Author Archives: Andy G

Early Impressions (WOLVES 97, Pistons 91)

Forming Early Impressions of the 2014-15 Timberwolves

It was important to get a win last night. For one thing, the Wolves opened their season against at Memphis, where victory seemed nearly impossible and in fact the Wolves lost. They also have the Chicago Bulls coming to town on Saturday. Many expect Chicago to win this year’s East. Therefore, last night’s contest versus the Detroit Pistons was the only clear-cut winnable game of the first three.

For another thing, Flip Saunders and the Timberwolves were introducing their new players to the home crowd for the very first time. The #EyesOnTheRise crew and the entire roster were introduced out of the tunnel with a laser show and drum line. Clearly, Flip is channeling his inner 1970s Bill Musselman — a personal basketball mentor of his — in promoting this Wolves product with as much flair as he can get away with while also carrying out his duties as coach and front office boss.

So with these heightened stakes, the victory that the Wolves pulled out in the closing minutes of last night’s game — thanks to the huge run in the 3rd Quarter behind Pekovic’s work around the basket, and a string of Andrew Wiggins highlights — caused some excitement and perhaps some sense of relief. While the Wolves don’t — can’t — realistically expect to vie for a playoff spot, they do have hopes of being competitive. Beginning the season 0-2 with Chicago up next would’ve set things off on a shaky track.

The Pistons entirely closed what was a 19-point Wolves lead (70-51) when Caron Butler hit a three with 1:43 to play. Butler was out of his mind shooting the ball in the 2nd Half (finished with 24 points on 10-14 shooting) which led the Pistons comeback. But Thad Young immediately answered with his own three. From there, Mo Williams hit one more shot and the Wolves fouled Andre Drummond — a career 40% foul shooter — to help prevent anymore shooting silliness from Butler. A win was had.

It is difficult to watch this team right now and come away with conviction about much. There are just so many players who do so many different things; both good and bad. Flip played 11 different guys last night, and — in his postgame remarks — he naturally emphasized the struggle that he experiences trying to set a rotation that satisfies all of his players. He mentioned that Chase Budinger did not get into the game. He also mentioned that if they had lost the game, he would’ve second guessed himself for not subbing Wiggins back in to defend Caron Butler, who had heated up (putting it mildly). But as things played out, they hung on for the win and Flip was happy that Wiggins had left the game having played well, experiencing what Saunders referred to as “positive reinforcement.”

Last night’s game was not necessarily a pretty one. Both teams fouled too much. For the Wolves, Ricky Rubio and Mo Williams were reaching all night and combined for 10 fouls. For the Pistons, star center Andre Drummond had to check out in the 3rd Quarter having picked up his 4th foul. That one may have swung the game’s outcome. Drummond’s backup, Greg Monroe, was out serving a suspension.

Because there are so many players and so many different types of action with the Timberwolves in their season’s early moments, it’s almost easier to just rattle off the good and bad.

So here are a few things that I liked in last night’s game:

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Gritty, Ultimately Grinded (GRIZZLIES 105, Wolves 101)

Tonight’s loss at Memphis accentuated what many believe will be a season-long theme:

This Timberwolves team has a LOT of players.

Over the course of the season this will cause effects both positive and negative.

On the plus side, a deep rotation is insurance against injuries and excessive fatigue. If one player is struggling, maybe his replacement will get hot. There was some of this in tonight’s opening game.

On the negative side, it makes Flip Saunders’ job difficult. If certain players are taking over the game in the middle of the fourth quarter (all hypothetical of course:)) should he ride them to the finish? Or should he put the starters back in, with a predetermined plan to close with slightly-more savvy vets? There was also some of this in tonight’s game.

The game at Memphis was hard fought, with Memphis holding a single-digit lead, most of the way. Zach Randolph was a matchup nightmare for Thaddeus Young, who otherwise played fabulous basketball. Z-Bo finished with 25 points on 12-16 shooting, operating in the deep low post against Young. Thad had 26 of his own points, mixing square-up drives to the cup with perimeter jumpers and hustle-junk buckets around the hoop.

