Anthony Davis and the Pelicans (Monday) and the Toronto Raptors (Wednesday). Both games are at Target Center. The Pellies game is one that the Wolves can definitely win. They’re just 18-32 and have lost their past 4 games. The Raptors game will be much more difficult, and if the Wolves could somehow win it, it would rank among their best wins of the season.

A few random Wolves stats to wrap this up: Continue reading

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Looking Ahead: Wolves Need Another Big Man

 

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Festus Ezeli and Joakim Noah should be Timberwolves free agency targets.

This Timberwolves season is moving along really quickly. Tonight’s game against the Lakers at Staples Center will be their 50th. Eighty two games is too many to begin with, but when the night-to-night results become predictable — and especially when the usual prediction is another loss — the individual contests blur together and feel like one collection of themes instead of distinct stories. The Wolves have lost 18 of their past 21 games, so it’s pretty easy to know how each is going to turn out, most nights.

These Wolves have established themes:

KAT’s brilliance and Rookie of the Year campaign.

Zach LaVine’s ongoing education in Basketball Fundamentals.

Ricky Rubio’s positive on-court impact.

The Timberwolves immense struggles when Rubio sits on the bench.

Consistent scoring from Andrew Wiggins.

The yearning hope that Wiggins will expand his game over time.

The list goes on.

The next big event on the NBA calendar is All-Star Weekend. As always, this is soon followed by the trade deadline. The 2016 deadline falls on February 18. By all indications, the Timberwolves figure to be minor players, at most.

Since the unexpected passing of Flip Saunders right before the season began, the Wolves have seemed to defer large-scale decisionmaking until next offseason. They have been extra clear that Sam Mitchell is the “interim” head coach, not the permanent one. (They even introduce him as “interim” coach before home games.) They have not promoted Milt Newton from his general manager title. They have not hired a president of basketball operations. Glen Taylor is reportedly in the process of selling the team to a group of investors led by someone named Steve Kaplan.

Who is They? is a good question itself.

With so little certainty, and no clear boss of basketball operations, the Wolves will not make any aggressive moves between now and the trade deadline. The most significant move imaginable might be a trade involving Shabazz Muhammad or Gorgui Dieng. The most significant realistic move is probably something involving Kevin Martin and/or maybe Adreian Payne.

As these losses pile up, the deep craters in the roster become more apparent. The collective desire of fans to see them filled becomes palpable. Everybody grows tired of losing, even when patience is sometimes required.

The roster hole that I’ve been thinking about lately is the starting frontcourt spot next to Towns.

Towns is second on the team in minutes, and he’s been fantastic. He’s averaging 20 & 12 per 36 minutes at All-Star efficiency levels. He continues to improve and is one of the best rookies in modern NBA history. KAT can probably play either the 4 or 5, depending on who his frontcourt mate is, and who is opponent is. The problem, this season, has been that he has had no consistent partner up front. His best teammate, Kevin Garnett, has logged only 556 minutes, good for 10th most on the team. The vast majority of KG’s time (518 minutes) has been spent next to KAT, and their lineups have outscored opponents by 59 points. Clearly, it’s a combination that works. In KAT’s other 940 minutes of action, sans KG, Wolves lineups are outscored by 147 points. Clearly, the Wolves would be having a much better season if they had a good, full-time big man to pair with KAT. If they can find a player who replicates Garnett’s aggregate impact in ways that complement KAT’s skillset — and who does it in a starter’s load of minutes — their team will improve significantly.

That player is not Gorgui Dieng. He is a useful utility big man who can play spot minutes at either the 4 or 5, but is not talented or consistent enough to be a starter on a good team. He recently turned 26 years old and does not figure to improve significantly beyond this season.

That player is probably not Nemanja Bjelica. He has interesting skills — particularly as a perimeter-based initiator of offense from the 4 position — but has struggled to find confidence in the NBA setting. He somehow both carries a funny nickname that befits a sharpshooter — “Professor Big Shots” — yet refuses to take open three-pointers upon receipt of a nice kickout pass from a teammate. Defensively, Bjelica fouls too much and is not very athletic. He might improve. He probably will improve actually. But he’s older than Dieng — he turns 28 in May — and given his professional accomplishments in Europe, it’s a little bit alarming that his learning curve doesn’t appear to be steeper. It isn’t clear that he’s gotten better as opposed to worse, as this season has gone on.

Most disappointing of all candidates, the KAT sidekick will not be Nikola Pekovic. As the fresh Star Tribune story makes clear, Pek continues to experience pain in his lower extremities from playing basketball. The Achilles surgery didn’t do any magic trick to fix the simple reality that he has chronic problems and he’s much too heavy to be able to run up and down a basketball floor on a regular basis. Through a dozen games, Pek is shooting just 38 percent from the field, and pulling down a measly 4.8 rebounds per 36 minutes; about the same number as Zach LaVine. Pek is a shell of his former self.

With this in mind, I think there are two pretty basic ways that the Wolves can approach the task of lining up a quality big man next to Karl-Anthony Towns. And I think they would be wise to do both of them, as opposed to just one or the other.

The first is to sign a free agent this summer.

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Running with Ricky: A Way for this Wolves Team to Improve & Have Fun

Late in the second quarter of last night’s win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Andrew Wiggins was smiling. Shabazz Muhammad had just been fouled on a fast break shot attempt, and Wiggins helped him off the floor with a big grin on his face.* For the last few minutes of action, they — led by Ricky Rubio’s passes — had been running the Grizzlies off of the Target Center floor. Just a few minutes earlier when Rubio checked in, Memphis was leading by 5. After Shabazz went to the line and made both of his free throws, the Wolves led by 14. Wiggins was presumably smiling because he and Shabazz were having such an easy and fun time scoring on the fast break.

