Author Archives: Andy G

Quarterly Timberwolves Report

wolves graph

Don’t corporations do quarterly reports? I’ve never prepared one or even worked for a corporation, but I think that they do. (Googling) Okay, yeah, quarterly finance reports are a thing. I didn’t dream that up. According to Wiki, they are “required by numbers of stock exchanges around the world to provide information to investors on the state of a company.”

Since the Timberwolves are at roughly the quarter-point of this NBA season, it seems like a good time to reflect on what’s happened; specifically, how everybody is playing. I’ll do this in letter grade format, going through each player, organized by position. The grades are on a curve, based on my expectations for the player heading into the season. So an A doesn’t mean the player is better than someone who earned a D; just that he’s doing great for what could’ve been expected, versus the other player who is underperforming. Hopefully that makes sense.

Guards

Ricky Rubio – Incomplete

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Shabazz: Always interesting, but now his team’s best player.

'Bazz plays tonight against 'Bron and Beas.

Since he was drafted in June 2013, Shabazz Muhammad has been the most interesting player on the Timberwolves. This is true for many reasons, including but not limited to the following:

  • Shabazz was the number one rated high school prospect in his class, according to rivals.com. By other respected sources he was number two.
  • In those prep years, Shabazz was playing under the wrong age; he was actually one year older than he was listing. Over an extended period of time, under national spotlight, this was obviously not an accident.

  • Shabazz has Tourette syndrome.

  • In his lone season at UCLA, Shabazz’s performance gave rise to polarized reactions; the math projection models hated him, the eye test kinda liked him.

  • Shabazz has had a complicated relationship with his father, Ron Holmes, who was heavily involved in his basketball upbringing. This includes the decision to lie about his age. In 2013, Shabazz told interviewers that his dad was no longer a big part of his basketball life. He had to set “gound rules, in that respect.” Holmes was convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud in 2014. These legal issues have undoubtedly been a distraction and source of stress for Shabazz during the beginning of his basketball career.

Since being drafted by the Timberwolves, Shabazz’s mystique has only grown. He sat on the bench for most of his rookie season; one in which his team was gunning for a playoff spot that was not to be. Once it became clear that the Wolves were not playoff-bound, the retiring Rick Adelman began to play his rookies a little bit. While Gorgui Dieng was the late-season revelation — posting a 20/20 game, and general productivity across the board — Shabazz also impressed fans in flashes.

In a late-February game at Phoenix — one the Suns badly needed for their own playoff hopes — Shabazz was the game’s MVP. In 24 minutes of the most energized bench play we’d ever seen around these parts, Muhammad scored 20 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, and collected 2 steals, leading his team to unexpected victory. Despite that great performance, his playing time did not stick, though he did have more moments and flashes in the final weeks of his rookie campaign.

Then came the off-season, which seems to have been a pivotal one for Shabazz. He came into the NBA a little bit like his fellow Bruin/Timberwolf, Kevin Love, in that he was carrying a bit more weight around than would be recommended for a basketball player. He didn’t have a “gut,” in the white-collar, nine-to-fiver sense, but he also wasn’t ripped like most NBA wings are.

That’s changed.

Shabazz spent the summer in California working out with Frank Matrisciano, a Navy SEALS trainer with unconventional methods but proven results. The workouts, which are called “chameleon training,” obviously proved beneficial for Shabazz. He looked so much leaner at Media Day — even in his face — that I barely recognized him as the same person from a few months back.

And that brings us to the present, and the most interesting fact of all about Shabazz Muhammad:

Right now, he is the best player on the Timberwolves.

You can bold, underline, or italicize the “right now,” because it’s an important qualifier. When Ricky Rubio is healthy, he’s a better all-around player than Muhammad. Ricky doesn’t score as many points, but his impact on team success is more substantial and proven over a multiple-seasons track record. The same is probably true about Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic. Thaddeus Young has played below his career averages this year, dealing with a new environment and a personal tragedy, or maybe he’d be above ‘Bazz, too.

