Positional Battles

photo by David Sherman/NBAE (via espn.com)

It strikes me that even if Hassan Whiteside becomes a Timberwolf in the coming days, the playing roster is probably complete.  It also strikes me that there is far from a clear-cut starting lineup, or even playing rotation.  Rick Adelman does not strike me as a coach who worries about going deep into his bench to appease reserve players.  At least not in big games when he’s coaching his best teams.  Before speculating about this year’s rotation, let’s look back at last year’s:

Point Guard – Ricky Rubio (34.2 minutes per game)
Shooting Guard – Luke Ridnour (33.0 minutes per game)
Small Forward – Wesley Johnson (22.6 minutes per game; 64 starts)
Power Forward – Kevin Love (39.0 minutes per game)
Center – Nikola Pekovic (26.9 minutes per game)

Reserve Guard – J.J. Barea (25.2 minutes per game)
Reserve Wing – Martell Webster (24.3 minutes per game)
Reserve Forward – Michael Beasley (23.1 minutes per game)
Reserve Power Forward – Derrick Williams (21.5 minutes per game)

End of Bench – Wayne Ellington, Anthony Tolliver, Darko Milicic, Anthony Randolph, Malcolm Lee, Brad Miller

As I’m sure you know, the roster has undergone its usual off-season overhaul.  The Wolves welcome the following new faces:

Chase Budinger
Dante Cunningham
Andrei Kirilenko
Brandon Roy
Alexey Shved
Greg Stiemsma

They say goodbye to:

Beasley
Ellington
Johnson
Darko
Miller
Randolph
Tolliver (at least for the time being–he’s a free agent)
Webster

I’ll assume a December return for Ricky, and pick things up from there.  I’ll also assume a Whiteside acquisition to round out the bench.

Position Battles:

Starting Shooting Guard

Will Brandon Roy’s knees hold up?  For how long?  Can he play starter’s minutes?  Does he still have game?  So many questions for that guy.  He is, without a doubt, the most interesting new face of the Timberwolves.  That is, unless he falls apart right away and calls it a career.  In that case, the focus slides over to Alexey Shved, fresh off an eye-opening performance at the Olympics.  For a week or two there, we were writing something Shved just about every day.  Can Shved limit turnovers?  What position does he play?  Can he guard anybody?  After watching a handful of games, my short answers would be: No; Either guard spot; and Not yet.  I worry about Shved’s early adjustments to NBA defense, but hope to be proven very wrong.  His offense is sometimes electric and always puts pressure on opposing defensive units; something the Timberwolves will desperately need in the early going when Ricky is out.  And you know–they’ll need it after Ricky returns, too–that is, unless Brandon Roy still has Brandon Roy Game, and holds up over time.  Last year’s roster had exactly one true playmaker on it, and when he went down, things took an immediate, “5 wins, 20 losses” turn for the worse.  The team lacked playmakers in the backcourt.

Roy and Shved are the two “natural” shooting guards on the roster.  But what about the one who started 53 games last year, Luke Ridnour?  (Some of those were point guard starts, I know.)  Lucky Luke was the off-guard of choice during that magic run up to the Laker Game That Shall Not Be Discussed Further.  Adelman trusts him, and for good reason; Luke can knock down shots and handle the ball.  Defending physical off-guards is sometimes a problem for Ridnour (Vince Carter was the most glaring example).  Other candidates are J.J. Barea and Malcolm Lee, but I think it’ll come down to the Roy’s Knees versus Shved’s Adustment.  If both lose, it’s Luke’s job.