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Punch-Drunk Preview, Part II: The Timberwolves Edition

bennettwiggins

On Monday night we previewed the whole league. Now, I’m back to preview the Timberwolves season (that begins tonight in Memphis) in more detail.

I thought it made sense to organize this by three categories:

* Things that I’m excited to see

* Things that worry me

* Things that I expect — or do not expect — to happen

Let’s dig in, shall we?

Anticipation & Excitement

* Player that I’m most excited to watch –> Ricky Rubio

I’m most excited to watch Ricky Rubio play this year, for reasons that I and many others have written about ad nauseam. With Rick Adelman and Kevin Love gone, the Wolves will run a lot more ball screen action with Rubio. Gone is the high post-centric “Corner Offense” that Adelman learned from Princeton legend Pete Carril. In its stead will be… well, we’re not exactly sure yet. But anything different should be an improvement for Rubio, who was a terrible Princeton fit. Since most NBA teams run a lot of high ball screen action, it’s reasonable to assume the Wolves will do that, too.

The hope is that Ricky will look like a more-skilled version of his rookie-year self. That guy was the league’s most entertaining player and had his team playing over .500 ball at the time of his injury. Sure, they had Love playing at a high level and producing more than Rubio. But if you remember, that was also before Pekovic broke out as a good center, and it was with the wing positions filled by Luke Ridnour, Wesley Johnson, Mike Beasley, and a hobbling Martell Webster. Ricky was the initiator of offense, and good enough to lead–sometimes carry–them with his playmaking. I’m hoping to see that player again this year.

* Player whose development I’m most interested in following –> Andrew Wiggins Continue reading

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JJ & The Timberwolves: Time to Move On

Today’s news that JJ Barea’s contract will be bought out is not surprising, but it is also not insignificant.

Barea struggled last season and played his worst basketball in years. Not only were his numbers down, but his style of play was extra disruptive. And for J.J. Barea, that is saying something.

Slotted next to the passive and overwhelmed Alexey Shved, J.J. took ball dominance to levels previously unheard of. To watch the six-foot combo guard (presumably measured in platform shoes) attack five waiting defenders all by himself was sort of like witnessing a train wreck while at the same time listening to nails on a chalkboard.

Well… except for the times that it actually worked, and he scored. This didn’t happen enough to carry the Wolves lackluster second unit, but when J.J. would herk and jerk his way into the lane, intentionally bounce off of a power forward’s body, and drop in a floater off the glass, fans would just shake their heads. Partially in wonder and amazement, and partially in resignation that by succeeding now he would only be encouraged to try it again next time. Continue reading

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Bennett & Rubio Lead Wolves Over Pacers (WOLVES 107, Pacers 89)

For the second and final time, the 2014-15 Timberwolves played in front of their home crowd, in a game that did not actually matter. Like their first preseason home game, the Wolves were victorious; this time convincingly so. Anthony Bennett and Ricky Rubio led a balanced scoring attack in the Wolves 107-89 win over the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers sat David West and Rodney Stuckey, and are notoriously without Paul George for an extended period of time. The Wolves sat Andrew Wiggins with, as Flip Saunders described it, a swollen butt. “He has a third butt,” Saunders explained. Wiggins apparently fell on his rear end in the recent loss against the Bucks. He’s likely to sit out of tomorrow night’s game as well.

But even with those key absences, there were some interesting takeaways.

First and foremost was the play of Bennett. The 2013 number one pick continues to show promise. Tonight he scored 17 points on 7-9 shooting, along with 5 rebounds in just under 17 minutes of action. He scored in a variety of ways around the basket: a tip-in, a cutting finish off a Pekovic hand off, and three buckets in the 4th Quarter off of Mo Williams assists. Also, and less impressively, he (appeared to) accidentally bank in a long jumper from the wing in the first quarter.

In the early part of the game, Bennett looked a little bit anxious, and –aside from that accidental bank — he wisely went about setting screens to get comfortable. When he caught a pass at the top of the key, he quickly swung it around to the other wing. As the game went on, he sought out more scoring opportunities. His jumper comes quick off the catch, with a high release. While he is rapidly developing chemistry with Williams and the second unit, he could form a nice 1-4 pairing with Rubio as well.

