Monthly Archives: December 2011

Game 3: The Heatles (Heat 103, Wolves 101)

The Wolves lost a 103-101 heartbreaker Friday night against the Heat and Birthday Boy LeBron James.  It was a heartbreaker both because of the promise the Wolves showed and the mistakes they made, as well as because the defeat is the latest tick in a growing tally of losses to start the 2011/12 season.

The Wolves looked like a different team from the group that suffered the lackluster defeat in Milwaukee Tuesday night. Kevin Love dropped a workmanlike (for him) 25/12/3, and Ricky Rubio f*cked around and got his first career double-double with a 12/12/6 line.

Before diving into Wolves takeaways from the game, first thing’s first: the Heat are good. Real good. Bosh, Wade, and James are gelling like the trio everyone expected coming out of the gates in 2010/11. LeBron is the best player in the world. He turned 27 today.

Takeaways

  • Turnovers: Adelman said prior to the game that if the Wolves failed to protect the ball, it would lead to a Heat dunk contest. His concern couldn’t have been more prophetic. Unforced errors and Heat ball-hawking led to 25 Wolves turnovers and what felt like a million transition buckets for Miami. Every Wolves player had at last one turnover. Love and Rubio were the chief offenders, with six and five, respectively, but their turnovers stung less than their teammates’, as aggressive play underlay the bulk of their mistakes, while the rest of the team played the kind of sloppy basketball that James, Wade, and company are only too happy to exploit. Adelman has lamented the Wolves’ sloppiness since the beginning of camp, and while the shortened preseason, the new system, and adjusting to new personnel all point to turnovers continuing to plague the Wolves for the foreseeable future, Adelman’s rotations are puzzling and he could ease the players’ burden by firming them up sooner rather than later.
  • The point guard situation: Rubio-mania has overtaken Minneapolis; Ridnour is no longer trying to mask his consternation with his declining role. Luke played just six minutes in the first half, missing his only field goal attempt. He had a nice stretch early in the third in which he made a quick three and then got a steal that led to a transition opportunity. But he started pressing in the middle of the third, taking an ill-advised three off the dribble that missed very badly, leading the already antsy Target Center crowd to clamor loudly for Rubio, who’d had a hot first half with 8 points, 6 assists, and a +7 in 15 minutes. When Rubio finally reported to the scorer’s table with 4:00 in the third, Ridnour retaliated with two difficult rapid-fire three-point attempts before exiting at the dead ball. Ridnour did not return, and finished the night with 6 points on 2-6 shooting and a -11 in 17 minutes. Rubio played the rest of the way, looking extremely good en route to 12 assists (which could’ve easily been 18+ with some help) and a +9 in 31 minutes. The stats are telling–the Wolves’ offensive sets and overall energy were markedly better when Rubio was in the game. With Rubio’s play exceeding expectations and Ridnour’s ineffectiveness and attitude forcing Adelman’s hand, the Wolves’ point guard situation is coming to a head sooner than expected. Kahn should be shopping the aggravated vet aggressively, but with Barea and Lee battling injuries, trading Ridnour would leave the Wolves thin at the point and so might not happen anytime soon.
  • Close but no cigar: In the three games thus far, the Wolves have been within three points with less than two minutes to go against two potential title contenders. They’ve failed to close each time. This year’s team clearly has more talent and a better culture than last year’s, but the Wolves’ inability to compete down the stretch is reminiscent of some of the ugly things we saw last year. Hopefully Adelman can instill some lessons about #winningtime where Rambis failed.
  • The last shot: A third-string guard seeing his first significant minutes of the season should never be in a position to take a potential game-tying or winning shot against anybody, let alone the Heat. Yet that’s what happened tonight in the game’s closing seconds when Wayne Ellington flung an extremely difficult dribble-jumper from 22 feet that clanked off the iron. Part of the reason the Wolves struggle to win close games is their lack of a go-to player down the stretch. Michael Beasley has the talent to get difficult baskets time-after-time when opposing defenses have hunkered down in the fourth quarter, but can he do it for this team? Beasley played poorly tonight, scoring only 4 points on 2-6 shooting in 22 minutes before getting benched in the fourth quarter. Yet Beasley is the Wolves’ only player who can create a decent shot for himself almost every time he touches the ball, as he showed during stretches of last season. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to second-guess Adelman’s decision to leave Beasley on the bench with four seconds left in a dead-ball situation in which the Timberwolves had possession. The Wolves will start to win close games against playoff-caliber teams when/if Adelman is able to trust Beasley or someone else to take and make big shots down the stretch. Ideally Beasley would need to earn that trust, but given his de facto role as the team’s sole 1-on-1 creator, Adelman should give Beasley a longer leash to earn it as he goes, despite the inevitable lumps that’ll come along the way.
Quick Hits
  • The Wolves sorely missed J.J. Barea at both guard positions. Get well soon J.J.!
  • Anthony Tolliver has so much heart. After getting slapped with a blocking foul on what appeared to be a LeBron charge late in the 4th, AT went hard to the cup and tried to CRAM on the entire Heat interior, drawing a foul. He’s proud and he worked his ass off on both ends.
  • That said, AT needs to work on his free-throws. He made the first shot and missed the second on at least three trips during the second half.
  • AR15 finally showed some signs and was a game high +18 in 25 minutes of action. He still has a long way to go before he’ll gain Adelman’s trust.
  • Randolph looks so much better when his 12-15 face-up is falling like it was tonight. It prevents him from trying to do too much off the dribble, which is when he tends to get out of control.
  • Derrick Williams looked better after a down game against Milwaukee on Tuesday. He mostly let the game come to him, and he hit two of three from downtown and had 10 points in 21 minutes.
  • Wes Johnson apparently didn’t read our letter.

It all starts again on Sunday against Dallas. Until then.

Season Record: 0-3

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An Open Letter to Wesley Johnson

Dear Wes,

With the announcement that J.J. Barea will not play (pulled hamstring, likely to return on Sunday versus Dallas) in tonight’s game versus the Miami Heat (7:00 CST, Target Center), I wanted to take this bit of time to write a letter, in (deluded) hopes that you’ll read it and apply three basic tactics to tonight’s game and every other performance in the future.  You may already know this, but Timberwolves fans have largely written you off as a draft-day bust. Despite being drafted fourth overall, you’ve set yourself on a performance track that will send you to Europe (if you’re lucky) within a year or two.

