Coming into Focus: 5 Things We (Think We) Know about the 2012-13 Timberwolves

What’s in store for the Wolves this season?

Sometimes you just want to know what the future holds. You look into your crystal ball, but all you see is fog, so you ransack your house looking for that Ouija board you got in college. You don’t find it, so you go on a peyote-fueled drive through the deserts of Mexico, looking for that shaman who your buddy says changed his life. You make it back into the States in one piece.

It’s three games into the Wolves preseason, and you’re now wondering if the Wolves are going to be any good this year. “Will they make the playoffs?” “What will Adelman’s rotations look like?” “Will Nikola Pekovic raze a village in frustration after a tough loss and get slapped with a season-long suspension?

At Punch-Drunk Wolves, we have the answers. A few emerging impressions about this year’s team are below the fold.

1. Brandon Roy will be good (if he stays healthy…duh)

We tweeted about this last night:it’s nice to see a Wolves 2-guard who is physical, fundamentally sound, and can get to the line. We haven’t had one of those since JR Rider, and despite concerns about his health, Roy appears to be one.

Joan Nielsen’s profile of Roy hit the nail on the head: every time he does something out there, it’s cringe-inducing because you don’t know if his legs are going to completely collapse from under him. But until that happens, it’s all good: Roy leads when he’s on the court, and though he’s clearly less explosive now than when he was in his prime with Portland, he looks to have adjusted his game to make lemonade out of the lemons god gave him.

And that’s a very good thing for the Wolves. I’d like to see Adelman give Roy the ball more as the lead guard – at least until Rubio gets back, or unless Shved emerges as a starting point guard – but overall B-Roy’s performance suggests he could be a very nice surprise.

2. Alexey Shved will be good too!

Shved’s play so far bears out what we saw in last summer’s Olympics: he can dribble, pass, and shoot, and he can do them all with style. His play in London wasn’t a sham. He’s the real deal.

A few more pointed observations:

  • Shved isn’t as skinny as people were saying for a long time. He looks to have a thin, but relatively well developed hoops body. He’s long, and dare I say it, he’s also athletic.
  • That said, Shved does need to add muscle. Here’s what the Wolves do: have Shved follow Pek around during the daytime hours. And bring back Mark Madsen and have him follow Mad Dog around after the sun sets. In the end, they’ll have a dynamic guard who’s both ripped and well rested.
  • Oh, and while they’re at it, the Wolves should bring back Rubio too, not just because he’s a helluva ballplayer, but also because he’s a great defender. I guess you can’t mend a broken knee overnight. But Alexey needs a defensive mentor like Rubio. Maybe it’s Kirilenko, who knows. But Hinrich owned Shved last night in the 4th quarter. Alexey needs to get his self over those high ball screens, or he’s going to have a hard time staying on the floor when it matters.
  • As with Roy, Adelman should play Shved more at the point, at least until Rubio’s back. Despite my misgivings about Shved’s defense, I’d like to see more rotations featuring Shved and Ridnour, with Shved as the lead and Ridnour in position to hit corner treys. Both guys would be more productive and valuable. And Ridnour could defend the point, if that made sense based on the matchups. (Along the same lines, I wish Adelman would do the same with Roy and JJ Barea. Roy is under control when he plays and Barea isn’t, so having Brandon in there with JJ could help rein in Barea. Alexey isn’t always under control either, so Job #1 – reining in Barea – is less likely if you’re looking at a second unit of Shved and Barea.)

3. Derrick Williams? Maybe not that good

Is this the guy Rick Adelman was raving about? I sure haven’t seen that guy. Has anyone seen him?  His face should be put on the back of a milk carton. Send Bayno and a rescue team, asap.

A few specifics:

  • Shooting. I’ve long thought Thrill would end up improving his long-range shooting, but I’m starting to give up on that idea. His form looks the same as it did last year (bad) and so does his confidence (also bad).
  • Intensity. Is Williams playing harder? Adelman said so repeatedly. Again, don’t see it. Williams looks lost, like the game is moving too fast for him.
  • The need for a go-to move. We’ve said it before and will keep saying it: Williams needs to muck it up as a power face-up guy if he wants to beast in this league. (Think STAT, back when STAT was good. Someone please send Thrill a box of old Phoenix game tapes. kthxbai.)

4. Is Dante Cunningham salvageable? Is Derrick Williams?

In certain ways, Cunningham looks sort of like the guy Williams was supposed to be. They’re different kinds of players, obviously, but consider the following.

Imagine you’re taking a test, blind. (A blind test? Whatever. The kind where you don’t know which is which.) And imagine you have one guy who looks like a caged lion freed at feeding time, and another who looks like a yawnstipating benchwarmer.  One guy is willing to mix it up inside and who also appears to be able to step up his intensity on D, and another who isn’t making much of an impact on the interior on either offense or defense. You’ve got one who’s playing like a tasty filet, while the other’s like that half-cooked chuck steak you got last week at Sizzler.

