With Wolves on a Losing Streak, Expectations Evolve

“We had a lot of games last year where it was hard to see how much we learned because we were getting hammered. This year, we’re disappointed with our record at home, but we’ve been in every game…

I ask my young guys after every game, if one of em learns something tonight… about execution, about spacing, about timing, about waiting on screens, about making the extra pass, then the loss was worth it because they grew tonight. So I can take that.”

–Sam Mitchell, after tonight’s 110-106 loss to the LA Clippers

When the Timberwolves blew a 17-point loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night at Target Center, I wasn’t overly discouraged by it. Portland does not have a great team this year, after losing LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency and trading Nicolas Batum to Charlotte for younger players. But the Blazers are solid, with a spectacular point guard in Damian Lillard, and the Wolves lost despite an outstanding performance turned in by their rookie big man, Karl-Anthony Towns.

Towns was coming off of a four-game stretch of having his minutes mysteriously limited by Coach Mitchell. In those four games, his minute counts were 22, 21, 26, and 22. This was mysterious because, up to that point, Big KAT had been performing like the Wolves’ best all-around player. I think I speak for the Timberwolves-fan community at large when I say that we’d like to see Towns playing more like 30 to 35 minutes, unless he is in foul trouble or bothered by injury.

On Saturday against Portland, KAT’s playing time returned with his productivity. In 31 minutes and 50 seconds of action he dropped 27 points and 12 rebounds on the Blazers, scoring in a variety of ways while doing other things like protecting the rim on defense and dishing out a couple of assists. Towns was animated throughout the game, celebrating made shots and screaming in excitement.

Despite a whole bunch of things that went wrong in that game to cause the lead to disappear, my thought was that as long as both Wiggins and Towns get a full slate of minutes, the game is competitive, and at least one of them looks great, I’ll take that as a win this year. If of the Wolves 82 games, they get 70 or 75 of them that involve a competitive second half and a strong performance from one of their franchise cornerstones, there will have inevitably been a whole lot of progress toward the eventual goal of making the playoffs, and then contending for a championship.

I guess I was redefining for myself what constitutes a successful game for the 2015-16 Timberwolves.

Tonight, Sam Mitchell shared his views on the subject after the game in what was his most enlightening post-game presser of the season. He joked about what many of us (meaning, the media seated before him) would be doing if we were 20 years old with millions of dollars to spend. He was praising his young players for their professionalism at such young ages, continuing to work hard and avoid off-court trouble. Without mentioning the Philadelphia 76ers by name, he said that there are teams in the league that have a lot of youth, without great veterans mentors like Kevin Garnett in the locker room, and we are seeing the kinds of problems that can lead to. But Mitchell’s big quote was the one that I led with; the one about what constitutes a successful game. If a young player learned something, then that’s a win.

Now, we can’t take these things too literally. If the Wolves got spanked by 20 points against a bad team while showing lackluster effort, they could arguably have “learned something,” about preparation, and I doubt Mitchell would feel victorious no matter how far he bends the definition of the word. But he also distinguished this season from last, in that these games — partly structured by the veteran leadership of Ricky Rubio, Tayshaun Prince, and Kevin Garnett — have been competitive.

That is such a nice thing to see this year, having Wiggins, Towns and Zach LaVine get tested in big moments almost every single night. Tonight against the Clippers, LaVine had 14 of his team-high 21 points in the 4th Quarter of a close game against one of the very best teams in the NBA. Towns ended the game with 18 points on just 9 shot attempts, and had by far the best plus-minus among Wolves starters. Wiggins struggled, sometimes bothered by the great defense of former Timberwolves wing stopper Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Maybe he learned something, while Towns and LaVine had more success.

The most fun play of tonight’s game was when Kevin Garnett caught a fast-break bounce pass from Ricky Rubio with just the right momentum in his footwork to cock it back and flush over Blake Griffin. The crowd went crazy and so did KG. He was immediately T’d up for taunting, and even Mitchell had to admit that he didn’t care. The moment was worth it.

The most disappointing play of tonight’s game came out of a timeout with 25 seconds left, when LaVine threw a questionable inbounds pass to Wiggins, who did not handle it well against Mbah a Moute’s defense, leading to a terrible, ill-timed turnover. It’s the sort of play that would drive you nuts if it were a playoff game. Maybe they’ll learn from it. When discussing that screw-up, and others his young players make, Mitchell contrasted their impatience when waiting for a screen or play to develop with Chris Paul of the Clippers, who times his decisions perfectly, always testing the defenses and inviting them to make a mistake. I’m sure they’ll go over that play tomorrow and try to do it better next time.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I think, or at least wonder if, the Timberwolves might have a playoff-caliber roster right now. The immediate impact play from Towns was not foreseeable — even the best rookies typically struggle to help win games right away — and it sort of threw season expectations into a blender. We’re still seeing what will eventually come out. Ricky Rubio missed games due to ankle pain, which led to a slew of losses, but now he’s back and playing almost a full load of minutes every night, so we’re going to see what this team is made of.

