Tag Archives: ricky rubio

Evaluating Sam Mitchell’s Coaching Performance


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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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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INBOX: Why is Shabazz Muhammad Struggling So Far?

CREDIT: Todd Bigelow (Photo by Todd Bigelow /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

CREDIT: Todd Bigelow (Photo by Todd Bigelow /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Andy G: Any theories on why Shabazz Muhammad is struggling so far? After his 2014-15 breakout season was interrupted by injury, Shabazz came to training camp in the best shape of his life. Big(-ish) things were expected. Certainly bigger than what he has shown in the Wolves’ first seven games.

Patrick J: I have several theories, some of which are better than others. In no particular order:

(1) His playing time fluctuates and he doesn’t know his role.

(2) He isn’t playing to his strengths like he used to because he “expanded his game” over the summer and is still trying to figure out when/where to use his new skillz within the framework of his role.

(3) He isn’t used to playing with ball movers like Rubio and Towns. Those guys are obviously a net + for the offense, but Bazz came up playing without any good passers, so he focused all of his attention on being a junkyard dog who made his own offense from offensive rebounding and general relentlessness rather than exploiting good spacing and passing from talented teammates.

(4) Some combination of 1, 2, and 3.

(5) He’s afraid that if he makes a mistake, Smitch will pull him. (Bazz needs to play off of instinct. If he thinks too much, he’s a step behind everyone else and consequently struggles.)

(6) Personal issues we’re unaware of.

What say you?

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Beating Bulls & Hawks, Wolves Reshape Hopes…Expectations?

On Saturday the Timberwolves won in overtime at Chicago. They beat a Bulls team that won 50 games last season, and had just beaten the Oklahoma City Thunder the night before, in the primetime TNT game. Andrew Wiggins had 31 points. Rookie Karl-Anthony Towns had 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocks. This came as a surprise, as the Wolves had just lost a one-sided affair on their home court to the Miami Heat and did not show signs of being able to compete with the likes of the Bulls, especially on the road.

Tonight, the Timberwolves won at Atlanta. The Hawks won SIXTY games last season, and came into tonight’s contest with a 7-1 record; the best in the East. This morning in his weekly power rankings, Marc Stein of ESPN listed them third in the NBA. This time Wiggins had 33 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. He dominated crunchtime on offense. Karl-Anthony Towns again had 17 points, this time with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks. He dominated crunchtime on defense.

Just four nights after that expectations-lowering egg they laid on Target Center floor against the Heat, the Timberwolves have fans excited again.

Not about the future, we’re pumped about the future no matter what. Eventually, a team with this much talent will be good. But fans are going to be excited about the present – the basketball being played right now – if this Wolves team can go on the road and win at Chicago and Atlanta in back-to-back games. They’ll be doubly excited if these wins are coming on the backs of Wiggins and Towns (and Rubio, whose overall play continues to lead the team) instead of the older vets like Prince, Martin and Garnett. The vets are helping, don’t get me wrong, but the heavy lifting is being done by the Timberwolves that figure to be here for many more years.

This game tonight in Atlanta was a crazy one, as everybody who watched it knows. The Wolves played FLAWLESS basketball in the first half and led by a whopping 30 points at the break. Seriously, it’s hard to emphasize enough how perfectly the Wolves were playing on both ends of the floor. Along with the usual defense and passing from Rubio, scoring from Wiggins, and the interior presence of Towns, the Wolves were getting unexpected contributions all over the place; nowhere more significant or unexpected than Zach LaVine who might’ve played better than any of his teammates through halftime.

While some type of Hawks comeback was plenty foreseeable, I think most would’ve expected Atlanta to show some veteran pride, cut the Wolves lead down to 15 or even 10, before running out of gas before the game got too close.

Not how it went.

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Ep. 12: A New Day

In which we discuss Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio, and early impressions on the 2015-16 Wolves season.

(Eds. Note: We taped this yesterday. As usual, we had some technical difficulties during this one. ymmv.)

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Talking Towns, Rubio, Wiggins

“I’ve had thirty years of NBA experience. I’ve seen guys come and go. This guy, to me, looks like he’s special. He’s the real deal.”

–Jim Petersen, on Karl-Anthony Towns, during the 3rd Quarter of last night’s telecast.

In previewing this Wolves season, I posed questions about each player, and finished with perhaps the most important franchise question about the most important player on the team:

Is Karl-Anthony Towns the real deal?

He was the player they selected with the first overall draft pick, for the first time ever. With a semblance of a young Timberwolves nucleus forming, Towns figures to be in the middle of it, next to Andrew Wiggins. If the Wolves are going to succeed in their Thunder Model rebuild, Towns needs to be an all-around force; the kind of player that can put a team on his back and carry them to some wins.

For the first time in his two-games-long career, we saw evidence of this last night in Denver. The stats tell most of the story: KAT had 28 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, and 4 blocks in 33 minutes of +15 basketball. His team won easily (in a game that Vegas pegged them as underdogs) and he was by far the biggest reason why. Towns looked comfortable shooting or driving, as the situation required. When an interior defender was out of position, Towns initiated the precise amount of contact to both draw the foul and maintain balance to finish the play and make the shot. His awareness might have been highlighted best by a play that didn’t register a stat: in the post, he head-faked, drew extra defenders, pivoted out of the defense and kicked out a perfect pass to Ricky Rubio at the top of the key. Ricky’s shot rimmed out — so no assist for Towns — but it was a helluva play; one that demonstrated poise and awareness befitting a player way older than 19.

On defense, Towns was very good. He had those 4 blocks and 14 rebounds (11 of them defensive) and goes after defensive boards with the same type of urgency that Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love do. When Towns senses an opponent’s hand creeping in to poke the rebounded ball away, he promptly flares out his elbows and looks for Ricky Rubio to push the ball.

This was just one game, but it seemed almost unbelievable that a 19-year old rookie could look so good in his second professional game. Fans should be excited about this player.

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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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