But right now, it’s pretty much a fact that Shabazz is playing better than all of his teammates.

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Timberwolves This & That

Monday’s game was another blowout against a Western Conference contender and another game I didn’t feel up to recapping. The Wolves had a great first quarter on offense, led by Gorgui Dieng’s 5 assists and all sorts of fun ball movement. In the second quarter, the Clippers got a few breaks from the refs, the Wolves ball movement stopped, and the total inability to play defense prevented Minnesota from keeping it close. The Clips led by over 30 for stretches in the second half.

The following is a random set of thoughts about this team, where it’s at, how it should be viewed and what may be going on behind the scenes.

“You play basketball against yourself; your opponent is your potential.” –Bobby Knight

I read John Feinstein’s classic, “A Season on the Brink,” a few months ago, and had this quote highlighted. I think it applies to how this Timberwolves team — now decidedly in “rebuilding mode” — should be viewed going forward. The Wolves were able to win at Staples Center against the crappy Lakers on Friday night. While the end result was fun, it wasn’t all that important. More important was that Zach LaVine showed off shot-making ability that we hadn’t previously seen. A few nights later, in the same arena, the Wolves were blown off the floor by Chris Paul’s Clippers. Again, the loss doesn’t matter as much as how inept the Wolves looked on defense.

It’s frustrating because it’s a familiar approach and so far from ideal, but the process and progress matter a lot more than the game-to-game results on the scoreboard this year. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t enjoy the wins or lament the losses; just that they lack the importance that they have for most teams, and that they had for this one, last year.

 The Handling of Injuries: A form of tanking?

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The Wolves should run this play more often.

I’m not a big fan of the offense that the Timberwolves are running. They don’t spread the floor very wide. They don’t shoot many threes. They don’t run much pick-and-roll action. Instead, a lot of energy is wasted with non-ball screens that — if executed correctly — will set up an open jump shot. Unless the cutter is Kevin Martin — and even sometimes when it is — that shot will usually be taken from the mid-range, which is generally considered the worst type of shot in basketball. (Basic logic: It’s worth less than a three without being much easier, and it’s not nearly as easy to convert as layups and/or free throws are.)

The other night against the Lakers, the Wolves second string improvised with the shot clock dwindling down, and showed off a basic NBA set that most teams would run regularly with this set of players.

Shabazz Muhammad had the ball on the right wing without much happening with the offense. Anthony Bennett was set on the opposite block, and saw Shabazz left out on his own. He ran up to set a ball screen for his teammate.

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While this ball screen was being set, Robbie Hummel and Zach LaVine got out the way.

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The wide-shouldered Bennett set an effective screen on Nick Young, and Shabazz — with his strong left hand — drove hard into the lane, drawing attention from Robert Sacre, the screener’s defender. Young was left trailing the action and in need of help.

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Wes Johnson did not help enough off of Robbie Hummel, and Shabazz and Bennett had a 2-on-1 situation right by the hoop. Bazz dropped off the dime around Sacre, leaving Bennett open for a layup.

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Young was too late in catching up to the action, and he fouled Bennett as he laid it in for two points and a chance at a third.

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This is incredibly simple, easy-to-repeat basketball that a young team like the Timberwolves could run all night long. Preferably, Ricky Rubio would be the playmaker for most pick-and-rolls. That can happen when he gets back. But Shabazz could also develop nicely if he could attack the heart of defenses from the right wing, much like other lefty wings like Ginobili and Harden. As defenses adjust, it will — at worst — lead to a simple drive-and-kick pass to the left wing, and better ball movement. As things are, the Wolves waste too many possessions without some of their more passive players (Wiggins and Bennett) even touching the ball. Instead, Mo Williams and Thad Young dominate it, en route to difficult and contested shots of their own.

Here’s hoping to see more pick and rolls like this one.

