Developing Chemistry within the Shabazz-Wiggins-Dieng Trio

blg 01 wolves presser

Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad share the distinction of being the only Timberwolves who have played in all 25 games of the 2014-15 season. They also constitute the closest thing this Wolves team has to a young core to build around; at least if you also include Ricky Rubio, who has been out this year with an ankle injury.

Wiggins is the number one pick with the physical tools, the tantalizing athleticism. For now and the foreseeable future, he’s unequivocally considered the franchise cornerstone. Wiggins is a 19-year old rookie. If he develops like the team hopes, he will almost certainly be a Timberwolf for 7 or 8 more seasons after this one.

Gorgui is the interior defender, the rim protector. He’s an efficient scorer who fills out the stat sheet with points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Gorgui works hard and does the dirty work. While his lack of “true center” size is a real issue, Flip Saunders believes that Gorgui is an NBA starter. Turning 25 next month, Dieng is significantly older than Wiggins and Muhammad. However, he is only in his second year of a bargain-level contract. (He earns about $1.4 Million this year, while out-producing some veterans around the league who earn 5 or 10 times more.) Provided his individual defense improves, there’s every reason to believe he will play the prime half-dozen seasons of his career in Minneapolis.

Shabazz has been a revelation. He’s quickly becoming a consistent, dominant scorer, as well as a tenacious rebounder from the wing position. On Friday against the Celtics, Shabazz posted his best all-around stat line, with 26 points (11-15 shooting), 5 rebounds and 5 assists. Barely 22 years old, Shabazz is improving at  shocking rate, and is becoming one of the best young offensive wing players in the league. Shabazz recently turned 22, and is also in his second year of a cheap deal. If the hot start proves to be sustainable, the Wolves will extend him for 4 more seasons beginning with 2017-18. In other words, he’ll be here for a long, long time.

Considering that the Wolves are in clear-cut rebuilding mode, one would assume that this young trio would be logging tons of minutes together, gaining experience and developing chemistry. But, so far anyway, that has not been the case.

According to nba.com’s lineup data, the Wiggins-Dieng-Muhammad trio has only played 112 minutes together in 15 games. Basic math tells us that’s just about 7.5 minutes per game for 15 games, and zero time spend together in the other ten. Again, this is not an injury issue, as each player has played in every single game this season. In that time together, this trio is outscored by 3.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s obviously not good compared to the rest of the league, but it is very good compared to other Timberwolves lineups: As a team, the Wolves net rating is (-11.5).

The two-man lineup data offers some explanation. Gorgui has played with Wiggins for 438 minutes, and with Muhammad for 289 minutes.

But Wiggins and Muhammad, the team’s best two wing players, have only shared the floor for 187 minutes in 18 games.

It would be in Flip’s best interests — both as coach of the current team and president of the franchise with a longer view — to change this pattern and begin to develop the chemistry of the team’s best young players by grouping them together during games.

The New York Knicks of the early 1970s are thought by many basketball historians to have had the best team chemistry the sport has ever seen. In “When the Garden was Eden,” Harvey Araton wrote that “somewhere along the way, the Old Knicks developed a cohesion that was impossible to plan for on paper.” While some (Jack Ramsay, quoted on the subject in the book) credited Bill Bradley for being the facilitator of the remarkable teamwork and chemistry, Bradley himself offered a simpler (and humbler) explanation:

“Rather than say, ‘Gee, my movement was the key,’ I’d say that the team jelled when five of us had to average about 40 minutes a game after Cazzie [Russell]’s injury.”

In other words, Bradley just thought they played like a team because they played so much together.

There are modern examples to look to for similar development.

Two seasons ago, Portland had the 5th most used four-man lineup in the NBA. Damian Lillard (a rookie), Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge played 1426 minutes together. While they played at a respectable level (+48) they were hardly world beaters. Their team ended the season 33-49. But the following year, the same foursome played together a ton, again, (1,555 minutes) and this time they were a (+249) and the Blazers won 54 games and a second-round playoff appearance.

This year, the Blazers are 22-6, having beaten the Spurs — the team who swept them from last year’s playoffs — twice, recently. That four-man lineup remains strong: they are (+116) in 502 minutes, and beating opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions.

A more cursory look around the league shows similar examples. The guys in Golden State have had some injuries to deal with, but Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Andrew Bogut have played a lot together over the past few years. They’ve improved more in bursts than on a linear track — the coaching change from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr being the most recent spike — but sheer repetition must have been a factor leading them to their current, best-in-the-league status.

