Talkin AAU Blues

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Last night, the Timberwolves lost another game. Not just another game, but they lost another home game, and another home game against a mediocre opponent. This time it was the Milwaukee Bucks, who came into the contest rocking a 13-21 record, near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. The Wolves lost for a variety of reasons. They shot the ball poorly; even rookie phenom Karl-Anthony Towns, whose shot is one of the few reliable things about this year’s team. After stingy defense in the first quarter, led by the usual cast of defensive characters — Ricky Rubio, Tayshaun Prince, Kevin Garnett — they defended worse and worse as the game went on, surrendering dunks out of pick-and-roll sets down the stretch of the game. They ended up losing by 10 points, after leading by 17 at one point, late in the first quarter. It was one of the team’s ugliest performances of the season.

Afterward, the wait for Coach Sam Mitchell was longer than usual. Chatting with fellow bloggers in the media room, I joked that someone should open with a question about Zach LaVine’s huge alley-oop dunk; it came late in the game, after the damage had been done, and if nothing else probably upset Mitchell even more. The spectacular dunk, in the context of a terrible performance, highlighted the apparent gulf between his young players’ physical potential and their realized basketball ability.

Nobody asked that question, and that was certainly for the best. Not only because it would have been silly and ruined the presser, but because Mitchell was ready to talk last night, and get something off of his chest. Mitchell wanted to talk AAU basketball, and what it’s done to spoil the young players on his Timberwolves team. The bad habits that they have developed as a result of “coaching” from the likes of non-coaches such as “the guy who owns the hardware store” and “some dude that’s got some money for sneakers and gear.” William Bohl typed up the full quote at A Wolf Among Wolves, and I encourage you to check it out in full.

This quasi-ideological rant against The State of Basketball by Mitchell was met with a wide range of reactions on Twitter. I personally loved it, but that had more to do with the insight we were provided about How Sam Really Feels than any clear agreement with what he was saying. There are plenty of old school, former players willing to denounce modern basketball. The high-profile examples of late usually involve the Golden State Warriors championship-winning style of play. Charles Barkley focuses on their lack of interior size, and how (he believes) they would lose to teams from his era. Mark Jackson believes that Steph Curry is “hurting the game” because of how young kids are shooting too many long jumpers before rounding out their complete skill sets. When these people say these things, the NBA blog engines heat up with reaction pieces, and Twitter arguments ensue.

This AAU thing of Mitchell’s is common, it’s not new, and it blends in with the related discussion about college basketball as training for the pros, as opposed to allowing and encouraging the most talented players to enter the NBA as early as they possibly can. But the general discussion about how 18, 19 and 20 year olds prepare for their futures in basketball is not usually as specific as Mitchell’s was, so let’s think about What He is Saying when he says these things after a bad loss to the Bucks.

First, Mitchell is focusing on “stance.” He’s focusing on the stance that his young players are [not] in, on both ends of the floor. Instead of having their knees bent at all times, he’s noticing that they stand up, which is more of a resting position than a basketball-ready one. On defense, he mentioned how they had to do “slide drills” in training camp, an unanticipated degree of basic that Mitchell felt should have been better coached to these guys when they were younger. On offense, he mentioned how they catch the ball “standing up” and bring the ball up over their head, as opposed to clearing through in a real triple-threat position.

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 13

In which we discuss this and more.

Histogram of Death

 

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Wolves Beat Jazz & Other Jottings

The Wolves got a much-needed win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night, holding a lead for nearly every second of the game and ultimately winning 94-80. It was much-needed because the Wolves were on a 4-game losing streak and play at Detroit tomorrow night, and because the Jazz were severely undermanned, missing their two big men, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, as well as the up-and-coming wing Alec Burks. It would have been ugly, had the Wolves lost, so a 14-point win felt good for the team, its fans, and its coach. After the game, Mitchell was in a much better mood than he was during it. He could be seen yelling at his young players throughout the entire game after each mistake they made, sometimes using timeouts to emphasize a point, and other times — such as twice with Karl-Anthony Towns — simply yanking the player after the game. (In his presser, Mitchell laughed about pulling Towns, and went out of his way to talk about what a great attitude KAT has. During the game, KAT seemed upset to come out of the game.)

