Nothing Nice to Say

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“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

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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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An Unexplainable Letdown (Nuggets 100, WOLVES 85)

It’s hard to tell what’s worse: how badly the Wolves were beaten on their home floor tonight by the Denver Nuggets (who had won just 3 of their previous 22 games, and accordingly just fired their coach) or the lack of a good excuse for the loss. The Wolves had yesterday off; Denver did not. The Wolves had their healthy starting five, which is supposed to be a competitive group. After jumping out to a 19-12 lead with a nice mix of Andrew Wiggins baskets leading the way, Kevin Garnett checked out of the game. There was 5:04 to play in the first quarter when Payne subbed in for KG, and the Nuggets proceeded to go on a 14-8 run to close out the quarter.

The second quarter?

Denver won that one 34 to 16. (!)

Flip got T’d up walking off the floor for halftime, just for good measure, so the Wolves trailed by 18 when the ball was first inbounded to open the second half.

And things never really got competitive. There was a stretch where Gary Neal Hero Ball looked like it might lead a comeback, and a Zach LaVine three got it within 9 at one point, but there were never enough defensive stops; specifically, there were never enough defensive rebounds.  Kenneth Faried celebrated Brian Shaw’s recent termination by breaking out of a slump for 18 pounds and 14 rebounds.  Jameer Nelson led a Nuggets second unit that just ran the Wolves off the floor, and – in the halfcourt, broke them down time and time again with spread pick-and-roll action. Nelson had 12 points and 9 assists off the bench in +19 action.

A telling stat was Kevin Garnett’s +5 in 21 minutes of action, compared to Gorgui Dieng’s -15 and Adreian Payne’s -12. The defensive positioning of the Wolves second-string bigs is all over the place, right now. It was much less how great KG was than it was how undisciplined his backups were. Gorgui is getting barked at by just about everybody right now; even Ricky yelled at him when he expected a ball screen that wasn’t arriving like it should. After the game, in brief remarks, Flip seemed perplexed about Gorgui, and why he is a step slow on rotations. He wondered if he was hitting a “wall,” which is tough to interpret, considering Gorgui is not a rookie and hasn’t been playing heavy minutes this year (averaging 29.1). I don’t know what has stunted Gorgui’s development after such a promising first season, but he is struggling right now in certain ways that he has not in the past.

Along with their defensive struggles, the Wolves really played poorly on offense tonight. (It was possibly the worst game of the season, if you take into consideration that they had their entire starting five healthy, at home, against a struggling opponent.) Too many possessions had Ricky stationary dribbling and Martin or Neal running around in a Kyle Korver impression. The Wolves are at their best when Rubio is creating on the move, utilizing his unique vision and passing skills. Mo Williams was perfectly capable of executing the sets the Wolves ran tonight. That was disappointing to see. Martin shot 3-15 from the field. Neal shot 6-13, converting some difficult jumpers in a game-worst batch of -19 minutes.

Rubio had a points assists double double, with the minimum 10 and 10 of each. Wiggins actually played pretty well, perhaps joining KG as the only Wolf who could say that at game’s end. He was honored before tip-off for his fourth straight “Rookie of the Month” award. His Rookie of the Year honor is an inevitability at this point, and he continues to impress with different scoring moves.

Aside from Wiggins playing well, the silver lining was tanking-related: Denver was a sneaky contender to tank the rest of the season out, having quit on their last coach and losing so many games in a row. By beating the Wolves tonight, they move 8.5 games ahead of the Wolves which is pretty much out of reach. The Wolves should finish the year with the third or fourth worst record (and therefore the third or fourth best draft lottery position) depending on whether they catch the Lakers who are 3 games ahead in the standings right now.

The Wolves play next on Saturday, against a Portland Trailblazers team that is much better than the Denver Nuggets. Flip assured the media that there’d be a much better performance next game. I guess we’ll see.

Until then.

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Sunday Post: Weekend Wrap-Up, Power Forward Auditions

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The Wolves have 4 power forwards right now, two of which will be free agents this summer, and the other two of which have player options due to be exercised or waived by October 31, 2015. The remainder of this season will be an audition of sorts for some of them.

The Wolves dropped both games in their weekend back-to-back.

On Friday at Chicago, they faced an undermanned Bulls team that was missing Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol, and lost Taj Gibson to an ankle sprain less than ten minutes into the contest. Despite the health advantage (to be fair, the Wolves were without Shabazz Muhammad, Kevin Garnett, Anthony Bennett, and Robbie Hummel, but none of those players are even as good as Gibson, let alone Rose or Gasol) the Wolves could not pull this one out. A theme throughout the game was a Timberwolf playing overaggressive defense, and being burned by a sharp backdoor cut, or spin move, or other intelligent counter that allowed an easy basket to a player who probably wouldn’t create a good shot by himself against disciplined defense.

