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 But his bread-and-butter philosophies seem outdated.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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Catching Up on Timberwolves from San Francisco

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Greetings from San Francisco where I’ve been the past couple days, and will be tonight (well, technically Oakland) to watch the Timberwolves play at Oracle against the Warriors. Since I last wrote here, the Wolves have played three times, losing each game.

Last Sunday, they lost a close one at home to the Pacers. Their offense came out tentative against a good defensive team that allows very little opportunity for easy shots in the half-court. In the second half, sparked by the energy of Shabazz Muhammad, they came back and even took a 1-point lead. But poor execution in the final minutes — some by Muhammad specifically — let that one slip out of their fingers. They (Wiggins and Budinger, mostly) allowed C.J. Miles to go off for 28 points.

Next was the anticipated matchup with Kevin Love, now wearing the wine and gold Cavs uniform. The game wasn’t as exciting as the hype going into it. Flip Saunders said something about Minnesotans not forgiving Love because he turned on them, and then some people blogged about that. During the game, the Wolves just plain struggled to defend. They gave up 125 points. Love had 20 & 10 and looked good. The good news for Wolves fans was that Andrew Wiggins busted out of his slump to score 27 points on just 16 shots. He dunked really hard next to* Love, one time. (*I can’t say he dunked “on” Love, because Love still does the thing where he steps out of the way of dribble penetration instead of challenging it.) In any event, this game was not close. The Wolves lost by 21.

Last night’s game at Denver was close; more like the Pacers game. The Wolves, like always, were much smaller than their opponent. Whether it was Timofey Mozgov, Jusuf Nurkic, or J.J. Hickson, the Nuggets always had somebody down low who looked about 50 pounds heavier than Gorgui Dieng. But even with that particular disadvantage, the Wolves did enough stuff to hang in there to the final minute of the game.

Wiggins posted a line of 22 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists, building on the momentum started in Cleveland. Thad Young had one of his best games of the season, finding his touch on pick-and-roll floaters over the large Nuggets defenders. Gorgui Dieng did what he’s been doing, which is a little bit of everything. His stat line tells that story: 14 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 4 blocks. Shabazz had a solid scoring start interrupted in the third quarter when he took a Kenneth Faried finger to the eye and required courtside medical attention for a few minutes. He ended the game with 14 points on 5-14 shooting, which is below his average. He missed a couple of dunks where he thought he was fouled that would’ve made that stat line look a little prettier.

It looked like the game might really get away from the Wolves before Robbie Hummel checked in for a productive, 10-minute stint. He scored 7 points and took 2 charges. Hummel is one of the few players on this entire roster who could fit into a limited reserve role on any team in the league, including the title contenders. He knows how to play team offense, his defensive ability is better than you probably realize, and he does nothing to hinder what playmakers around him are trying to accomplish. (There, dead horse beaten. I really hope to see Hummel land in a more competitive situation so his playing time is no longer cut in the name of talent-development.)

The Nuggets game was partially decided by missed Wolves free throws in the final minutes. With 2:18 to play, Gorgui went 1 of 2 to tie the game instead of take the lead. With 1:21 to play, Thad went 1 of 2 to cut a Nuggets lead to 1 instead of tie the game. With 0:40 to play, Wiggins went 1 of 2 to cut a Nuggets lead to 2 instead of 1. With 0:18 to play, Gorgui went 1 of 2 to cut a Nuggets lead to 1 instead of tie the game.

You get the idea. The Wolves lost by 4.

That’s a summary of the past three games.

Some team issues I’m noticing:

* Anthony Bennett is getting worse. Continue reading

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Developing Chemistry within the Shabazz-Wiggins-Gorgui Trio

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Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad share the distinction of being the only Timberwolves who have played in all 25 games of the 2014-15 season. They also constitute the closest thing this Wolves team has to a young core to build around; at least if you also include Ricky Rubio, who has been out this year with an ankle injury.

Wiggins is the number one pick with the physical tools, the tantalizing athleticism. For now and the foreseeable future, he’s unequivocally considered the franchise cornerstone. Wiggins is a 19-year old rookie. If he develops like the team hopes, he will almost certainly be a Timberwolf for 7 or 8 more seasons after this one.

Gorgui is the interior defender, the rim protector. He’s an efficient scorer who fills out the stat sheet with points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Gorgui works hard and does the dirty work. While his lack of “true center” size is a real issue, Flip Saunders believes that Gorgui is an NBA starter. Turning 25 next month, Dieng is significantly older than Wiggins and Muhammad. However, he is only in his second year of a bargain-level contract. (He earns about $1.4 Million this year, while out-producing some veterans around the league who earn 5 or 10 times more.) Provided his individual defense improves, there’s every reason to believe he will play the prime half-dozen seasons of his career in Minneapolis.

