Flip Saunders Passes, Leaving Timberwolves in Better Shape than he Found Them.

FlipI was on my way out the door today when I heard the iTunes on my computer still playing. The plan was to head out to get coffee and bang out a post that previewed the Timberwolves season. I didn’t have a perfectly clear idea of what I was going to write. I was sure it would have to do with the team’s exciting young players, the patience that will be required as the franchise prioritizes development over winning in the short term, and probably some thoughts about the tactics we saw on display in the preseason, under the leadership of interim coach, Sam Mitchell.

When I leaned over to stop the music, I had my TweetDeck app open, and there was news on Twitter.

Big, huge, terrible, tragic news.

Flip Saunders died.

On one hand, this did not come out of left field. It was not necessarily a surprise, given that Flip’s cancer diagnosis was announced many months ago, and his attempt to continue working failed when he was hospitalized with complications. Nothing that has been reported in the past few weeks has sounded good, and I think most people trying to follow the situation have understood that this outcome was possible, if not likely.

Still, the news itself is enormously sad and significant on many levels.  The aspect about a person being taken too soon by cancer is self evident. But Flip is one of the most influential people in Timberwolves history, too. In his first go-around here, he was (with Kevin McHale) responsible for drafting Kevin Garnett, and coaching him through his entire professional development, and the prime of his Hall of Fame career. The Wolves went to the playoffs eight straight times with Saunders coaching. They had never been to the playoffs before he was hired, nor have they been back to the playoffs since they fired him in 2005.

Up through his recent cancer diagnosis and leave of absence, Flip was in a position of power that is possibly unmatched in modern professional basketball, or even sports. Flip was a minority owner of the team, he was the president of basketball operations in charge of managing the roster and drafting players, and he was the head coach. He had his hands everywhere, on this team.

Flip the President traded away the team’s disgruntled best player, Kevin Love, and somehow acquired a legitimate cornerstone talent, Andrew Wiggins. This came after Flip’s first draft, when his controversial decision to select Shabazz Muhammad would later prove to be wise one.

Flip the Coach made the development of Wiggins such a priority that it would better be characterized as an obsession. Nothing mattered more to Flip, last year, than making damn sure that his prized rookie cashed in on his enormous potential. By the end of the season, after continuous direction from Saunders, Wiggins was asserting himself the way that he needed to. He easily won Rookie of the Year honors, and many expect him to break out into All-Star form very soon.

Flip the President was working in close coordination with Flip the Coach. Together, they beautifully orchestrated the tanking development strategy that positioned the Wolves to select Karl-Anthony Towns in the 2015 Draft. Flip held Ricky Rubio out of 60 games for an ankle sprain (!), knowing full well that he would face questions almost everyday about what exactly was wrong that he couldn’t play his veterans. He faced that music with a shockingly upbeat spirit, and enjoyed the last laugh on lottery night, and again on draft night, when it all paid off.

Flip the Owner and businessman was also making his presence felt. He was obviously a key factor in bringing Kevin Garnett back to Minnesota; in the short term as a player, and in the longer term, as a future owner of this team. KG is perhaps the only person whose impact on Timberwolves history exceeds Flip’s, and the two of them were going to do everything they could to ensure its future was brighter than its recent past. The first concrete evidence of Flip’s business influence was the construction of a state-of-the-art practice facility in Downtown Minneapolis, across the street from Target Center. While I cannot say for sure, I doubt that this Mayo Clinic partnership happens, to this extent, without Flip’s participation.  This practice facility is the best in the NBA and Flip was a leader in getting it built.

Those are just the things that Flip has done since returning to the Timberwolves in 2012. In a very short time, he took an anxious franchise moment — Kevin Love’s contract timer ticking, Rick Adelman no longer fully invested in coaching responsibilities, the roster at large in great need of a young-talent infusion — and spun it into genuine excitement and optimism that the Timberwolves will become a championship contender again.

Flip’s passing is a pretty incredible thing for the Wolves organization to go through, and we will all be trying to sort out What Comes Next over the next few weeks, months, and even years. But for today, it’s best to just remember Flip Saunders and send well wishes to his family and (many) other loved ones.

Rest in peace, Flip.

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INBOX Game Wrap: Wolves Lose Big to Bucks, Shabazz a Bright Spot

Andy G: The Wolves just played the Bucks in their penultimate preseason game of the 2015-16 season. The good news is that Nemanja Bjelica stuck a three-pointer with just seven seconds left in the game. The bad news is that his shot cut the Bucks lead down from 21 to 18.

