Timberwolves Season in Review: The Retrospective

cabana-pek

My college roommate was on vacation and took this unbelievable photo of Pekovic. He emailed it to me, when I was at happy hour. I tweeted it. It went viral. The internet is cool. -AG

[This is Part 1 of a season review series. This post looks back in time at the season that was. A subsequent post will use what we learned this season to take a prospective look ahead at what the Timberwolves should look like in 2014-15 and beyond.]

1. Season Highlight

Andy G:  Let’s kick this thing off on a positive note. Even if we blew Adelman’s finale against the lowly Utah Jazz the other night.

The season highlight happened immediately, during the first few games of the season. That’s a little bit depressing, as it necessarily means the team moved downhill throughout the season, but it is nevertheless true.

I was visiting your place in Pittsburgh when we watched the Wolves on League Pass, blowing Kevin Durant’s Thunder off the Target Center floor. (That really happened.) Then they handled the Knicks, who we still thought were good. (They won 54 games last season.) The Wolves began the year 3-0. I think Mark Stein had them near the very top of his power rankings. Kevin Looked like a *real* MVP candidate. Kevin Martin’s contract looked like a bargain. On his leak-out, bomb, receptions-turned-dunks, Corey Brewer looked like Randy Moss with a smile. A huge smile. Ricky Rubio looked healthy, which was a step up from the season prior. Everything was coming together. Finally. Those were the days.

All 5 or 6 of them.

Anyway, my season highlight was the first week. Things were looking so great.

Patrick J: Season highlight? Would it be wrong to say Shabazz Muhammad’s D-League Showcase? (Eds. Note: Yes, it would.)

Okay, so all of the games you mentioned were great. But Corey Brewer’s 51-point game in a win over the Rockets was TRULY great. We chronicled it here.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m an unrepentant Corey Brewer fan. CAVEAT EMPTOR: I don’t care what the stats say. He’s everything that is fun and unusual and spontaneous and (Eds. Note: “sometimes”) right about basketball. I expressed my admiration for Brew before he even came back to the Wolves in this piece we did for Timberwolves.com. When I wrote that, I felt kind of silly writing such complimentary words about such a bit player who wasn’t even on the Wolves. But hell, you feel what you feel, so you write what you write. And I’m writing this: For all his faults, Corey Brewer will always be one of my favorite Timberwolves of all time. (Say it with me: FIFTY. ONE. POINTS. [Full stop.] IN. A. WIN. [Full stop.] OVER. THE. ROCKETS. [Full stop.].)

2. Season Lowlight

Patrick J: Season lowlight? Would it be wrong to say watching Shabazz Muhammad playing in the D-League instead of the NBA? (Eds. Note: Yes, it would.)

Missing the playoffs is the obvious answer. But that’s been lingering for the past six weeks. It settled. It sat. We lowered our expectations, accepted our fate, and began paying closer attention to the NCAA. We became intrigued by Chris Walker. (Eds. Note: Walker averaged 1.9 ppg. Does that tell you how low things got?)

Would it be wrong to say that the season’s lowlight was another lingering feeling? By which I mean, the feeling that Rick Adelman was not only checked out for most of the season, but that he never really checked in? I hate to dwell negatively on the twilight of a Hall of Fame coach’s career, but it’s hard to walk away from the season feeling like he had any business coaching the team this year. His heart was never in it. At first, going to his post-game pressers when I was in town was a revelation: Here was a coach who didn’t give an eff about his job security and would flat-out say that his team came out unprepared to play, that they weren’t ready. But only at first: That became a season-long trope. An unacceptable one. You got the feeling that Rick’s head was elsewhere–possibly rightfully so–but it just wasn’t focused on his day job–getting the Wolves to win. And we didn’t. Look at the final record.