Shabazz has been a revelation. He’s quickly becoming a consistent, dominant scorer, as well as a tenacious rebounder from the wing position. On Friday against the Celtics, Shabazz posted his best all-around stat line, with 26 points (11-15 shooting), 5 rebounds and 5 assists. Barely 22 years old, Shabazz is improving at  shocking rate, and is becoming one of the best young offensive wing players in the league. Shabazz recently turned 22, and is also in his second year of a cheap deal. If the hot start proves to be sustainable, the Wolves will extend him for 4 more seasons beginning with 2017-18. In other words, he’ll be here for a long, long time.

Considering that the Wolves are in clear-cut rebuilding mode, one would assume that this young trio would be logging tons of minutes together, gaining experience and developing chemistry. But, so far anyway, that has not been the case.

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In Memoriam: Timberwolves Trade Corey Brewer to the Houston Rockets

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It’s official: my favorite Timberwolf of all-time is gone: on Friday, the Wolves traded Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf to Houston for guard Troy Daniels and two second-round picks, per Yahoo! Sports.

Woj had the beat, of course:

Brewer became famous last season for receiving and dunking Kevin Love’s outlet passes and for scoring 51 points in a game in Love’s absence.

Let us briefly appreciate this Bizarre Brewer Moment in history.

But Brewer was incompatible with Wolves POBO-Coach Flip Saunders’ rebuilding plan, which is focused on shedding age and salary and acquiring young talent and assets for future trades. (Eds. Note: Brewer is also famous for owning a pet goat named Billy.)

What does the Brewer trade mean?

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Breaking Down Anthony Bennett with Canis Hoopus’ Eric in Madison

Even Kyrie Irving vouched for Bennett going into the 2013 draft.

Even Kyrie Irving vouched for Bennett going into the 2013 draft. (Eds. Note: Disregard the Otto Porter-ness of this pic.)

Andy G and I recently engaged in an extended email dialogue with Canis Hoopus‘ Eric in Madison. (Eds. Note: If you’re a Wolves fan–if you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure you are–Canis Hoopus needs no introduction. The guys over there have the beat on the latest Wolves news and chatter.) EiM posted the conversation over on his site a few days ago. We decided to run it over here for those of you who only visit the site for wildly-optimistic fanboi takes on Anthony Bennett’s raw talent and killer mixtapes.

The cross-post from CH is below the fold.

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Quarterly Timberwolves Report

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Don’t corporations do quarterly reports? I’ve never prepared one or even worked for a corporation, but I think that they do. (Googling) Okay, yeah, quarterly finance reports are a thing. I didn’t dream that up. According to Wiki, they are “required by numbers of stock exchanges around the world to provide information to investors on the state of a company.”

Since the Timberwolves are at roughly the quarter-point of this NBA season, it seems like a good time to reflect on what’s happened; specifically, how everybody is playing. I’ll do this in letter grade format, going through each player, organized by position. The grades are on a curve, based on my expectations for the player heading into the season. So an A doesn’t mean the player is better than someone who earned a D; just that he’s doing great for what could’ve been expected, versus the other player who is underperforming. Hopefully that makes sense.

Guards

Ricky Rubio – Incomplete

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Appreciating Zach LaVine’s Diverse (and Elite) Company

Zach LaVine is playing with vigor, albeit inconsistently

Zach LaVine is playing with vigor, albeit inconsistently

 

Perhaps the most interesting stat line in Saturday night’s loss to the Spurs came from Wolves rookie Zach Lavine. Lavine scored 22 points and had 10 assists. It was his second-best game of the season. (Eds. Note: Lavine’s best game was his career-high 28 point night in the Wolves last win, against the Lakers in Los Angeles, on November 28.)

Take Lavine’s numb#rs with a grain of salt: Lavine, starting again at the point in place of the injured Ricky Rubio and Mo Williams, was going against the Spurs’ second unit. Tony Parker, the Spurs’ superstar point guard, had tweaked a hamstring injury the night before in the Spurs win at Memphis, and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat Parker on Saturday against the Wolves.

(Eds. Note: Pop also sat star guard Manu Ginobili in the game but played Tim Duncan, who fucked around and got a triple-double the night before in the Spurs win over the Grizzlies.) So Lavine had more breathing room to get his bearings at the point.

Lavine’s Line

So, why should we care about Lavine’s numb#rs? Because Lavine’s night puts him into incredibly interesting company: LeBron James, Stephon Marbury, and Dajuan Wagner. Who, exactly, is that company?

The most important point to note is that the trio of teen NBAers who’d put up 20/10 double-doubles in points and assists is INCREDIBLY (!) cool. Just read the names again: Lebron James, Stephon Marbury, and DaJuan Wagner. They had special paths to the NBA. Now Zach Lavine is on that list. He didn’t. But he brings at least some of the “something-something” those guys brought, at least some of us think, and the Wolves front office seems to believe, since they were the ones who drafted him this past summer.

Lebron, Steph, and Juanny are and were cool in very different ways. What they all had in common was that as high school players, they were viewed as “the next coming.”

But the next coming of what? The answer is that it was different for each. But for each, it was some type of basketball greatness.

Let’s briefly walk them through, one-by-one.

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