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Wiggins, Bennett, and Different Levels of Investment

bennettwiggins

Forgive me for putting a temporary freeze on the game wraps. In the absence of Rubio, Martin and Pekovic, the games have not been very meaningful as competitions. For the time being, I’d rather focus on emerging themes and trends than the win/loss column.

But the silver lining to the recent struggle has been the way Flip has decided to just give Andrew Wiggins the ball and let him go to work. In the season’s opening games, Wiggins was consistently nervous-looking in the first half, before opening up his scoring arsenal in the third quarter. We could see the talent, but would have to wait for the results. Rubio, Martin and the vets would be the primary playmakers.

No more.

Wiggins played 39 minutes last night against the Bucks. In the game before that he played 41 minutes and in the game before that he played 33 minutes. After starting the season as a third or fourth option (he didn’t score double figures until his fourth game) Wiggins is now the unequivocal first option. Last night, he scored 14 points on 14 shots, along with career highs of 8 rebounds and 4 assists. From the opening tip, he was the focal point of the offense.

He had a career-high 29 in the previous game against the Kings, and he had 14 in the game before that against the Spurs. Flip has Wiggins posting up, and using a variety of moves to score: step-back jumpers, rip-through/blow-by drives to his right, and turnaround jumpers seem to be his most common weapons of choice. In this infant stage of his career, I’m seeing an offensive upside that — if you squint a little bit — looks kinda like Carmelo Anthony.

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Martin to Have Surgery, Implications Going Forward

Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune is reporting that Kevin Martin will undergo surgery to repair his broken wrist. The veteran shooting guard is expected to miss at least six weeks while recovering. Martin is leading the team in scoring by a big margin — his 20.4 points per game is trailed closest by Thaddeus Young’s 14.3 average. On the other hand, K-Mart is a notoriously bad defender and sometimes even his hot nights are more than offset by his opponent’s production.

What sorts of changes can we expect to see in the next couple months, without Martin?

Here are a few possibilities:

* Corey Brewer will be the starting shooting guard.

We’ve already seen this in the first two Martin-less games. Brewer is the starter at the two. He played 32 minutes against San Antonio on Friday and 30 more on Saturday against the Kings. Brewer can play as much as Flip wants; his superhuman skill is a total immunity to fatigue. His mere mortal status is evident in his shooting ability, which is a lot worse than Martin’s. With other plausible options either not capable (Chase Budinger) or needed elsewhere (Mo Williams, subbing for Ricky Rubio at point) it seems likely that Brewer will play a lot of minutes at off guard.

* Brewer may not be traded for the foreseeable future.

There was a recent report from Marc Stein of ESPN that the Wolves were engaged in trade talks involving Brewer with both Houston and Cleveland. Some later reports suggested any trade would require that Brewer waive his 2015-16 player option. Given that this option is worth $5 Million, and Brewer is unlikely to command that again on the open market, that may have been a deal-breaker. In any event, the Martin injury might delay any potential Brewer trades. (Unless those trades can bring back a different shooting guard.)

* Andrew Wiggins will be more involved in the offense.

This could be good or bad, depending on whether you want to see the most immediately-competitive basketball possible (bad) or if you’d rather watch the future develop before your eyes (good). Personally, I have not enjoyed watching Flip’s halfcourt offense this year. Particularly after Rubio’s injury, the Wolves sets seem entirely aimed at setting screens to free moving players for open mid-range jumpers. And Martin was, by far, the player that the offense centered around most. Even if that led to some surprisingly-decent results (Martin’s PER of 21.9 would be a career high if it lasted all season) it fails on the following bases:

* It isn’t fun to watch;
* It does nothing to develop the young players, who are mostly just watching Martin run around and shoot; and
* It is not the type of system that will ever (again) breed consistent success in the NBA. Most teams have discovered the relative value of spread pick-and-roll basketball and three-point shots. Martin’s Reggie Miller imitation will never be the foundation of a decent team.