Before Paul George’s injury and Lance Stephenson’s free agency departure, the Pacers had a similar growth. Without an A1 Superstar offensive player, the Pacers built a league-best defense and came very close to dethroning the Big Three Miami Heat even before LeBron went back to Cleveland.

There are others that I’m sure you can think of. The point is, more time together builds chemistry and chemistry builds success. And to this point, the Wolves have not been playing their future core together enough.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Timberwolves

In Memoriam: Timberwolves Trade Corey Brewer to the Houston Rockets

brew100

It’s official: my favorite Timberwolf of all-time is gone: on Friday, the Wolves traded Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf to Houston for guard Troy Daniels and two second-round picks, per Yahoo! Sports.

Woj had the beat, of course:

Brewer became famous last season for receiving and dunking Kevin Love’s outlet passes and for scoring 51 points in a game in Love’s absence.

Let us briefly appreciate this Bizarre Brewer Moment in history.

But Brewer was incompatible with Wolves POBO-Coach Flip Saunders’ rebuilding plan, which is focused on shedding age and salary and acquiring young talent and assets for future trades. (Eds. Note: Brewer is also famous for owning a pet goat named Billy.)

What does the Brewer trade mean?

Continue reading

4 Comments

Filed under Timberwolves

Breaking Down Anthony Bennett with Canis Hoopus’ Eric in Madison

Even Kyrie Irving vouched for Bennett going into the 2013 draft.

Even Kyrie Irving vouched for Bennett going into the 2013 draft. (Eds. Note: Disregard the Otto Porter-ness of this pic.)

Andy G and I recently engaged in an extended email dialogue with Canis Hoopus‘ Eric in Madison. (Eds. Note: If you’re a Wolves fan–if you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure you are–Canis Hoopus needs no introduction. The guys over there have the beat on the latest Wolves news and chatter.) EiM posted the conversation over on his site a few days ago. We decided to run it over here for those of you who only visit the site for wildly-optimistic fanboi takes on Anthony Bennett’s raw talent and killer mixtapes.

The cross-post from CH is below the fold.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Timberwolves

Quarterly Timberwolves Report

wolves graph

Don’t corporations do quarterly reports? I’ve never prepared one or even worked for a corporation, but I think that they do. (Googling) Okay, yeah, quarterly finance reports are a thing. I didn’t dream that up. According to Wiki, they are “required by numbers of stock exchanges around the world to provide information to investors on the state of a company.”

Since the Timberwolves are at roughly the quarter-point of this NBA season, it seems like a good time to reflect on what’s happened; specifically, how everybody is playing. I’ll do this in letter grade format, going through each player, organized by position. The grades are on a curve, based on my expectations for the player heading into the season. So an A doesn’t mean the player is better than someone who earned a D; just that he’s doing great for what could’ve been expected, versus the other player who is underperforming. Hopefully that makes sense.

Guards

Ricky Rubio – Incomplete

Continue reading

6 Comments

Filed under Timberwolves

Appreciating Zach LaVine’s Diverse (and Elite) Company

Zach LaVine is playing with vigor, albeit inconsistently

Zach LaVine is playing with vigor, albeit inconsistently

 

Perhaps the most interesting stat line in Saturday night’s loss to the Spurs came from Wolves rookie Zach Lavine. Lavine scored 22 points and had 10 assists. It was his second-best game of the season. (Eds. Note: Lavine’s best game was his career-high 28 point night in the Wolves last win, against the Lakers in Los Angeles, on November 28.)

Take Lavine’s numb#rs with a grain of salt: Lavine, starting again at the point in place of the injured Ricky Rubio and Mo Williams, was going against the Spurs’ second unit. Tony Parker, the Spurs’ superstar point guard, had tweaked a hamstring injury the night before in the Spurs win at Memphis, and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat Parker on Saturday against the Wolves.

(Eds. Note: Pop also sat star guard Manu Ginobili in the game but played Tim Duncan, who fucked around and got a triple-double the night before in the Spurs win over the Grizzlies.) So Lavine had more breathing room to get his bearings at the point.

Lavine’s Line

So, why should we care about Lavine’s numb#rs? Because Lavine’s night puts him into incredibly interesting company: LeBron James, Stephon Marbury, and Dajuan Wagner. Who, exactly, is that company?

