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Nemanja Bjelica, and how his style of play might positively influence the (outdated) style of offense that both Flip Saunders and now Sam Mitchell seem to prefer when putting together their default sets.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

1384400803000-11-13-2013-Ricky-Rubio

Ricky Rubio is the best point guard in the NBA.

Okay, that isn’t true.

Steph Curry is the best point guard in the NBA, and there are at least a handful of others (Chris Paul, John Wall, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley) who are certainly better players than Rubio.

But before training camp starts up in less than two weeks, it feels important to get something straight about the current state of the Timberwolves:

On this team, Ricky Rubio is a part of the solution; not part of the problem.

David Aldridge wrote a nice column about Flip Saunders for nba.com, but included one parenthetical that was impossible to ignore. It had to do with Rubio and it hinted at something that seems to be an increasingly-speculated theory about the Wolves. Aldridge wrote:

(It will be interesting to see how patient Mitchell is with point guard Ricky Rubio. The Wolves want Rubio to relax at long last, to understand he’s no longer thought of as the franchise’s savior — or not even one of the team’s top three talents.

But it wasn’t Mitchell who gave Rubio a $56 million extension last year — it was Saunders, wearing his Prez O’Basketball Ops hat.)

It seems like Aldridge and too many others believe Rubio might not be good enough for this Wolves team, going forward.

And that is ridiculous.

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Vegas, Baby, Vegas: The 2015 Timberwolves Summer League Edition

Towns and LaVine, postgame antics

Towns and LaVine, postgame antics

The last time we posted, it was June 29, and Andy G mused about the Wolves’ 2015 draft, in which they selected the much-haralded Karl-Anthony Towns #1 overall and pulled off a trade to get back into the first round to draft Apple Valley native and Duke Final Four hero Tyus Jones at number 24.

Much of the reaction to the draft fell into a few different bins. One bin could be called “Yay, we took Karl-Anthony Towns #1!” This encompassed most of Wolves fandom, at least that segment of which is most active on Twitter and websites like Canis Hoopus. Towns was the consensus top player overall and Wolves brass finally made the obvious correct choice: they got the player that analysts and smart fans expect to be the best player from this draft. Towns fills a position of need for the Timberwolves. Nikola Pekovic, the brutish but oft-injured Montenegrin who is under contract with the Wolves through the 2017–18 season, has foot injuries that may end up threatening his career. He can’t be counted on as an integral anchor for the Wolves at center as the rest of the team blossoms under the leadership of rising stars like Andrew Wiggins and Ricky Rubio, not to mention intriguing prospects like Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine. Kevin Garnett is also back in the fold, on a two-year, $16 million deal. But Garnett cannot be fully counted-on either, for he is too old and too often injured. His return appears more as foreshadowing his move into ownership and management with Flip Saunders and Glen Taylor than it does a productive output on the floor this season or next. The bottom-line is, the Wolves had a need at Center. As a marvelously skilled big man, Towns should eliminate that need altogether.

A second bin of Wolves draft-related conversation could be called “We took Tyus Jones! He’s from Minnesota!” I’ll talk a bit about Jones first, and then discuss my reactions to Karl Towns.

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INBOX: Timberwolves Season in Review Part I: The Backcourt

Ricky Rubio

Patrick J: On Wednesday night at Target Center, the Timberwolves faced the Oklahoma City Thunder in the final game of their 2014-15 season. That game was meaningful for OKC–the Thunder needed the win, as well as a Pelicans loss, in order to make  in the playoffs. (Eds. Note: The Pelicans did not lose. New Orleans is the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Wussell Restbrook is left to stew at home, leap over tall buildings, or do whatever restless superstars who miss the playoffs do. He may want to consult his former UCLA roommate, Kevin Love, who had plenty of experience missing the playoffs until this season.)

For the Wolves, Wednesday’s finale didn’t feel significant at all. It was a continuation of most of ‘Sota’s season, really. The Wolves were out of the playoff race almost as soon as it began, and — through a series of roster management decisions — signaled many times over that they were much less interested in fielding a competitive night-to-night lineup than they were in securing a high 2015 draft pick under the guise of squeezing every ounce of potential out of rookie Andrew Wiggins.

We thought it made enough sense to kickstart the recap process and look at some things we learned about this Wolves team, this season.

Part I will focus on the guards. Part II, which will come over the weekend, will look at the wings.

In this entry, we don’t dwell on Mo Williams or Lorenzo Brown. You already know why.

Read below the fold for more on Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, and Zach LaVine.

