Shifting Expectations, Wolves Lose Big to Thunder


Tyus Jones, barely removed from Apple Valley High, started at point guard tonight versus Russ Westbrook.

How a person feels about tonight’s preseason game against the Oklahoma City Thunder depends largely on what that person expected, going into the game, and why they held those expectations. Ricky Rubio has been held out of action for the past few days and we knew that he would not play tonight. (His ailments are not expected to be serious or threaten his regular-season availability.) Add to that the announcement that 19-year old, was-attending-Apple Valley-High-School-17-months-ago Tyus Jones would replace Rubio in the starting lineup against Russell Westbrook, and nobody could reasonably expect a successful outcome. Along with the Jones/Rubio lineup swap, Sam Mitchell made a surprising proclamation yesterday: Zach LaVine will be this team’s starting shooting guard; not Kevin Martin, who was named the starter by… well, himself, at Media Day. This announcement was Mitchell putting bold, italized, capitalized type on that DEVELOPMENT word that he has been throwing around ever since taking over coaching duties. LaVine as a Day 1 starter sends a clear message that potential, and future take priority over actualized ability and the present.

So with all of that built into people’s respective Game Previews, a 23-point loss to the full-strength (well, aside from Steven Adams) Thunder was not surprising. The Wolves starting lineup featured two one-and-done rookies, and two one-and-done sophomores. None of these four are old enough to legally enter a bar in Downtown Minneapolis and yet there they were, all four of em trying to guard Westbrook, Durant, and Ibaka.

Defense was the big, obvious problem tonight. Aside from when Kevin Garnett was on the floor (all of 7 minutes 52 seconds) and when Westbrook and Durant were on the bench (they were both game-high +22’s) the Wolves simply could not get stops. Westbrook was coming off of high ball screens and flooring the accelerator straight down the middle of the lane. Help usually came, but the defense was so out of sorts that Russ was able to do something good with the ball almost every time. He had 14 points and 13 assists on the night, and was every bit as insane out there as he would be in a Finals game.

When the Thunder were not rolling behind Westbrook penetration (or transition sequences) they were running Durant off of Enes Kanter down screens, setting up equally unstoppable action on the wing. Durant, against this defense anyway, makes this a pick-your-poison proposition if there ever was one. Too much help led to nifty passes slipped to Kanter for an easy two points. Not enough help meant, well, Durant would score it himself.

In my opinion, the Westbrook stuff was more preventable (by a hypothetical, good defensive team) than what Durant was doing on the wing. I think Ricky Rubio would do a much better job than Jones and Lorenzo Brown did of jumping out, forcing Russ different directions from where he wanted to go, and at least making him do something besides those halfback dives to the rim.

In any case, the defense struggled. They gave up 122 points on 56 percent field goal shooting. It’s hard to say anything but bad stuff about that. It looked like last year, with the caveat that they (for 22 of the 48 minutes, when Russ & KD played) were facing elite competition.

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Notes on a Scrimmage: Bjelica Shines when the Defense is Moving

The Timberwolves opened up Target Center on Monday night to fans, providing a free-of-charge opportunity to see this year’s team play against itself in a semi-formal intrasquad scrimmage. There were refs and a scoreboard. There was not regulation time being kept. A team primarily comprised of Tyus Jones, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Nemanja Bjelica, Damjan Rudez and Karl-Anthony Towns easily defeated a team primarily comprised of Andre Miller, Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad, Adreian Payne, Lorenzo Brown and Gorgui Dieng. The final score was 68-54, but the deficit was over 20 for most of the night.

As individuals, just about each player did some nice things at different points in the scrimmage. Jones showed that he knows how to play off of a ball screen and knock down perimeter jumpers. LaVine mixed in accurate jumpshooting with a dash of playmaking here and there. He also threw down a dunk or two. He nearly jammed right over Gorgui on the baseline, but was hacked too hard to hang onto the ball, so he went to the line instead. Wiggins made some shots and probably looked to facilitate for others a bit more than we’re used to seeing from him. Towns went hard after rebounds, talked on defense, and converted different types of shots near the basket.

On the losing team, things were less pretty. Miller did Miller things – a crafty layup here, a how-did-he-end-up-with-the-ball offensive rebound there. Martin was trying to bait refs into fouls in the early going, mostly to no avail. Muhammad missed badly on his first few shot attempts, but had more success later on both dribble drives and hard curling cuts. Dieng seems frustrated right now (in a general way, probably tied to his likely reserve status on this year’s team) but plays hard and made some things happen.