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Fun with the Eye Test

LSU's Ben Simmons

LSU’s Ben Simmons

Eds. Note: We decided to watch two of the highest touted players in this year’s upcoming NBA Draft, LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram. We basically flipped back and forth between the games and did ad-hoc eye tests of the two players. Be warned: This is not an analytics piece, it’s a fun comparison piece. Your mileage may vary. Have fun.

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Quarterly Report Card: Wolves Slide into Season’s Halfway Point

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After last evening’s blowout loss at Oklahoma City, the Timberwolves reached the season’s midway point. They have a 12-29 record. That they were at one time 8-8 and have not suffered any serious injuries this season (knocks on all of the wood) tells you just about everything you need to know about how their second quarter of the season — the last 20 games — went for them. They won 3 of those 20, defeating the Nets, the Kings, and the Jazz who were without most of their best players due to injuries. Many of the 17 losses, like last night’s, were lopsided.

However, since I need to write something and this represents a calendar benchmark of sorts, I’ll dig into the bloody details of the past quarter of the Wolves season. Just like last time, I’ll do letter grades, with each one representing the player’s performance in the last 20 games only.  All advanced stats referenced come from nba.com if they aren’t otherwise linked, and refer to the last 20 games of the season.

As with last time, grades take role and expectations into account. An A for one player doesn’t necessarily mean he’s playing better basketball than someone else with a B.

Ricky Rubio: A- (First Quarter Grade: B+)

Rubio grades out slightly better than last time (B+) for the simple reason that he played in all 20 games of the season’s second quarter. Health has been a major concern for Rubio in his career to date, and it’s nice to see him playing without any injury problems. His minutes remain a little bit low compared to how crucial he is to the team (30.4 per game) but some of that owes to the lopsided losses the Wolves have suffered in recent weeks. In those 30 minutes per game, Rubio has compiled impressive all-around stats including an assist-to-turnover ratio of 8.7 to 2.3. He averaged 2.7 steals per game in the second quarter of the season. Russell Westbrook leads the NBA with a 2.4 average overall. (Rubio trails him slightly at 2.3, playing fewer minutes.) Rubio’s net rating (+/- per 100 possessions) has been negative (-2.4 to be exact) but much better than all of his teammates who play significant minutes.

The two most interesting Rubio stats from the season’s second quarter: (1) When he sits on the bench, the Wolves are outscored by 18.3 points per 100 possessions. That is simply incredible. This team has simply been unable or unwilling to address its backup point guard problem in the last few seasons and it remains an abject disaster in the minutes Rubio doesn’t lead them; (2) Rubio is shooting 41.7 percent from three-point range. His form doesn’t look any different, but hey: We’ll take it! Almost nothing would be better for this team’s progress than Rubio improving as a perimeter shooter. In the occasional possession where the Wolves properly space the floor around a double-teamed Andrew Wiggins, the ball often ends up in Ricky’s hands with a three-point shot to be had, if he’ll take it. The better he becomes at knocking those down, the better the team will be.

Rubio remains a good player and despite how disastrously his team has been playing, he continues to do everything he can to help them try to win.

Zach LaVine: D (First Quarter Grade: B+)

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A Simple Play

If the Wolves spread the floor with uninvolved players standing behind the three-point line, particularly in the corners, they’d have more success. Last night, one simply play involving Bjelica and Wiggins demonstrated as much.

Kevin Martin actually brought the ball up the floor in a semi transition scenario and 4 Timberwolves spread out evenly around the arc, with Karl-Anthony Towns posted near the lane.

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Bjelica is playing the 4 and has Rockets big man Clint Capela on him. Capela’s natural instincts are to protect the paint first, so when Martin swings the ball to Bjelica, Capela has to close out hard.

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Wolves Keep Losing, Need Backup 1 & 4

The Timberwolves lost at home to the Dallas Mavericks yesterday, extending their current losing streak to 6 games. They’ve lost 10 of their last 11, and face a difficult upcoming schedule. Their next three games include an away game against James Harden’s Rockets bookended by a pair of matchups against the Thunder. The All-Star Break is 16 games and about a month away. Of those 16, the only ones that feel potentially winnable right now are the pair of games against Anthony Davis’s Pelicans, the home game against the dysfunctional Phoenix Suns, and a game at Staples Center against the Lakers. If I had to bet right now, I’d say the Wolves will win 2 of those 4, and maybe 1 random game out of the other dozen, which involve legit NBA teams that are putting away this Wolves team with ease.

Coming into the season, the Wolves were predicted by gamblers and experts to struggle. This was largely because of how young the roster is. Part of me wanted to believe that they’d exceed expectations for the simple reason that every time Ricky Rubio has been healthy, the Wolves have been competitive. Although Kevin Love was obviously a great teammate, there were times when Rubio-led Wolves teams had poor supporting casts, but he was able to set up enough dunks and open jumpers to make his teammates better and win games; sometimes against the best teams in the league. They beat the Spurs twice in Ricky’s first season with players like Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic, Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams logging significant minutes. I figured that if Ricky could win with those players, he might be able to do the same with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, too — even despite their extremely young ages and lack of experience.

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