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Top Wolves Questions Heading Into Training Camp, Part I

What will David Kahn do next??

With training camp just around the corner, there are a bunch of top-level questions that remain unanswered as October 2nd approaches. There’s been a ton turnover on the roster, and many players’ roles are anything but clear. Long story short, the team’s success this season will likely hinge on the answers.

In a two-part series, I look at the ten questions I think are most important heading into the 2012-13 season. More below the fold.

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Love-Griffin I (Wolves 101, CLIPPERS 98)

K-Love after the game winner

The Game

Darko Milicic opened this contest with a jump hook that gave his Wolves a 2-0 lead over the Clips. (Darko played great the whole contest, by the way.)  But this lead would be the only one the Wolves enjoyed until Kevin Love sank an open 28-footer as the buzzer sounded.  Narrowly edging out his friend and rival, Blake Griffin, Love capped a rather-amazing comeback for his team on a night when baskets were all-too-difficult to come by.  Ricky Rubio in particular (1-11 FGM-A, 9 points) couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn and looked as rattled as we have seen him in an NBA uniform.  But as everyone noted after the game, his competitive fire never waned and his playmaking and free-throw shooting were crucial to the victory.  Immediately before Love’s heroics, Ricky tied the game with a corner trey.  After missing all ten of his field goals to that point, he didn’t hesitate for a second in taking and making the big shot.  For all of his struggles, Rubio was a (+2) for the game; the only starter in the positives.

But enough about Rubio for now. This game was built up by the talking heads as a matchup of the league’s best power forwards–LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki may have things to say about this, but whatever, we’re going with it–who thrive even though they could hardly differ more in terms of their length and athleticism. In the early going, Blake struggled to score against his bigger defender, Darko. He resorted to jump shots, clanking almost every time.  As the game progressed, Blake showed some smarts, challenging Darko with spin moves and up fakes. He finished the game with a respectable 21 & 11, but his 5 turnovers were excessive and his missed pair of free throws with a minute to go (Darko fouled out respectably, corralling Blake to prevent the basket and putting the lid on his most-productive performance of the year – 22 points and 7 rebounds) proved to be fatal. Love had an equally-mediocre game by his own high standards, until of course, the buzzer-beating dagger.  He shot 5-16 from the floor, but grinded out a 17-point, 14-rebound, 3-assist, and 0-turnover stat sheet.  I would call the individual matchup (even though they didn’t guard one another, we’re calling this a matchup) a wash, except that Blake choked at the line, and Love was the hero in the end.  Love wins this one.

The Bench

Look at the box score, and you’ll notice that the bench has the big pluses in the +/- column.  Derrick Williams in particular stands out, as he chipped in 9 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists in only 14 minutes of action.  The Wolves were a whopping (+17) in that short bit of time while D-Thrill was wreaking havoc.  He showed off the move I’ve been clamoring for more of: that 15-17 foot jab step dribble drive.  Amar’e and Bosh use that all the time and Williams has that type of athleticism and dribbling ability. He did it in college and it worked for him tonight and I hope to see more of this in the future.  Given that the Wolves are searching for offensive proficiency in Michael Beasley’s absence, I have been disappointed to see Williams’ minutes cut.

Wayne Ellington continues to bury jumpers at a nice rate (6-9 FG; 1-2 3PT).  Wellington comes off a pick and fires like Rex Chapman or Eddie House.  Is this a sustainable way to produce?  Maybe; maybe not.  But as a limited reserve, there are worse things than a quality chucker.  Thirteen games in, Wayne’s field goal percentage is up from his career average (41.8 percent career; 46.3 percent this season).  Some of that is attributable to Rubio setting him up better than Flynn (ya think?) or Ridnour could in seasons past.

Anthony Tolliver didn’t play his best game, and here’s why: he forgot what his role is.  I think Hubie Brown (who was awesome, by the way–who doesn’t like color commentary in the second-person?) pointed this out, but Tolliver needs to shoot the ball when he’s open.  (So does Wes Johnson, but I’ve given up hope, there.)  Tolliver has seemed to understand his role in the offense better than most players and has hit huge treys off of Rubio dimes.  In this game, he put it on the floor too much and, as often happens for him, he turned the ball over.  A player of this type should not have 3 turnovers in an entire game’s work, let alone 19 minutes.  He was the only bench player in the minus column, with a (-4).

