Punch-Drunk Preview, Part II: The Timberwolves Edition

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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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Punch-Drunk Preview, Part I: The NBA-Wide Edition

punchdrunkpreview

Good news, sports fans: Another NBA season begins tomorrow night. TNT is showing a Western Conference double-header that leads off with Mavs at Spurs and closes with Rockets at Lakers. If you’ve got League Pass, you can catch Magic at Pelicans in the early slot. (Eds note: That’s what we’ll be watching. November is for Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, and Anthony Davis. We’ll see enough Dirk and Duncan, come spring.)

In Part I of the Punch-Drunk Preview, we’ll discuss topics ranging in seriousness and importance across the league as a whole. On Wednesday, we’ll get down to the specifics of this year’s Timberwolves team.

Without further ado…
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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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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 7

In which we review the preseason, prospects for the regular season, and Mike Penberthy.

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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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Bill and Jalen on the Timberwolves

Bill and Jalen

Bill and Jalen

Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose are back with their NBA Preview. Shot in countdown-style Youtube videos that go team-to-team, from projected best to projected worst, you get a 15-minute read-in to what these guys really think about each team. As such ubiquitious basketball personalities, whose “meta” usually covers the entire league, it’s a different thing when, each season, Bill and Jalen “drill down” into their rankings and outlook for each and every NBA team.

Today, Bill and Jalen posted their annual video about the Wolves. Here’s what I thought they were off and on about:

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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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