Maybe they’ll go on a big winning streak as their schedule eases up in the next couple weeks. In their next seven games they play the Lakers, the Nuggets twice, the Suns, the Knicks, the Kings and the Nets. If they remain healthy throughout that stretch, it’s possible that they could come out of it right back around the .500 mark, and in the playoff discussion. It would be fun to keep that conversation going as long as possible; both for fan interest in the season and for the upbeat spirits of the young players.

But even if the playoff dream dies early, as it very well might, I’ll find most games to be beneficial and reason for increasing hope if Mitchell will simply run out his best two young guys for a full load of playing time — nothing excessive, just full starters minutes for Wig and KAT — and at least one of them shines like a star. If that happens most nights this year, it’ll feel like a success.

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Andrew Wiggins & Shooting Off the Catch

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Andrew Wiggins has been playing good basketball. He started off slow, bothered by back problems for the season’s first few games, but has generally been the Timberwolves most consistent player. His 22.1 points per game ranks 10th in the NBA. He doesn’t turn 21 years old until February.

The exciting thing about Wiggins is that he is already so good — at such a young age — but also has so much room left to grow. There are many aspects of his game which will improve over the next few seasons as he blossoms into one of the game’s best all-around players.

One of Wiggins’ bad habits is passing up an open shot for a drive to the hoop. He will catch a kick-out pass with plenty of room to fire, and instead choose to dribble into traffic. This is most glaring on three-point shots, where taking the shot is extra wise, and passing it up for a long drive into traffic is comparatively more difficult. On certain teams, like the Spurs and Warriors, this can be a good decision. They have so much skill at every position, and spread the floor so wide, that they have the luxury of passing up good shots in order to generate great ones.

The Wolves are not the Spurs or the Warriors, and when Wiggins passes up a good shot to drive into traffic, there’s a good chance that there will be teammates clogging up the lane and drawing help defenders into the space that he’s trying to score from. It might be beneficial for Wiggins and the Wolves if he would fire more shots off the catch.

Just to confirm what I think my eyes are seeing, I checked out the nba.com tracking stats of Wiggins, and compared them to some other star wing players, to see how often they shoot without dribbling.

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Talking Ricky’s Ankle & Next Year’s Draft Pick

Ricky's back. This is gonna be fun.

The Wolves played against the Clippers this afternoon at Staples Center. They lost by 8, but nobody felt too bad about the proverbial “moral victory,” because, well…

For the second consecutive game, Ricky Rubio sat out with what is being described as ankle soreness. It is the sixth game he’s missed of this 17-game season. The Wolves are 7-4 with him and now 1-5 without him. The only Rubio-less win came on Friday night against the Kings who did not have DeMarcus Cousins, their only great player. The Wolves cannot realistically compete against good teams without Rubio, so a reasonably-close loss (they beat the spread by 1.5) has to suffice.

On Saturday, Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune wrote that Rubio “began to experience that soreness two or three games ago, then jammed the ankle just before halftime in Wednesday’s home win over Atlanta.” According to Darren Wolfson of KSTP — as reliable a Minnesota-sports beat reporter as there is — Rubio wants to play, but is being held out per the decision of others. In both the Hawks and 76ers games — the last two that Rubio has played in — he has looked every bit his usual self, having a noticeably-positive effect on both games, particularly on defense. The only evidence of injury concerns was the wrap he put on his leg during his stints on the bench.

As was the case last season when Rubio was being held out of games that he reportedly wished to play in, he can be seen going through pregame work with assistant coaches, demonstrating no apparent disability; at least not to my untrained eyes in the times I’ve witnessed it. Rubio was described as a “gametime decision” today, but nobody paying attention believed he would play after that much was announced. It feels the same as last year, when his ankle never gets better despite the passing of time.

This leaves us with two general possibilities, and you can decide for yourself which is better or worse, and more or less likely: either Rubio’s ankle has not recovered well from the “diagnostic” surgery that he underwent back in April, over 7 months ago — a procedure described as minor and “clean up” — and he is increasingly unreliable as a healthy starting point guard, or he is able to play but the Timberwolves don’t want him to. The latter sounds like a juicy conspiracy theory, until you consider a few different things.