I held strong as an APOLOGIST of yours for over sixty games last season. But your lack of improvement and inability to do anything with the ball in your hands eventually wore even me out. J.J. Barea now looks like the team’s best backcourt player. He has a resume’ that includes impacting the NBA Finals from the shooting guard position.  BUT– J.J. isn’t playing tonight, so there’s no better team for you to showcase talents (that you were supposed to have when you were drafted) than the Miami Heat.

The three keys:

1) Focus on defense.  Entirely.  Many, perhaps most, NBA players are heavily-geared toward one side of the floor.  What made Michael and Scottie special was that they were the best at both ends.  That isn’t you, and it never will be.  Join the masses of NBA rotation players who specialize in things.  It just so happens that you find yourself on a team in desperate need of help on this end of the floor, particularly a player with the (potential) versatility that your LONG AND ATHLETIC frame allows.  Think about tonight’s game: the Heat have the best shooting guard and small forward/player in the world.  You may very-well defend both of them, at different moments.  If you focus 90 percent of your mental and physical energy on defensive tasks, you just might help your team and show your fans and coaches something they’ve been waiting to see: upper-level perimeter defense.

2) Run the floor.  I’m sure you’ve noticed that you’re now surrounded by teammates that can create easy baskets for others.  When a shot goes up, and you see that Kevin Love has or will soon have the rebound, take off running.  Fans can all agree that you’re a wonderful dunker of the basketball, and K-Love outlets are a great way to get one or two of these easy buckets.  ALSO– you may have noticed the Spanish point guard on your team who seems nothing short of obsessed with creating dunks for his ‘mates.  Take advantage of this!  Everyone else is doing it, and if you don’t join in soon you’ll get left behind or traded to Detroit.

3) Use a triple-threat position.  Now we’re getting technical, but no worries: this is something many are taught in the junior-high ranks.  I have no doubt that you can master the art of holding the basketball in a way that threatens the defense with a pass, shot, or dribble.  Let’s begin with what you usually do when you catch a pass on the wing.  Many times, you’ve got a move made up in your mind before you catch a pass.  Depending on the player and the level of competition, that can be okay.  But for your purposes, let’s not do that.  To adopt a cool quote from one of the coolest ballers in history, let’s instead mimick Earl the Pearl Monroe: “The thing is, I don’t know what I’m going to do with the ball, and if I don’t know, I’m quite sure the guy guarding me doesn’t know either.”  Just catch the ball with a freed mind, and use your instincts.  If there’s a defender in the viscinity, spread your feet and use a jab step.  DO NOT do what you often do, which is stand tall with your feet close together and your weight on your toes.  This leads to you leaning (the top half of your body, anyway) to one side, losing your balance, and either traveling, dribbling off your foot, or heaving up an errant shot.  I can’t tell you how easy it would be to defend these plays when you show your hand the instant you catch the pass.  Ask Rob Pelinka to send over as many Kobe tapes as he has in his archives.  Kobe’s the best in the world at the triple-threat.  You need the ball either swinging through in a way that threatens a shot or drive, or held lower (like Michael Beasley often does–he’s good at this) in a way that seriously threatens the dribble.  A rocker-step move would do wonders for your game, but just holding the ball correctly would set you on the right path.  Maybe one day you’ll bust out some moves like The Pearl and wonder how any of it happened.

Good luck out there tonight,

Andy

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Inbox #1: Kevin Garnett, Hypothetical Trade Target

Andy G writes:

Celtics got BLOWN OUT by the Gordon-less Hornets last night.

If Ainge would take Derrick Williams + every last bad Wolves contract and would send us KG (and his EXPIRING $21 million deal), would you do it?

The lineup would probably look something like:

PG – Rubio/Barea
SG – Webster (Lee until Martell gets back)
SF – Beasley
PF – Love/Tolliver
C – Garnett/Randolph

(We might have to take back a few SHITTY CELTICS players like SASHA PAVLOVIC to fill our roster.)

Thoughts?

Patrick J replies:

Probably not. KG can’t be relied on to stay healthy, and Williams has the most upside of anyone in the deal. We don’t have that many bad contracts, and besides, if the Celtics can’t even win with the Big Four, why should we expect to win with a KG/Love/Rubio core? Nix.

Andy G retorts:

Idea being that with Rubio-Love-KG and about $40 Million in CAP SPACE , we’d attract a free agent or two of notoriety.

It won’t happen….

(Eds.–I have no idea what the actual cap space would be.  But if we ditched Luke, Wes, Darko, Pekovic, and Williams, and KG expired and presumably re-signed for reasonable value, there would be a lot of it.  The 2012 free agent crop can be found here.  Looking at it now, it’s thinner than I expected after Deron and Dwight.)

Patrick J replies:

I didn’t mean to shit on it, I’d just rather stand pat. Maybe I’m just down on KG, but seeing as Brandon Bass (not David West) was their marquee free agent acquisition this year, it could still be tough to get guys here UNLESS Rubio were to attract those FAs.

(Eds.–Brandon Bass wasn’t actually acquired via free agency, but in a trade for BIG BABY DAVIS.)

Andy G replies:

You are probably right, but I wouldn’t have too much objection to a full commitment to Love-Rubio + veterans who know how to win.  Plus, KG could retire with dignity in a town that loves him.  Of course, he’s an unrestricted free agent in 2012, so the Wolves could just wait and approach him then, after their draft pick is used (and announced!) by David Stern to select Anthony Davis for the New Orleans Hornets.

Would you trade Derrick Williams and bad contracts for KG?  Would David Kahn? Would Danny Ainge sign on?

Chime in in the comments.

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The Border Battle (BUCKS 98, Wolves 95)

The worst thing about a moral victory is when it’s followed by a disappointing loss.  The Wolves were outplayed tonight in Milwaukee.  Mike Beasley didn’t have his head in it until midway through the 4th, when he ran out of time before a comeback could be completed.  Kevin Love worked all night on the glass, posting, of course, a ho-hum 31 & 20.  He broke the franchise record for free throws made with 19.

