Author Archives: Andy G

Wednesday Jottings

Happy Hump Day, Timberwolves fans. Your favorite team will look for its eight win of the season tonight in its game against the Boston Celtics, the 45th of this season. It should be a winnable contest against a Celtics team that fields fewer bad players than the Wolves, but no good ones either. They’re 16-27 and have traded away their two best veterans, Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. At Target Center, the Wolves should have enough pride to expect a win, or at least a game that goes down to the wire.

Rather than dig into the details of this late-January matchup of lottery-bound rebuilders, I felt more like discussing different things I’ve come across in NBA news and writing over the past few days; some of it Wolves-related, some not.

* Wolves whiffing on Whiteside

I might as well start right here at Punch-Drunk Wolves, where Patrick J wrote about Hassan Whiteside, the current buzz of League Pass; specifically how the Wolves failed to spot a talented, available big man from the free agency scrap heap when Nikola Pekovic was first declared injured and instead Jeff Adrien was pursued and signed. Pat specifically mentioned the relationship between Flip Saunders and Adrien’s agent, perhaps suggesting that the marginal roster decision was made for reasons other than merit. Whatever reasons were behind the Adrien pickup, we know they had nothing to do with long-term potential because he had none of it. And Whiteside did.

I understand the rebuttal to this, because it’s pretty simple: The Wolves missed on Whiteside along with the other 28 teams who failed to sign him when he was available. Props to Miami for finding him and having the proper infrastructure to tap into his enormous talent. He had a points/rebounds/blocks triple-double on national TV on Sunday.

Another rebuttal point could be that the Wolves have enough “upside,” between Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett, and even Glenn Robinson III. (I leave Andrew Wiggins out, because he’s already pretty good and not a clear-cut “project.”)

But newer readers may not be aware that we’ve both been big fans of Whiteside — or at least “the idea of Whiteside” — for a long time, even devoting a short post to him in August 2012 when there were some rumors swirling that the Wolves might have interest in bringing him in.  I just did a quick “Whiteside” word search in my email inbox, and the list of hits was long, going back over three years. So it wasn’t just after-the-fact, hindsight-is-20/20 for Pat to write that. Whiteside was blocking shots like whoa in his first, abbreviated NBA stint, and his physical tools didn’t disappear in his time away from top-notch competition. If you read his post in full, it’s not like he was crucifying Flip for missing on this, but just acknowledging that the Wolves have been rotating new anonymous big men in all season, and none of them was the available guy who is now dominating the Eastern Conference.

* Lorenzo Brown: a point guard at last! Continue reading

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The Midterm Report: Team Superlatives

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In a close race of unexpected candidates, Andrew Wiggins is the season’s first-half MVP.

We’ve hit the season’s halfway mark, so it’s time for a Timberwolves mid-term report. At the quarter mark, I did letter grades for players. For mid-terms, I thought I’d change it up and instead do this with superlatives. Some are good, some are bad, and some are just observations with no serious bearing on wins, losses, or potential.

Here goes…

Most Disappointing: The Power Forwards

Thaddeus Young was acquired in a trade in which the Wolves sent a future first round pick (Miami’s) to the 76ers. The idea was that he would be a quality veteran forward who — along with Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, and Nikola Pekovic — would help the new young players develop in the context of a competitive environment.

In theory, it made some sense, even if it was criticized by more than a few writers at the time the trade went down.

It has not worked out. Thad is playing some of the worst basketball of his career. His field goal percentage is a career low, at just 43.5 percent. He makes just 60 percent of free throw attempts, and pulls down a measly 5.5 rebounds per 36 minutes (4.8 per game). His PER is the second worst of his career, at a below-average 14.2 and his win shares per 48 minutes are at 0.020, which is way below league averages.  He’s often out of position on defense, he’s undersized at power forward but doesn’t shoot well enough from the perimeter to play the small forward effectively, and his decision making with the ball leaves a lot to be desired.

It has not worked out.

Making matters worse is that his backup, Anthony Bennett, has done little to nothing to challenge Young for minutes. Bennett, the top pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, makes too many mistakes to deserve floor time right now. He plays out of necessity and perhaps in the interest of his own development as a potentially-good player, down the road. Bennett shoots a lot of long two-point jumpers, he shows jitters when he tries to do anything off the dribble, he sometimes looks out of shape (though this aspect is much improved from his rookie year in Cleveland) and he has been generally ineffective far more often than not.