First, the Wolves used this precise tactic last year with great success, when the franchise goal was to lose games and improve draft position. They sat Rubio out and subbed in the 19-year old shooting guard, Zach LaVine. The rookie had no idea how to play point guard, but he had endless athleticism and general potential as a player. His on-the-job basketball training doubled as effective tanking. Rubio was held out of 60 games due to ankle issues. They were 7-15 in the games in which he played, and 9-51 in the games in which he sat out. The 26-win pace with Rubio would’ve placed the Wolves between Orlando and Sacramento for the 5th worst record in the league, and 5th best odds of winning the lottery. Holding him out led to the lottery win and budding superstar Karl-Anthony Towns. On draft night, after selecting Towns, Flip all but admitted to the tanking in his remarks to the press, made with an ear-to-ear smile.

Second, the Wolves have another tanking incentive this year. No, they will not be bad enough to draft at the top again; not without incredible Magic/Webber or Bulls/Rose type of lottery luck, anyway. But the Wolves owe their first round pick to the Boston Celtics, unless it falls inside the top 12 of the draft. Why do they owe this pick, you ask? Well, because David Kahn included it in a trade with the Suns that sent out Wesley Johnson’s contract. That’s right, the Wolves had to pay the premium of a protected first round pick in order to unload the salary of the player drafted ahead of DeMarcus Cousins and Paul George.

Importantly, if the Wolves keep the draft pick this year, they do not owe a first rounder for that trade and it instead becomes a pair of second-round picks; a much lower cost.

Also importantly, the Wolves owe their 2018 first-round pick to the Hawks as partial consideration of the Adreian Payne trade. In other words, they risk losing 2 first rounders in 3 years if they win too much this year.

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Back to .500: Wolves 101, KINGS 91

So the Timberwolves won another game, another road game actually, and are back up to .500 at this not-quite-so-early point, 16 games into the 2015-16 season. This is an overwhelmingly-positive position for the team to find itself in, for the reasons mentioned in yesterday’s post that took a shot at evaluating Sam Mitchell’s performance as coach.

In and of itself, yesterday’s win was nothing too special. This is because their opponent, the Sacramento Kings, was missing its by-far-and-away best player, DeMarcus Cousins. When Boogie plays, the Kings are a respectable 5-5. When he has been out with injuries, they are a not-so-respectable 1-6, after last night’s loss to the Wolves. When assessing the difficulty of last night’s Wolves win, however, it must be noted that they were once again without both Ricky Rubio (ankle soreness) and Nemanja Bjelica (knee contusion). The combination of Rubio and Bjelica might approximate the importance to the Wolves’ present-day competitiveness of Boogie’s to Sacto. The Wolves had lost their previous 16 games without Rubio, if that seemed like an unrealistic comparison.

The Wolves won for a few reasons. On their own end, Andre Miller came off the bench and played some of the most spectacular old-man ball you will ever see. If Miller wasn’t knocking down an open shot, he was posting up a skinny opponent. Or he was using his will-always-be-quick hands to poke away a pass. Or, as things went, he might randomly open field tackle Willie Cauley-Stein, who didn’t even have the ball. (Yes, that actually happened. Upon review, it was deemed a Flagrant One.) Anyway, Miller ended up logging 18:46 seconds of vital action off the bench. In that time, the Wolves beat the Kings by 12. He had 12 points and 4 assists, without missing a field goal or free throw. In the minutes that Miller sat out, the Wolves were outscored by 2 points. He was possibly the biggest difference in the game.

Andrew Wiggins played his usual brand of aggressive-scorer basketball. It seemed like his most physical drives to the hoop were not rewarded as usual with free throws (he shot 6, probably could’ve had 12 attempts with favorable whistles) but he managed to score a reasonably-efficient 22 points, and pulled down an unusual 5 offensive rebounds.

Zach LaVine filled the stat sheet, as he is prone to do, with 19 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. LaVine was not without mistakes, and his (-2) probably represents the all-around game he played pretty well, but his production was not inevitable for the Wolves team by any stretch of the imagination and it is really encouraging to see his play improve, even if it remains at the wrong position.

Shabazz Muhammad came off the bench to score 15 efficient points (8 field goal attempts) in 15 minutes of action. When Bazz provides this spark, the Wolves have a much greater chance of winning games. Their first unit has had a lot of success this year — built on its defense — and a bench scoring burst will tip the scales for them more often than not.

On the Kings side, they simply got a terrible game from Rudy Gay, who shot 1 for 13 from the field. Credit to Andrew Wiggins for his defense — after a shaky first quarter, it was very solid — but a lot of this was Gay’s own difficulties. Had he played well, this game would’ve gone down to the wire. He didn’t, so the solid performances they got from Rajon Rondo, Marco Belenelli and Kosta Koufos were for naught.

