Timberwolves This & That

A few Timberwolves items to touch on as the season winds down:

  • The Wolves lost both ends of a road back-to-back this week. On Tuesday at Sacramento they lost by 5. That doesn’t seem so bad until you realize that the Kings — perhaps also wanting to lose for boosted lottery position — held DeMarcus Cousins out of the game. Rudy Gay scored 33 for Sactown. Omri Casspi poured in 31 of his own. Derrick Williams had 18. Yeah.

The next night at Portland, against a very good Blazers team (but one the Wolves beat in the last game Kevin Garnett played in) the Wolves got predictably throttled. They trailed by 10 after the first quarter, 19 at the half, and lost by 25.

  • They continue to sit their best players, aside from Kevin Martin who has returned to action. Garnett, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Shabazz Muhammad, Gary Neal, and Anthony Bennett remain out.
  • Despite the miserable circumstances he’s been intentionally placed in, Andrew Wiggins continues to impress. Against the Kings he had 26 points and 8 rebounds in +13 action. Against Portland, Wiggins dropped 29 points, along with 5 boards and 4 assists. As was obvious months ago, he’ll win the Rookie of the Year, which is what the entire franchise has been emphasizing, and will continue to emphasize as both a legitimate cause for celebration and a distraction from the shameless tanking effort. The Wolves have HUGE questions going forward about their coaching staff and strategy, their team defense, their medical management, and most of their personnel. But unlike most teams in their building stage, they seem to have landed a franchise player, which is the most important and difficult thing to acquire. As much as I hate the basketball that has been played for most of this season, this is a fact worth acknowledging.

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Rubio Done, Disappointing Final Chapter, All Eyes on the Final Four

Ricky Rubio’s fourth NBA season has come to a close. Flip made this announcement to local media this morning, explaining that his franchise point guard continues to be bothered by ankle pain. They’d rather he rest now, so that he can perform a standard offseason regimen and not have to worry about additional rehab for his ankle.

Do I believe that he’s actually hurt?

No, I guess I don’t, at least not to the extent that he can’t play. I’ve watched him workout before games and he looks great, cutting hard and drilling jumpers. Flip has told us that Ricky wants to play, but isn’t being allowed to. But that doesn’t matter now. His season is done, and — in most ways — so is his team’s.

Back on March 8, four weeks ago tomorrow, I wrote a “Third Quarter Report,” highlighting what I felt were the big issues hanging over the team as it entered the final fourth of its 2014-15 seaason. The post came in the wake of a huge home win over the Blazers in which both Rubio and Kevin Garnett looked great, and the team racked up 121 points. My post wasn’t entirely positive — I criticized Zach LaVine’s point guard abilities and the team’s dearth of power forwards — but it finished with a positively upbeat tone: I wondered if the Wolves were starting to look like a playoff team.

How foolish that seems now, after what’s gone on.

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INBOX: The Lows and Highs of the Timberwolves’ Stank-Tank and Rick Adelman vs. Flip Saunders

Rick and Flip

Rick and Flip

The Lows and Highs of the Wolves’ Stank-Tank

Andy G: You and I are in complete agreement on the initial question of whether the Timberwolves are (and have been) tanking, this year.

They are.

We don’t need to beat that dead horse.

But let’s talk a bit more about what their tanking methods have done — both good and bad — and what they tell us about this team, its coach, and its future.

I’ll let you start: with respect to the tanking the Wolves have done this year, what parts have bothered you most, and are there aspects (aside from the boosted draft position) that you think have had positive effects (whether anticipated/calculated, or not)?

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Wolves, Lakers, chugging along to the draft

The Timberwolves and Lakers played a basketball game tonight.

Nobody is quite sure if either team wanted to win it.

The Wolves sat out the following players:

Ricky Rubio
Kevin Martin
Shabazz Muhammad
Kevin Garnett
Nikola Pekovic
Gary Neal
Anthony Bennett

The Lakers sat out the following players:

Kobe Bryant
Nick Young
Carlos Boozer
Jordan Hill

The remaining players, with the exception of Andrew Wiggins, were not good ones. There was a lighthearted feel to the crowd, the media section, and even the Timberwolves bench (which was heavily populated with players in suits). Everybody seemed to know what was going on. To their credit, the players on the floor — many of the “10-day contract” or “playing for their next contract” varieties — played hard. (When I and others talk about tanking, it should go without saying that we aren’t saying the players on the floor are not trying. It means the team leadership is not doing all they realistically can to try to win the game. The most frequent tactic is “shutting players down” for the year, citing subjective pain complaints or a vague injury that they would play through if the games mattered. The incredibly obvious reason for doing this is that more losses means a higher draft pick. I digress.) Wiggins and LaVine each played about 48 minutes (the game went to overtime) and tried their best. Chase Budinger scored 22 points off the bench, playing a lot of way-overmatched stretch four against Ed Davis.