The most obvious player to talk about after the scrimmage is Nemanja Bjelica, both because this was the first time that we have seen him play in person (and for many, the first time they have seen him play at all) and also because he played very well, tonight. The media was questioning Coach Sam Mitchell about Bjelica immediately after the scrimmage, and Mitchell said that his new forward is sometimes “too unselfish,” but he has a hard time yelling at a player for that; he’d much prefer it to the opposite problem. Bjelica looked comfortable mixing it up for rebounds in the interior, and — on offense — thrived most when catching a pass after the defense had already begun shifting. Usually that shifting was in response to a ball screen that preceded his receiving the ball. Without that shifting, the entire Wolves team struggled offensively. They ended up with a spread out, 1-2-2 formation with wing entries and ball reversals that have almost no effect against modern NBA defenses, which are oftentimes a 1-2-2 shell masked as man-to-man.

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Impressions from Media Day: A Player by Player Breakdown


Andrew Wiggins: Man of Few Words

The Timberwolves, along with most other NBA teams, hosted their annual Media Day today. At Target Center, players dressed up in their white game uniforms and posed for pictures out on the arena floor. After general manager Milt Newton and head coach Sam Mitchell were finished, each player took a turn at the front of the press room, answering whatever questions came their way.

There were some common themes and answers throughout. Most, if not everybody was asked about Flip Saunders being away from the team in cancer recovery. Each response was the same; both predictable and unquestionably genuine: everybody wishes for, and expects a strong recovery for Saunders while he spends time (entirely) away from the Timberwolves. Of note, Newton reiterated that there is to be zero contact with Flip right now, per the directive of Glen Taylor. His recovery is not only the most important thing to Taylor and the Saunders Family, but it is the only thing.

Another basic, common message that seemed to repeat itself was that Sam Mitchell is a more intense coach than Saunders. The players have only been exposed to Head Coach Mitchell in the open gym setting thus far, but they are already convinced that he will be more of a disciplinarian; more of a yeller. When Kevin Martin was asked if that is an outdated teaching style in today’s NBA, he said no, and pointed to Gregg Popovich and the Spurs who respond to harsh criticisms because they respect the person dishing it out. He says these players have similar respect for Mitchell and it will not be a problem. That seems like both the right attitude to take, and also something that can’t be proven true for at least a couple months.

What follows are my biggest takeaways from each individual presser. These are my interpretations here, and I’ll paraphrase most comments because I was taking notes instead of recording. I thought there were a lot of interesting answers in an event that is sometimes filled with safe cliches.

Milt Newton
Newton went first today. He said the Wolves will try to be a more aggressive defensive team than they were last year. Newton talked about Ricky Rubio and said that they won’t worry about what Ricky can or cannot do. He is going to run the offense and take open shots. There was something relieving about the way he made that seem so simple and obvious. Newton said that, from a roster building standpoint, they had “the whole board covered,” on player development. KG will mentor the bigs, Tayshaun Prince the wings, and Andre Miller the guards.

Sam Mitchell
Coach Mitchell had a few noteworthy things to say, when he wasn’t passing over reasonable questions by playing the “It’s too early” card. As he told Jerry Zgoda in his recent interview for the Star Tribune, Mitchell made clear that this season is more about player development than winning now. When pressed for more detail, he said that the young players will need the opportunity to play in games, in order to get better. He said he was less concerned about the veterans’ minutes (meaning Miller/Prince/KG).

Mitchell was pressed on his three-point shooting philosophy and it sounded exactly like Flip Saunders’. Based on his answers today, Mitchell does not believe that teams go out of their way to generate good three-point shots throughout the game, but instead those shots come out of the flow of an offense. This was not encouraging, but we’ll see what sort of sets he runs and what they lead to.

A final point from Mitchell was that he wants these young players to first do the things that they are comfortable doing, before branching out into other areas. This is the opposite of what Flip did with Wiggins last year, when he was constantly putting pressure on him to attack, attack, attack. It is also the opposite of what Kurt Rambis used to do when he would emphasize how he was making players do things they had not done before. It seems more from the Adelman and (long before him) Bill Musselman schools of thought, in terms of putting players in position to do what they can do well, in games.