A few miscellaneous jottings about the game, the Wolves recent play, and team issues:

Rubio
Ricky Rubio has been playing arguably the best ball of his career, of late. His PER before tonight’s game was 18.3, while his career-best before this season was 16.2. After 17 assists against the Jazz, that PER will rise up closer to 19. He’s averaging 9.2 assists to just 2.4 turnovers per game, his 2.3 steals per game are second in the NBA to Russell Westbrook. (Per-36 minutes, Rubio edges out Westbrook in steals, 2.7 to 2.6. Per minute, Rubio is second to Rajon Rondo in assists.) His oft mentioned on/off splits remain an ocean apart, as the Wolves outscore opponents by 3.8 per 100 possessions with Rubio and lose by 8.0 points per 100 without him. While his shooting remains very poor (though he did hit some shots tonight against the Jazz!) the rest of his game is simply so good that it all adds up to a good basketball player. The specific chemistry that he developed — seemingly instantly — with Kevin Garnett has been a joy to watch, and it’s hard not to think that, over time, Rubio and Towns could team up for similar action, connecting on those pick-and-pop assists, and leading the defense top to bottom to get stop after stop in first and fourth quarters. Continue reading

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A Turn Toward Tyus?

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Andy G: Through 30 games, the Timberwolves have already gone through a series of different chapters in their 2015-16 season. Early on, they earned impressive road victories against some of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and raised expectations that most had just a few weeks earlier. Then Ricky Rubio started sitting out winnable games with a confusingly-described ankle condition, they played LaVine at point guard, Wolves lost those games, and nobody was quite sure what to think of this team. After Rubio returned, and with Karl-Anthony Towns already playing like a veteran star, the Wolves faced a soft schedule phase that included seven consecutive games versus weak opposition (Lakers, Nuggets, Suns, Nuggets, Knicks, Kings, then Nets). Had they been able to string together 5 or 6 wins in that relatively easy stretch, they’d inch back towards .500 and re-enter the Western Conference Playoffs discussion. That did not happen, after they lost four straight in the middle of that stretch and only came out of it with three wins.

Most recently, the Wolves find themselves in a more difficult stretch of games that began at Boston, then came to Target Center for a Spurs matchup, and then again at home against the Pacers. The Celtics and Spurs games were one-sided losses. The Pacers game was close for three and a half quarters, and then became a 14-point loss. On Monday the Wolves play the Spurs again, this time at San Antonio. After that they play the Jazz, who as of this writing would be in the West playoffs. After that they play the Pistons, who are three games over .500. The Wolves record is now down to 11-19, and could easily drop down to 11-22 before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve after the game in Detroit.

Winning one out of three is much better than last season (when they won almost exactly one out of five games), but falls smack in the middle of lottery territory, too. In and of itself, a .333 winning percentage is bad.

There are problems on this team that have now crystallized as they approach the midpoint of the season.

First is the most obvious, the least disturbing, but also the most controllable: The Timberwolves are incredibly young. Their top three leaders in total minutes are each 20 years old. More than anything else (and despite how talented each one of those players is) this is a factor that would prevent any team from seriously contending for a playoff run. Twenty years old is the typical age of college sophomores and juniors, not good NBA basketball players. Andrew Wiggins is great for his age and experience level, but he has flaws. Zach LaVine is getting better, but he was drafted as an athletic “project” and has a long way to go. Karl-Anthony Towns is as good a one-and-done rookie as I can remember watching, but… well, he’s still a rookie and will make certain mistakes now that he won’t make when he’s a few years older. The minutes being played by 20 year olds is something that absolutely should happen, but absolutely will prevent the Wolves from winning a lot of games.

Second is the power forward position. Kevin Garnett is a good defensive player, but he’s tenth on the team in minutes, and that’s without having suffered any injuries. Nemanja Bjelica is currently ninth in total minutes, after beginning the season with solid play in a significant role. Ideally, the Wolves would play Garnett as the ostensible starting four, but Bjelica would play as a stretch and playmaking forward for 25 to 30 minutes per game. Unfortunately, Bjelly is getting worse instead of better with more NBA experience, and now Mitchell has benched him entirely from the playing rotation. (Well, that’s what happened on Saturday versus the Pacers, anyway. He was barely playing in the games leading up to that DNP-CD, and it seems that whether he plays 0 minutes or 5, he’s low on the totem pole.) This means Adreian Payne is playing more, and that’s not going to be good for the Wolves performance. He just makes too many mistakes and has too poor an understanding of basic positioning and fundamentals. As things stand, the Wolves might be best off playing their two young centers together — Towns and Gorgui Dieng — and simply utilizing a “best players on the floor” approach, without regard for positioning and spacing. (Natural segue…)