Andy G: I think that the season lowlight — in hindsight — was that Thanksgiving-weekend loss to the Nuggets, at Target Center. It dropped the Wolves below .500. It was the second loss of the short season to a weak Nuggets team. And, more than anything, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried exposed the Timberwolves for the pretend defenders that they were. This was not a strong defensive team, NUMB#RS be damned, and watching a spread, high pick-and-roll attack like the one led by Ty Lawson that night left me shaken; shaken, and seriously doubting this team’s prospects as a playoff team, let alone title contender. I wrote about it the next day, wondering if it was (already) time to press the panic button. (I think that it must’ve been, because very little changed from that point on…)

It was after that game, and — more specifically, after listening to Rick Adelman speak after that game — that this turned into a season where we continued to wonder whose FAULT it was. Adelman lamented the energy and effort; his common theme. The players, well, failed to execute.

Anyway, that was my lowlight, looking back on it.

3. Team MVP (*aside from Kevin Love)

Patrick J: Ricky Rubio. Even though people spent part of the season arguing if he’s the worst shooter in the history of the sport and much of the rest of it debating about why he wasn’t playing fourth quarters, Rubio was the team’s MVP after Love. He showed up every night. He was among the League leaders in assists and steals. More importantly, Rubio was glue that held the team together when everything else fell apart.

I suspect you’ll agree with me about Rubio, so I’ll leave it at that.

Andy G: Yes, it was Ricky, with some caveats.

First, it would not have been Ricky if Pekovic played 75+ games. (COUNTERPOINT: It seems doubtful that Pek will, you know, ever play 75+ games.) But when they had Pekovic, the offense was TOTALLY focused around Love and Pek, high-low action. Every time Ricky tried to deviate from the formula, Adelman blew a gasket. Sometimes he benched Ricky for Barea. When the offense was heavily geared around Love at the elbow and Pek on the low block, Ricky was not the team’s second-best player.

But in fairness to Coach Rick, and that strategy, it was working very well. Over 1,318 minutes on the floor together, Love-and-Pek led lineups outscored opponents by a whopping 8.2 points per 100 possessions. They were — Roger Dodger voice — KICKING ASS. (Eds. Note: For the uninitiated, here’s a choice sample of the Roger Dodger voice.) So let’s not blame Adelman for using that route, even if it probably came at Ricky’s individual expense.

I digress.

Rubio’s production took off a bit after Pekovic and other teammates fell to injuries. (Or “injuries,” as the case may have been, some of the time.) Over the entire season, he averaged 8.6 assists and 2.3 steals per game, in just 32.2 minutes per game that should’ve been closer to 37 or 38. Also, and most importantly, Rubio had the best plus-minus, per possession, on the team, with the exception of Pekovic who played 28 fewer games. Including Kevin Love. That obviously incorporates his defensive ability, which is tops on the entire roster.

Ricky had a solid season.

The second caveat is just that he really needs to improve his shooting. We’ll probably get to that in Part 2.

4. Most Disappointing Player Award (Here’s to you, Kevin Martin.)

Patrick J: Ladies and Gentlemen, your surprise winner–Chase Budinger!

Before this season, Budinger had never made more than one-million dollars (Dr. Evil voice) in a season. Hell, he had never even made $900,000. (!) This season, Budinger made FIVE MILLION DOLLARS (Dr. Evil again).

Chase_Budinger_NBA___ABA_Stats___Basketball-Reference_com

Why in the world did anyone think Chase was worth five-million dollars? Let’s look at some facts. Budinger had never been more than a bit role player. Bud was coming off of a semi-catastrophic knee injury that barely enabled him to play the preceding year.

If I’m Timberwolves POBO Flip Saunders, is my reaction upon taking the job last Spring something like this: “WHOA, WHOA, WHOA…STOP THE TRAINS–BEFORE DOING ANYTHING ELSE, WE *NEED* TO LOCK UP CHASE BUDINGER LONG-TERM. WE NEED TO GET THIS DONE. SO LET’S OFFER HIM  FIVE TIMES MORE MONEY HE’S EVER MADE BEFORE ON ANY KAHNTRACT.”