Kevin Garnett
KG was a riot. He started things out — after fist bumping a few familiar faces from the local press — by asking that nobody ask him any stupid questions. If anyone violated that basic request, he’d end it and go home. Everyone laughed. KG wanted to be clear that the Wolves have a GREAT — not good, GREAT — group of young guys here that are eager to learn. When talking himself through a question about whether he could’ve imagined his career going full circle and ending here, he said probably not, but also, “I am a Minnesotan.” He acknowledged that he plans to become an owner of this team. He talked interestingly about how in Minnesota the first time around he tried to be a “two-way player,” and that when he went to Boston he shifted his emphasis to defense first. On what position he likes better, there was no ambivalence: “I still hate the center position.”

However many games he plays this year, I hope we get a lot of Kevin Garnett media availability.

Tyus Jones
Local product Tyus Jones was his typical calm, smooth self, fielding questions and giving out answers that said all of the right things. Tyus seemed to understand completely that his transition period will take a while, and he showed no signs of any impatience in that regard. He’s going to learn from the pros playing ahead of him. He knows that his minutes will be limited, if not mostly non-existent. Continue reading

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Wolves to Buy Out Bennett, Instant Reactions


I made a pretty simple photoshop before the 2013 Draft about who the Wizards might draft. Anthony Bennett somehow found it and instagrammed it. Then Kyrie Irving liked it. The world is a small place.

Andy G: Wolves Making a Mistake

He’s so talented in a variety of areas that we needed to just simplify what we expect of him. If he does that, the rest of it is (going to) fall into place.

—-Jay Triano, head coach of Team Canada, on Anthony Bennett

The Wolves are working on a contract buyout with Anthony Bennett, according to Woj. The report indicates that Bennett’s representatives are pushing for this so that he can find a better opportunity for playing time. Minnesota has no clear long-term option at AB’s power forward spot, but their current roster includes a lot of competition at that position and in the frontcourt as a whole. Depending on health over the course of the season, they could have Kevin Garnett, Nemanja Bjelica, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Adreian Payne, Nikola Pekovic, and maybe even Shabazz Muhammad vying for frontcourt minutes.

Presumably more important to Bennett and his agent Jeff Schwartz than his immediate playing time, however, is his longer term contract situation. The Timberwolves, or whatever team holds his rights in the next few weeks, has to decide before November whether or not to exercise Bennett’s option for the 2016-17 season, which would put them on the hook for that year’s guaranteed salary ($7.3 Million) but also avail themselves of his restricted free agency matching rights, in the event that his career takes off and he eventually becomes a hotter commodity than he is now.

Clearly, the Timberwolves have already decided that they will not be picking up that option. If that was not the case, his agent would not be trying to get him out of Minnesota in such a hurry. I don’t know the exact mechanics of a buyout and what it means for Bennett’s current contract status (and since it won’t impact the Timberwolves I don’t plan on researching it) but if he can find another team that will give him some minutes and an active role in a functional offense, it probably increases the odds that he’ll sign a second NBA contract and find some stability after what has been one of the rockier starts for a high-lottery pick in league history.

This news does not reflect well on the Wolves operations. They have done a lot of things well since Flip Saunders took over for David Kahn, and they have been blessed by some long-overdue luck, but it is kind of absurd that they are letting a 22-year old forward with Bennett’s physical tools and skill set walk away for nothing. Not only would I not buy him out or trade him, but I would exercise that contract-year option and make a serious commitment to developing him like they are trying to do with Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and hopefully Ricky Rubio.

While last year’s singular offensive strategy of “feed Andrew Wiggins in the post and continually challenge him to dunk on people,” seemed to work for an important-but-limited purpose (DEVELOP THE SHIT OUT OF ANDREW WIGGINS) it is probably not a good idea to spend multiple seasons with such separated, individual strategies. Next year, Karl-Anthony Towns will be the shiny new number one pick. Do they then have to isolate Towns while Wiggins takes a backseat? At some point soon, the Timberwolves need to develop a team identity where their young players learn how to play together. They need to begin to develop team basketball principles, and a successful system that most of their young talent can succeed in. And Anthony Bennett should be a part of that process, because who knows what might come of it, after all of the work, development, and competition for playing time sorts itself out?

Despite his struggles so far in 1,557 minutes of NBA basketball (for a reference point, Zach LaVine has already played 1,902) it is surprisingly easy to defend Bennett against much of the criticism that he receives from fans and pundits. Continue reading


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A Word about Ricky Rubio


Ricky Rubio is the best point guard in the NBA.

Okay, that isn’t true.

Steph Curry is the best point guard in the NBA, and there are at least a handful of others (Chris Paul, John Wall, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley) who are certainly better players than Rubio.

But before training camp starts up in less than two weeks, it feels important to get something straight about the current state of the Timberwolves:

On this team, Ricky Rubio is a part of the solution; not part of the problem.