Starting Small Forward

In this spot, there is NO doubt that we’ll see a new face.  That’s because literally all of the old ones are gone.  Mike Beasley and Wes Johnson could’ve shared a flight together down to Phoenix.  Martell Webster is about to experience Randy Wittman Coaching in The District.  The candidates for the spot are Shved’s Russian teammate, Andrei Kirilenko, former Houston Rocket, Chase Budinger, and returning forward, Derrick Williams.  I’ll quickly dismiss D-Thrill since he isn’t a small forward isn’t a small forward isn’t a small forward.  He’s not a small forward.  Moving on… this is probably AK47’s job to lose.  We signed him for big money — about 10 times as much as Air Bud — and I can only assume that Adelman was a decision-maker there.  Kirilenko will encourage more passing and cutting; two things Rick Adelman teaches and appreciates.  Where Budinger could steal the job–perhaps over time–is with a big advantage in three-point shooting.  Over their respective careers, Budinger hits 36.3 percent of three-pointers, while Kirilenko only hits 31.2 percent.  The different is magnified by the fact that Chase shoots them over three times as frequently as Kirilenko.  If the offense is much like last season’s, and things begin and end with high ball screens for Ricky, a standing spot shooter might have more added value than a cutting player.  Time will tell.

The Third Big

This is, to me, the most interesting positional battle on this year’s Wolves.  Questions include:

1) What type of big man does Adelman want to complement the Love-Pek starting front line with?  A shot blocker?  A floor-spacing shooter?  A power forward that allows Love to slide down to center for some minutes?

2) Is Kirilenko a big man, or a small forward?  Yucca Man from SLC Dunk had this to say about AK47’s best position in a guest post at Canis Hoopus:

Small forward is not his best position. He was an All-Star PF in 2004, and that’s when he was still a skinny dude who looked like a tall SF. He’s bulked up a lot over the years, and he’s slowed just a bit. He’s also much better in the paint than throwing up outside shots. He’ll do fine as a SF, but it’s not really the spot that fits him best.

3) Will this position depend entirely on matchups, or will Adelman commit to a single player as a true 6th Man?

What would I like to see happen?  I’ve already written about it, so I’ll go ahead and quote myself writing about smallball with Williams and Love:

The Wolves are kind of a weird team.  Flipping Williams for a veteran wing and signing Stiemsma would be conventional moves that, in my opinion, do not embrace the positive qualities that make us weird.  Kevin Love’s ability to rebound and shoot three pointers at elite levels should be embraced to the maximum extent.  To me, that means daring opposing coaches to stick a big center on him and chase him out to the three-point line.  Rubio is already an elite passer.  The question is whether D-Thrill can become that matchup problem power forward that pulls defenders toward the hoop while Love (and a slew of spot shooter wings, like Air Bud) pulls them away.  Keeping defenses off balance is what elite offenses do.  Very few (maybe only one) players can accomplish that on their own, with consistency.  I don’t think the Wolves have any of those, and I don’t think there is any scenario where they can build a defensive identity around the Rubio-Love-Pekovic core.  So embrace the strengths, win with offense and play K-Love more minutes at center.

I obviously wrote that some time ago because the Wolves have gone and signed Stiemsma.  But they kept Williams too.  Hence the positional battle.  Throw in Dante Cunningham and possibly even AK47 and the 3rd Big minutes are going to be earned–not given away.  The Wolves’ highest “upside” is with the scenario I describe where Rubio and Williams pick-and-roll and Love knocks down 40 percent of a high volume of three-pointers while pulling the opposing center well outside of the paint.

But is that the most realistic scenario?  The growing number of cynical Timberwolves fans would say no.  Derrick Williams was a high draft choice of David Kahn, which means that he’s doomed to fail.  He struggled down the stretch of last season, when he should have been improving.  He didn’t finish well in the paint.  My hope, as something of an optimist, is that he’ll work with Bill Bayno on seeking contact rather than avoiding it and that he will refine his shooting touch from 15-18 feet where he needs to knock down shots off the roll or in square-up moves.  That’s just what I hope.  It wouldn’t surprise me all that much if Williams continues to struggle, falls out of favor with Adelman, and Cunningham and Stiemsma round out the big-man rotation on a matchups-determined basis.

