Category Archives: Timberwolves

How the Wolves Whiffed on Whiteside

Hassan Whiteside

Hassan Whiteside

How Things Went Down

Here’s a little chronology for y’all. (Eds. Note: Warning: The following contains Wolvesian content that may not be suitable for perma-optimists.)

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Wolves Mid-Term Report: Reconceptualizing the Superlatives

Chase Budinger has been a disappointment so far in 2014-15.

Chase Budinger has been a disappointment so far in 2014-15.

Andy G wrote a nice mid-term report yesterday that assessed the team via “superlatives” rather than letter grades. It’s an excellent post.  Read it now if you haven’t yet.

I’d have given LVP to Chase Budinger, not LaVine, but a case can be made either way. LaVine has certainly hurt the Wolves more, on average, than any other player–at least among the ones who’ve been playing. But if you think about “Least-Valuable” in relative terms, based on some expectation of (solid-to-good) performance–like voters for the NBA’s MVP seem to–then I think I’m on firmer ground to argue that Budinger has been a huge letdown, while LaVine has been a sometimes-pleasant surprise, despite the spasms of mistakes he’s prone to making in rapid succession, especially when not playing in transition.

Punch-Drunk_Wolves_on_Twitter___Budinger_sucks__

Simply put, Budinger is touted to have one “plus” NBA skill–his three-point stroke–and he has shot poorly all season while generally playing tentatively and lethargically. He’s only shooting 33.3% from distance so far. Really, Wiggins and Muhammad have been the only bright spots from distance in an offense that generates few three-point shots. Muhammad was just beginning to get comfortable looking for shots from behind the arc when he went down with his current injury.

Wolves three-point shooting percentages, minimum 20-games played.

Wolves three-point shooting percentages, minimum 20-games played.

Andy kind of got at this concept of “relative to expectations” with his “Most Disappointing” superlative, which went collectively to the Power Forwards.

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The Midterm Report: Team Superlatives

andrew-wiggins-nba-minnesota-timberwolves-press-conference-850x560

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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A Look at Zach LaVine’s Offense So Far

Zach LaVine shoots a short shot

Zach LaVine shoots a short shot

I thought it would be interesting to look at Zach LaVine’s strengths and weaknesses on offense so far. LaVine clearly has shortcomings in numerous areas, but he possesses some unusual talents that continue to make him an intriguing if frustrating prospect.

Below I simply look at some trends in what he’s doing offensively, how well he’s doing at those things, and what that might mean about his current status as an inconsistent rookie and what he needs to work on moving forward.

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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.

Okafor1

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