The elephant in the room, with respect to last night’s game which came in the wake of the win over the Hawks, is the limitation put on Karl-Anthony Towns’s playing time. Without any injuries or foul trouble, Towns has had his minutes cut in favor of Gorgui Dieng for two straight games. Last night at Sacramento, Towns played 21:20, while Dieng played 26:40. Towns had 6 points on 3-5 shooting, along with 8 rebounds and 2 blocks. Dieng, to his credit, had 8 points of his own (2-4 shooting) along with 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. The plus-minus differential between the players (minus 4 for Towns, +14 for Gorgui) is effectively attributable to everything Andre Miller did, which came exclusively during Dieng’s stints.

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Evaluating Sam Mitchell’s Coaching Performance

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Evaluating NBA coaching performance is a difficult and imperfect exercise. This is because the overwhelming majority of the work done by coaches happens during the part of the season that outsiders are not privy to; basically, everything outside of the in-game experience. Coaches prepare and conduct practices, scout opponents and present reports to the players with game-to-game strategies. These include their own plans of attack on offense and how to counter the opposition with defensive matchups and principles. While trying to carry out these fundamental tasks, NBA coaches are often faced with the less scientific duty of managing egos and expectations; egos and expectations of twenty-somethings earning million-dollar salaries. With a decision to insert Player X into the starting lineup comes the task of telling Player Y that he’s now coming off the bench. Unlike fans managing their fantasy or 2K rosters, this cannot be done coldly and without regard for the human elements.

Coaches do other things too, like coordinate organizational priorities with the front office. This can mean emphasizing the development of young talent over “winning now.” Who needs to play, and who might need to be traded? In places like Houston, it seems like the coaches are required to implement specific x’s and o’s tactics, such as the three-point shot. Coaches need to speak to media on essentially a daily basis, which can be difficult when trying to both maintain positive vibes with the fan community while not disclosing sensitive or secret material.

Despite this mountain of data that we do not and never will possess, we still sound off on coaching performance and talk ourselves into some pretty high levels of certainty about who are the best and worst in the profession. People generally agree that Gregg Popovich is a great coach, and Byron Scott is a bad one. In recent years in Minnesota, it has seemed like a coaching-competence roller coaster going from Dwane Casey (good) to Randy Wittman (bad) to Kevin McHale (good) to Kurt Rambis (bad) to Rick Adelman (good) and then to Flip Saunders and his unexpectedly-quick replacement, Sam Mitchell, whose job is just beginning.

How good of a job is Sam Mitchell doing? How would we measure it?

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Good Stat/Bad Stat: A Run Through the Wolves Roster

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Since we last posted, the Wolves have played three times. They won at Miami in another impressive road performance. By this early stage of the season, these young Timberwolves have now defeated the best Eastern Conference teams outside of Cleveland: the Bulls, Hawks, and Heat. The next night, in an always difficult second end of a back to back, they narrowly lost to the Orlando Magic.

In both games, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns gave Wolves fans more to be excited about. Wiggins continues to produce points with aggressive drives to the basket that often end in thunderous dunks or free throw attempts. Towns is playing at a higher level than any NBA rookie in recent memory. The future here is obviously bright, if for no other reason than the Wolves have Wiggins and Towns.

Last night, the Wolves lost another home game – they remain winless at home – this time to Stan Van Gundy’s Detroit Pistons. Detroit did not play particularly well on offense in the first half, but seemed to have the Wolves’ strategy mapped out well and exploited its limitations, such as the inability of Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett to threaten defenses. Probably more than any other time this season, the limitations of those two cagey veterans has people wondering if Sam Mitchell should consider a lineup change. Beyond that issue, the Wolves got bad performances from the second-unit front line. With Nemanja Bjelica out nursing a knee contusion, the combination of Adreian Payne and Gorgui Dieng struggled. Each player has a good motor and athleticism that suggests an upside might be in there somewhere, but each also tries to do too much, too often. Instead of making simple rotation passes to more competent playmakers, Dieng and Payne like to hold the ball for a moment or two, and try to initiate a play of their own. The results are usually not good.

In any event, the Wolves are now at 5-8, and host the winless Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night at Target Center. It’s a game they will be predicted to win; probably by double figures.

As a way to keep the conversation moving, and without any new hot takes or conspiracy theories about Wiggins struggling to score or Rubio sitting out with injuries, I thought I’d just run through the roster of players and identify something good, and something bad, in the stats about their play, to date.

We’ll do this by position, beginning in the backcourt:

Point Guards

Ricky Rubio

GOOD: On/Off Differential of 13.1 points per 100 possessions.