Rough Prediction

It’s early, Ricky’s injured, who knows if Derrick Williams will be a Timberwolf for how much longer… but I’ll give this a shot.  Playing rotation after Ricky’s back.  Let’s just call it January 1, 2013.  These aren’t predictions of averages, because those would have to guess about injuries and games that certain players don’t play.  This is my guess at what a “typical” game looks like:

Ricky Rubio – 36 minutes ~ If it weren’t for the ACL, I’d have this closer to 40.  36 is still a lot.
Brandon Roy – 23 minutes ~ I think he’ll win the starting job, but they’ll watch his minutes.
Andrei Kirilenko – 30 minutes ~ In the end, I think defense and veteran smarts prevail over 3PT shooting.
Kevin Love – 38 minutes ~ No explanation needed.
Nikola Pekovic – 29 minutes ~ He’s a big man who had ankle issues last year and will always foul some.

Derrick Williams – 21 minutes ~ Williams takes the “3rd Big” spot, but not to the full extent.  He doesn’t disappoint, or “wow” us with what will amount to modest second-year improvement.
Luke Ridnour – 24 minutes ~ Adelman will trust him more than he will trust Rookie Shved.  He’ll play both guard spots.
Chase Budinger – 18 minutes ~ Backup small forward.
Alexey Shved – 13 minutes ~ Backup shooting guard.  J.J. Barea is either upset or traded.  Perhaps both.
Greg Stiemsma – 8 minutes ~ One stint in the second quarter with Williams, while the starters rest.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Positional Battles

  1. R

    I think Adelman will adjust to the depth that he has. Last year, he played guys in order to know them better and see if they could demonstrate improvement. This year, he has more veteran depth and really only one rookie, but one with pro experience. If Whiteside comes on board, I’d like to see that 15th slot used by Cory Karl, based on his summer league performance and his prior pro experience. I also think that he is hoping to be able to trust his bench enough to plug anybody in the rotation, to keep legs fresh and to keep the game up-tempo. I don’t see Whiteside, Cunningham, or possibly also Shved getting many minutes. I do think Adelman will play Shved early in the season to see what he can do, so it will be up to him to keep his spot in the rotation if he earns one.

    • I hope R is wrong about Shved because I think we\’re going to need him, but I agree that we shouldn\’t set our expectations too high. As R suggests, I could see Shved getting a quick hook for the season if he doesn\’t start out well, with Ridnour being the fallback, or even Barea. Shved seems better prepared to remain composed when faced with adversity than Derrick Williams was last year, so maybe Shved won\’t be fazed and will play up to his capabilities despite the pressure. I really hope Williams can turn things around and play to his strengths when given the opportunity.

  2. Eric in Madison

    One option that might come into play if Roy isn’t available is a big lineup with Budinger at the 2.

    However, it wouldn’t surprise me if, by the end of the year, their closing lineup includes AK at the 4 and Love at the 5.

    Couple of other notes:

    I’m intrigued by the potential playing time battle between Derrick Williams and Dante Cunningham. It’s not inconceivable that on a pure “who helps you win” level, the answer is Cunningham. There are always other considerations, though.

    Not clear what happens with Barea once Rubio is back. I am assuming that Ridnour is the first choice backup point guard, and unless there is a serious hole at the 2 where Ridnour can get his minutes, it’s gonna be tough.

    • Good points re: Budinger and AK47. There is some versatility there, and it might be that smallball with AK–and not Williams–at the 4 is the best way to close.

    • Here’s hoping Barea has/develops more trade value than I suspect he has/will have. He doesn’t seem to mesh well with the rest of the team on the court or in the locker room, and with his role likely to shrink this year, I think a separation is very likely. It’d be nice if it were somewhat amicable (in the sense that JJ doesn’t make a public stink of things) and beneficial for both parties.

      Eric’s thoughts about Cunningham are another, “I hope he’s wrong but he may well be right” situation. I really want to see Williams develop, as I think people are underselling the talent he has and what he could potentially become, but EiM is right–right now, it isn’t obvious based on last season that WIlliams is a clear choice over Cunningham for minutes toward the back of the rotation.

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