Category Archives: Timberwolves

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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Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 10: Wiggins and the Rest (Plus GERALD GREEN!, Injuries and Tanking, and the NBA Draft)

Gerald Green put on a brief but amazing show on Wednesday against the Wolves.

Gerald Green put on a brief but amazing show on Wednesday against the Wolves.

In which we discuss Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett, Thaddeus Young, Mo Williams, Zach LaVine, Gerald Green’s performance, injuries and tanking, and some NBA Draft prospects who intrigue us.

Check out the podcast below the fold.

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“Wolves’ Nikola Pekovic most likely to undergo MRI on Wednesday”

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The title of this post is the headline of a CBS Sports fantasy basketball post. Fantasy hoops can be silly, but those guys have an incentive to be realistic about when a player important to their team(s) is likely to actually play and produce.

The story reads:

Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic will most likely undergo an MRI on his injured ankle on Wednesday, reports the Associated Press.

Pekovic has not played since Nov. 15 while dealing with the ankle injury. In nine games, Pekovic is averaging 11.9 points and 8.1 rebounds.

Assuming the MRI happened (or will happen soon), the story notably fails to mention anything about why it would be that Pekovic’s MRI would only happen now, after the Wolves highest-paid player has been out since 15 November with injuries that are all but clear.

What is clear is this: Indications point to Pekovic not playing again this year. If he’s okay, he should be playing – not being re-evaluated. Given that he’s being re-evaluated, it appears that Pekovic isn’t okay. (Eds. Note: To be fair, the Wolves suggest that the point of the MRI is to clear Pek to come back soon. We’ll see.)

 

Fans are more enthused about Rubio’s return than Pekovic’s, which is understandable. But Pekovic’s return is an important part of determining whether the Wolves current core has a future if/when combined with its core of veterans–Pekovic, Rubio, and Kevin Martin.

Pekovic averaged 11.9 ppg in the 9 games he has played this season. He is being paid $12.1 million this year. If he doesn’t play again, he will have been paid $1,344,444 per game he played this season.

It is a bummer that Pek hasn’t been healthy this season. But it is an even bigger bummer that neither his injuries nor a credible timeline for his return have never been presented to Wolves fans.

Get well soon, Pek.

 

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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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Checking in with Corey Brewer as a Houston Rocket

Corey Brewer offers new teammate Dwight Howard a five

Corey Brewer offers new teammate Dwight Howard a five

Corey Brewer was always a PDW favorite. Since the Wolves traded him, they haven’t won a game. (Eds. Note: This is just an observation. The Wolves were already bad when Flip Saunders traded Brewer.) Suffice it to say, however, that some of the franchise’s few hardcore fans miss the goofiest backup point guard in Wolves history.

I haven’t followed Brewer’s performance as a member of the Houston Rockets closely he was traded on December 19th. So I decided to take a quick look and see how Brew’s transition is looking.

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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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