No, no it’s not. And it probably wasn’t Flip’s either. Budinger only played 23 games last year (23!). And he wasn’t that good. And the joke’s on us, because he never has been! Here’s a guy who has never been a starter, never had a League-average PER, his PER has gotten *worse* each year he has been a T’Wolf, and he has never made much of an impact on any team. Why should anyone have expected this to *improve* in a season in which he was coming off a major knee injury? WHY?!

What came next is, well, history. Really painful history, like the kind that serious trauma victims work so hard to block out of their psyches, except that it isn’t really healthy to do that because it’s just a short-term way of dealing with the pain that will come back to haunt your dreams in the long run.

That’s what Chase Budinger’s going to do, Wolves fans. Haunt your dreams. Inhabit your nightmares. Because the Wolves are on the hook to pay him a cool $5 mill per for each of the next two seasons. (#ualreddykno that Bud will be picking up that player option for 2015-16.)

Chase_Budinger_NBA_Kahntract

Chase Budinger was bad this year. He got hurt nearly immediately after signing his contract (was he ever really healthy?), and when he finally came back in January, well, things weren’t pretty–little lateral motion, mediocre D, the inability to hit open threes at a high rate, which on paper is really his only plus skill. And there still isn’t really any reason to expect things to get better. Bud never looked healthy this season. He looked better in his “aw, shucks” Texas jeans and navy-blue jacket getup we saw so often behind the bench than he did in uniform.

What really stings about the Budinger signing is that you kind of sense that Flip didn’t want to sign him to that deal. You get the feeling that Rick wanted him signed to that deal–Bud was Rick’s guy in Houston, followed when Rick came to Minnesota, and then got hurt. End of story. Don’t pass go, don’t collect $200.

So, there’s a reasonable-enough theory that my Season Lowlight (Adelman) fed into the Season’s Most Disappointing Player (the MDP Award). I think Rick will end up shouldering too little of the blame for Budinger’s kahntract (and Kevin Martin’s, which we haven’t even discussed yet) and Flip too much.

Chase Budinger, congratulations! You hereby win the Punch-Drunk Wolves’ 2013-14 MDP Award.

Andy G: Damn, you almost had me kahnvinced. But I still have to go with K-Mart.

Look, we already knew that Martin played no defense. And that held true. All season, he could be found at a given point in time being slammed by an unexpected (to him) screen, or making totally-irresponsible steal attempts in the passing lanes, that resulted in opponent layups more than his own steals at at least at 3:1 ratio. His lame attempts at Corey Brewer’s patented leak-outs were just blatant cherry picking. Martin had the worst defensive rating of all regular rotation players on the team. It probably would’ve been worse had he not spent so much time on the floor next to Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer, who are active and able enough to cover for the third guard’s mistakes. (Rubio was just named to Zach Lowe’s 2nd Team All-Defense, fwiw.)

But it wasn’t just the defense! Martin’s offense was unreliable wayyy too often for this team to reach its goal of a playoff berth. ESPN’s analytics guru Tom Haberstroh just wrote a piece devoted to Kevin Martin’s awful crunchtime performance. (Insiders only!) The basic gist: Martin spends so much of the game flopping off of minimal contact in hopes of drawing a foul, and in late-game situations, refs don’t call those. He becomes unplayable down the stretch of games.

In other news, you could argue that the single biggest reason the Wolves’ season is already over is their poor play during crunchtime. (Other nominees: Backup point guard play; Interior defense.) The Wolves needed K-Mart to be a late-game scorer and he was horrible at that role.

A final gripe about Martin: He isn’t even a floor spacer! He’s a bad teammate for Ricky Rubio because he almost NEVER catches and shoots. He has one of the slowest releases of an *otherwise* good scorer that I have ever seen. Rubio needs his passes to be used for shots; not for the receiver to catch, hold, and think for a while before attempting a goofy-looking, contested jumper.

I did not enjoy The Kevin Martin Experience.