I suppose some of the keys to this loss were turnovers (bad ones throughout by Ridnour, Beasley, and Darko) stupid fouls, missed open threes, passed up open threes (looking at you, Derrick Williams) and 12 missed free throws.

Derrick Williams was outplayed by Jon Leuer.  There’s a sentence I never thought I’d read or write.  Williams finds himself open for three (you know, where he set just about every record known to man with his 56 percent clip, last year) and he passes those up so he can drive in the paint and charge a defender.  He is not comfortable playing 24 feet from the basket, right now.

Ricky Rubio needs to play the full game.  Splitting time isn’t going to work for this type of player.  He needs a rhythm to always know who is on the floor for each team and what he needs to do.  He sat the entire 3rd Quarter tonight.  While Luke hit some shots that kept the Wolves in it, he isn’t the point guard for this team.  Without a shooting guard of any notoriety, the Wolves need a playmaking point.

Rather than ramble on, I’ll post the notes I made throughout this one.  Overriding themes were too many careless turnovers, Kevin Love drew a shit-ton of fouls while rebounding everything, and Beasley woke up almost in time to steal this one at Milwaukee.

With the Heat coming to town on Friday, this was a needed win.  0-3 is almost inevitable, but we’ll see what happens in front of the Target Center crowd.

Season Record: 0-2

GAME JOTTINGS

1st Quarter (BUCKS 32 Wolves 30)

* Kevin Love is a foul-drawing machine.  13-15 from the line in first.  17 points 5 rebounds for the quarter.

* Wolves offense is incoherent and ugly.  Luke Ridnour cannot get the team into a functioning offense against good defense.

* Michael Beasley made one nice shot, and the foul, but quickly picked up two fouls and headed to the bench.  This was a recurring theme for him last year, and was a big reason why his minutes were less than they could have been.

* Wes Johnson ran out in transition for a dunk, and made a nice drive-and-dish to Love, who was fouled on the shot.  Solid start for Wes.

* Should be repeated how many different ways Love can get fouled.  Rebounding, posting up, head-faking on jumpers, everything.

* Darko doing an adequate job on Bogut.  This is the play the Wolves need from him–the kind where he’s not talked about, good or bad.

* JJ Barea came in and gave a spark of offense, drawing fouls around the basket.  Drew a quick charge on Livingston, continuing a trend he set yesterday doing that on Westbrook.

* Jon Leuer of Orono High School and University of Wisconsin fame came in the game and really helped the Bucks.  He outplayed Derrick Williams in this quarter, scoring, blocking a shot, and drawing fouls.

* Bucks complaining at fouls called on Love.  Scott Skiles T’d up from the bench.

* Rubio with some defensive struggles early.  Beno Udrih scored on him with a short jumper, and then he committed a stupid bonus foul on Brandon Jennings, 30 feet from the basket.

2nd Quarter (BUCKS 28 Wolves 18) (Score: BUCKS 60 Wolves 48)

* Rubio makes a few nice passes, none of which lead to assists in stat column.  One one pass, AT is fouled on the shot.  On another, Love misses a wide-open trey from corner.  Rubio makes a nice steal and quickly turns it over.  He’s a bit more out-of-control than last night, but still seeing the floor and making passes that require defensive shifts–the sort of thing this team badly needs.

* Shaun Livingston posts up Rubio, and Tolliver commits a full double team.  When shots are eventually missed, nobody is in position for rebounds.  Bucks collecting baskets this way, controlling the boards with Love on bench.

* Beasley comes back in, commits two more fouls.  His head is not in the game tonight.  Very, very disappointing.  I thought he’d come out with a strong performance and precisely the opposite has happened.  He may sit the entire 3rd after showing Coach Porter (Adelman is out of town at Mother-in-Law’s funeral) that he can’t help but commit stupid fouls.  3rd foul was also a turnover, as he charged Stephen Jackson.

* Speaking of S-Jack, he’s having his way with Wolves defenders.  He bullied Ridnour and then Beasley in the paint to baskets.  O.J. Mayo once announced that he wanted to be a point guard.  His reason?  “I can’t play the two if Stephen Jackson is going to post me up.”  S-Jack is a physical beast for that position.  He appears focused, tonight, after a shaky start and some questionable foul calls early on Love.

* Wolves begin a turnover spree that affects their defense.  Very-bad quarter.

3rd Quarter (Wolves 20 BUCKS 19) (Score: BUCKS 79 Wolves 68)

* Beasley starts the half, apparently with only 3 fouls.  Quickly commits a stupid 4th, and stays in the game.  Hits a jumper after that, but still struggling.

* S-Jack starts torching Beasley, knowing he can’t foul.  Pours in a couple of easy jumpers from distance.

* Love continues to draw fouls, keep team (sort of) in the game.

* Darko commits two quick turnovers of his old variety (holding ball, doesn’t see defender coming from behind to poke the ball away).  After another couple minutes, he throws it away for TO number 3.  Wolves losing big.

* Jennings getting out in transition and also hitting jumpers.  Nice quarter for him.

* Ridnour banks in a couple of jumpers to keep this game a little bit interesting.

* Beasley travels, but gets away with it.  Turns in that get-out-of-jail free card by tossing it to the home team.  He’s really off, tonight.

* Wes playing a terrible quarter with missed (open) shots and turnovers.  Worse than a non-factor.

* After I write that, he hits a 3.  Finally.

* Rubio rotting on the pine, late in 3rd.  He’s needed.

* Williams (AGAIN!) pumpfakes a 3 and drives, when the 3 was open.  This time he avoids charge and dumps it to Love for an AND-1.  Nice play.  Still, I’d rather see him shoot that 3.

* Love and Ridnour make 3-pointers (Love’s the old-fashioned way) to cut 3rd Quarter deficit to 11.  Amazing that it’s this close.  Wolves playing terrible basketball.

4th Quarter (Wolves 27 BUCKS 19) (Final Score: BUCKS 98 Wolves 95)

* Leuer quickly scores on D-Williams.  Not easy to tell which was the high-draft choice, tonight.

