1. The oxygen shortage that was last night’s game.
The Wolves were 15.5 underdogs in last night’s game at Denver. Denver never loses at home. The Wolves, without 4 important starters, almost never win. We lost by 23. Denver ran the floor (Corey Brewer had some of his patented leak-outs) and the Wolves couldn’t shoot well enough to keep up with a top-flight transition offense. Specifically Alexey Shved made only 2 of 11 shots and Derrick Williams made only 4 of 14 shots. Ty Lawson had 32 points and Denver shot 53 percent from downtown. To add insult to injury, George Karl was allowed to go FULL BOBBY KNIGHT without suffering the obvious penalty of ejection. It wasn’t a pretty game for the road team.
2. Williams & Shved: Two kinds of struggles.
It took a little while to get there, but in Kevin Love’s absence Derrick Williams has been committed to as the full-time, starting power forward. We (and in this case that includes fans, Wolves front office, the other 29 NBA front offices, and the world) are getting to see what he can — and what he cannot — do, with full-time duties and the freedom to play through mistakes.
Williams has done some nice things and shown certain signs of improvement. But on the whole, he’s been a disappointment. In his 4 games this month he’s played 37.7 minutes per game. His per-36 marks of 18.4 points and 7.6 rebound are respectable enough, I guess — at least he’s producing something. But his efficiency and playmaking remain underwhelming. He’s making just 39.7 percent of his field goals, which is unfortunately close to his season percentage of 41.7. His three-point shooting, which had a hot streak in December, has regressed to the mean and then some. He’s hitting 18.2 percent this month, lowering his season percentage to a pedestrian 31.1 percent. Derrick is missing free throws again, as he often did last year. In each of the last two months he’s converting 65.5 percent from the charity stripe. His season percentage on foul shots has dropped under 70. He almost never registers an assist, which makes sense if you watch him play. Upon catching a pass, he’s whittled down his range of decisions to: 1) Shoot; 2) Drive to attempt shot; usually a difficult one; or 3) Hold the ball, eventually pass it back to Rubio.
The problem with Williams — as I observe him — is that he does nothing at an elite — or close to elite — level. He plays hard enough and makes enough open jumpers to command a reserve role on an NBA team. He is not Jonny Flynn or Wes Johnson, in other words. But there isn’t much hope (that I can detect) that he will ever be an above-average NBA power forward. His athleticism goes to waste around the basket where he has next to no good scoring instincts or fundamentals. His jumpshot was falsely advertised under the tease of college small sample size; a case where some classic scouting perhaps should’ve observed his poor shooting fundamentals (footwork, balance, flying shooting elbow) and how that probably would not translate into consistency at the NBA level.
I’m not trying to sound overly negative or hyperbolic here, but I wish the Wolves had found a team willing to give a big expiring and draft pick(s) for Williams and Barea or Luke. I don’t see much of a future for D-Thrill in Minnesota, on Kevin Love’s team, and his trade value is probably depreciating over time as he adds to a sample size showing a mediocre player. I really hope I’m wrong whether he stays here or not.
Shved? Boy, he struggles when playing off the ball. With Ricky Rubio’s return that time has increased. The two have shared the floor for 238 minutes over 27 games (8.8 minutes per game). Over the last 4 games that number has slightly increased to 10.5 minutes per game. In those 4 games Shved is shooting 28.6 percent from the floor and 9.1 percent from three-point range (!). I’ll all for this experiment because these are the two highest upside players in the Wolves list of backcourt options and the better they can learn to play together the better the team can ultimately become. But the early returns suggest that Shved is VERY uncomfortable playing without the ball and that an offseason of partner shooting drills, bench presses, and
buckets of human growth hormone plates of steak and potatoes must be in the plans.
Two big differences between Shved and Williams, aside from all of those that relate to their different positions and skill types.
One: Alexey Shved has an elite skill. He showed earlier this season, when granted significant ballhandling responsibility, that he has a great ability to attack off the dribble and find open shooters. He’s tall, handles the ball well, and has great course sense of where his teammates are–and more importantly–where his teammates will be. The synergistic action between he and fellow Russian Kirilenko was particularly pleasing to watch. If Shved can improve his weaknesses (not a foregone conclusion, at all) he can rely on his playmaking and passing to make him an above-average NBA guard. Derrick Williams does not have an elite skill to hang his Potential Hat on.
Two: When outside of his comfort zone — which seems to be often, these days — Shved can be a pretty terrible offensive player. Much is being made of his body language. (By no less than great Wolves analysts Britt Robson and Jim Petersen.) I tend to not worry about his seemingly-sulky facial expression, mainly because when things were going well, he looked pretty much exactly the same. He’s just not an emotional basketball player. On a team that includes the buoyant Ricky Rubio, feisty J.J. Barea and often times bitchy Kevin Love (with refs, anyway) I don’t think it hurts to have a stoic-bordering-on-apathetic Alexey Shved. But decidedly more important than whether or not Shved has bad body language is the reality that he’s having a lot of games where he jacks up missed shot after missed shot. Sort of like Mike Beasley at his worst. This is different than Derrick Williams, who seems to have limited the range of his game quality between “kinda bad” to “kinda good.” Shved can be horrible when he’s removed from playmaking responsibility and asked purely to finish shots that somebody else set up. As mentioned above, he needs to practice catching and shooting.
3. The Lottery: Looking Ahead
If the season ended the moment I write this, the Wolves would have the 8th-worst winning percentage in the NBA. Projecting into lottery night, that would mean a 72.4 percent chance they’d land the 8th Pick, a 16.8 percent chance they’d land the 9th Pick, a 0.8 percent chance they’d land the 10th Pick, and an even 10 percent chance that they land a Top-3 pick. The weird thing is that the Wolves are barely better than the 3rd-worst team in the league, the Washington Wizards. Certain cellar dwellers like the Wizards and Suns are beginning to win some games (each 5-5 over past 10) and there’s a LOTTERY LOGJAM between Numbers 3 and 8. I don’t advocate losing on purpose, and I strongly believe that the negatives of making Ricky Rubio feel like a loser outweigh the positives of better 2013 draft position. But it does no harm to find a small silver lining in losing all of these games with a depleted roster. Simply put, the Wolves are in position to slide down the league standings and slide up in draft position. They’re only 2 games ahead of the 3rd-worst team in the league, right now.
4. More about that draft…
Should you continue checking out Punch-Drunk Wolves during the dregs of an umpteenth lottobound Timberwolves season (and please do!) you can expect the draft discussion to pick up. As mentioned the Wolves will have a lottery pick that might be a high one. They’ll also have the Memphis Grizzlies’ 1st Rounder, unless they trade it away in typical David Kahn fashion. So there’s enough to get excited about and we’re beginning to focus on everything Chad Ford, Jonathan Givony, The Canis Hoopus Score and March Madness so we can at least pretend to be experts as June approaches. Share your two cents with us on draft prospects as you see fit.
5. Tonight’s game: Mavs @ Wolves: 6:00 CST, My29, 830 Radio.
Another one tonight. Dallas has Dirk Nowitzki back and are 7-point favorites in this road game of theirs. We played (and traveled) last night. Dallas did neither. Reports suggest the Wolves will remain without Pek and AK. It’ll be a tough one. If nothing else, tune in (or attend) to see Ricky Rubio and Dirk Nowitzki play basketball. That’s reason enough for me. Enjoy the game.