Wolves-Knicks Preview & Why Shabazz is more interesting (to write about) than K-Love

The Opponent

The New York Knickerbockers are in town.

That sounds cooler than it actually is. Despite their rich history and big-market glitz (and luxury-tax qualifying payroll), the Knicks are terrible this year.

New York’s record of 21-40 only tells part of the story. Mike Woodson’s squad went 2-11 in the month of February, when its playoff hopes in the anemic Eastern Conference were on the line. They’re off to an 0-2 start in March. They’ve lost their last 7 games. Three of their last four were blowouts and the other was a double-digit loss at Detroit.

Oh, and Carmelo Anthony — the ray of sunshine reflecting out of this dumpster fire of a roster — is an unrestricted free agent this summer. Oh, and the Knicks first-round draft pick, which promises to be a high one in a loaded draft, will go to Denver as part consideration for the same trade that brought Melo to Manhattan in the first place.

For the best summation of what it means to be a Knicks fan in 2014, see netw3rk’s, The New York Knicks: It’s the Hope That Kills You in the End, written for Grantland on Monday.

Of course nothing is taken for granted here in Minnesota, where the “longest playoffs drought” title belt proudly sits. Carmelo has torched the Timberwolves many times before and unless Adelman wants to dust off Luc Richard Mbah a Moute for some specialized isolation defense (and he very well might) Melo might just go off once again tonight.

The Timberwolves: A Constant Surrounded by Variables

Take a look at Kevin Love’s game log.

Go ahead, just click on it.

Love has scored 20 or more points in each of the last 14 games. He’s eclipsed 30 points in 11 of those 14 games. He’s had a double-figure rebound total in all but one of them, with many of those inching close to 20 boards.

Put simply: You know what you’re getting from Kevin Love.

The only problem with that from my perspective and anyone else’s who tries to come up with interesting observations along an 82-game marathon is that, well, constants aren’t very interesting. Not after a while, anyway.

This isn’t to say Love’s game isn’t interesting. Clearly, it is.

His positioning and use of pivot moves to create separation are as good as it gets. Love has incredibly strong hands and rarely loses a gettable rebound. He’s an elite shooter who has added a deadly jump hook and extended bank shot to his arsenal. He understands NBA officiating at an expert level. He whips 80-foot bomb passes to Corey Brewer with a flick of the wrists. And this year, he’s developed into a good half-court passer from the high-post and top of the key.

But it just isn’t very fun, or interesting, to list those qualities out after every single game, even if it is precisely those skills that best give the Timberwolves a chance to win each game.

The variables, on the other hand, are interesting.

What is changing? And why is it changing? Will a hot (or cold) streak continue? Why is Adelman playing this guy? Why isn’t he playing this other guy?

Lately, the interesting twist has been the play of Shabazz Muhammad. I don’t mean “the play” in terms of his performance; that’s been up and down. I mean the play, in the literal sense that he’s finally in the lineup. That wasn’t happening until very recently. The lottery pick and former high school player of the year has an unusual set of strengths and weaknesses that make him kind of fun to watch and think about.

Shabazz came in as a wing prospect, which entails having a certain set of skills like perimeter shooting, dribbling, passing and lateral quickness on defense. (Not necessarily all of them, unless the player is a superstar.) But his skillset and “natural” NBA position seem different from that.

First, consider his shot chart (via nba.com):

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 10.13.53 AM

He barely shoots any jumpers. Almost everything is around the rim or on the left block.

His shot selection looks a lot more like Al Jefferson’s than James Harden’s.

Second, (and we already knew this when he was drafted) Shabazz does not facilitate for teammates the way that a good wing player does. He only has 3 assists in 165 minutes of action. That’s closer to Yinka Dare than Manu or Kobe.

Third, Shabazz is not very adept at moving laterally on defense. He was burned off the dribble by Wilson Chandler the other night. He carries a lot of weight in his upper body, which might slow him down some, but he also just doesn’t look very graceful in those movements. (For an extreme counterexample to what I mean, watch the way Andrew Wiggins on Kansas moves his feet. It’s effortless.) This doesn’t mean Shabazz will always be slow on defense, or that he can’t play the small forward (or even shooting guard) but it’s certainly not a natural role for him as a defender, right now.

But it’s not all bad, otherwise Adelman wouldn’t play him like he has been. In his last five games (in which Shabazz has registered double-figure minute totals) he’s averaging an astounding 10.3 rebounds per 36 minutes. He crashes the boards on both ends of the floor and is extremely physical around the hoop. He’s also scoring 15.1 points per 36 in those games, and that number would be closer to 20 if he hit more of his free throws (6.5 attempts/36) and if a few bunnies didn’t get away from him in the scrum. Also, he probably isn’t getting as many calls as he should, both due to his own fault (not having developed the “foul drawing” craft yet) and because refs don’t give rookies much of a break.

One thing that seems to work against Shabazz in his current role is that he is usually on the floor with J.J. Barea and without Ricky Rubio. Many possessions see Shabazz standing in the corner, maybe making one fruitless cut here or there, while J.J. struggles to make a basic entry pass to the wing or high post. His best option, frankly, is to fight early for offensive rebounding position in anticipation of a J.J. heave. But I don’t think that’s how the Adelman wing position is supposed to be played and he’s better off listening to the coaches than adjusting to Barea. I guess I’d like to see him play a little bit more with Rubio.

Anyway, tonight’s game:

The Wolves are favored to win by 8.5. points. I can’t say I disagree with that line. I’ve said before and I’ll repeat again that the Wolves need to win all of these games in this easy stretch in order to even think about playoffs. (Jim Mora voice.) The eight seed in the West is going to be way over .500 and, well, you get the idea.


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