As always seems to be the case, the Timberwolves play much better with Rubio on the floor than they play when he is on the bench or sidelined in street clothes. So far this year, Rubio has played 277 minutes. In that time they outscore opponents by 7.0 points per 100. He has been off the floor for an unfortunately-large 357 minutes. In that time they were outscored by 6.1 per 100. Whether Rubio plays determines if the Wolves are a good team or a bad one.

BAD: Field Goal Percentage of 36.3.

Rubio’s shot is not going in, and — notwithstanding that first game against the Lakers — does not look different in any significant way than it did in years past, before his well-documented work with Mike Penberthy last year. Sometimes when Rubio catches a pass with an open, seemingly good shot for the taking, there is a palpable hesitation in his slow setup, as if (R. Kelly voice) ‘his mind is telling him no’ the whole time before he finally, slowly releases an errant shot. That is no way to play and he’ll never be any good at shooting if he doesn’t want to take shots.

Zach LaVine

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What is going on with Ricky Rubio?

“He is our starting point guard, so if you take the starting point guard off any team, you’re going to see a difference.”

–Sam Mitchell, commenting on Ricky Rubio’s injury absence, after yesterday’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies

One of the most striking features of the Minnesota Timberwolves of recent years past is the gap between their performance with Ricky Rubio on the floor, and without him. Before the season I wrote a short piece about this, running through Ricky’s history in Minnesota and pointing out how his “on/off” statistics consistently show what positive effect he has on team success. The decision to write that piece wasn’t random, out of thin air, but in response to reading something that David Aldridge wrote in a column:

That the Timberwolves do not think of Rubio as one of the franchise’s top three talents.

Taking that number literally causes you to start listing possibilities for who might be ahead of him on the franchise-importance pecking order. Andrew Wiggins would come to mind first. He was the top pick in the 2014 Draft and cruised to Rookie of the Year honors. Karl-Anthony Towns, even if he hadn’t played a game yet, would probably be second. He was also a number one pick, and many feel he has potential even higher than Wiggins. Neither of those would be unreasonable assessments, given their enormous talent and potential.

The likely third choice is more controversial. Contrary to the hard basketball-performance evidence to date, I think there’s a strong chance that the other player the Timbewolves higher ups prioritize ahead of Ricky Rubio is second-year guard Zach LaVine. The handling of LaVine has been a source of ongoing debate among Wolves fans and pundits, and it has evolved in a number of different ways since he was drafted out of UCLA where he played just one year, coming off the bench.

I don’t need to detail the history again, but the short version is that the Wolves entered last season with expectations of playing competitive basketball, but then used Ricky Rubio’s early-season ankle sprain as cover to tank for the next draft, and by far and away the most effective tanking weapon at their disposal was playing LaVine at point guard. Had the Wolves played Rubio 40 or 50 games last year instead of 22 — and if you ever watched Rubio working with special shooting coach Mike Penberthy on gamedays, drenched in sweat after cutting-and-shooting drills, you probably agree with me that he was capable of playing — they would not have Karl-Anthony Towns today, which would make their future much dimmer than it is now.

But along with sitting Rubio to lose games, it also allowed them to play LaVine a ton of minutes; 1902 to be exact. That was third most on the 2014-15 Timberwolves. In some broad, basic ways, it was a successful season for LaVine. He logged all those minutes, scored 778 points (on a not-terrible 42 percent shooting) and earned second-team All-Rookie Team honors. Add to that the celebrity status he attained by blowing away the field in the Slam Dunk Competition, and there was a lot for the Wolves and LaVine to feel good about, after his first season was complete.

A more detailed assessment of LaVine, however, is not favorable. He has played most of his minutes at point guard where he does not effectively run an offense. He is also, at this point, an inept defensive player whose mere presence on the floor — contrasted with Rubio — causes the Wolves to lose games instead of potentially win them. Very few would argue with those critiques, at this juncture. More debatable is how high his potential is, and what might be the best way to develop it. Before Flip Saunders was tragically and unexpectedly stricken by cancer, the subject of Zach LaVine’s future was presumably a frequent and high-importance subject of front office discussion.

This history brings us to the present, where Ricky Rubio has now missed the last 4 games — 40 percent of this short season — due to what is now described as a hamstring injury. (When he missed his first game against the Charlotte Hornets, it was called a knee injury.) Right before the home game against Charlotte the Wolves had unexpectedly won at Chicago and Atlanta, beating two of the very best teams in the Eastern Conference on their home floors. They were two games over .500, and reshaping the expectations for what all of a sudden figured to be a more competitive season than fans anticipated.

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