The Lakers won by two in overtime.

After the game, Flip seemed tired. We all did. Nobody wanted THAT game to last longer than the standard four quarters. Wiggins had a nice game (27/6/4) which Flip acknowledged, but like he has all year, mentioned that Wiggins needs to be more aggressive. He said the same thing about LaVine, who also generated some offense for himself tonight, ending with 18 points, 7 of which coming from the free-throw line, to go along with 5 assists. What’s a little bit confusing (to me, at least) about the constant “aggressiveness” drum-beating is that it never seems like there are clear driving lanes to the basket in the current Timberwolves offense. I don’t really understand where those opportunities are supposed to come from, but this probably isn’t the time of year to be nitpicking x’s and o’s.

With the loss, the Wolves drop to 16-55, and the Lakers “improve” to 19-51. I include scare quotes because the Lakers forfeit their draft pick if it falls outside the top five. They are at risk of that happening and wins like tonight could seriously harm their future if they cause them to lose that pick.

The Wolves now have the second-worst record in the NBA, still only better than the Knicks. The win column is the one to watch, for tanking fans, and they currently have 2 more wins than the Knicks, 2 less than the 76ers and 3 less than the Lakers.

For your information, if they end with the “2nd Seed” in the lottery, their chances of landing each respective pick are as follows (via Wikipedia):

1st – 19.9%
2nd – 18.8%
3rd – 17.1%
4th – 31.9%
5th – 12.3%

I think the Wolves would very much like to get a Top-4 Pick, so that they can end up with one of Jahlil Okafor of Duke, Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky, or D’Angelo Russell of Ohio State. I saw “Top 4” to lock one of those guys in because Emmanuel Mudiay (Congo) is likely to go somewhere in the Top 4, and some of the teams that would likely pick ahead of the Wolves in the event they draft 4th, like the 76ers, might prefer Mudiay to the guys the Wolves want.

Just a hunch, but also based on what some of the best beat writers have been hinting at recently. For you math majors out there, the 2-seed gives them an 87.7 percent chance of landing a Top-4 spot, and I think Flip wants to keep that pace through the finish, if at all possible.

If you want to get a look at the possible future Wolves, Towns plays tomorrow night at 8:45 CST versus West Virginia, and Okafor plays at 8:45 CST on Friday night versus Utah. Russell is eliminated from the tourney.

Also, I should add that I discussed Anthony Bennett’s future with the Timberwolves with John Meyer of Canis Hoopus, in a post he published this morning. Link here. Be sure to check that out if you haven’t already.

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Tanking Without Ricky: Hornets 109, WOLVES 98

This afternoon, Duke’s freshman center, Jahlil Okafor, played dominant basketball in front of a huge international audience. Showing off his “best since Duncan, maybe Alcindor” freshman post game, Okafor racked up 26 points on 12-16 shooting in an easy win over San Diego State. All signs point to Okafor entering the draft this summer (even Coach K, who has not traditionally been accepting of the one-and-done culture, seems to acknowledge this) and he’ll be one of the first two picks, depending on whether the lucky team picking wants his offense, or the defense of Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, going forward.

Tonight, the Minnesota Timberwolves played a game on their home court. They hosted a mediocre Charlotte Hornets team that entered the contest with a 29-38 record in the weak Eastern Conference. The Wolves could have won this game if they wanted to.

But they didn’t. And they didn’t.

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Nothing Nice to Say


“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

That’s a nice rule to live by in most situations. Writing about the Timberwolves is an exception. In many instances, such as this one, that rule would be straight up prohibitive.

Since I last posted nine days ago, the Wolves have played five games, and lost every one of them.

They lost by 13 to the Clippers, who were still without Blake Griffin. They actually trailed by 21 with 4 minutes to go in that one, but padded the deficit with some late, meaningless baskets. DeAndre Jordan, who tallied 20 points on 10-11 shooting, along with 17 rebounds, spent most of the game rolling through the lane and hammering down unchecked alley-oop dunks.

Next, the Wolves lost by 9 at Phoenix to a mediocre Suns team. That final was also a bit misleading; the Wolves trailed by 14 with a minute to go. Nobody on the team played well, aside from newbie Justin Hamilton who poured in a surprising 15 points off the bench.