Which one is Cunningham? Which is Williams? You already know the answer, of course, at least so far.

In Williams’ case, you can tell yourself you’re getting a decent steak meal when you’re heading out to the Sizzler, but when get there and dig in, you know you’re getting low-grade product.

To be fair, I didn’t see the Wolves’ second preseason game – apparently Williams’ best so far – because League Pass gremlins hid the game, so I’m looking at a tiny, skewed sample. But still, Williams is a major disappointment so far, with the rhetoric being far from the reality. He’s got a lot of learning to do before he can become a difference-maker for the Wolves.

5. Chase Budinger: A whole lotta “meh”

A lot of fans welcomed Bud’s arrival ahead of the draft last summer with at least lukewarm enthusiasm, including me. They/we said a lot of things. “Bud can make threes,” they/we said. “Bud’s an average wing,” said others/me.“Maybe even above-average.” Best of all, we were all able to say, “He’s better than Wes Johnson.”

Budinger has put up decent numbers so far this preseason, scoring 14 points  apiece in each of the first two games before putting up 6 in a 2-11 stinker Saturday night.

Problem is, Bud doesn’t look like he’s got much of a motor on him. Jim Pete reported that Bud wasn’t playing hard enough to stay on the floor for Kevin McHale last year in Houston. And when you see him play, you kinda see why. There’s not much intensity. He’s tentative going after loose balls. And so on and so forth.

That’s too bad, because Bud’s a rare commodity in today’s NBA: a guy who can shoot the lights out, get invited to be in Sprite Slam Dunk contests, and keep his head up despite being the only confirmed albino in the League. So if Budinger is like an endangered species, it’s one that will likely face extinction – at least in terms of NBA relevance – if Bud doesn’t start coming with more fire out there. [Insert joke here.]

Outlook

What’s the moral of the story? There are some good things, and some bad. It’s the Wolves. It’s the preseason. The early preseason. It probably doesn’t mean very much. But there are some surprises, already, considering the priors that we rolled out of training camp with.

That’s what I have for now. What else should we be keeping an eye on?

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Coming into Focus: 5 Things We (Think We) Know about the 2012-13 Timberwolves

  1. Eric in Madison

    Good piece. I agree that Williams is in real trouble. He just doesn’t do very many positive things out there. Roy has looked way better then I expected. I’m not sure what you expected from Budinger, but he’s been about what I expected. Guy who can make some shots and get out in transition. For a 20 minute a night guy, I’m satisfied with what he brings. Bud is an average wing. (Part of the issue here is that he played a lot of minutes last night; he won’t do that usually).

    I disagree with your analysis of Shved’s defense; I think he’s generally been fine. As for Hinrich “owning” Shved in the 4th quarter…um, you did see that Shved basically won the game for them, right?

    Defensively…look. He isn’t making any all-defensive teams, but frankly I haven’t seen anything close to egregious from him. Seems to me that Shved has shown an ability to get in the passing lanes occasionally and force some turnovers. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by his play at that end.

    I have had this conversation before, (I’m sure with Andy more then once), but I dislike the way we talk about perimeter defense. The truth is, because of the rules of the game, and the rules of physics, guys get beat. Off the dribble. All the time. Everyone does. It’s the nature of the beast, and for all we want to talk about ball movement and everything else, NBA offense is predicated on dribble penetration from the perimeter. Because it’s very hard to stop.

    As for high ball screens…no. You’re wrong. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s usually the wrong play to try to fight over it; by the time you do, your guy has turned the corner. Better to sag underneath, clog the roller, and if your guy can make a pull up jumper off the dribble, live with it. I actually suspect that coaches tell their guys to play it that way more often then not in the NBA.

    • I agree (with Eric, disagree with Pat) about Shved’s defense last night. Not only did I think he hold his own off the ball (my concern, after watching him in the Olympics) but he was actually kind of a pest, using his long arms to poke away and sometimes steal passes. It struck me that he and Rubio, with their instincts, long arms and style, could make a really pesky pairing of defensive guards.

      Defending ball screens… I’m no expert, but I think it probably depends on a lot of things. (Not much of an assertion there, I realize.) If the screen defender is Taj Gibson or Joakim Noah, you might be hedging that thing out 5 or 6 feet, and fighting over the top. Particularly if the dribbler is a shooter like Steve Nash. But if it’s Roy Hibbert defending the screener and Rajon Rondo dribbling off the screen, George Hill isn’t going to sag way below it and invite a jumper from Rondo. Corey Brewer, in one of the more memorable games I’ve ever attended, allowed 55 points to Tony Parker, many of which came from sliding under the ball screen and Tony burying the open jumper. I think the best defensive teams — the ones known for aggressive defense (Chicago, Memphis, Boston, Miami) try to use pick-and-roll defense as more of a sword than a shield. On the Wolves, with Love and Pekovic taking up many of the big-man minutes, it might be more conservative, more of a shield.