Oh, and he’s not going anywhere either. Not when he’s slotted to make over $21 Million over the next three years. (#fml)

(Eds. Note: One might take this as an indication that the Wolves are screwed at the wing for a while.)

5. Whatever netw3rk’s new metric is called — Who leads the Wolves in that?

Patrick J: You mean the True Loathing Rating? Okay, we can do that one.

Was the team chemistry ever *good* this season? In some ways, it was very Minnesotan: There was relatively little open conflict, but also little leadership. You had a coach/father-figure who was a nice guy and smart, but who also never really cracked the whip when things *did* get bad.

So to the question, it’s both hard and easy to answer: Kevin Love and J.J. Barea. Love rarely masked his discontent for ineptitude for his teammates’ poor play, or for the many perceived slights he got from the refs. As much of a trooper as Love was for much of the season, from the very first time he appeared in public at Media Day, he looked a bit surly and standoffish, both terse and smug in his answers and body language.

If netw3rk’s True Loathing Rating must deal with antipathy among teammates, then the award must go to the Love-J.J. duo. J.J. has the most outsized personality on the team. He MIGHT be the most confident guy in the world. (Eds. Note: Doesn’t some sportwriter like to talk a lot about “irrational confidence guys”? He’s doing his self a disservice by never mentioning Barea among these luminaries. I mean, hasn’t he seen this video?)

(h/t Steve McPherson and Anthony Bain)

So anyway, this happened:

Then, things were said in the locker room.

Later, JJ questioned Love’s manhood.

Yada, yada, yada, you’ve got a decent True Loathing Rating according to netw3rk’s m3tric.

Andy G: I can’t really argue with that, except if I bend netw3rk’s rules to allow TLR to apply to coaches. If that happens, then Rick Adelman gets the award for the way he loathed Ricky Rubio’s decision-making this year. For all the criticism Adelman faced for supposedly being checked out or disinterested, he sure seemed fired up and angry after every single Rubio mistake. I wrote about this already. He cut Ricky’s minutes this year, even though there was no backup point guard.

Both guys seem cool off the floor, and I doubt they hate each other or anything. (Probably just like a 5.5 or 6.0 on the TLR scale, very far from Kobe’s 30.0.) But suffice it to say Ricky Rubio is looking forward to playing for a different coach who values his skill set more than Adelman did.

6. Rick Adelman: Your thoughts?

Patrick J: Discussed above. Go ahead and grab the wheel.

Andy G: Okay, time to defend Adelman.

Very little of this season’s disappointment was his fault. In fact, he deserves more credit than blame.

First things first: He took over the Timberwolves after they had won 32 games over the past two seasons.

Read that again.

The Wolves had reached arguably the lowest point in NBA history, if you count multiple consecutive seasons.

Adelman came in and brought instant credibility to the organization. Everyone that used to make decisions (Kahn, Taylor) had to basically get out of the way and let the man do his job. And he did his job. Despite catastrophic injuries to Rubio (in Year 1) and Love (in Year 2) the Wolves basically doubled their winning percentage from the Rambis Administration. This year, with a much healthier lineup, they leaped up another 11 or so winning percentage points and entered the playoffs conversation.

Look, I understand the criticism that Adelman seemed checked out, and there is probably some truth to that. But here’s the long reasoning about why he deserves less blame than he’s getting:

There are three basic categories of coaches (and coaching decisions) and this applies to every level of basketball:

The type that make a team better;

The type that make a team worse; and

The type that have no effect on team performance.

(Eds note: a dorky legal comparison is found in Justice Robert Jackson’s famous concurrence about executive power vis a vis Congress in The Steel Seizure Case.)

Also, NBA coaches vary greatly in the amount of authority or influence that they have over the way that their teams play. Gregg Popovich obviously has the most. He’s like a college or high school coach, in that regard. Some other coaches (probably the former great player types, like Kevin McHale) have — perhaps willingly — less control over the minutiae. So the impact of any decision — good or bad — made by Popovich has more importance than a decision made by McHale, or Jason Kidd. (On the flipside of Popovich among high-control types would be Randy Wittman. He’s authoritative but not smart.)

