INTEL REPORT: Magic at Timberwolves (The Season Opener Edition)

Orlando appears to be keeping its eyes on the prize this season: The 2014 NBA Draft

Orlando appears to be keeping its eyes on the prize this season: The 2014 NBA Draft

The Wolves open their season tonight in Minneapolis against the already-tanking-for-Wiggins hard-charging  Orlando Magic, who’re 0-1 after last night’s season-opener loss to Indiana.

(Eds. Note: Is there anyway to figure out how many fantasy teams there are this season named “Tanking for Wiggins” or some variant of it? I don’t know how many fantasy teams there are total, but I’d still take the over on at least 10k “Tanking for Wiggins” teams this year. Maybe 15.  There were probably fantasy league owners everywhere trying desperately to change their league rules at the last minute to allow them to use their auction money to bid on the rights to the “Tanking for Wiggins” team name instead of on draft-able  players.)

Anyway, there’s a lot of interesting stuff to watch for, much of which could provide information on the questions we asked in our season preview post about the team’s starting lineup, defense, offense, and rotations.

In a nutshell, we’ll learn who’ll be the starting small forward, at least for this night. The status of the final starting position  was still unclear (at least to me) at the time this was published.

Cryptic interview comments from Derrick Williams and Corey Brewer – the two main contenders for the starting spot –  after yesterday’s practice provide little insight. Williams and Brewer are quoted in Jerry Zgoda’s awesomely-headlined article, “‘Punchy Wolves’ Ready to get on With Regular Season,” in which Zgoda wrote:

There is still no official announcement about who will start at small forward. But after practice on the Target Center main floor, Flip Saunders, president of basketball operations, took Derrick Williams to the top of the lower bowl for a little chat.

Asked about it afterward, Williams said the talk was about embracing his role on the team and being willing to continue to work at both small and power forward.

Then Williams talked about the plusses and minuses of starting vs. coming off the bench.

“If I’m in the starting lineup, I think we all know I won’t be [a top offensive option],” he said. “But if I’m coming off the bench, coaches are looking at me and J.J. [Barea] to be the spark plugs. You have to learn your role.”

Meanwhile, Corey Brewer said he had no preference when it came to starting or coming off the bench.

“I’ll play the same way,” he said. “I’ve been in the league seven years. I’ve done both. It really doesn’t matter.”

As mentioned above, neither Williams nor Brewer reveals much here. Williams’ quote, however, does seem to hint at how he’d try to make lemonade from lemons if he ends up running with the second unit. As I argued in our preview post, I would start Brewer by default over Williams, unless Williams miraculously becomes the kind of shooter that he was in college at Arizona, so I hope I’m not reading too much into these tea leaves due to wishful thinking. The interesting question, I think, is how much Chase Budinger will have to show before being given the starting spot after he returns from injury. The likely answer is “not much,” other than demonstrating that his knee is healthy enough to run up and down the floor for 20-25 minutes per night.

Matchups

There are a few matchups to pay attention to tonight, even though Orlando’s roster is generally putrid and Minnesota’s  is solid and fairly deep.

Here are the expected starters for each team:

PG – Ricky Rubio vs. Jameer Nelson

SG – Kevin Martin vs. Aaron Afflalo

SF – ?? (Corey Brewer) vs. Mo Harkless

PF – Kevin Love vs. Tobias Harris (questionable)

C – Nikola Pekovic vs. Nikola Tesla Vucevic

The most interesting matchup is at the shooting guard. Afflalo is known as a big, physical, defensive stopper who can guard opposing teams’ scorers one-on-one without needing a ton of help. Martin is known as a scorer. His body type is basically the exact opposite of Afflalo’s–K-Mart is long and willowy and is the essence of finesse. Martin moves extremely well without the ball to get a lot of his shots, and it will be interesting to see whether Afflalo’s able to limit his production, or at least take away the little dribble-drives from the wings toward the elbow area, another way Martin generates some of his offense.

The second-most interesting matchup is a non-matchup, at least with regard to the starting units: Conspicuously absent from the Magic starting lineup is prized rookie guard Victor Oladipo, who’s currently running with Orlando’s second team, despite being the (very) early frontrunner for 2013-14 Rookie of the Year according to most experts.

Why isn’t Oladipo starting?

Three words: TANKING. FOR. WIGGINS.

(Eds. Note: Apparently some teams find this kind of prospect desirable.)

Andrew Wiggins Highlight Reel

Back to Oladipo: To be fair, it isn’t clear that Oladipo is obviously superior at this point to either Nelson or Afflalo, the veteran starters in Orlando’s backcourt. We’ll find out soon enough whether he should be starting, and if so, at which guard spot. And off the bench, Oladipo should infuse a big burst of energy when playing against other teams’ second-line players and dog the ball if he’s guarding the Wolves’ primary second-team ball handler, either J.J. Barea or Alexey Shved. I expect Oladipo to be very physical, regardless of whom he’s defending. Which means that you will probably see either a lot of J.J. flops and complaints to the referee crew, or Alexey getting muscled around, which we have to hope won’t send him into a dazed, mopey, state, like physical defense too often did to his demeanor last season.

Game Outlook

More than anything, it’s going to be nice to see actual real-life Timberwolves professional basketball. And by that, I mean that it’s going to be nice seeing Rubio, Love, and Pekovic playing meaningful minutes together–something that basically never happened last season due to injuries.

The Wolves should win this one, and fairly easily. But how they’ll play the first night out is anyone’s guess. And even though it’s usually a disadvantage to be playing the second game of a back-to-back, Orlando’s chance at a trial run last night could turn out to be to their advantage, allowing them both to shake off the rust and to figure out how they’ll actually do things in real-life games.

It stinks that we have to claim that the season opener is akin to a must-win game for the Wolves, but it sort of is. Because if they lose, you already know we’ll look back at this one late in the season as a prime example of one that got away–especially if the Wolves are fighting to make the playoffs.

Anyway, until later.

Enjoy the tilt.

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