So without Martin, we have seen something entirely different: The Wolves are posting up Andrew Wiggins and force feeding him the ball around the block. And the results have been okay! On Friday versus San Antonio, Wiggins had a string of baskets in a row, operating on the block against different Spurs defenders (one of whom was Kawhi Leonard). On Saturday versus the Kings, he did even more of the same, posting a career-high 29 points.

With Martin sitting, and not taking all the shots, Wiggins should be thrust into a more active offensive role.

* Maybe the Wolves can begin to take more pride in their defense.

Right now, the Wolves are 29th out of 30 in total defense. (Points allowed per possession.) Their 111.5 points allowed per 100 possessions is closer to the dreadful Lakers (114.4) than the 28th place Knicks (108.4). Before I go further, I should point out that the Wolves are defending slightly better with Martin on the floor than when he’s off of it.

But the 110.2 points they allow per 100 possessions with Martin on the floor is a ton, and his career-long struggles as a defender suggest that he’ll be more problem than solution as the team works to patch the leaks over time. Furthermore, the small sample size of Martin-less defense is probably a little bit skewed by facing the Spurs juggernaut on Friday night.

Hopefully with Brewer, Wiggins, and eventually Rubio again, the Wolves can start taking steps toward competence on the defensive side of the floor. Really, when you think about the bigger picture, the upside of a team led by Rubio and Wiggins begins on D. Starting with abysmal performance isn’t good for anybody.

* Shabazz to play a little bit more

Shabazz Muhammad has been one of the team’s best players, this season. Among Timberwolves with more than a couple minutes of action (basically, everybody but Glenn Robinson III) Shabazz has the following ranks on the team:

* 2nd in points/minute
* 3rd in rebounds/minute
* 4th in field goal percentage
* 4th in true shooting percentage
* 4th in net rating (team performance per possession)

In spite of all of this, Muhammad ranks just 11th in minutes per game. (9th in total minutes, ahead of Rubio and LaVine.)

Martin’s injury will open up some playing time at the wing possessions, which should give Shabazz more opportunities to prove himself to the coaching staff. He has played — started even — at power forward in recent games, and the combination of injuries across the board will probably have Flip tinkering with some funky lineups in the future. Nobody stands to benefit from that more than Bazz, whose unconventional size-skill combo is all about trying new things.

Next game is Wednesday at home versus the Bucks. What are you looking for in Martin’s absence?

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Lowe on the Wiggins Step-back J

From Zach Lowe’s Tuesday Column, in his 10 Things I Like and Don’t Like:

4. Andrew Wiggins’s Step-back Jumper

This baby is gorgeous. Again, it’s not an ideal analytics-era shot, but it’s handy to have in your bag with the shot clock winding down. Defenses have already figured out that they have to respect it, and Wiggins can start using the threat of his step-back to work defenders off-balance for blow-by drives.

I wrote about this when we were Waiting for Wiggins, after I spent some time watching his scouting tapes at Draft Express. The most exciting comparison to how Wiggins sets up his man for a step-back jumper is Carmelo Anthony:

Wiggins has a post-up game, and a footwork and cadence reminiscent of Carmelo Anthony on his square-up, step-back fadeaway. IF, and this is a huge if, far from certain or even likely… IF, he can pair that step-back footwork (and accurate shooting, with it) with a strong dribble drive game to the hole, he’ll be impossible to defend with only one guy.

Like Melo.

That’s a sneaky aspect of Wiggins’ game that shows huge offensive upside. There aren’t a lot of outstanding post scorers in the NBA, and the rules seem to encourage smaller-than-seven-footers to explore the post, with square-up action. Like Carmelo, and LeBron, and Wade, etc. If Wiggins can polish up those skills over the next 3 or 4 years, look out.

Anyway, it’s something to watch for. Over time, we’d like to see Wiggins mix some drives into his post-game.

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