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Connecting the Dots that Might Determine Ricky Rubio’s Future

rubiodots

A lot is happening in the life of Ricky Rubio. The Timberwolves point guard is entering his fourth season in the NBA, and the first without head coach Rick Adelman and sidekick power forward Kevin Love. Replacing Love are players who’re more athletic but less skilled and far less developed. The new narrative surrounding the team has naturally cast Ricky as its next leader.

But the story is more complicated than one young man’s ascension to leadership.

Rubio and his agent Dan Fegan are in a stage of negotiations for a contract extension with the Wolves; the deadline is October 31st. If they don’t strike a deal, Ricky will play this season knowing he will become a (restricted) free agent, next summer.

On top of that off-court distraction, his jump-shooting struggles warranted the hiring of a special shooting coach.

And perhaps most importantly, all of this is happening in the wake of a franchise crossroads where — largely out of necessity — the team is rebuilding around youth instead of seriously competing for a playoff berth. Even though it seems natural that the Wolves will become Ricky Rubio’s team, it might not happen. Rubio was notably absent from the team’s offseason marketing campaign. How he fits into a fresh rebuild remains to be seen, and his future as a player is cloudier than many would have expected a short time ago.

Let’s begin with the “dots”; the issues and factors that surround Rubio as Timberwolves point guard, and then analyze how those dots could be connected for different purposes.

The Dots

Rubio’s Contract Situation

First of all, Rubio will earn about $4.7 million this season. That much is certain.

The question is what about after this season. Rubio and the Timberwolves have less than three weeks to reach a deal, else they have to wait until next summer when he will be a restricted free agent. The latest report is that the Wolves have offered him the handsome sum of $48 million for a four-year contract. Rubio–almost certainly at the direction of his agent–is demanding a five-year “max” salary. The Wolves are unwilling to give him this deal right now, which almost every pundit agrees is beyond his market value.

This means that Rubio will probably play this upcoming season with an (effectively) expiring contract, and the knowledge that his performance on the court will go a long way in determining his financial and residential future.

Can Ricky Learn to Shoot?

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Searching for Simple

Grantland’s Zach Lowe, to Pacers Coach Frank Vogel: “Who dribbles the ball into the paint for your team? How are you guys going to create offense this year? That has to be a concern. Your two best off-the-dribble guys are gone, and Rodney Stuckey is on the team, George Hill is talking about taking an increased role, but you’ve gotta… and you can penetrate the defense with the pass, which you guys do with post-ups, and stuff, but you’ve gotta be a little bit concerned about, ‘How are we driving and kicking? How are we getting into the teeth of a defense?'”

Vogel: “If you bring two to the ball, if you screen appropriately, you bring two to the ball, and then you pass it, or you attack the help, I think anybody can get in the lane and we’ve got guys that are more than capable… George Hill, C.J. Watson at the point guard spot, are good penetrators. They can get in there off the bounce… Rodney Stuckey, that’s his specialty, and he’s gonna be a big-minutes guy for us this year. So he’ll be able to get in the lane, and then obviously you can attack with the pass. You know, bring two the ball, attack, draw help, share it, and then when you have a defense in rotation, you have them right where you want them, you can attack the paint at will. So it’s gonna be about bring two to the ball and forcing rotations to get where we want offensively, this year.”

Lowe: “So, pick-and-roll solves all problems. Screening solves all problems. You can generate it even if you don’t have a one-on-one…”

Vogel: “Well, we have to. And obviously for some teams, it’s easier. Some teams have players that can do it on their own. And some teams need to rely on ball movement, player movement, and screening, and that’s what we’re going to have to become.”

I had some scattered thoughts about last night’s preseason win over Philly when I listened to Lowe’s excellent podcast this morning. I thought it might help frame a discussion at a time when there are so many more questions than answers. The quoted back-and-forth gets to the heart of a fundamental challenge in basketball:

The offense trying to get defenders out of place, and the defense trying to stay true to its principles and prevent efficient shot attempts.

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