The most important point to note is that the trio of teen NBAers who’d put up 20/10 double-doubles in points and assists is INCREDIBLY (!) cool. Just read the names again: Lebron James, Stephon Marbury, and DaJuan Wagner. They had special paths to the NBA. Now Zach Lavine is on that list. He didn’t. But he brings at least some of the “something-something” those guys brought, at least some of us think, and the Wolves front office seems to believe, since they were the ones who drafted him this past summer.

Lebron, Steph, and Juanny are and were cool in very different ways. What they all had in common was that as high school players, they were viewed as “the next coming.”

But the next coming of what? The answer is that it was different for each. But for each, it was some type of basketball greatness.

Let’s briefly walk them through, one-by-one.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Timberwolves

Shabazz: Always interesting, but now his team’s best player.

'Bazz plays tonight against 'Bron and Beas.

Since he was drafted in June 2013, Shabazz Muhammad has been the most interesting player on the Timberwolves. This is true for many reasons, including but not limited to the following:

  • Shabazz was the number one rated high school prospect in his class, according to rivals.com. By other respected sources he was number two.
  • In those prep years, Shabazz was playing under the wrong age; he was actually one year older than he was listing. Over an extended period of time, under national spotlight, this was obviously not an accident.

  • Shabazz has Tourette syndrome.

  • In his lone season at UCLA, Shabazz’s performance gave rise to polarized reactions; the math projection models hated him, the eye test kinda liked him.

  • Shabazz has had a complicated relationship with his father, Ron Holmes, who was heavily involved in his basketball upbringing. This includes the decision to lie about his age. In 2013, Shabazz told interviewers that his dad was no longer a big part of his basketball life. He had to set “gound rules, in that respect.” Holmes was convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud in 2014. These legal issues have undoubtedly been a distraction and source of stress for Shabazz during the beginning of his basketball career.

Since being drafted by the Timberwolves, Shabazz’s mystique has only grown. He sat on the bench for most of his rookie season; one in which his team was gunning for a playoff spot that was not to be. Once it became clear that the Wolves were not playoff-bound, the retiring Rick Adelman began to play his rookies a little bit. While Gorgui Dieng was the late-season revelation — posting a 20/20 game, and general productivity across the board — Shabazz also impressed fans in flashes.

In a late-February game at Phoenix — one the Suns badly needed for their own playoff hopes — Shabazz was the game’s MVP. In 24 minutes of the most energized bench play we’d ever seen around these parts, Muhammad scored 20 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, and collected 2 steals, leading his team to unexpected victory. Despite that great performance, his playing time did not stick, though he did have more moments and flashes in the final weeks of his rookie campaign.

Then came the off-season, which seems to have been a pivotal one for Shabazz. He came into the NBA a little bit like his fellow Bruin/Timberwolf, Kevin Love, in that he was carrying a bit more weight around than would be recommended for a basketball player. He didn’t have a “gut,” in the white-collar, nine-to-fiver sense, but he also wasn’t ripped like most NBA wings are.

That’s changed.

Shabazz spent the summer in California working out with Frank Matrisciano, a Navy SEALS trainer with unconventional methods but proven results. The workouts, which are called “chameleon training,” obviously proved beneficial for Shabazz. He looked so much leaner at Media Day — even in his face — that I barely recognized him as the same person from a few months back.

And that brings us to the present, and the most interesting fact of all about Shabazz Muhammad:

Right now, he is the best player on the Timberwolves.

You can bold, underline, or italicize the “right now,” because it’s an important qualifier. When Ricky Rubio is healthy, he’s a better all-around player than Muhammad. Ricky doesn’t score as many points, but his impact on team success is more substantial and proven over a multiple-seasons track record. The same is probably true about Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic. Thaddeus Young has played below his career averages this year, dealing with a new environment and a personal tragedy, or maybe he’d be above ‘Bazz, too.

But right now, it’s pretty much a fact that Shabazz is playing better than all of his teammates.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Timberwolves

Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 9: Ricky and the Rest

Ricky Rubio's ankle injury may end up as the season's defining event.

Ricky Rubio’s ankle injury may end up as the season’s defining event.

In which we discuss what the team is (or, rather, isn’t) without Ricky Rubio, our impressions of the Wolves youngsters so far, and whether Flip Saunders looks like a good coaching fit in Minnesota.

(And, yes, a little Zach Lavine).

Enjoy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Podcasts