* Rubio back in the game, gets fouled on a jumper attempt.  Makes both free throws.  Good start to this stint.  Follows that up by pushing the ball, hitting his co-rookie Williams, who then makes a smart side-step move to draw blocking foul.  Later in quarter, Rubio turns it over on drive where he should have gone up for a layup.  Jim Peterson points out there wasn’t much defense there.  Ricky needs to watch his Rondo tapes for how that’s done.

* Barea makes a beautiful setup pass to Darko for an easy layup.  Next possession, Darko gets lost on defense and has to commit 6th and final foul on Bogut’s shot attempt.  We’ll see Love on Bogut for the homestretch, I imagine.  Love defends large centers like Bogut well, and this may not be a bad thing.  Too many turnovers tonight for Darko.  A letdown after a solid first game, and first quarter of this game.

* Jackson missing shots that he made in 1st Half and 3rd Quarter.

* Love passes up wide open three for head fake and missed layup.  A recurring theme tonight is Wolves passing up threes to take worse attempts.

* Beasley converts layup and foul, but misses FT.  He’s 1 for 4 from the stripe, tonight.  Another sign that his head isn’t in it.

* Love misses a wide-open three.  If Wolves could make anything, even some free throws, they’d be right in this, instead of down 9.  It’s getting too late for a comeback, and they’ll need stops almost every trip down.

* Beasley hits a corner three–a much needed bucket for he and the team.  Wolves starting to get key stops, after slew of Brandon Jennings baskets and free throws.  Only down 5 with 2+ minutes to go, which seems crazy given how so many things have gone wrong.  Beas hits another shot after some other sequences to cut it to 2.

* Jon Leuer, yes–Jon Leuer–just dunked over Anthony Tolliver, and the foul.  Huge play.

* After some K-Love free throws (he just broke the franchise record for most FTM in a game) Wolves trail by 3 with the ball.

* Love misses a contested 28-footer for the tie.  Game over.  Bad loss, outplayed throughout.

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The Opener (Thunder 104, WOLVES 100)

How are Wolves fans supposed to feel after a 104-100 loss to the Western Conference favorites in a game where Ricky Rubio dazzled fans with no-look passes and the team improbably led the Thunder 96-95 with 2:30 to go?  We’ve won many moral victories in recent seasons past, so I’m trying my hardest to temper the enthusiasm that this game and the Target Center atmosphere generated, tonight.  Some thoughts on what we saw in Game 1:

Why did we lose?

The easy answer to this is that the Thunder are really, really good.  More specifically, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden are all elite NBA ballers.  Durant is a perennial MVP candidate starting last year, Westbrook will battle Rose/Paul/Williams/(Rubio? jk–I think) for future All-NBA honors, and James Harden seems like the logical prediction for Sixth Man of the Year.  This is a formidable opponent for any team, let alone one that won 17 games, a season ago.  But getting beyond the obvious mismatches on the floor, there were a few blunders that stuck out.

In the second quarter, the Thunder called timeout with the Wolves leading 39-32.  Unfortunately, OKC ripped off a 20-7 stretch to end the half and took a 6-point lead into intermission.  That stretch was highlighted by Adelman in his presser as a key point.  In the 4th Quarter, the Wolves led 96-95 with under three minutes to go.  A J.J. Barea bunny rimmed out, and Westbrook leaked out and had the ball in transition.  First off, I should add that Westbrook in Transition is a crazy thing to watch.  Aside from LeBron, Wade, and Monta Ellis, I’m not sure there’s a more terrifying open-court player in the league.  With that in mind, perhaps Rubio should have guessed a side and gambled for a steal or foul.  Instead, he played straight up defense which was a losing proposition.  Russ drew contact and converted the bucket.  The one-point lead was a two-point deficit.  The Wolves would not lead again.  Along with these pivotal moments, Michael Beasley missed some shots tonight, and probably took a couple too many.  In particular, he took two or three too many of those “long two’s” that plague his EFFICIENCY.  It’s one thing if those jumpers go up with 2 on the shot clock, but that wasn’t the case, tonight.  He forced it, a few times.

Rubio, Williams

Rubio is blowing up Twitter after three official NBA appearances.  His passing is, for lack of a better word, ridiculous.  Ricky dribbles off a ball screen and waits just long enough for everyone in the crowd, and on the opposing team, to see where he’s about to pass it.  And then it goes somewhere else.  Unlike when all of this held true for Jonny Flynn’s passes in recent years, Ricky’s passes find the open man, ready to score.  Tonight, he had 6 assists and 0 turnovers.  Those assists were mostly the set-it-on-a-platter variety with the recipient cashing in an easy dunk or layup.  He is truly an amazing playmaker.  In the interest of telling the full story, I should repeat how poor his decision to foul Westbrook on that 97-96 layup was, and also point out that Westbrook beat him backdoor for a huge dunk earlier in the game.  His defensive awareness showed up as a minor weakness in this game.

Williams played pretty well.  He finished one of the Rubio gems with a reverse dunk that had Target Center rocking.  His one-on-one scoring appears to be a strength, but he’s got a little bit of rookie jitters, which is to be expected.  I was disappointed in his hesitation to pull the trigger on some open shots.  He didn’t wait to let ‘er fly in that preseason game vs. the Bucks.  Overall, a solid debut for the Wolves “other rookie.”

BAREA!

J.J. Barea was, in my opinion, the key to this game remaining close.  It seemed that as Westbrook and Harden were having their way on offense, JJB would come in and draw an offensive foul.  On offense, when things broke down, he was happy to carve up the D in the paint and either finish or find a shooter.  He plays tough.  Wes Johnson may or may not continue to be the starting off-guard, but Barea will take most of those minutes.  The difference between those players, on both ends, is night-and-day.

Bullets:

* Darko played well, tonight.  He shoved Kendrick Perkins in the opening minutes and they exchanged some pleasantries that seemed to light a fire under him that remained throughout.  He baited Perk into some poor decisions and fouls.  After one game (SAMPLE SIZE!) Adelman appears to be a positive influence on this troubled player.

* Love continues to draw non-shooting fouls when the Wolves are in the bonus.  I don’t know if he is trying to do this, or if it just happens, but he racks up more points off of non-scoring attempts than just about any player in the league.  Tonight, he stuffed the stat sheet with a ho-hum 22, 12, and 5.

* Adelman stuck Beasley on Durant in winning time.  Beas did okay–with some help defense.  That Rick would trust Beasley in this assignment is interesting to me.