In some ways, the Bulls game felt like the Wolves let one slip away. The final score was 96-89.

Saturday’s game was a more fun contest for two reasons: the Wolves played well, and they went down to the wire against a legit title contender; the same Grizzlies team they beat at Target Center a couple weeks ago behind Ricky Rubio heroics.

The Wolves opened last night’s game with a distinct defensive identity set by Ricky Rubio and Kevin Garnett. They forced turnovers on 7 of the Grizzlies first 14 possessions.  (The Grizz ended the game with 24 turnovers.) Of those 7 turnovers, 3 were Garnett steals, and 2 were Rubio steals. Watching this team defend with these two on the floor at the same time makes me wish the Wolves had pried Garnett from the East Coast a couple years ago. In the 34 minutes that Rubio and KG have played together, the Wolves have an absurd defensive rating of 79.7. They led 24-18 after the first quarter. Hot Grizzlies shooting combined with poor Timberwolves bench play in the second quarter (LaVine struggled like it was December 2014 or something) swung things, and the Grizz led by 5 at the half.

In the second half, the Grizzlies set the tone early, with punishing defense that forced the Wolves to settle for difficult jumpers; jumpers that did not fall. On offense, they had Marc Gasol scoring on Pekovic, and then when Pek went to the bench (he did not return, citing foot pain) Gasol went to work on rookie Adreian Payne. Gasol ended the game with 27 points and one of the best all-around performances we’ve seen at Target Center, this year. The newsworthy event of the game happened in the midst of a big Grizzlies run, when KG was hit with his second technical foul and was ejected from the game. Bennett Salvatore saw Garnett slam the ball on the ground and interpreted that as showing up the ref. According to Flip after the game, KG was mad at himself. In any case, the fans who came out to see KG play only got 2.5 quarters of it. He was done for the night. The technical foul call seemed unnecessary, putting it mildly, but it was also an embarrassing look for Garnett, who is here right now primarily for veteran leadership.

The early portion of the third quarter was disappointing, because the Wolves allowed themselves to be bullied by aggressive defense. That changed when Andrew Wiggins started attacking, drawing a pair of fouls that sent him to the free throw line. Payne also helped turn the game’s momentum by crashing the offensive glass. He kept two possessions alive that ended in Wolves points. The defense tightened up when Gorgui was assigned Gasol, and the Wolves turned a 15-point deficit into a 5-point lead in the fourth quarter. Payne’s stint following the Garnett ejection was the best ball he’s played in his short Wolves tenure. There is a lot that I don’t like about how his game looks right now (funky shooting form, poor defensive awareness, turnover prone) but when he simplified his approach and crashed the boards, he was effective.

Memphis pulled the game out down the stretch, largely because Gasol was such a difficult one-on-one matchup. He only missed 3 shots all night. Gorgui drew a “hooking” foul on one Gasol post up, which led to Marc getting a technical of his own. After that, Gasol knew he was getting the benefit of the doubt star treatment, and sure enough Gorgui was whistled for light contact on the next possession. Kevin Martin hit a pair of threes to make things interesting, but missed a third one — wide open after he head faked in the corner — that would’ve likely forced overtime.

Now that this team has (most of) its health back, I don’t really think moral victories in home games are possible. They play like a good team, and good teams should expect to win at home. That’s an encouraging sign for next year. Andrew Wiggins, who I have barely mentioned, had 25 points last night and looks like he’s quickly approaching star-caliber play. With Wiggins on the wing, Rubio at point guard, and at least three solid big men between Pekovic, Gorgui, and KG, the Wolves should have high expectations from now on.

Some scattered jottings on other Wolves happenings:

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The Return (TIMBERWOLVES 97, Wizards 77)

Where to begin?

The game itself, I guess.

The game

The Wolves opened up the game with some predictable nerves. And as nerves often do in basketball, they seemed to help on defense and hurt on offense. Washington built a 13-1 lead and the Wolves did not make a field goal until a Pekovic layup with 5:27 to go in the first. While that technically broke the seal, the offensive struggles persisted through the end of the opening period. Adreian Payne committed three turnovers in short sequence, and the score was 20-11 Wizards after one.