The Wolves got smoked again. The Bucks won 106-88. The Wolves shot just 33 percent from the field, compared to Milwaukee’s 51. They were outrebounded, they missed shots, turned the ball over and — in the second half — played poor defense.

They are now 1-5 in the preseason, with 4 of the 5 losses being pretty lopsided games.

The bad stuff is pretty easily observed: tactically, their offense is outdated and their spacing is not where it needs to be. As a group of players, they are obviously very young and inexperienced, not to mention physically weak compared to the grown men that cause NBA teams to win consistently. They don’t have enough playmaking on offense, or enough general know-how on D.

Any bright spots out there in this game? I don’t mean to pile on, but that was another rough one.

Patrick J: There weren’t a lot of bright spots. But Shabazz Muhammad was by far the brightest. Bazz did not play a perfect game, but he was by far the most active and aggressive Wolves player. His stats are fairly representative of his game tonight: in 25 minutes, he scored 18 points on only seven field goal attempts. Far from the “Derricking” free-throw tendencies he’s known for, tonight Bazz shot a perfect for 11-11 and looked composed for a change while doing it. Muhammad “did stuff” in the other categories as well, pulling in five boards, dishing out four assists, and thieving one steal. Yet even though Shabazz was the bright spot, he didn’t look that great, either. He was out of sync with his teammates on both offense and defense. The difference between Shabazz and most of his teammates is that he can thrive in these kinds of scrums. That has its value, but you don’t want to have to rely on it all the time, as it’s a sign that you’re getting worked over by the opposing team.

I guess the question is, does this game even tell us anything about Shabazz and his value to the team?

Andy G: I wish they’d start Shabazz. I thought he made a lot of plays tonight — like you said, he was the bright spot — and he deserves a bigger role than it seems like he’ll begin the season with. Shabazz was arguably the best player on the Wolves team last year. He was certainly their best scorer. So far, in this preseason sample size, I think his on-ball defense looks improved. (He’s at least closing all the way out to his man, and seems to be a little bit more effective at cutting off dribble penetration.) Continue reading


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INBOX: Can Bjelica and Rubio Save the Wolves Offense?

bjelicaAndy G: The Wolves have played 4 preseason games. They have won 1 game (Wednesday night versus the Raptors in a game where both Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola sat out) and lost three; the first two in blowout fashion to the Thunder and Bulls and then a closer loss to the Raptors in their first leg of the Canadian double-header the two teams put on, in Winnipeg and Ottawa, respectively.

We could over-analyze these try-things-out, audition-type games to death, but I’d like to instead focus on something that I think might actually have relevance to the regular season to come:

Nemanja Bjelica, and how his style of play might positively influence the (outdated) style of offense that both Flip Saunders and now Sam Mitchell seem to prefer when putting together their default sets.

Allow me to briefly explain what I mean.

In these preseason games (and in the intrasquad scrimmage that was played at Target Center a short while back) the Wolves have been running an offense that has looked largely similar to what Flip ran last year. It involves down screens (“pin-down screens” in modern NBA lingo) set by bigs for wings, who either look for their own moving mid-range jumper, or catch the wing entry pass and then look to feed the post.

That’s the default setting. A lot of specific set plays are blended in — often times when Kevin Martin checks into the game, or if Andrew Wiggins has not been sufficiently involved in the offense — that are completely engineered to free up a wing player for either a quick jumper, or an isolation set of his own. These plays usually involve a few seconds of dribbling the air out of the ball on the wing while an assortment of big Timberwolves clump together near the paint to set a double or triple screen for the chosen teammate to be freed up for an isolation set.

Almost none of this action is good. (I think a limited exception involves Shabazz Muhammad posting up certain opponents.) It wastes precious shot-clock time and is purposefully engineered to create inefficient shots. The goal — a chance to shoot a defended two-point shot — does not make sense, in today’s NBA. There was a time when these were the premier play designs for legends like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Patrick Ewing. That type has passed.

This is where Bjelica comes in. I don’t know if it is because he struggles to understand the plays at this stage, or if the Wolves are intentionally running different sets to utilize his skillset or because he is just purposefully hijacking the offense, BUT:

When Bjelica checks into the game he tends to get the team playing smarter offense.

As a 6’10” forward who can shoot from 27 feet out with ease, he stretches the opposing defenses out, and thus creates more room for his teammates to operate in space. Along with the simple “he’s a threat to shoot from way outside” factor, Bjelica is also a facilitator of screen-and-roll sets both as a screen setter, and also as a dribbler who will call for ball screens to come his way, too.