* James Harden is a bad man.  What does the Thunder do in the next playoffs when Harden is their best half-court creator?  I mean–they need Westbrook and they need Durant but there may be an awkwardness to all of it when James Harden and his beard is the one with the rock in crunchtime.  It took him a while, but he’s justified his high 2009 draft slot.

Who’s Next?

At Milwaukee Bucks, tomorrow at 7:30 CST.  A familiar opponent after the home-and-home preseason games.  Skiles’ boys lost by a point to a MISERABLE Bobcats squad, tonight.  A quick look at the box shows a rough night for Stephen Jackson.  Wolves fans should hope that leads to a quick IMPLOSION, rather than redemption for the enigmatic star player.

I know this: tonight’s moral victory will be a lot-more palatable if it’s quickly followed by a road win.

Season Record: 0-1

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An NBA Preview of Sorts

Most Surprising Team to Sneak into Playoffs

Andy G: Sacramento Kings

Many will predict the Kings to win less than 25 games, this year. Here’s why I think they can sneak up and win 10 or so more than that: First, they finished last season strong. They added Marcus Thornton mid-season and he provided a consistent shooting and scoring punch on the perimeter. Although they went 24-58 for the season, the Kings won 8 of their last 15 games. The Jimmer-Tyreke-Thornton backcourt trio is explosive offensively (and last year, the Kings struggles were more offensive than defensive, according to the numbers.) Last, and most importantly, DeMarcus Cousins could make “the leap.” He showed some big flashes of talent last year, but much of the same immaturity that was on full display in his lone collegiate season at Kentucky. If he can cut the whining in half, avoid foul trouble with some consistency, and continue to polish his already-advanced post game, Boogie could be a top-tier post presence. Combine that interior option with the perimeter firepower they’ve surrounded him with, and good things will come. Westphal is an experienced coach who will figure out how to make this work.

Patrick J: Utah Jazz

It’s in fashion to bag on Utah. The Jazz traded Deron Williams and parted ways with Jerry Sloan, replacing them with Devin Harris and Timberwolves legend Ty Corbin while adding Derrick Favors (#2 overall in the 2010 draft), Enes Kanter (#3 overall in 2011 draft), and veteran free agent Josh Howard (who bears an uncanny resemblance to The Wire’s Marlo Stansfield) along the way. Together with a solid core that includes fringe stars Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap and glue guy Gordon Hayward, the Jazz have as much talent as any team unanimously expected to miss the playoffs. They play in the tough Western Conference and have their talent stacked at PF. Yet Jefferson, Favors, and possibly Kanter, can play minutes at center without giving up much against most teams, and Millsap will be productive regardless of his role. Meanwhile, the time seems right for Devin Harris to rebound from sub-par seasons and again show the talent that made him a key piece in the Williams trade. This prediction obviously hinges on (1) Corbin’s ability to coach, (2) Hayward’s ability to produce from the wing, and (3) Howard’s ability to stay healthy and happy in Utah. All of SLC may not have enough kind bud to guarantee the latter, but the Jazz will still be capable of surprising the naysayers.

Most Surprising Team to Miss the Playoffs

Andy G: Boston Celtics

First of all, it felt good just to type that. I hate the Celtics and perhaps that bias played a small part in this choice. In any case, the “Big 3″ are now 34, 35, and 36 years old. A 66-game sprint of a season will not be kind to these elder statemen. KG’s knees have been wearing down fast and this year could mark a breaking point of sorts. Paul Pierce, the youngest of the trio, is doubtful for the season opener with a heel injury. But what about Rajon Rondo, you ask? He was shopped all over the NBA this summer in unsuccessful trade attempts and who knows where his heart lies, right now. I wouldn’t bet on Boston to miss the playoffs, but if I had to pick a shocker to fall short, the C’s would be it. They’re old, they’re getting worse, and they have no quality depth.

Patrick J: Los Angeles Lakers

First of all, it felt good just to type that. I hate the Lakers with a passion and so perhaps my pick is biased. But the wheels are coming off for the Lake Show. Kobe’s still Kobe, just not as good. His supporting cast—Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and someone named METTA WORLD PEACE—is aging, injury prone, or crazy. Is Josh McRoberts the Lakers’ fourth best player? Is that a good thing? (RHETORICAL!) Is J-Mac the third best player during Bynum’s five-game suspension and the inevitable games he’ll miss due to injury? WORLD PEACE isn’t good anymore and can’t be relied on. The rest of the roster is horrible. See for yourselves.

Verdict: Lakers just miss the 8th seed.

Non-Superstar Player Most Likely to Swing NBA Title

Andy G: Baron Davis, New York Knicks

For me, this was an easy one. Boom Dizzle is the single most bipolar player in the NBA, and perhaps all of pro sports. When he’s on, he’s as good as there is. That isn’t hyperbole — an inspired Baron Davis is a franchise cornerstone player capable of carrying his team to victory over any team, any night. He carried Golden State over the 67-win Mavericks in a 7-game playoff series. He carried the 17-win Cavs last year over LeBron and Miami in a regular season tilt. Good Baron runs the point, shoots the three, posts up, and plays really strong on-ball defense. Baron Davis recently joined the Knicks and once his back heals up, he’ll be the backcourt general for a team that already includes Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler. If–and it is a huge “if”–that foursome can enter the playoffs with their health intact, the Knicks will be a serious championship contender.

Patrick J: Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks

Same team, different player. The same team thing will make it hard to distinguish the causal impact of Boom versus Chandler. Unless of course, Boom doesn’t play or mails it in or leaves the team in February to make a documentary in Williamsburg. Like Davis, Chandler is an injury risk, but unlike Boom, Chandler has a history of being a difference-maker. Boom’s has a single otherworldly playoff series just isn’t enough evidence that he’ll play to his potential this season, if he plays at all. The Knicks will be nothing if not electrifying this year, but I’m putting my chips on Chandler as the non-superstar most likely to swing the title to New York.