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Timberwolves Third Quarter Report: The Issues

youngwolves

At the season’s quarter point, I handed out letter grades to each player. At the halfway point, I laid out team superlatives. We’ve just reached the third quarter point, and with the team fresh off a franchise-altering trade, and without hope of making the upcoming playoffs, I thought it a good time to lay out the big issues they face as the season hits its springtime homestretch.

The following are five issues that the team faces and will hang over the last 21 games of the season. I listed them in increasing order of importance, as I see things:

1. What is Zach LaVine’s position?

On one hand, I don’t view this as a particularly important question despite the emphasis many knowledgeable Wolves pundits place on it; specifically, many criticize Flip Saunders for playing LaVine at point guard when he has struggled there, and they feel his future is off the ball, at the two. I don’t get quite as hung up on that positional distinction in Zach’s case because I think his “upside” will be realized if and when he can get comfortable enough with his handles, against pressure defense, to explode to the rim from the top of the key. That’s a “combo guard” type of play that athletic dynamos like Russ Westbrook have proven to be effective.

Even if LaVine doesn’t have traditional point guard instincts, he’ll create plays for himself and teammates if and when he can master that skill; and he obviously has the athleticism to do it. So from that perspective, I think playing him at point guard right now makes sense. Flip has played him almost exclusively at point guard this season, to the chagrin of fans (and sometimes himself, it seems) and I can only believe he’s doing this with an eye toward the future and the type of player he wants LaVine to become.

But the question matters considerably more in the short term — next season, specifically — if the Wolves are planning to try to win games rather than tank for the draft and develop young players outside of their comfort zones, as they did this year. Because in that case, they need a backup point guard and this year’s version of LaVine is simply not good enough to play that role on a competitive team.

The on/off numbers for LaVine paint an ugly picture. In the 1148 minutes he’s been on the floor this year, the Wolves were outscored by 17.1 points per 100 possessions. In other words, over a large sample size, the Wolves were consistently blown out when LaVine was in the game, and he was almost always playing point guard. Some of that statistic is the fault of other players. Consider that he played by far his most minutes in December (15 games, 29.3 minutes per game) when the Wolves best players (Rubio, Martin, Pekovic) were all on the shelf with injuries. Those lineups were outmanned across the board. Combined with the “Force Feed Wiggins At All Costs” philosophy that Flip implemented, there was no getting around some awful plus-minus stats.

But LaVine’s ineptitude on defense, and in initiating the offense as the lead guard, were substantial contributing factors to the lopsided defeats, too. He dribbles the ball high, and when defenders pressure him, he struggles to do anything beyond a cautious entry pass to the wing. On defense he is pretty good against isolation drives, because of his supreme athleticism and solid effort level. But he does not yet have the court awareness, or the physical strength and developed tricks to navigate pick and rolls with any success. The Wolves allow 113.4 points per 100 possessions when LaVine is on the floor, and just 105.5 when he’s off. That 7.9 point differential is enormous, considering the sample size on each side of it.

So in the season’s final quarter, it will be worth paying attention to every minute LaVine takes the floor and mans the point guard spot. They need to know if he’s improving rapidly enough to be penciled in as a point, or even combo guard in next year’s rotation, or whether they need to find somebody else on the open market or in the draft to back up Ricky Rubio.

2. Is there a starting frontcourt player on the roster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other Timberwolves issues, looking ahead:

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

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Some Questions about Rubio’s Return

Like everyone else, Ricky wondered why the Seahawks didn’t hand off to Lynch for the Super Bowl-winning touchdown. Tomorrow night, he returns to action against the Mavs.

On Saturday evening at Target Center, Ricky Rubio went through what must have been the most watched individual practice session of any basketball player, this year. Working with special coach Mike Penberthy, about one hour before tipoff versus the Cavs, Ricky shot threes and dribble jumpers before a surprisingly big crowd, for such an early time. This was because LeBron James was in town and, perhaps more importantly, because it was #TheReturn of Kevin Love (and Mike Miller!).

The Wolves had a huge crowd that showed up early, and Rubio was going through a workout on the game floor while his teammates and opponents were getting dressed in their locker rooms.

He was going full speed, and making a lot of shots. His form doesn’t look great, but it does look improved. There is some visual evidence, for those of us who have been able to watch him in these non-televised moments, that he is improving as a shooter. Just not any data. Yet.

That changes tomorrow, when he returns to game action. The Wolves play at Dallas against the Mavs, and Ricky will be playing. Apparently he’ll be under a minutes limit for a while, presumably because he’s not in regular game shape. Who knows how much he’ll play at first (maybe 25 minutes?) but any amount of Rubio action is cause for excitement for this win-starved team that has lacked floor leadership since his injury way back in early November.

A few questions to consider with Ricky Rubio returning:

* Will the Wolves play better?

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