Third is the team’s offensive system, which encourages a lane jammed up with offensive and defensive players alike, so that they rarely find easy baskets, and rarely cause defenses to move enough to create open three-point shots. It seems like the objective on many Timberwolves sets is either to find an open mid-range shooter, or to feed the low post. This is in contrast to good modern NBA offenses, which generally try to create open driving lanes for layups, or drive-and-kick action where help defenders have to scramble all over the place to try to run shooters off the three-point line while not giving up a layup to a different player after the ball is moving. The Wolves shoot 16.3 threes per game, which is second only to the Brooklyn Nets for fewest in the league. The shoot 25.6 shots in the restricted area — very close to the hoop — which is tenth-fewest in the league. As you might expect, knowing that the Wolves shoot so few threes and layups, they lead the league in mid-range shots, attempting 28.4 of them per game. Mid-range shots are not necessarily bad, but they only make sense if they are wide open, and if there is a great shooter taking them. For instance, the Clippers and Spurs both shoot a lot from the mid-range but that’s because opponents forfeit wide open Blake Griffin shots from there as a way to avoid him from dunking after Chris Paul starts bending the defenses off of a ball screen. For San Antonio, they just picked up LaMarcus Aldridge, a great mid-range shooter with enough size to couple his shooting threat with playmaking for teammates. The Spurs and Clippers shoot 42 and 40 percent from mid-range, respectively, while the Wolves hit just 38 percent of them.

Fourth and lastly, is the team’s backup point guard situation. As mentioned previously, Rubio missed some games earlier in the season with ankle soreness. It was 6 games total and the Wolves lost 5 of those. Their 10-14 record with Rubio in the lineup would give them a winning percentage right between the Jazz and Kings; the current 8 and 9 seeds in the West. When Ricky’s on the floor, the Wolves outscore opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions, and when he sits they are outscored by 7.8 points per 100. That 11.1-point swing is enormous, and it comes largely by the choice of the organization; the choice of not playing Andre Miller as the regular backup point guard. On the entire roster, only Miller has a better net rating (+5.2) than Rubio. For much of the season, the backup point guard was LaVine, who most by now believe is better suited to play off guard. Very recently, Mitchell has indeed moved LaVine to off guard, but not next to Miller. Instead, the team called back Tyus Jones, the rookie doing D-League service for six games, and has slotted him into the rotation as the backup point guard.

The turn toward Tyus is a fairly unmistakable sign that the team is done trying to flirt with a competitive season. Jones might have a future (I tend to believe he does, others worry about his lack of size and explosiveness) but nobody reasonably believes he is presently able to play NBA point guard at a competitive level. These minutes that he receives — 20 versus the Spurs in (-11) action, and 11 more consequential ones versus the Pacers in (-13) action — will be the same type of on-the-job training that LaVine experienced last year. They might pique the interest of Minnesota sports fans, and will probably help accustom Jones to NBA game speed. But they will also frustrate the diehard Wolves fans watching most or all games, and possibly frustrate some of Tyus’s teammates — through no fault of his own — if he is incapable of hanging in there against top competition.

I just wrote a lot of words about a lot of Wolves stuff.

Patrick J, what are your thoughts on any or all of it? Do you like the move toward Jones as the backup point guard?

Patrick J: Do I like the move toward Jones as the backup point guard? Yes, but with caveats. Continue reading

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The Spurs & A History of Success

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The Spurs used the first pick in the 1987 NBA Draft to select David Robinson from the United States Naval Academy. Because Robinson had a two-year active-duty obligation with the Navy, his basketball career did not begin until the 1989-90 season. As an older-than-usual rookie, The Admiral averaged 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocks per game. He made the All-Star Team and the Spurs made the second round of the playoffs. They won 56 games that season, one year removed from winning only 21, marking the greatest one-year turnaround in league history, up to that point in time.

After that 56-win season, the Robinson-led Spurs went on to have season win totals of 55, 47, 49, 55, 62, and 59. In 1995, the 62-win season, Robinson won league MVP and the Spurs reached the Western Conference Finals. They lost to Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets — the eventual champions — and parts of the foundation began to crack around Robinson.

Dennis Rodman was the league’s leading rebounder and Spurs’ second-best player. He missed a bunch of games in the ’95 season due to team suspensions and a motorcycle accident. In the playoffs, Rodman’s behavior became a terrible distraction. In the Game 3 of the semifinals versus the Lakers, Rodman was taken out of the game by Coach Bob Hill. After exchanging words with Hill, Rodman took his shoes off and sat down on the end of the sideline, yelling at Hill not to put him back in the game. In Game 4, a Spurs win to go up 3-1, Rodman didn’t play at all.