Rookie of the Year, 2011/12 Season

Patrick J: Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves

Kyrie Irving is likely to have better all-around numbers and teammate Derrick Williams should average more points, but Rubio is the rookie who will put up NUMB#RS–J-Kidd-like lines (4pts, 6rebs, 12asts, 3stls) seem probable—and lead his team to Ws. The Wolves are a different team when Rubio’s on the floor and the fact that he’s a rock star persona whose delayed NBA debut has given NBA fans blue balls for two years won’t hurt his chances either.

Runner-up: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

Andy G: Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves

I’ll co-sign on this . I expect Rubio to quickly become this team’s starting point guard and primary facilitator of offense. With excellent shooters abound, Rubio’s penetrate-and-kick style should help rack up assists without excessive turnovers. Assuming that the Wolves show the expected, marked improvement under Coach Adelman, some credit will go to the newcomers. This should lead to a Rookie of the Year honor for the Wolves newest phenom.

Top 10 Rookies in 2011/12

Patrick J

1. Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves

2. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

3. Derrick Williams, Minnesota Timberwolves

4. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats

5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

6. Jimmer Fredette, Sacramento Kings

7. Bismack Biyombo, Charlotte Bobcats

8. JAN VESELY!, Washington Wiz-ards

9. Iman Shumpert, New York Knicks

10. TRISTAN THOMPSON!, Cleveland Cavaliers

Andy G

1. Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves

2. Derrick Williams, Minnesota Timberwolves

3. TRISTAN THOMPSON!, Cleveland Cavaliers

4. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

5. Jordan Hamilton, Denver Nuggets

6. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats

7. Jimmer Fredette, Sacramento Kings

8. Marshon Brooks, New Jersey Nets

9. Bismack Biyombo, Charlotte Bobcats

10. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

League MVP

Patrick J: LeBron James, Miami Heat

The best player on the best team. It’s not that difficult.

Andy G: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

It’s not as bold as it sounds. He’ll average something like 23/12/4, and it’ll be on a Top-4 team in the West. More on that below.

NBA Finals, 2011/12 Season

Patrick J: Miami Heat defeat Oklahoma City Thunder in five. Dwyane Wade wins Finals MVP.

Andy G: Chicago Bulls defeat Los Angeles Clippers in six. Derrick Rose wins Finals MVP.

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Improbable (preseason) Win

Wolves fans could hardly ask for two more entertaining preseason games to whet their appetites for the upcoming season.  While tonight’s tilt at Milwaukee was much more to the Bucks’ liking in terms of style, the Wolves won again; this time in dramatic fashion.  Down 11 with a few minutes to go, the Wolves combined Kevin Love three-pointers and multiple steals to close with a 12-0 run and victory.  A few thoughts with the obvious caveats that apply to preseason games and knee-jerk reactions:

* Ricky Rubio was missed.  Milwaukee is an excellent defensive club and the young Wolves had a helluva time getting into their offense, tonight.  While Malcolm Lee did some nice things, he was sometimes still dribbling with less than 10 on the shot clock and had a turnover or two trying to make the first entry pass.  Rubio’s floor vision that wowed Target Center fans on Saturday was noticeably absent, and his teammates were mostly unable to recreate that type of offensive initiation.

* Of all NBA “areas for improvement” in 2011-12, the Timberwolves perimeter defense is at or near the very top.  On this night, the rotations were as intense as they were intelligent (and in both categories, the opposite end of the spectrum as last season.)  When switching was appropriate, they switched, and everything seemed to be done with purpose.  An 85-84 victory hardly seemed possible only a season ago.

* WAY too many offensive mistakes, particularly in the 4th Quarter.  There’s no reason for Luke Ridnour and Anthony Tolliver to be coughing up the ball down the stretch as they did, tonight.  The miracle finish will not change Coach Adelman’s take on this game, which is that it was sloppily played, especially down the stretch.  Ridnour did himself no favors tonight with an opportunity to shine without Rubio and Barea.

* Mike Beasley missed a few shots early and it seemed to take him out of his game.  Later on, he thought he got fouled once or twice and seemed irritated throughout.  He finished the game well, which is a good sign, but overall this was not his night.  For a wing scorer though, I’ll take 1 for 2 against a great defensive squad like the Bucks.  Also, Beasley is clearly fighting harder for position than he did last season.  There was no better example of this than when he threw S-Jack to the ground en route to an easy bucket.  Plus-minus, particularly in small sample size, can be misleading.  For whatever it is worth, Beasley led the team with a +10 on this night.

* Love worked his ass off from start to finish and was a big reason the Wolves even stayed in this game.  His fourth-quarter heroics led the improbable comeback.  His defensive matchups were less kind to him tonight, pitting him against fellow Bruin Mbah a Moute and Ersan Ilyasova.  Each was able to beat Love off the dribble for fouls and/or points.  Drew Gooden scored on him down low in a crucial possession.  Still, these things happen, and Love’s work on the glass and in drawing fouls, not to mention the three-point shots, were huge.  Without a doubt he was the team’s MVP, tonight.

All things considered, it was a short and successful preseason.  I think Ricky Rubio’s value was more obvious tonight in his absence than when he was on full display last weekend.  He is the starting point guard.  The rest of it will sort itself out.  I continue to believe that Anthony Randolph and Wes Johnson will struggle to find playing time in this rotation.  We shall see.

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Malcolm in the Middle

Malcolm Lee looked way better than I expected in his four minutes of burn in Saturday’s preseason opener. He’s gonna be pretty good.

SAMPLE SIZE!”, you scream.

The thing is, Minnesota has no viable option right now at the two, so Lee’s gonna get burn. How much, we still don’t know. But it’s clear he already has the handles Johnson lacks, the length Ellington lacks, the defensive chops Barea lacks, (presumably) the ability not to get hurt Webster lacks, and the UCLA/Ben Howland pedigree everyone lacks. NICHE!

Lee’s 29.5% 3PFG last year isn’t good, but Rick Adelman won’t be giving him those fringe rotation minutes to chuck threes. So keep an eye on Lee this season and see if you can’t help smiling a little, not just because of Lee’s showy ball-hawking but also because as the dust clears from Kahn’s draft night trading spree, it looks like he actually walked away with some value.

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The (preseason) Debut

It was just preseason.  It was just preseason.  It was just preseason.