The Clips

The elephant in the room is that the Clippers were without Chris Paul (and Caron Butler, but Gomes did just fine replacing Tuff Juice).  Chauncey Billups thinks it’s 2004 and this is a problem for Lob City.  As Mo Williams showed the world last night (25 points), he is actually a good basketball player.  Billups relies almost exclusively on trying to draw fouls and doesn’t pose the same threat that he used to as a playmaker.  When Williams was ejected (two separate technical fouls, almost-definitely swung the game’s outcome) Billups put on his hero cape and came up short with turnovers and missed shots.  In my opinion, the Clippers would benefit from ditching Billups and running with Paul and Williams for the bulk of minutes, and some Randy Foye mixed in as a change-of-pace reserve.

Oh, DeAndre Jordan.  It was almost comical watching the little Wolves trying to shoot over this guy.  Ridnour hit a floater that must have gone 15 feet in the air, and DJ damn-near got a hand on it at its peak.  Jordan is worthless offensively, but his defensive impact is obvious on a single viewing.  In case you forgot how bad Kevin McHale was at drafting players, he passed on Jordan with the 31st (Pekovic) and 34th (Mario Chalmers, traded to Heat) picks in the 2008 Draft.  Can you imagine walking away from that draft with Kevin Love and DeAndre Jordan?  I digress.

Looking Ahead (a few hours)

Wolves travel to Salt Lake tonight where they’ll face a seemingly-improved Jazz team (9-5, but against a relatively-easy schedule so far) led by an old favorite of my own, Al Jefferson.  Big Al is leading the Jazz in points (18.3) and rebounds (9.2) per game, but is hardly the focal point that he once was on some terrible Wolves teams.  EnergySolutions Arena (the Delta Center was so much easier to say) is a tough place to leave victorious.  The Jazz rested last night and the Wolves will have their hands full.  In the interest of getting way ahead of ourselves, if the Wolves want that eighth playoff spot in the West, Utah would probably be the team they’d displace.

Season Record: 7-8

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Buzz Kill (Wolves 87, Hornets 80)

An ugly win


The Wolves eked out an 87-80 win Friday night over the Hornets. There were no two ways about this one: it was either going to be a much-needed win or a bad loss against an already sub-par Hornets team whose best player, Eric Gordon, was out with an injury.

The Wolves were shorthanded. J.J. Barea and Michael Beasley stayed in Minneapolis. Martell Webster won’t be available for a few weeks. Or a few months. Or maybe never. Any could be true. Martell might not even know. Adelman leaned heavily on Ridnour at the two (not ideal), Johnson at the three (bad), and Rubio at the point (good). Rubio started (good) and played 44 minutes (good). Johnson played 34 minutes and Tolliver and Williams only 16 apiece (bad)

The victory was ugly. No one could get shots. Rubio served them on a silver platter. Teammates sometimes converted, often didn’t. His 9 assists should’ve been closer to 20. Johnson shot 1-8 from distance. Darko couldn’t catch. The Wolves won’t win many playing like this.

Love got to the line 18 times–the same number of attempts as the entire Nola squad. He made 17. His final line read 34 & 17. Yawn.

Love’s production is appreciated, don’t get me wrong. But against the Hornets, his numb#rs were lower-quality than in his other big games earlier in the season. He looked tired. He wasn’t closing out on D. He won’t get 18 throws every game.

Adelman needs to keep him fresh. Incorporating Williams and Tolliver and Randolph more would be a starting place. They play power forward too.

The takeaway is simple: no Rubio, no win. Love would’ve had about the same line with or without him. But no one else would’ve been able to get buckets. Like last season, after Beasley hurt his ankle. Adelman not only played Ricky a lot, he started him. That’s progress.

Let’s hope he tries to build on that progress tonight in Atlanta. Take baby steps.

Distributing Johnson’s minutes between Tolliver and Williams would be a start.

Or get really wild and crazy. Give 12 or 13 of Darko’s minutes to Randolph. He’s way better.

It’s staggering how much better we are when Randolph and Tolliver are on the floor and how much worse we are when Darko and Johnson are on the floor.

Hit us up in the comments.

Until next time.