David Aldridge wrote a nice column about Flip Saunders for, but included one parenthetical that was impossible to ignore. It had to do with Rubio and it hinted at something that seems to be an increasingly-speculated theory about the Wolves. Aldridge wrote:

(It will be interesting to see how patient Mitchell is with point guard Ricky Rubio. The Wolves want Rubio to relax at long last, to understand he’s no longer thought of as the franchise’s savior — or not even one of the team’s top three talents.

But it wasn’t Mitchell who gave Rubio a $56 million extension last year — it was Saunders, wearing his Prez O’Basketball Ops hat.)

It seems like Aldridge and too many others believe Rubio might not be good enough for this Wolves team, going forward.

And that is ridiculous.

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Sam Mitchell, the Wolves New Coach

smitchIt is time to get to know Head Coach Sam Mitchell, because that is exactly what we have now. Respecting not only the privacy wishes of the Saunders Family, but also our own lack of information, we’ll limit speculation about Flip’s medical future as much as possible. But the simple fact of yesterday’s press conference and announcement suggests Flip will be away from the team for a while. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote yesterday, “There’s hope that Saunders can return to the bench this season, but Mitchell is expected to be the interim coach no less than half the season.” (Emphasis mine.)

So we wish Flip Saunders a speedy and complete recovery, because that’s the important, real-life issue at hand. But like Mitchell said yesterday, “The most important thing is to keep going forward. That’s what Flip would want. He’d want us to keep going forward.”

And that is exactly what will happen, starting when training camp breaks on September 28. The Timberwolves will have a new head coach, and that coach will be treating this team as his own. More than once yesterday Mitchell emphasized that he’ll continue to implement Flip’s system but also that he will have the freedom to coach the team as he sees fit. Parsing Sam’s words in finer detail, he used the word “I” (as opposed to, say, “we”) when stating “I have a great staff,” and “I have great assistants.” He’s going to take ownership of this opportunity. As he should. The Wolves need a real coach with real ideas and real authority to act on them much more than they need a substitute teacher or babysitter for a few months. Some of these players are just beginning what figure to be long, successful careers. This NBA schedule isn’t moving anywhere to accommodate this unfortunate Timberwolves development, so they need to roll with it as best as possible.

Right now, Sam Mitchell is Andrew Wiggins’s coach. He’s Tyus Jones’s coach. He’s Karl-Anthony Towns’s coach, and he is Ricky Rubio’s coach. It is a reality that almost certainly has not sunk in for these guys, but it needs to soon, and it will soon. It is reality.

Mitchell has been a head coach. With the Toronto Raptors from 2004 to 2008, he amassed a win-loss record of 156-189. That .452 winning percentage is better than it seems, because those teams were not very talented, outside of superstar Chris Bosh. In 2007, Mitchell was named NBA Coach of the Year after leading the Raps to 47 wins and a playoff berth. After Bosh, that team’s minutes leaders were Anthony Parker, T.J. Ford, Jorge Garbajosa, Rasho Nesterovic, and Andrea Bargnani. While I often point to this season as “Chris Bosh is underrated” evidence, it also suggests that Mitchell can coach. The Raptors fired him early in the 2008-09 season when they had an 8-9 record. Jay Triano took over and they went 25-40 the rest of the way.

The most interesting thing to watch will be how Mitchell balances the “win now versus develop young players” dynamics. Make no mistake about it: If he isn’t auditioning for the longer-term Timberwolves head coaching job (he probably is) then he is at least auditioning for the other 29 teams who might have vacancies for him to explore in the near future. If the Wolves come out of the gates winning — maybe .500ish at the All-Star break — Mitchell’s name will be a hot one like it was in 2007, and he’ll probably be a head coach again soon. He understands this. But if these wins come more on the achy bones of Kevin Martin, Garnett, and Andre Miller, and less on the ascents of LaVine and Towns, it might not be What Flip Would Want.

It’s early. Too early to engage in that much speculation. But Mitchell’s old school, tough-guy reputation precedes him here. It will not be altogether surprising if the freedom he assumes will bring substantive changes from the alternate universe where Saunders coaches this team, this season.

Best wishes to Flip.

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Ep. 11: The Offseason

In which we discuss Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett’s Team Canada exploits, Carmelo Anthony’s early free-agency recruitment of Kevin Durant, and offer (tongue-in-cheek) “sneaky 2015-16 predictions” for each player on the Wolves’ roster.

(Eds. Note: We had some technical difficulties during this one. ymmv.)

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