With that out of the way, here are some thoughts on last night’s much-anticipated debut of Wolves rookies Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams:

* HOLY $%!# is this team fun to watch!  Rubio’s floor vision was everything advertised and more.  He quickly showed Minnesota how to rocket a skip pass to the opposite wing after peeling around a ball screen.  That pass isn’t there for many NBA guards.  For Rubio it just seemed like the natural choice.  It was the open man.  His bounce passes were flashy–sometimes unnecessarily so–and always on the mark.  The alley-oop to Williams is what fans will remember from the debut, but Rubio served a steady supply of dishes that–for one night–seemed to justify the hype.  Again though, just preseason.  What is refreshing to see is that while Rubio clearly can dominate the ball and make plays, he’s equally happy to push into the offense and make the simple pass.  He’s a true point guard.

* Derrick Williams shot the lights out.  He catches the ball ready to fire.  I was surprised to see him on the bench for such a long time to begin the game, but he took advantage of the minutes given to him.  Adelman used a small-ball lineup for much of the second half with Williams at the 4, and Tolliver at the 5.  Whether that group can rebound and defend remains to be seen.  What can quickly be gathered, however, is that surrounding Ricky Rubio with four lights-out shooters is a recipe for offensive success.

* Mike Beasley and Kevin Love were the star forwards that we saw for that early stretch a season ago.  Love’s jumper was in midseason form, and he pulled down his usual 15 boards in limited minutes.  Beasley was moving without the ball!  If there’s anything to gather from last night’s game in terms of the Adelman Effect, it is how Supercool Beas was being utilized.  He was curling off screens, drawing fouls, and burying the same dribble jumpers that make his talent special.  On defense, Love seemed to bang with Andrew Bogut okay.  That’s the sort of center that I envision Love defending.  His physical nature and low-center of gravity help hold position on strong posts like Bogut.  Beasley went under a screen or two and left his man open in the corner for a trey.  But, his overall effort was okay and he never became a problem on that end.

* Not such a great night for Wes Johnson or Anthony Randolph.  Wes’ offensive limitations were on full display once again, last night.  His ticket to the starting lineup will be through defense or nothing.  AR15 was pushed around by physical Bucks, and invited to take 13-footers on offense, only to force a dribble drive that wasn’t there.  These two are all kinds of long-and-athletic, but didn’t look comfortable in Game #1.  To crack the regular rotation, Wes is probably up against JJ Barea, and Randolph is fighting with Anthony Tolliver.  After one meaningless game, I don’t like either of their chances.

The next and final preseason tilt comes on Wednesday, at Milwaukee.  Here’s hoping that Rubio-Jennings II looks much like the first match.  Until then…

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CP3 Takes LA

The controversial Chris Paul trade negotiations have apparently come to an end, as the Clippers agreed to send both Eric Gordon and our Wolves 2012 draft pick (among other assets) to New Orleans for the superstar guard.  Setting aside the black eye that Stern’s involvement in this process has left on the league, here are some initial thoughts on the trade itself and what it means for the Western Conference landscape:

* The Clips are for real.  Point guard/power forward combinations have been a formula for success ever since Stockton and Malone.  It could very well be that the Clippers have both the best point guard and best power forward in all of basketball, in Paul and Blake Griffin.  Scanning through the West right now, I have to think the Clips are a Top-4 team and fringe title contender.

* Randy Foye, of Foye-for-Roy fame here in Minnesota, may quickly become a relevant NBA player.  With Gordon departing, the off-guard job in LAC is up for grabs and perhaps open for auditions.  Some are speculating that newly-acquired Chauncey Billups could play the two, next to Paul.  I don’t know if it’s that simple.  Chauncey is a point guard.  That’s where he’s made his money.  Foye, for better or worse, has become a natural off-guard.  With two supreme defender magnets in Paul and Griffin at his sides, Foye might find a freedom rarely enjoyed by NBA wings.  Just last year when Gordon was out with a month-long injury, Foye put together nine games of 20 or more points.  He may relish in this role between superstars.  I hope so.  He’s a class act who didn’t ask for the scrutiny of being traded for a great like B-Roy.

* As a diehard NBA fan, I have to pretend not to see the (obvious) signs of corruption that creep into the storylines from time to time.  Whether it be the Knicks and Bulls winning the draft lottery, Tim Donaghy fixing games with his whistle, or, as with this very transaction, David Stern playing God with fair Chris Paul trades, the league sometimes seems a bit sketchy.  Why does this matter?  Because the league-owned Hornets now possess the Timberwolves 2012 Draft Pick, and have a rooting interest in the Wolves being terrible.  Until Stern finds a buyer for that team, he has an interest in maximizing its value.  What better way to do that than pair Eric Gordon with the #1 Pick in the draft?  I’m going to pretend this doesn’t matter, and that the Wolves will be so good this year that their pick isn’t even in the lottery.

In any case, it’s nice to have this saga behind us.  Once D12 heads to Jersey, all can focus on the basketball being played rather than the next big trade.

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Timberwolves Season Preview

It seems appropriate for the first real post on Punch-Drunk Wolves to be a preview of the Wolves’ upcoming season.  With major additions to the roster (Ricky Rubio, Derrick Williams) and to the sidelines (Coach Rick Adelman) there is, I think, some genuine excitement about this season from the Casual Minnesota Sports Fan.  This is significant for the team, and it makes the opening weeks and months crucial to establish a renewed relationship between this team and the sports fans that extend beyond the state’s hoop junkies.  Here are some preliminary thoughts on what some of this will look like, some questions to be answered, and one man’s predictions for 2011-12.

Coach Rick Adelman

Fresh off of 15 and 17-win seasons, the Timberwolves inexplicably hired the best available coach in the world.  Rick Adelman is one of the greatest coaches in recent NBA history.  Since taking over for the Sacramento Kings in 1999 where he paired with Princeton legend Pete Carrill, Adelman has implemented a high-post offense that encourages passing and backdoor cutting that is simply not seen in other NBA arenas.  This has allowed Adelman’s teams to thrive–sometimes to the point of serious championship contending–without having an A1 Superstar Go-To Guy that NBA champs always seem to have.  Chris Webber and Peja Stojakavich were phenomenal players with the Kings, but neither was a guy who would demand the ball, clear everybody out and take over down the stretch.  The Kings (and later the Rockets) passed and cut the way good college teams do, only with the benefit of the NBA’s strict defensive rules and elite shooting ability in the corners of the floor.  When it’s clicking (and it clicks more often than it stalls) it’s a beautiful thing to watch.  Minnesota is crazy for its Gophers and Big Ten Basketball.  Rick Adelman’s offense should be a welcome site for those college-ball fans who flip the channel over to FSN North when the Wolves are playing.  It is a team concept, five-on-five rather than one-on-one.  Fans will enjoy this.  The days of Isaiah Rider, Al Jefferson, and Michael Beasley holding the ball for five seconds while the others stand around watching should be over.