Season Record: 4-7

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On the Rebound (Wolves 93, WIZARDS 72)

The Wolves came back from a pair of lackluster home losses against Memphis and Cleveland to beat the Washington Wizards 93-72 Sunday afternoon in D.C. in the first tilt of a back-to-back-to-back on the road.

Today’s win felt great, mostly because Friday’s loss felt so bad. But before we get carried away with blowout euphoria, let us remember that the Wiz are truly awful. As a DC area resident, I can assure you that the ‘Zards really are that bad and that it’s no mistake the Wiz are 0-8. The Flip Saunders offenses Wolves fans grew accustomed to are nowhere to be found these days at the Verizon Center. The Wiz stand around a lot and eventually do some kind of iso for one of the Three Stooges–Andray Blatche, Nick Young, and Jordan Crawford. For variety, they’ll sometimes indulge Rashard Lewis’ itchy trigger finger and let him take a heat check from the three, which he’s currently shooting at a smelly 22%.

There are bright spots. John Wall could be Westbrook or Rose on another team – hell, in 2009/10 Wall excelled in Rose’s role for John Calipari’s  Kentucky Wildcats team, the year after Rose was the uber-athletic one-year rental who drove Cal’s Memphis muscle car all the way to the NCAA championship game – and JaVale McGee is leading the L in blocked shots and is DeAndre Jordan East. But the Stooges and Lewis drag down the ‘Zards like a rusty anchor and there’s no hope for the ‘Zards unless Ted Leonsis and Ernie Grunfeld overhaul the roster and give Wall a fresh start with a new cast of characters. (Hey! You know what? Wolves POBO David Kahn just did this in Mpls! And we just blew out the Wizards. Leonsis should poach him for a Wiz redemption project!)

***
We’ll do a full wrap after the three-game set, but a few Wolves notes on the Wiz game:

  • Rubio outplayed Wall en route to 13pts/14 ast/+29 in 30 minutes. What the 5-14 in the box score fails to reflect is that Ricky knows when to shoot, and that he shoots it in rhythm/with confidence. It took Rondo–whose rep as a weak shooter has led defenses to sag off him like they do on Rubio–2-3 years to get as comfortable calling his own number as Ricky is right now. Can you believe we got this guy for Mike Miller and Randy Foy?
  • Beasley was out and the offense ran better. But again, it was the Wiz. So, correlation or causation?
  • Williams/Tolliver/Love is my favorite front line. They outwork everybody, they’re strong, and they’re physical. They play D. On offense, they all know how to exploit seams in the D and swing the ball to open shooters or make 3s themselves. I hope Adelman gives them more time together, with Rubio and Barea in the backcourt, once J.J. gets healthy.
  • Ellington made shots. With Beasley out at least three games I wanted Adelman to start Rubio or Williams, so I was pretty bummed when I heard Ellington was getting promoted. But he played okay today and we won.

We’ll get to test the experiment again tomorrow night against the Raps. Until then.

Season Record: 3-5

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Game 3: The Heatles (Heat 103, Wolves 101)

The Wolves lost a 103-101 heartbreaker Friday night against the Heat and Birthday Boy LeBron James.  It was a heartbreaker both because of the promise the Wolves showed and the mistakes they made, as well as because the defeat is the latest tick in a growing tally of losses to start the 2011/12 season.

The Wolves looked like a different team from the group that suffered the lackluster defeat in Milwaukee Tuesday night. Kevin Love dropped a workmanlike (for him) 25/12/3, and Ricky Rubio f*cked around and got his first career double-double with a 12/12/6 line.

Before diving into Wolves takeaways from the game, first thing’s first: the Heat are good. Real good. Bosh, Wade, and James are gelling like the trio everyone expected coming out of the gates in 2010/11. LeBron is the best player in the world. He turned 27 today.