Two questions:

  1. Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Does the offense look better with Bjelica out there, and does it seem to be in large part because of how he plays and influences their approach?
  2. Should we expect a better look from the starting squad when Ricky Rubio returns? He hasn’t played yet, and — thus far — the Wolves starters are the worst-looking group they have.

Patrick J: To answer your questions: Continue reading


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Shifting Expectations, Wolves Lose Big to Thunder


Tyus Jones, barely removed from Apple Valley High, started at point guard tonight versus Russ Westbrook.

How a person feels about tonight’s preseason game against the Oklahoma City Thunder depends largely on what that person expected, going into the game, and why they held those expectations. Ricky Rubio has been held out of action for the past few days and we knew that he would not play tonight. (His ailments are not expected to be serious or threaten his regular-season availability.) Add to that the announcement that 19-year old, was-attending-Apple Valley-High-School-17-months-ago Tyus Jones would replace Rubio in the starting lineup against Russell Westbrook, and nobody could reasonably expect a successful outcome. Along with the Jones/Rubio lineup swap, Sam Mitchell made a surprising proclamation yesterday: Zach LaVine will be this team’s starting shooting guard; not Kevin Martin, who was named the starter by… well, himself, at Media Day. This announcement was Mitchell putting bold, italized, capitalized type on that DEVELOPMENT word that he has been throwing around ever since taking over coaching duties. LaVine as a Day 1 starter sends a clear message that potential, and future take priority over actualized ability and the present.

So with all of that built into people’s respective Game Previews, a 23-point loss to the full-strength (well, aside from Steven Adams) Thunder was not surprising. The Wolves starting lineup featured two one-and-done rookies, and two one-and-done sophomores. None of these four are old enough to legally enter a bar in Downtown Minneapolis and yet there they were, all four of em trying to guard Westbrook, Durant, and Ibaka.

Defense was the big, obvious problem tonight. Aside from when Kevin Garnett was on the floor (all of 7 minutes 52 seconds) and when Westbrook and Durant were on the bench (they were both game-high +22’s) the Wolves simply could not get stops. Westbrook was coming off of high ball screens and flooring the accelerator straight down the middle of the lane. Help usually came, but the defense was so out of sorts that Russ was able to do something good with the ball almost every time. He had 14 points and 13 assists on the night, and was every bit as insane out there as he would be in a Finals game.

When the Thunder were not rolling behind Westbrook penetration (or transition sequences) they were running Durant off of Enes Kanter down screens, setting up equally unstoppable action on the wing. Durant, against this defense anyway, makes this a pick-your-poison proposition if there ever was one. Too much help led to nifty passes slipped to Kanter for an easy two points. Not enough help meant, well, Durant would score it himself.

In my opinion, the Westbrook stuff was more preventable (by a hypothetical, good defensive team) than what Durant was doing on the wing. I think Ricky Rubio would do a much better job than Jones and Lorenzo Brown did of jumping out, forcing Russ different directions from where he wanted to go, and at least making him do something besides those halfback dives to the rim.

In any case, the defense struggled. They gave up 122 points on 56 percent field goal shooting. It’s hard to say anything but bad stuff about that. It looked like last year, with the caveat that they (for 22 of the 48 minutes, when Russ & KD played) were facing elite competition.

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Notes on a Scrimmage: Bjelica Shines when the Defense is Moving

The Timberwolves opened up Target Center on Monday night to fans, providing a free-of-charge opportunity to see this year’s team play against itself in a semi-formal intrasquad scrimmage. There were refs and a scoreboard. There was not regulation time being kept. A team primarily comprised of Tyus Jones, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Nemanja Bjelica, Damjan Rudez and Karl-Anthony Towns easily defeated a team primarily comprised of Andre Miller, Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad, Adreian Payne, Lorenzo Brown and Gorgui Dieng. The final score was 68-54, but the deficit was over 20 for most of the night.

As individuals, just about each player did some nice things at different points in the scrimmage. Jones showed that he knows how to play off of a ball screen and knock down perimeter jumpers. LaVine mixed in accurate jumpshooting with a dash of playmaking here and there. He also threw down a dunk or two. He nearly jammed right over Gorgui on the baseline, but was hacked too hard to hang onto the ball, so he went to the line instead. Wiggins made some shots and probably looked to facilitate for others a bit more than we’re used to seeing from him. Towns went hard after rebounds, talked on defense, and converted different types of shots near the basket.