Rodman was traded to the Chicago Bulls in the offseason — he went on to win three more championships (in addition to the pair he won with the Detroit Pistons) — and the Spurs took a step back in the ’96 season. They won three fewer games than the year before, and this time only made the conference semifinals. When Robinson was hurt early the next season, Hill was fired and replaced by the self-appointed general manager, Gregg Popovich. Pop held Duncan out of all but six games to preserve him for the future and “tank” for a better draft pick.

They finished with the third-worst record in the league, and went on to win the much-anticipated draft lottery; anticipated because whoever landed the top pick would get to select Tim Duncan from Wake Forest.

Duncan, like Robinson before him, was a seven-foot tall college superstar picked first in the draft. Together in San Antonio they formed the “Twin Towers” and immediately won 56 games (surpassing the previous turnaround record set in Robinson’s rookie year by 1 game) and reached the second round of the playoffs. Like Robinson, Duncan was an All-Star rookie. Like Robinson, Duncan was great at every part of the game: scoring, defending, rebounding, passing, and blocking shots.

The Twin-Towers Spurs won championships in 1999 and 2003, bookending the Shaq & Kobe Lakers threepeat. Robinson retired after the ’03 title.

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KAT & Gorgui: Did the Wolves just discover their new frontcourt?

Prior to Sunday’s game at Brooklyn, the Timberwolves had only played Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng together as the frontcourt pairing for 80 minutes spread over 13 different games out of the 26 they each had played in. That means Sam Mitchell was utilizing them as an entirely “either/or” proposition in half of the games, and trotting them out together for about 6 minutes per game in the other half. In those 80 minutes that Gorgui and KAT played alongside each other, the Wolves outscored opponents by 19 points. It was a small sample size, but suggested that it might be worth trying more, as finding enough minutes for these two has seemed to be an ongoing struggle for Mitchell.

Against the Nets, Mitchell deployed the KAT-Gorgui combo for over 16 minutes of action, and it worked well. In the first half, Towns started out with some uncharacteristic struggles on his jumper. When Gorgui checked in for Kevin Garnett midway through the first quarter — a rare move this season, probably reflecting a diminished faith in the struggling Nemanja Bjelica — the offense began to flow his direction. Ricky passed it to a pick-and-popped Towns, who then fed Gorgui, who had his man posted up under the hoop. He made a jump hook. Later in the first half, after Towns had rested and then returned to join Dieng again, KAT set an early high ball screen for Ricky and rolled toward the hoop on the right side. With Brook Lopez needing help defense, Rubio stared at Towns while dishing it instead to Dieng on the left side of the lane, who threw it down with authority.

Dieng had a lot of success as the ball screener, too. During the time when KAT was getting his first-half rest, Rubio found Gorgui on three assists for easy baskets. On two of them, Gorgui had sealed his man on the correct side so that Rubio’s pass — one of them thrown behind his back — led directly to an easy layup. Later in the game, Dieng set an early, semi-transition high ball screen (a staple set of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns that the Wolves would be wise to adopt as one of their own) and rolled toward the hoop. With the immediate entry pass not there, Rubio instead kicked it back to KAT at the top. The angle now better for entry, Towns fed Dieng on the high-low, as he did in the first quarter, and again Dieng converted the jump hook.

Towns got going as the game went on, developing the sort of synced-in chemistry with Rubio that Gorgui had in the first half. He ended the game with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks. Dieng finished with 20 points, 10 boards and 3 assists.

In the time they shared the floor on Sunday, the Wolves outscored the Nets by 3 points. I had, and maybe still have, some doubts about whether this is a viable starting caliber frontcourt. Those doubts mainly exist because Dieng has struggled to defend big centers in the past, and may not have sufficiently refined skills to play power forward. However, Dieng’s defense seems to be improving, and Towns’s outstanding shooting allows them to use Dieng as the ball-screen roller and post man, with KAT stretching the defense out to the perimeter.

