It seems appropriate for the first real post on Punch-Drunk Wolves to be a preview of the Wolves’ upcoming season. With major additions to the roster (Ricky Rubio, Derrick Williams) and to the sidelines (Coach Rick Adelman) there is, I think, some genuine excitement about this season from the Casual Minnesota Sports Fan. This is significant for the team, and it makes the opening weeks and months crucial to establish a renewed relationship between this team and the sports fans that extend beyond the state’s hoop junkies. Here are some preliminary thoughts on what some of this will look like, some questions to be answered, and one man’s predictions for 2011-12.
Coach Rick Adelman
Fresh off of 15 and 17-win seasons, the Timberwolves inexplicably hired the best available coach in the world. Rick Adelman is one of the greatest coaches in recent NBA history. Since taking over for the Sacramento Kings in 1999 where he paired with Princeton legend Pete Carrill, Adelman has implemented a high-post offense that encourages passing and backdoor cutting that is simply not seen in other NBA arenas. This has allowed Adelman’s teams to thrive–sometimes to the point of serious championship contending–without having an A1 Superstar Go-To Guy that NBA champs always seem to have. Chris Webber and Peja Stojakavich were phenomenal players with the Kings, but neither was a guy who would demand the ball, clear everybody out and take over down the stretch. The Kings (and later the Rockets) passed and cut the way good college teams do, only with the benefit of the NBA’s strict defensive rules and elite shooting ability in the corners of the floor. When it’s clicking (and it clicks more often than it stalls) it’s a beautiful thing to watch. Minnesota is crazy for its Gophers and Big Ten Basketball. Rick Adelman’s offense should be a welcome site for those college-ball fans who flip the channel over to FSN North when the Wolves are playing. It is a team concept, five-on-five rather than one-on-one. Fans will enjoy this. The days of Isaiah Rider, Al Jefferson, and Michael Beasley holding the ball for five seconds while the others stand around watching should be over.
Ricky Rubio has finally arrived in Minnesota. The two-year wait seemed more like an eternity in part due to the point guard that was selected moments after him in the 2009 Draft. Jonny Flynn’s struggles are well-documented and I’d just as soon put them completely behind us. But I can’t. I need to mention at least once how happy I am to have the J-Fly Era put to bed in Minnesota. No more behind-the-back rotation passes or rebellious 30-foot hoists when Luke Ridnour is waiting at the scorer’s table. I realize that Flynn suffered a serious hip injury that required surgery and that this likely was a cause of his second-year struggles. But his first year contained the same stupid floor decisions, only with a (slightly) higher success rate.
Wait, this was supposed to be about Rubio. Sorry about that. If the Wolves do indeed turn this thing around, Ricky Rubio is going to become a Tim Tebow of sorts, but without the religion. Put simply, Rubio wins. Also put simply, Rubio’s stats are mediocre at best. His shooting percentages as a champion point guard in Spain would rival the very worst in the NBA, and his assist numbers are not out of this world either, for such a renowned passer and floor general. (Though European assists are skewed low, by how they are measured.) It could be that Ricky (assuming a starter’s load of minutes) averages something like 8 points and 6 assists a night, with 37 percent shooting, and yet is given the all-important “credit” for the Wolves’ success. Of course, this will be given by 50.1 percent of NBA fans, while 49.9 have an entirely different take. The Tebow situation, in other words. Can it be explained in ways other than numbers? I can already see Skip Bayless’ head exploding on First Take. For now, let’s just be happy that the Spanish Prodigy is here and we all will be able to enjoy the opportunity to watch a uniquely-gifted passer, which is a very rare thing in basketball.
It might be that the Timberwolves five best players are forwards. Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams, Anthony Tolliver, and Anthony Randolph will all expect significant minutes this year and each of them plays forward. Hell, aside from maybe Beasley, they are all natural power forwards. There’s a glut that will require some creativity with the player rotations from the bench. Matchups will be important and I think it is safe to assume that the starting lineup will not be the same for all 66 games even if the Wolves are fortunate-enough to avoid injuries.
One possible scenario would be that one of the forwards (most likely Love or Randolph) could start at center. Adelman started Chuck Hayes at center in Houston, despite his being only 6’6″. Love would seem like a reasonable candidate for that type of role, given his history of solid defense against bigger post players and his elite rebounding ability near the basket. However, it should be noted that he lost 25 pounds this off-season, and if you’ve seen any recent video from training camp, it shows. The guy looks legitimately skinny which isn’t something we expected to say about Love. Randolph has the length to play center, but not necessarily the basketball disposition. He’s a ball-handling forward who likes to drive off the dribble. On defense, in short samples last season, he was bullied by centers such as Marcin Gortat. It remains to be seen whether he is a viable option in the pivot.
With the small forward position, it really boils down to Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams. Beasley, like his buddy and teammate Love, also took to the Weight Watchers plan this offseason and is noticeably slimmed down. I thought his body resembled Tracy McGrady’s when I had the chance to see him play at his charity event, a while back. I have no doubt that Beasley has his eyes on that small-forward position. With Williams, there’s no guessing about it, as he announced to anyone who would listen before the draft that he was a small-forward. Unfortunately for Derrick, that doesn’t make it true. He is at least 240 pounds and may have the same types of struggles that Beasley did last year in chasing players out to the 23-foot line. On offense, does Williams have the burst to take his man all the way to the hoop from that same distance? I question whether Williams is a 3. In making some hopeful comparisons, I’d guess that he is more like a David West than he is a Carmelo Anthony. I guess we will see. Given their respective contract situations (Beasley is up for restricted free agency and a sizable payday next year while Williams is just beginning the bargain rookie scale contract) it would not surprise me in the least if Beasley is dealt in the coming weeks and Williams is your starting small forward as long as he shows he can play there.
These predictions are worth about as much as it cost you to read this post, but here goes:
* Wolves will trade for a starting shooting guard. This could be Monta Ellis, Ben Gordon, Kevin Martin, or somebody else but I think they’ll make a trade for a legitimate off-guard that can handle the ball and score.
* A Timberwolf will win Rookie of the Year honors. The Tebow-like Rubio debate may even come to fruition in this context if Derrick Williams has the stats, but Rubio has the flair and the… “it” thing that just wins games and makes people love him or hate him. In any case, I think one of those two will win the ROY. I think Kyrie Irving will be playing for a terrible Cavs team and he will not be able to thrive as an individual playmaker right out of the get-go.
* The Wolves’ record will be 25-41. Why 25 wins? Because it’s one more than 24, which is the most the Wolves have had in any season since Kevin Garnett left town. Given the shortened season, it would actually be a 31-win pace which is nearly double what they won last year and one short of the combined total of the last two years. 25-41 would show marked improvement and would lessen the blow of Clippergedden. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, it refers to the 2012 NBA Draft, wherein the Minnesota Timberwolves will hand their pick to the Los Angeles Clippers due to Kevin McHale’s trade for Marko Lima Jaric, about a dozen years ago. While this is spoiled milk or a sunk cost or something like that–and it isn’t worth fretting about more than we have to, it would be nice if the team won some ball games this year and they don’t hand Blake Griffin’s team a top draft choice.
That’s all for now. I hope you enjoy reading the blog and contributing below with your own thoughts as well. This should be an interesting season.