Rubio!

Ricky Rubio has finally arrived in Minnesota.  The two-year wait seemed more like an eternity in part due to the point guard that was selected moments after him in the 2009 Draft.  Jonny Flynn’s struggles are well-documented and I’d just as soon put them completely behind us.  But I can’t.  I need to mention at least once how happy I am to have the J-Fly Era put to bed in Minnesota.  No more behind-the-back rotation passes or rebellious 30-foot hoists when Luke Ridnour is waiting at the scorer’s table.  I realize that Flynn suffered a serious hip injury that required surgery and that this likely was a cause of his second-year struggles.  But his first year contained the same stupid floor decisions, only with a (slightly) higher success rate.

Wait, this was supposed to be about Rubio.  Sorry about that.  If the Wolves do indeed turn this thing around, Ricky Rubio is going to become a Tim Tebow of sorts, but without the religion.  Put simply, Rubio wins.  Also put simply, Rubio’s stats are mediocre at best.  His shooting percentages as a champion point guard in Spain would rival the very worst in the NBA, and his assist numbers are not out of this world either, for such a renowned passer and floor general.  (Though European assists are skewed low, by how they are measured.)  It could be that Ricky (assuming a starter’s load of minutes) averages something like 8 points and 6 assists a night, with 37 percent shooting, and yet is given the all-important “credit” for the Wolves’ success.  Of course, this will be given by 50.1 percent of NBA fans, while 49.9 have an entirely different take.  The Tebow situation, in other words.  Can it be explained in ways other than numbers?  I can already see Skip Bayless’ head exploding on First Take.  For now, let’s just be happy that the Spanish Prodigy is here and we all will be able to enjoy the opportunity to watch a uniquely-gifted passer, which is a very rare thing in basketball.

The Glut

It might be that the Timberwolves five best players are forwards.  Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams, Anthony Tolliver, and Anthony Randolph will all expect significant minutes this year and each of them plays forward.  Hell, aside from maybe Beasley, they are all natural power forwards.  There’s a glut that will require some creativity with the player rotations from the bench.  Matchups will be important and I think it is safe to assume that the starting lineup will not be the same for all 66 games even if the Wolves are fortunate-enough to avoid injuries.

One possible scenario would be that one of the forwards (most likely Love or Randolph) could start at center.  Adelman started Chuck Hayes at center in Houston, despite his being only 6’6″.  Love would seem like a reasonable candidate for that type of role, given his history of solid defense against bigger post players and his elite rebounding ability near the basket.  However, it should be noted that he lost 25 pounds this off-season, and if you’ve seen any recent video from training camp, it shows.  The guy looks legitimately skinny which isn’t something we expected to say about Love.  Randolph has the length to play center, but not necessarily the basketball disposition.  He’s a ball-handling forward who likes to drive off the dribble.  On defense, in short samples last season, he was bullied by centers such as Marcin Gortat.  It remains to be seen whether he is a viable option in the pivot.

With the small forward position, it really boils down to Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams.  Beasley, like his buddy and teammate Love, also took to the Weight Watchers plan this offseason and is noticeably slimmed down.  I thought his body resembled Tracy McGrady’s when I had the chance to see him play at his charity event, a while back.  I have no doubt that Beasley has his eyes on that small-forward position.  With Williams, there’s no guessing about it, as he announced to anyone who would listen before the draft that he was a small-forward.  Unfortunately for Derrick, that doesn’t make it true.  He is at least 240 pounds and may have the same types of struggles that Beasley did last year in chasing players out to the 23-foot line.  On offense, does Williams have the burst to take his man all the way to the hoop from that same distance?  I question whether Williams is a 3.  In making some hopeful comparisons, I’d guess that he is more like a David West than he is a Carmelo Anthony.  I guess we will see.  Given their respective contract situations (Beasley is up for restricted free agency and a sizable payday next year while Williams is just beginning the bargain rookie scale contract) it would not surprise me in the least if Beasley is dealt in the coming weeks and Williams is your starting small forward as long as he shows he can play there.

Predictions

These predictions are worth about as much as it cost you to read this post, but here goes:

* Wolves will trade for a starting shooting guard.  This could be Monta Ellis, Ben Gordon, Kevin Martin, or somebody else but I think they’ll make a trade for a legitimate off-guard that can handle the ball and score.

* A Timberwolf will win Rookie of the Year honors.  The Tebow-like Rubio debate may even come to fruition in this context if Derrick Williams has the stats, but Rubio has the flair and the… “it” thing that just wins games and makes people love him or hate him.  In any case, I think one of those two will win the ROY.  I think Kyrie Irving will be playing for a terrible Cavs team and he will not be able to thrive as an individual playmaker right out of the get-go.

* The Wolves’ record will be 25-41.  Why 25 wins?  Because it’s one more than 24, which is the most the Wolves have had in any season since Kevin Garnett left town.  Given the shortened season, it would actually be a 31-win pace which is nearly double what they won last year and one short of the combined total of the last two years.  25-41 would show marked improvement and would lessen the blow of Clippergedden.  For those of you unfamiliar with this term, it refers to the 2012 NBA Draft, wherein the Minnesota Timberwolves will hand their pick to the Los Angeles Clippers due to Kevin McHale’s trade for Marko Lima Jaric, about a dozen years ago.  While this is spoiled milk or a sunk cost or something like that–and it isn’t worth fretting about more than we have to, it would be nice if the team won some ball games this year and they don’t hand Blake Griffin’s team a top draft choice.

That’s all for now.  I hope you enjoy reading the blog and contributing below with your own thoughts as well.  This should be an interesting season.

 

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