But perhaps more than anything about “fit,” the issue just comes down to these two being the team’s best big men, and benefits of getting both of them as much playing time as possible. If you remove the little-used Andre Miller, the Wolves field-goal percentage leaders are Dieng (54.7) and Towns (53.5). They’re both excellent foul shooters, with Dieng currently at a crazy 90 percent, and Towns just behind him at 85. Per 36 minutes, Towns leads the Wolves in rebounding at 11.7. Dieng is third on the team (also behind KG) at 9.8. Per 36, they lead the team in blocks. Towns gets 2.6, Gorgui gets 1.6. Dieng also gets 1.7 steals per 36; an underrated part of his game, reflecting his high motor and activity level. Scoring is where Towns shines much brighter than Dieng (20.3 points per 36, versus 13.0) but Gorgui is a better scorer than the alternatives that might play next to KAT for a lot of minutes — players like the struggling Bjelica and the largely written off Adreian Payne.

Mitchell must have had this pairing on his mind after the win on Friday over the Kings. They did not play together very much that night, but he said this after the game:

“I like Karl and G, the way they play. It’s almost like when G comes in for KG, it keeps us big and athletic and I think G’s defense has just been outstanding all year. He’s probably, of our young guys, he’s probably been the most consistent, defensively.”

After enduring the worst part of their season to date — going 1-8 in a nine-game span that included a soft schedule — the Wolves now have a winning streak. Andrew Wiggins was the star in the first win over the Kings. Ricky Rubio was incredible in the second win at Brooklyn. This new wrinkle of pairing Dieng and Towns might have staying power, if it continues to click like it did today with each player putting up over 20 points and 10 rebounds.

We’ll have to see how Mitchell feels about it tomorrow night at Boston, where the Wolves will try to extend this streak to 3 wins against a good Celtics team.

Until then.

Season Record: 11-16

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KAT = Great. Wolves = Bad. What to think?

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On Sunday afternoon, I posted a quarter report for this 2015-16 Timberwolves season, grading each player’s performance (relative to role and expectations) one fourth of the way through.

Since posting that, the Timberwolves have lost three times and some of those grades seem a little bit generous.

On Sunday at Phoenix, the Wolves played the (currently) 11-16 Suns. They lost 108-101. The game was not as close as the score suggested. Shortly before the end of the third quarter, after a barrage of Timberwolves turnovers led to Suns layups, Minnesota trailed by over 20 points. In the fourth, they had a crew of bench players led by Andre Miller chip away at that margin, but not seriously threaten the inevitable Suns victory. For the Wolves, it was a horrible performance without much by way of silver linings. It marked their sixth loss in seven games.

On Tuesday, back at home, the Wolves played the (currently) 11-14 Denver Nuggets. They lost 112-100 on their home floor. If turnovers were the problem on Sunday, it was defense on Tuesday; particularly defense against three-point shots. At one point in the the game the Nuggets were 7-9 from downtown as they built up a sizable halftime lead behind the hot, wide-open shooting of former Wolves guard and journeyman role player, Randy Foye. After the game, Sam Mitchell spoke in greater detail than usual about how his young players have so much to learn about playing NBA basketball, and how that was probably their most disappointing loss of the season.

Last night, on Wednesday, the Wolves faced off against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Derek Fisher’s squad came into the game with an 11-14 record. Once again, the Wolves struggled to keep up. They trailed by a lopsided 60 to 40 margin at halftime. Arron Afflalo, a solid, but decidedly unspectacular veteran guard, had a dozen second-quarter points; many times scoring with ease over Shabazz Muhammad’s suspect defense. Afflalo had 29 points in the game on 9-14 shooting. The Wolves made a better effort in the second half, cutting the Knicks lead down to 6 a couple of times with a little over 2 minutes to play, and even closer than that during more desperate situations in the game’s final seconds. But that general game trajectory — a struggling team surrendering a huge halftime lead, then making it sort of close, only to eventually lose — is a pretty common one for bad teams. The game was defined by the pace set by Afflalo and the Knicks in the first half.

Just like against the Suns on Sunday and the Nuggets on Tuesday, the Wolves were not ready to play on Wednesday at New York, and they lost to another sub-.500 opponent. Their schedule included this seven-winnable-games stretch that began with the home Lakers tilt and ends on Sunday at Brooklyn. With two games left in it, they have a single win — the overtime squeaker that saw them survive a last-second Laker miss in overtime — and four losses. Their season record has gone from 8-8 to 9-16. They have lost 8 of 9 games. Of the 8 losses, only two — both against the Clippers — came against a clear-cut playoff-caliber opponent.

If, before the season, you told me or any other interested Wolves fan that the team would be 9-16 after 25 games, that would have sounded fine. It’s a pace of about 29 or 30 wins, which would beat their preseason “over/under” in Las Vegas. It would show progress from last year, when they had the league’s worst record (tanking/injuries noted).

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