On Friday night, the Wolves lost by 14 to the Thunder at Oklahoma City. The Thunder, as you probably know, are without Kevin Durant. No worry for OKC, Russell Westbrook and Enes Kanter provided plenty of fire to handle the TWolves. Russ, true to his recent MVP-like form, had a 29-point triple double. Kanter bullied the Wolves young, lean big men (Garnett and Pek sat out, more on this later) to the tune of 23 points and 15 rebounds. Like the others, the final score was a little closer than it could’ve been. The Wolves were down 18 with a minute and a half to go, and the outcome never really felt in doubt.

The game on Sunday in San Antonio was a joke. The Spurs won by 26 and actually lost by 4 points in the fourth quarter.

And last night, back at Target Center after returning from the miserable road trip, the Wolves lost again; this time to a poor Brooklyn Nets team that would not make the playoffs in the pathetic Eastern Conference if the season ended today. The Nets led by 4 after the first quarter, 12 at halftime, 19 after three, and then coasted to a 16-point victory. They scored what I understand was a Nets-record 78 points in the paint. They shot 58 percent from the field. They are a below-average offensive team, mind you.

Those are the miniature recaps of the last five games.

Some facts and statistics about this recent stretch:

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Timberwolves Third Quarter Report: The Issues


At the season’s quarter point, I handed out letter grades to each player. At the halfway point, I laid out team superlatives. We’ve just reached the third quarter point, and with the team fresh off a franchise-altering trade, and without hope of making the upcoming playoffs, I thought it a good time to lay out the big issues they face as the season hits its springtime homestretch.

The following are five issues that the team faces and will hang over the last 21 games of the season. I listed them in increasing order of importance, as I see things:

1. What is Zach LaVine’s position?

On one hand, I don’t view this as a particularly important question despite the emphasis many knowledgeable Wolves pundits place on it; specifically, many criticize Flip Saunders for playing LaVine at point guard when he has struggled there, and they feel his future is off the ball, at the two. I don’t get quite as hung up on that positional distinction in Zach’s case because I think his “upside” will be realized if and when he can get comfortable enough with his handles, against pressure defense, to explode to the rim from the top of the key. That’s a “combo guard” type of play that athletic dynamos like Russ Westbrook have proven to be effective.

Even if LaVine doesn’t have traditional point guard instincts, he’ll create plays for himself and teammates if and when he can master that skill; and he obviously has the athleticism to do it. So from that perspective, I think playing him at point guard right now makes sense. Flip has played him almost exclusively at point guard this season, to the chagrin of fans (and sometimes himself, it seems) and I can only believe he’s doing this with an eye toward the future and the type of player he wants LaVine to become.

But the question matters considerably more in the short term — next season, specifically — if the Wolves are planning to try to win games rather than tank for the draft and develop young players outside of their comfort zones, as they did this year. Because in that case, they need a backup point guard and this year’s version of LaVine is simply not good enough to play that role on a competitive team.

The on/off numbers for LaVine paint an ugly picture. In the 1148 minutes he’s been on the floor this year, the Wolves were outscored by 17.1 points per 100 possessions. In other words, over a large sample size, the Wolves were consistently blown out when LaVine was in the game, and he was almost always playing point guard. Some of that statistic is the fault of other players. Consider that he played by far his most minutes in December (15 games, 29.3 minutes per game) when the Wolves best players (Rubio, Martin, Pekovic) were all on the shelf with injuries. Those lineups were outmanned across the board. Combined with the “Force Feed Wiggins At All Costs” philosophy that Flip implemented, there was no getting around some awful plus-minus stats.

But LaVine’s ineptitude on defense, and in initiating the offense as the lead guard, were substantial contributing factors to the lopsided defeats, too. He dribbles the ball high, and when defenders pressure him, he struggles to do anything beyond a cautious entry pass to the wing. On defense he is pretty good against isolation drives, because of his supreme athleticism and solid effort level. But he does not yet have the court awareness, or the physical strength and developed tricks to navigate pick and rolls with any success. The Wolves allow 113.4 points per 100 possessions when LaVine is on the floor, and just 105.5 when he’s off. That 7.9 point differential is enormous, considering the sample size on each side of it.

So in the season’s final quarter, it will be worth paying attention to every minute LaVine takes the floor and mans the point guard spot. They need to know if he’s improving rapidly enough to be penciled in as a point, or even combo guard in next year’s rotation, or whether they need to find somebody else on the open market or in the draft to back up Ricky Rubio.

2. Is there a starting frontcourt player on the roster?

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