So this brings us to Rick Adelman. He’s spent a great deal of his career being what I would describe as a medium control, wise decision maker. He’s regarded as a “player’s coach,” who treats veterans with more respect than a Popovich or Carlisle might. But the decisions he makes are usually good ones.

This year with the Timberwolves, I think his intelligence was the same (perhaps save the decisions to bench Ricky) but he allowed his control to drop from medium down to low or even very low. The wisdom he imparted on his players was evident when watching the high-low offense hum along every time Pekovic was healthy. Not many coaches — maybe NO other coaches — could install that thing as well as Adelman did. Also, the Wolves defended better than their physical capabilities would suggest was possible. They were disciplined in avoiding unnecessary fouls.

Adelman’s low level of authority was made extra apparent by the immaturity of his players and their frequent bouts of lethargy, even on the home floor. Some blame falls on Kevin Love’s shoulders, here. You would never see a Kevin Garnett-led team play this way. (To hold him to a probably-unfair standard, I guess.)

But on the whole, I think the Wolves were being coached by a person who made them better; not worse. He just didn’t make them AS MUCH better as Adelman teams usually benefit from the sideline.

Here is a graph:

coaching axis

Does that make sense?

7. Kevin Love’s Value – What is it, how did it change this year?

Patrick J: Love is starting to get dinged as a loser who puts up gawdy stats. I won’t say anything more about it than that. I don’t honestly know if it’s true or not, and I don’t think anyone or any metric can really tell us if it’s true. Basically, to answer that question, you would want a counterfactual world where K-Love is thrust onto the 2007-08 Celtics, instead of Kevin Garnett, and then to watch and see how he and the team do. Do they still win the title? What is Love’s role? What’s his contribution? Again, it’s unknowable.

But perceptions matter. So it’s important that this new perception is starting to get some traction in certain NBA circles, because it’s a relatively new take.

That said, Love’s value to other teams still seems extremely high. Everyone wants someone as good as Kevin Love on their team. And teams are going to be willing to trade/pay for it. But what they’ll trade diminishes as Love gets closer to his opt-out. Unless the Wolves REALLY, REALLY, REALLY believe they can lock up Love when he opts out, they should trade him this summer. And Flip should be making calls now, because there’s no clear indication either way, so if the right deal comes along, you have to mitigate risk and take it.

Andy G:   His value is very high right now, as he just finished the best all-around season of his career. He was clearly checked out for the past month, which helped allow Gorgui Dieng to collect so many rebounds. Normally, Love would fight him for those. (Remember: There’s no such thing as a selfish rebound. I think Love said that once.) But Love had a monster season with the best stats in the league.

You make a good point about the need for a counterfactual in order to really *know* what the hell is up with these NUMB#RS that he consistently produces on bad teams.

The big question, which you more or less just asked, is: What do Love’s stats look like on a great team?

The Detroit Bad Boys documentary last night (which was awesome and should be watched by all NBA junkies) devoted a few minutes to Mark Aguirre, who the Pistons acquired in the Adrian Dantley trade. Aguirre racked up 25 to 30 points per game for the Mavs. In Detroit, he won championships scoring barely half as much.

I would think that league executives view Love, in the ideal scenario, as a second offensive option who can blend into just about any system due to his rebounding, shooting and passing skills. I don’t think he’ll ever again find himself in the situation he was this year, where an offense runs *through* him. There just aren’t enough coaches who share Rick Adelman’s preference for high-post basketball.

We’ll talk more about this in Part 2, but I don’t think the Wolves should trade him now. That ship sailed at the last deadline, when they could’ve plausibly gotten decent value in return.

8. Best-Dressed Injured Timberwolf Award

Patrick J: You got us–adding this award was really just a vehicle to get to post some of our favorite Pek images from this season.