Takeaways

  • Turnovers: Adelman said prior to the game that if the Wolves failed to protect the ball, it would lead to a Heat dunk contest. His concern couldn’t have been more prophetic. Unforced errors and Heat ball-hawking led to 25 Wolves turnovers and what felt like a million transition buckets for Miami. Every Wolves player had at last one turnover. Love and Rubio were the chief offenders, with six and five, respectively, but their turnovers stung less than their teammates’, as aggressive play underlay the bulk of their mistakes, while the rest of the team played the kind of sloppy basketball that James, Wade, and company are only too happy to exploit. Adelman has lamented the Wolves’ sloppiness since the beginning of camp, and while the shortened preseason, the new system, and adjusting to new personnel all point to turnovers continuing to plague the Wolves for the foreseeable future, Adelman’s rotations are puzzling and he could ease the players’ burden by firming them up sooner rather than later.
  • The point guard situation: Rubio-mania has overtaken Minneapolis; Ridnour is no longer trying to mask his consternation with his declining role. Luke played just six minutes in the first half, missing his only field goal attempt. He had a nice stretch early in the third in which he made a quick three and then got a steal that led to a transition opportunity. But he started pressing in the middle of the third, taking an ill-advised three off the dribble that missed very badly, leading the already antsy Target Center crowd to clamor loudly for Rubio, who’d had a hot first half with 8 points, 6 assists, and a +7 in 15 minutes. When Rubio finally reported to the scorer’s table with 4:00 in the third, Ridnour retaliated with two difficult rapid-fire three-point attempts before exiting at the dead ball. Ridnour did not return, and finished the night with 6 points on 2-6 shooting and a -11 in 17 minutes. Rubio played the rest of the way, looking extremely good en route to 12 assists (which could’ve easily been 18+ with some help) and a +9 in 31 minutes. The stats are telling–the Wolves’ offensive sets and overall energy were markedly better when Rubio was in the game. With Rubio’s play exceeding expectations and Ridnour’s ineffectiveness and attitude forcing Adelman’s hand, the Wolves’ point guard situation is coming to a head sooner than expected. Kahn should be shopping the aggravated vet aggressively, but with Barea and Lee battling injuries, trading Ridnour would leave the Wolves thin at the point and so might not happen anytime soon.
  • Close but no cigar: In the three games thus far, the Wolves have been within three points with less than two minutes to go against two potential title contenders. They’ve failed to close each time. This year’s team clearly has more talent and a better culture than last year’s, but the Wolves’ inability to compete down the stretch is reminiscent of some of the ugly things we saw last year. Hopefully Adelman can instill some lessons about #winningtime where Rambis failed.
  • The last shot: A third-string guard seeing his first significant minutes of the season should never be in a position to take a potential game-tying or winning shot against anybody, let alone the Heat. Yet that’s what happened tonight in the game’s closing seconds when Wayne Ellington flung an extremely difficult dribble-jumper from 22 feet that clanked off the iron. Part of the reason the Wolves struggle to win close games is their lack of a go-to player down the stretch. Michael Beasley has the talent to get difficult baskets time-after-time when opposing defenses have hunkered down in the fourth quarter, but can he do it for this team? Beasley played poorly tonight, scoring only 4 points on 2-6 shooting in 22 minutes before getting benched in the fourth quarter. Yet Beasley is the Wolves’ only player who can create a decent shot for himself almost every time he touches the ball, as he showed during stretches of last season. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to second-guess Adelman’s decision to leave Beasley on the bench with four seconds left in a dead-ball situation in which the Timberwolves had possession. The Wolves will start to win close games against playoff-caliber teams when/if Adelman is able to trust Beasley or someone else to take and make big shots down the stretch. Ideally Beasley would need to earn that trust, but given his de facto role as the team’s sole 1-on-1 creator, Adelman should give Beasley a longer leash to earn it as he goes, despite the inevitable lumps that’ll come along the way.
Quick Hits
  • The Wolves sorely missed J.J. Barea at both guard positions. Get well soon J.J.!
  • Anthony Tolliver has so much heart. After getting slapped with a blocking foul on what appeared to be a LeBron charge late in the 4th, AT went hard to the cup and tried to CRAM on the entire Heat interior, drawing a foul. He’s proud and he worked his ass off on both ends.
  • That said, AT needs to work on his free-throws. He made the first shot and missed the second on at least three trips during the second half.
  • AR15 finally showed some signs and was a game high +18 in 25 minutes of action. He still has a long way to go before he’ll gain Adelman’s trust.
  • Randolph looks so much better when his 12-15 face-up is falling like it was tonight. It prevents him from trying to do too much off the dribble, which is when he tends to get out of control.
  • Derrick Williams looked better after a down game against Milwaukee on Tuesday. He mostly let the game come to him, and he hit two of three from downtown and had 10 points in 21 minutes.
  • Wes Johnson apparently didn’t read our letter.

It all starts again on Sunday against Dallas. Until then.

Season Record: 0-3

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