On the losing team, things were less pretty. Miller did Miller things – a crafty layup here, a how-did-he-end-up-with-the-ball offensive rebound there. Martin was trying to bait refs into fouls in the early going, mostly to no avail. Muhammad missed badly on his first few shot attempts, but had more success later on both dribble drives and hard curling cuts. Dieng seems frustrated right now (in a general way, probably tied to his likely reserve status on this year’s team) but plays hard and made some things happen.

The most obvious player to talk about after the scrimmage is Nemanja Bjelica, both because this was the first time that we have seen him play in person (and for many, the first time they have seen him play at all) and also because he played very well, tonight. The media was questioning Coach Sam Mitchell about Bjelica immediately after the scrimmage, and Mitchell said that his new forward is sometimes “too unselfish,” but he has a hard time yelling at a player for that; he’d much prefer it to the opposite problem. Bjelica looked comfortable mixing it up for rebounds in the interior, and — on offense — thrived most when catching a pass after the defense had already begun shifting. Usually that shifting was in response to a ball screen that preceded his receiving the ball. Without that shifting, the entire Wolves team struggled offensively. They ended up with a spread out, 1-2-2 formation with wing entries and ball reversals that have almost no effect against modern NBA defenses, which are oftentimes a 1-2-2 shell masked as man-to-man.

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Impressions from Media Day: A Player by Player Breakdown


Andrew Wiggins: Man of Few Words

The Timberwolves, along with most other NBA teams, hosted their annual Media Day today. At Target Center, players dressed up in their white game uniforms and posed for pictures out on the arena floor. After general manager Milt Newton and head coach Sam Mitchell were finished, each player took a turn at the front of the press room, answering whatever questions came their way.

There were some common themes and answers throughout. Most, if not everybody was asked about Flip Saunders being away from the team in cancer recovery. Each response was the same; both predictable and unquestionably genuine: everybody wishes for, and expects a strong recovery for Saunders while he spends time (entirely) away from the Timberwolves. Of note, Newton reiterated that there is to be zero contact with Flip right now, per the directive of Glen Taylor. His recovery is not only the most important thing to Taylor and the Saunders Family, but it is the only thing.

Another basic, common message that seemed to repeat itself was that Sam Mitchell is a more intense coach than Saunders. The players have only been exposed to Head Coach Mitchell in the open gym setting thus far, but they are already convinced that he will be more of a disciplinarian; more of a yeller. When Kevin Martin was asked if that is an outdated teaching style in today’s NBA, he said no, and pointed to Gregg Popovich and the Spurs who respond to harsh criticisms because they respect the person dishing it out. He says these players have similar respect for Mitchell and it will not be a problem. That seems like both the right attitude to take, and also something that can’t be proven true for at least a couple months.

What follows are my biggest takeaways from each individual presser. These are my interpretations here, and I’ll paraphrase most comments because I was taking notes instead of recording. I thought there were a lot of interesting answers in an event that is sometimes filled with safe cliches.

Milt Newton
Newton went first today. He said the Wolves will try to be a more aggressive defensive team than they were last year. Newton talked about Ricky Rubio and said that they won’t worry about what Ricky can or cannot do. He is going to run the offense and take open shots. There was something relieving about the way he made that seem so simple and obvious. Newton said that, from a roster building standpoint, they had “the whole board covered,” on player development. KG will mentor the bigs, Tayshaun Prince the wings, and Andre Miller the guards.

Sam Mitchell
Coach Mitchell had a few noteworthy things to say, when he wasn’t passing over reasonable questions by playing the “It’s too early” card. As he told Jerry Zgoda in his recent interview for the Star Tribune, Mitchell made clear that this season is more about player development than winning now. When pressed for more detail, he said that the young players will need the opportunity to play in games, in order to get better. He said he was less concerned about the veterans’ minutes (meaning Miller/Prince/KG).

Mitchell was pressed on his three-point shooting philosophy and it sounded exactly like Flip Saunders’. Based on his answers today, Mitchell does not believe that teams go out of their way to generate good three-point shots throughout the game, but instead those shots come out of the flow of an offense. This was not encouraging, but we’ll see what sort of sets he runs and what they lead to.

A final point from Mitchell was that he wants these young players to first do the things that they are comfortable doing, before branching out into other areas. This is the opposite of what Flip did with Wiggins last year, when he was constantly putting pressure on him to attack, attack, attack. It is also the opposite of what Kurt Rambis used to do when he would emphasize how he was making players do things they had not done before. It seems more from the Adelman and (long before him) Bill Musselman schools of thought, in terms of putting players in position to do what they can do well, in games.