Bennett has the excuse of inexperience, having played only one college season and being injured and deconditioned for most of his rookie year, surrounded by dysfunction in Cleveland. Sam Mitchell and others have characterized this as his real rookie year. That’s fair, but it is discouraging to see such a disconnect between ability and execution. He has a beautiful jump shot, a bulky-in-a-good-way forward’s body, and shows flashes of supreme athleticism. Yet he usually plays poorly. I think he’s worth a significant, long-term investment but I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t without risk. He might never “get it.” But in the NBA and much of the modern pro sports world, impatience trumps wisdom and the long view and big picture take a back seat.

Perhaps this is one area where Flip Saunders’ GM-Coach combo status can pay off. He doesn’t really answer to anybody but himself, so if he wants to be patient, he can be patient. That doesn’t mean he likes Bennett (I don’t know, and can’t really tell if he does) but it might at least give him some flexibility that less-secure coaches would not feel like they have.  We’ll see.

In any event, the power forwards have been disappointing. In some ways, I think Robbie Hummel is their best option at the four, which — while I like Hummel more than most — is a damning statement about the other two.

Most Pleasant Surprise: Shabazz Muhammad’s Emergence

Patrick and I have probably been higher on ‘Bazz than most since he was drafted but neither of us would be telling the truth if we said we saw this coming. Muhammad is hurt right now — out with a hip or oblique injury — but when healthy (35 games played) he’s been a pretty awesome scorer. It took Flip a while to trust Shabazz — maybe he was surprised, too — so his playing time is limited right now to just 23 minutes per game. In that time he’s put up 13.7 points on 49 percent field goal shooting, including 41 percent from downtown and a steady supply of aggressive dunks that buck the outdated/alarming trend of mid-range jumpers on this team.

Shabazz knows how to score. It’s that simple. It’s what he likes doing and what he does best. When he comes off a pick and catches a pass, his eyes are either on the rim for a potential shot, or on a lane to shoot as if out of a cannon, to the rim. In the post, he establishes position with physicality and continues to show deft touch on that lefty hook shot. He’s not yet a good passer, but he’s a better one that he was in college or as an NBA rookie. He’s improving. He’s been the team’s most pleasant surprise and we all hope he gets healthy soon.

Most Valuable Player: Andrew Wiggins

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The Ascent of Wiggins & Thinking Back to Good Times

It is often said that the Timberwolves playoff run to the Western Conference Finals in 2004 was the franchise’s apex, and the moment listed by most fans as their favorite in team history. While technically true that it was the most successful season in history and the closest – in a direct sense – the team came to a championship, I personally disagree with the notion that this was the best time to be a Timberwolves fan.

To me, the best times were in the two seasons when Kevin Garnett was paired with Stephon Marbury to form the most exciting young core in basketball. In the 1996-97 season (Marbury’s first and Garnett’s second) the Wolves won 40 games and made the playoffs for the first time ever.

KG was just two years removed from high school. So was Steph. Along with Tom Gugliotta, they were the best players on the team.

In the franchise’s first seven years of existence leading up to this, the Timberwolves hadn’t ever won even 30 games. This marked a 14-win improvement from the season prior — KG’s rookie year — and it was immediately obvious that the explosive playmaker guard was a perfect match for the do-it-all seven footer. The following year the Wolves won 45 games, Garnett became a perennial All-Star, and the Wolves took the Payton-and-Kemp Supersonics to a fifth game in their best-of-five opening playoff series.

Watching Marbury and Garnett for those couple of years was not unlike what Thunder fans probably experienced when Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant blossomed and quickly became a playoff powerhouse. When you consider just how rapidly the Wolves young core was developing — these guys were barely removed from high school — it was fair to wonder if they might win multiple championships as they led the Timberwolves for the next dozen years.

If you need a reminder of how crazy-exciting they were, just check out the highlights on this weird music video I found on Youtube:

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Mental Mistakes in Basketball and Flip’s Unique Challenge to Correct Them

“I’m tough on players that I think have a chance to be very special. At one time everyone thought I wasn’t tough enough on Garnett. I couldn’t be tough on him because he did everything I always asked him to do and he very rarely made any mistakes and he played hard. I thought that if he kept on playing that way, he’d be great.

My toughness on them has to do with repeated mental mistakes.”