 

Pek in Black

Pek in Black

Possibly the same suit, with tie.

pek-suit-tie

 

 

Relaxing by the pool, Pek-style.

cabana-pek

 

This isn’t even really Pek’s off-court garb, but yes, it does hang on Andy G’s living-room wall.

pekkkkk

Did we say that Nikola Pekovic is the best-dressed Timberwolf?

***

That’s all for now. The season was a doozy. We’ll be back with more discussion of the rest of the NBA season soon.

9 Comments

Filed under Features, Timberwolves

9 responses to “Timberwolves Season in Review: The Retrospective

  1. Nathan Anderson

    Great stuff.

    Flip cannot shoulder too much blame. He’s the GM (Prez of Basketball Ops, whatever). It was his decision to sign Bud, Brew, and Martin. Until I see evidence that Adelman overruled him by going directly to Mr. Taylor (and then it is Taylor’s fault), it is all on Flip.

    My most disappointing moment of the season was the Knicks loss. I had retained irrational hope and that loss taught me two things: (1) The wolves were definitely not making the playoffs and (2) I am a god damn fool.

    The Adelman-Ricky relationship was the most frustrating aspect of the season. I spent hours this winter speaking softly to the TV (so as not to wake up my daughter) “why is Ricky not in the game? Put him back in the game.” The frustration was not limited to those games where Ricky did not come back in, it included those games where Ricky came back in with 5 minutes or 4 minutes left after Barea had crushed the avocado of the game into chunky guacamole and dumped it into the dirt.

    This team would have been a lot better with 1990 Adelman and 1990 Terry Porter.

    • The Knicks loss seemed like a give-up moment for a lot of fans. Mine came earlier than that, to be honest. It didn’t take too long to see that this team is built to bully bad teams and lose to good ones.

      I like (and agree with) your closing line.

    • Flip ultimately signed off on those moves and thus bears responsibility. But I’m not ready yet to use that as the final verdict here. Just like fans gave Rick credit for doing things they didn’t think Kahn would do, at least leaving open the possibility that Rick shaped those decisions seems fair. I can’t seem him not having at least some leverage on the margins.

      Fully agree on Adelman-Ricky and, like Andy, love your closing line.

  2. DAG

    Get over Love. Top stat player in the league, but the team will be better when he is gone. Love plays zero defense and is a ball stopper on offense. Watch only the fourth quarter of each game and then evaluate the Timberwolves. Andy, what do the fourth quarter-only stats tell you? Seems like everything slows down, no ball movement leaving Love or Martin to play one-on-one. Love has trade value. Do it this summer. Play tough defense and defend the rim. Offense follows defense.

  3. Whew! I’m exhausted after reading that. I like the back and fourth commentary and good stuff as always.

    I hate to focus on the negative but here we are again out of the playoffs and saddled with questionable contracts. The discussion of Budinger vs Martin for the Most Disappointing award was just sad- mostly because the case can be so clearly made for each guy. I guess I’d go with Martin just because we signed him to a quazillion* dollars and he came and did exactly what we should have expected. He was who he has always been. Bud, on the other hand, is younger and had never really had his clear chance as a primary contributor and he did look poised to step into this role. Still, he too is overpaid, and that knee injury was certainly not a secret. Gadzooks!

    *actual math number. Look it up.

    • Thanks for reading. We didn’t really set out to write ~3900 words, but that’s what seems to end up happening in pieces like this. Couldn’t agree more on the Budinger/Martin discussion being depressing, and like the quazillion number figure you stated. We might have to add that one to the Punch-Drunk Glossary with a proper h/t to you.

  4. DAG

    What’s up with the head coaching position? Probably won’t be much change for another season. See what happens with Love. Probably be Flip or Porter. Andy probably wants to bring Bayno back as head coach? I see Flip, Porter or Bayno for at least one season. Team deserves consistency for at least on more season with Adelman’s assistants and players. Improvement has been slow but upward.

  5. CC

    Peko doing his best John Stockton impression at the pool.