Things turned around in the second, for two main reasons: (1) the Wolves defensive motor continued to run hot, and with appropriate rotations and discipline; and (2) Kevin Martin got hot. He had 16 points in that quarter alone (he ended with 28), mixing his crafty foul drawing skills with jumpers off the move, and an open corner three for good measure. Rubio made some uncharacteristically poor decisions, botching a contested layup on a 2-on-1 next to Wiggins, and then throwing the ball into the stands on the next possession. I did like one play he made with Garnett that was a little bit reminiscent of Celtics KG action – Garnett set a down screen like he used to for Ray Allen (I think this one was for Martin, but cannot recall specifically) and when both defenders hedged toward the cutter, he pivoted for position, and Rubio slid a bounce pass through traffic to him. He was then fouled on the layup attempt. KG’s a great screener — often accused of an illegal screener — and that action will be there with a heady point guard like Rubio surveying the floor.

The defensive effort and focus continued throughout the second quarter, and by the time Martin’s scoring work was done, the score was tied at 42s at the break.

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Some Thoughts on What the Kevin Garnett Trade Might Mean to Kevin Garnett

Prelude: Garnett’s Homecoming

What will Kevin Garnett’s return to Minnesota bring to the Wolves and the state of basketball in Minnesota? The trade still has everyone excited. Some of it is sentimentality about “The Kid” who grew up in front of our eyes. He became the franchise’s best player ever, brought the Wolves to the playoffs eight straight times and to the brink of the Finals once. He was our team’s only league MVP. A lot of the best (and a few of the worst) moments in team history are tied up in Kevin Garnett, and his time spent in a Timberwolves uniform. There’s going to be a buzz when The Kid returns to the place it all began.

There’s been some discussion of Garnett’s likely impact on the team, but little about what Garnett might be thinking about coming back to Minnesota. How does he see this affecting his legacy? What does he want to accomplish. It sounds like he wants to become an owner of this team, but why ownership? And why own the Wolves? You know he’s a student of NBA history and that he thinks about this stuff—and takes it seriously.

Garnett himself has been mum about what his end game is in Minnesota. I delve into some possible angles below the fold.

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Saturday Jottings: Wolves Beat Suns, Anthony Bennett’s Future, Late-Game Offense

Last night’s win over the Suns was one of the season’s most fun games, for a few different reasons.

First and most obvious: It was a close game, involving a whole bunch of fourth quarter lead changes, and the home team pulled it out in the final minute. Specifically, the Wolves’ biggest basket came on a Rubio-to-Wiggins pick and roll where the next Rookie of the Year showed off his athleticism and poise by absorbing contact and finishing in traffic. Anytime the Wolves beat a decent team on a big play involving Rubio and Wiggins, the vibes will be positive.

Second, the fans came out and the arena had new energy. This was presumably, in large part, due to the Garnett-trade news. There was a period of time between when the trade was announced and the confirmation of when KG will debut here (next Wednesday, not last night) and I can only imagine that a lot of fans bought tickets for the Friday night game hoping it might be the first one with The Big Ticket back in the lineup. Garnett is not yet back in Minnesota, but the team made sure to play a bunch of promo videos on the big screen which was the crowd’s consolation prize (well, along with the big win). But there was a bigger-than-usual turnout last night, and the fans clearly enjoyed the show that Ricky and Wiggins put on. This team is 12-42 right now, mind you. This sort of win/loss record, which is unfortunately common, has traditionally not led to good crowds in the second half of the season. Last night was an exception.

Third, and most perhaps most under-the-radar, Ricky Rubio’s minutes restriction has been lifted and he’s back in full duty. Rubio played 37 minutes of really good basketball, last night. He had the Jason Kidd-style stat line, approaching a triple double with 10 points, 14 assists and 8 rebounds. Ricky had so much control over this game. Kevin Martin was hot early, so Ricky got him the ball. When Wiggins was feeling left out, Ricky chucked a 50-foot pass up the floor, forcing the youngster to chase it down and reward himself with a layup. Later in the game, again after some Martin shots went up, Ricky made a concerted effort to get the new guy, Gary Neal, some touches. He even looked off Martin to make sure this happened. He’s got that “pure point guard” brain that calculates the flow of the game in real time and understands where the ball needs to go to keep everyone happy and — more importantly — to keep the points coming. Ricky’s plus-minus of +14 was the game’s best by a 6-point margin.

All in all, it was a good win against an undermanned, but plenty competitive Suns team.

Some other Timberwolves issues, looking ahead:

* Anthony Bennett is about to enter a two-front battle for his Timberwolves future.

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