That was Flip Saunders after the recent loss to the Spurs at Target Center. It reminded me once again just how unique Saunders’ challenge is, coaching this team that is just so replete with bouncy athleticism and yet — in its current form — so totally devoid of all-around NBA basketball players.

Consider that Andrew Wiggins leads the team in minutes played and Zach LaVine is fourth. Each guy is 19 years old; the age of most college freshmen. Shabazz Muhammad is fifth in minutes and he’s 22, the typical age of a college senior, and Anthony Bennett is 21, barely old enough to legally drink a beer. He’s eighth in minutes.

Flip is coaching a college team against NBA competition.

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The Jahlil Okafor Hype, in 1 Play

In case you missed it, the Timberwolves are struggling. They have a 5-31 record, no quality veteran players who are healthy and motivated enough to play well, and are riding a 15-game losing streak. (!)

Inevitably, then, some of us begin thinking about the draft, and looking at the best college players, in hopes that one of them can help Andrew Wiggins and company resurrect this franchise that reached the playoffs every year from 1997 through 2004.

Also, in case you missed it, Jahlil Okafor of Duke is the most touted prospect in the anticipated 2015 draft class. He has size, listed on Draft Express at 6’11” and 272 pounds. His wingspan is 7’6″ and his standing reach is 9’3″. For a helpful comparison, consider the measurements (in DX’s awesome database) of DeMarcus Cousins, the league’s most dominant low-post force (by far): Cousins, as a prospect, measured at 6’10.75″, 292 pounds, 7’7.75″ wingspan and 9’5″ standing reach. If Boogie is physically overwhelming in the NBA at that size, Okafor — slightly taller, slightly leaner, with slightly shorter arms, will be plenty big to play as a low-post center.

But it is skill where Okafor stands out when you watch any Duke game. I’ve seen a handful, and without exception have come away impressed every single time. Put simply, he has the most advanced low-post game that I’ve seen in an NCAA center since Tim Duncan. He’s currently averaging 19 points per game on 68 percent field-goal shooting.

One play today, in Duke’s first loss of the season (Okafor had 23 points on 8-11 shooting, with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks) stood out as a good example.

Here’s a breakdown with fuzzy pictures taken by my phone of my TV.

  • First, as Duke pushes the ball up the floor, Okafor is already feeling his man for position on the block. By doing this, no time needs to be wasted with ball reversals or screens to get him the ball on the block to start the offense.

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The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the (gratuitous) Interesting

I haven’t been doing game wraps this season because, ever since Rubio, Pekovic and Martin went down, the game outcomes took on very little meaning. Very shortly after Ricky’s injury was that horrific weekend on the road where the Wolves lost by (a franchise record) 48 points at New Orleans and then allowed a layup line the next night at Dallas. They won at home against the Knicks — who we now know to be the very worst team in basketball — and then lost by 29, 12, and 17, in the next three games, all at Target Center.

The season changed from an intriguing question mark to a definitive rebuild.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have observations and I don’t mean to let losing get in the way of posting.

With that introduction, here’s an updated scrap of things I’ve been thinking over the past few games. We’ll do this Good, Bad, and Ugly style, but for sake of manufactured balance, I’ll throw in an “Interesting” to close things off.

The Good: If you squint just the right amount, you can kinda see a young core of players beginning to bloom.

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Flipped Off: 2014 in Review, and What’s to Come

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Andy G: First off, happy new year to all Punch-Drunk readers. 2014 was an eventful one for Wolves fans. Last January, we were watching the team hover disappointingly around .500 — clearly not good enough for Western Conference Playoffs eligibility — and bracing for what might be next to come; specifically, Rick Adelman’s retirement from coaching, Flip Saunders’ return to coaching, and Kevin Love being traded.

All of those things happened.

Thankfully, the return on the Love trade was surprisingly huge, given the circumstances. The Wolves had very little leverage, with Love making his plans known and having only one year left on his contract. Yet the the Cavs unexpectedly winning the lottery (for the second time in a row and third time in four years) followed by LeBron’s surprising Return — presumably coupled with a wink-wink agreement to trade for Love, was a rare stroke of luck for this franchise. Instead of the usual nickels or dimes on the dollar that a team could expect in this situation, the Wolves landed a player in Andrew Wiggins who some might prefer to Love; at least down the road a few seasons.

But all was not so swell this year.

Far from it.