      But yeah, I thought Shved did fine on D last night, and posted that in my jottings after the game. My only concern with his (otherwise awesome) performance was the turnovers and careless passes. It’s something he did a fair amount of in the Olympics and it might be the only thing that could remove him from the playing rotation. But if he’s going to bury 25-footers, and dazzle with lefty finishes in the lane… Coach might want to extend that leash a bit.

    • Erik, good take. I agree with most of your points, even where we disagreed. (It’s election season, right? Politics? I feel entitled to claim that!) Joking aside, you’re right that I mischaracterized the Shved/Hinrich duel in a few ways. First, Shved was awesome in the 4th. On offense. His defense wasn’t exploited until that last mini-run the Bulls made when the game was mostly out of reach and Hinrich was still churning. And even then, I think it was more that (I thought) Alexey looked a bit slow in *recognizing* the ball screens so he could react to them. You’re 100% right (as is Andy G) on the issues with criticizing someone solely on “not getting over.” It isn’t one guy’s responsibility, but to me it still looks like an area of team defense that needs improvement.

      On Bud: I watched him quite a bit as a Rocket and expected more then, like I do now. He’s basically what I thought we were getting. That isn’t terrible, it’s just an 8th or 9th man.

      • Eric in Madison

        Yeah, here’s one of my thoughts on Budinger: he’s sort of a useful version of Wes Johnson. He isn’t going to be a dynamic guy whose all over the floor. There will be disappearances (how many times did it take you several minutes last year to realize Wes was on the floor)? On the other hand, he’ll make the open 3s.

        In response to Andy’s remark on Shved: I think you have to live with the occasional mistake with him. Guys who make plays with the ball, and have that kind of vision, will try things that don’t work sometimes. It’s the nature of that talent. At the moment, I’d rather he have the confidence to play how he plays and live with the mistakes then the alternative. It’s not unlike Rubio. It can morph into something that’s hurting you more then helping you, certainly, but right now having him explore the game is fine.

        • ” It can morph into something that’s hurting you more then helping you, certainly, but right now having him explore the game is fine.” — Agreed. And unless Brandon Roy proves to be close to his old self in effectiveness and capable of playing starter’s minutes, I’d probably extend the Shved Leash into the regular season a ways too. Particularly because Ricky is out.

        • Concur. It’d be a huge mistake to stifle Shved. He’s extremely well composed and plays with a lot of confidence, and if you take that away from him, you aren’t left with much. Let him play through mistakes and see what happens. The good thing about the mistakes Shved makes while trying to do too much vs the kind, say, Jonny Flynn used to make from trying to do too much are that Shved’s come from a guy with good court sense who’s trying to make plays, and Flynn’s were simply forced attempts that had no chance of leading to made plays. So nice to have a guy who’s the polar opposite of Jonny in so many ways.

  2. 1. Bud was +16 in his 2/11 “stinker.” I know that +/- is a finicky stat, but when playing 37 minutes it means he had a very positive impact on the game despite not really showing up in the box score.

    2. Cunningham, in the last two games, has made me completely forget about Anthony Tolliver. He may do the same for Dwill if he starts throwing down alley oops that used to belong to Derrick. A trade involving Derrick and one of our extra PGs might be best for the team some time after Dec. 15th.

    3. I was at the game on Saturday and I probably cringed more than Brandon Roy every time he dove after a ball/ played physically. I can’t wait til I forget about his knees.

    • Budinger seems to cut more than the other wings (AK47 is probably an exception, but he didn’t play last night.) Bud was cutting backdoor, but that doesn’t seem to be a clean part of the offense yet. Maybe as the year goes on, they’ll refine their offense to reward good back-cuts. I still remember that final game of 2010-11 (Kurt’s Last Stand… hours after “Show of hands?”) when Budinger and the like from Houston backcut the Wolves a half-dozen times for dunks. I suspect Chase is anxious to start doing that here in Minnesota too.

      • I hope so. I’m excited to see all of the new wrinkles on offense that just weren’t possible last season.

      • Andy, good observation on Bud moving with the ball. That’s Reason #702 He’s Better Than Wesley Johnson. But the thing is, he doesn’t cut very hard. Looks afraid of getting hit. He needs some AK47 game tape, errrmm, or just to do what he does in practice/games.

    • Ben, good response. I completely ignored +/- for this read and solely looked at what I saw Bud was doing on the court, and was calibrating that against expectations. But you’re right, maybe there was something there I wasn’t seeing.

      Cunningham is certainly a person of interest (POI) at this point.

      Godspeed, Brandon Roy.

  3. Alberto Super

    If Williams is a meal at the Sizzler, based on these first three games, then Cunningham is Fogo De Chao… I’m hungry now.

  4. Richard Bentley

    The operational word is early