Kevin Garnett
KG was a riot. He started things out — after fist bumping a few familiar faces from the local press — by asking that nobody ask him any stupid questions. If anyone violated that basic request, he’d end it and go home. Everyone laughed. KG wanted to be clear that the Wolves have a GREAT — not good, GREAT — group of young guys here that are eager to learn. When talking himself through a question about whether he could’ve imagined his career going full circle and ending here, he said probably not, but also, “I am a Minnesotan.” He acknowledged that he plans to become an owner of this team. He talked interestingly about how in Minnesota the first time around he tried to be a “two-way player,” and that when he went to Boston he shifted his emphasis to defense first. On what position he likes better, there was no ambivalence: “I still hate the center position.”

However many games he plays this year, I hope we get a lot of Kevin Garnett media availability.

Tyus Jones
Local product Tyus Jones was his typical calm, smooth self, fielding questions and giving out answers that said all of the right things. Tyus seemed to understand completely that his transition period will take a while, and he showed no signs of any impatience in that regard. He’s going to learn from the pros playing ahead of him. He knows that his minutes will be limited, if not mostly non-existent. Continue reading

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Wolves to Buy Out Bennett, Instant Reactions


I made a pretty simple photoshop before the 2013 Draft about who the Wizards might draft. Anthony Bennett somehow found it and instagrammed it. Then Kyrie Irving liked it. The world is a small place.

Andy G: Wolves Making a Mistake

He’s so talented in a variety of areas that we needed to just simplify what we expect of him. If he does that, the rest of it is (going to) fall into place.

—-Jay Triano, head coach of Team Canada, on Anthony Bennett

The Wolves are working on a contract buyout with Anthony Bennett, according to Woj. The report indicates that Bennett’s representatives are pushing for this so that he can find a better opportunity for playing time. Minnesota has no clear long-term option at AB’s power forward spot, but their current roster includes a lot of competition at that position and in the frontcourt as a whole. Depending on health over the course of the season, they could have Kevin Garnett, Nemanja Bjelica, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Adreian Payne, Nikola Pekovic, and maybe even Shabazz Muhammad vying for frontcourt minutes.

Presumably more important to Bennett and his agent Jeff Schwartz than his immediate playing time, however, is his longer term contract situation. The Timberwolves, or whatever team holds his rights in the next few weeks, has to decide before November whether or not to exercise Bennett’s option for the 2016-17 season, which would put them on the hook for that year’s guaranteed salary ($7.3 Million) but also avail themselves of his restricted free agency matching rights, in the event that his career takes off and he eventually becomes a hotter commodity than he is now.

Clearly, the Timberwolves have already decided that they will not be picking up that option. If that was not the case, his agent would not be trying to get him out of Minnesota in such a hurry. I don’t know the exact mechanics of a buyout and what it means for Bennett’s current contract status (and since it won’t impact the Timberwolves I don’t plan on researching it) but if he can find another team that will give him some minutes and an active role in a functional offense, it probably increases the odds that he’ll sign a second NBA contract and find some stability after what has been one of the rockier starts for a high-lottery pick in league history.

This news does not reflect well on the Wolves operations. They have done a lot of things well since Flip Saunders took over for David Kahn, and they have been blessed by some long-overdue luck, but it is kind of absurd that they are letting a 22-year old forward with Bennett’s physical tools and skill set walk away for nothing. Not only would I not buy him out or trade him, but I would exercise that contract-year option and make a serious commitment to developing him like they are trying to do with Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and hopefully Ricky Rubio.

While last year’s singular offensive strategy of “feed Andrew Wiggins in the post and continually challenge him to dunk on people,” seemed to work for an important-but-limited purpose (DEVELOP THE SHIT OUT OF ANDREW WIGGINS) it is probably not a good idea to spend multiple seasons with such separated, individual strategies. Next year, Karl-Anthony Towns will be the shiny new number one pick. Do they then have to isolate Towns while Wiggins takes a backseat? At some point soon, the Timberwolves need to develop a team identity where their young players learn how to play together. They need to begin to develop team basketball principles, and a successful system that most of their young talent can succeed in. And Anthony Bennett should be a part of that process, because who knows what might come of it, after all of the work, development, and competition for playing time sorts itself out?

Despite his struggles so far in 1,557 minutes of NBA basketball (for a reference point, Zach LaVine has already played 1,902) it is surprisingly easy to defend Bennett against much of the criticism that he receives from fans and pundits. Continue reading


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