For one thing, Flip Saunders’ coaching “search” was clumsy at best and disingenuous at worst. The Wolves ostensibly sought out candidates for the job, conducting interviews like a normal basketball operations staff would do with a vacancy to fill. Only, all along we assumed Flip would hire himself, which is of course what happened. Flip is no dummy, and he’s not a bad coach. But his bread-and-butter philosophies seem outdated. At this point, we’re hoping that his expertise and dedication will be mostly geared toward the individual development of young players — especially Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Over time, he’ll either hire a credible, progressive assistant coach whose input is welcomed to help with strategy (read: develop schemes to create open three-point shots and dunks, instead of spending real energy to free up 17-foot jumpers) or just retire from that job and hire a new coach from his GM perch.

But that’s far from a given and gives reason for concern.

Also, the basketball has been atrocious.

Currently the Wolves are 5-26, on pace to win just 13 games. They have lost 10 straight.

Ricky Rubio got hurt in just the season’s fifth game and the team is left with zero capable point guards. Nikola Pekovic got hurt too, leaving the team with zero capable centers. (Gorgui Dieng is good at some things and might have a bright future, but has been physically overwhelmed in the starting center role.) Oh, Kevin Martin got hurt too. And Thad Young, acquired at the expense of a first-round pick in the Love deal, has been a disappointment.

Believe it or not, it turns out that playing without a viable point guard, without a viable center, and without any wing players who can create offense for others off the dribble, is a very difficult thing to do. It’d be like an NFL team playing with a 200-pound wide receiver subbed in a left tackle to protect its quarterback’s blindside. Things that used to be available (pick-and-rolls for the Wolves, passes longer than 5 yards for the hypothetical football team) are removed from the playbook altogether. Winning is nearly impossible.

It’s also difficult to watch. The Wolves offense has relegated to multi-step plays just to feed the post for a difficult isolation play. Again, the hope is that the players posting up (Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad) are improving with these game reps. There is some evidence of that, which is good to see.

But anyway, that’s some of the year’s big events in a nutshell, as I see them.

What did I leave out?

Patrick J: The biggest event to date is the emergence of Shabazz Muhammad. The reason Shabazz is the biggest story is because (1) hardly anyone one saw it coming, and (2) Shabazz has been by far the Wolves’ best player this season. It’s only Bazz’s second season in the League. Youth is still on his side. This makes his emergence even better–the Wolves are building around youth. Flip Saunders acquired a bunch of young assets in Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett, and Gorgui Dieng [Eds. Note: Sort of–Gorgui is 25.]

Trading the #9 draft pick for the right to pick Muhammad at #13 plus the pick that turned in Gorgui was almost universally reviled by Wolves fans–especially analytics-informed ones. Shabazz was supposed to have no NBA talent based on his performance at UCLA. To make matters worse, he was supposed to arrive with hefty amounts of baggage and a poor attitude.

What we’ve seen is the exact opposite of these pessimistic predictions. Last season, Rick Adelman did not give Shabazz much playing time. But in the minutes he played, we got a small taste of what he could do. (Eds. Note: It included playing with more energy than his opponents and a knack for scoring.)

Nonetheless, there were lingering concerns that Shabazz was a tweener and didn’t have the athleticism and explosiveness to hold his own at an NBA position.

So, over the summer, Bazz worked out with private trainer Frank Matrisciano, whose difficult workouts have been used in the training of America’s most elite Special Operations Forces, the Navy SEALs. Shabazz emerged leaner, stronger, and even better at playing with energy and scoring than before.

This season, Shabazz leads the NBA in points-per-touch, has a PER of over 20, and appears able to competently play the underappreciated role of go-to scorer. He’s the only Timberwolf who, on any given possession, I’m confident can create or execute an offensive move or play that will result in a basket. That’s a nice skill to have, in addition to his intangible hustle and eagerness to expand his game and learn new techniques to improve his weaknesses.

Shabazz wants to be a star AND a complete player. Before this season, most doubted he could be either. Now, most are at least willing to entertain the notion that he could be both.

That’s the Timberwolves story of the year for Patrick J. (And it isn’t even close.)

Andy G: Let’s talk about fresh issues. Ricky Rubio is (finally) going to return soon; hopefully within two weeks. His ankle sprain has left him out of the lineup for a pretty ridiculous length of time (It’ll end up being a 2 months-plus recovery) and the team has obviously not fared well without him. Continue reading

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