Measuring Success for the Timberwolves in 2014-15

fork-in-the-road

I am back at the blog after a summer hiatus and I’m excited about the season. You know the reason already–change.

If you’re reading here, you probably already know all about the changes from last season–Rick’s out, Flip’s in, Love’s out, Wiggins is in, the Wolves are gambling the farm on young talent, yet have failed to move numerous veteran players on bad contracts who promise threaten to slow the youngins’ development, and that this odd mix of the young and the promising and the old(er) and overpaid could create locker room weirdness.

While I’ve been away from the blog, I’ve still been reading the excellent news updates and analysis that is churned out daily on sites like Canis Hoopus, A Wolf Among Wolves, TWolves Blog, and numerous others (see, e.g., here, here, and here). These sites extend the beat reporting by the Strib, the Press, and Fox Sports. Equally  important, their material is the lifeblood that keeps Wolves Twitter vibrant in the lean months when no games are actually played, no drafts are happening, and (Wolves) free agency activity is minimal. They are the locus of coordination for the 24/7 chatter on teh interwebz that satiates the irreconcilables among us Wolves fans. (Eds. Note: If you’re reading this post, you’re probably in this group.)

Being away from blogging for a few months can serve to restore, or alter, a blogger’s perspective. You can’t read everything, you’re not farming for tidbits to harvest, and you have time to step back and take a longer view on why it is you’re blogging in the first place.

For me as a Wolves blogger, this has allowed a kind of introspection about the real meaning of all of the changes to the franchise’s architecture. The issues I’ve kept returning to are simple, fundamental, and, I believe, are ultimately the ones that will make or break fans’ retrospective on 2014-15 when they look back at the upcoming season, and the offseason changes that preceded it, in the coming years: competitiveness and progress.

These are meta-issues that have little to do with confidence bands on predicted 2014-15 wins. From a less abstract perspective, these issues imply two sets of questions heading into this season:

(1) Will Flip Saunders make a real, no-kidding attempt to make a run at a Western Conference playoff berth, and if so, how?

(2) Will the Wolves make demonstrable strides toward being the kind of team that becomes at least the kind of team that is in the national discussions about teams that are on the rise, teams that are really beginning to put it together, no matter how the pieces were originally arranged.

Competitiveness

How good the Wolves could be this year is an open question. The consensus, of course, is that the Wolves will not be contenders. They have no chance of winning the title, and most give them little chance of even vying for a playoff berth. This is probably correct. But competitiveness will mean something different this season.

Competitiveness is relative, and means different things in different contexts. It is as much qualitative as quantitative.

Win-loss columns and player stats are important, but only tell part of the story. For the Wolves, already well into their overhaul of Rick Adelman’s regime, numbers will contain meaningful information about their current strengths and weaknesses, and their overall standing in the League.

Yet between the lines lurks the largely unquantifiable reality of how the team plays together night after night, whether it can develop the cohesion all great teams cultivate, and whether it can grow a competitive spirit and winning culture as a collective. These are the things that keep teams in games when they have off-nights, and a big part of the reason why good NBA teams win so many of the close games that last year’s Wolves team lost at a historically unprecedented rate.

Even if the Kevin Love-less Wolves lose a lot of games in 2014-15,  will the team develop a real competitive spirit? Will we be able to see and feel it while watching the games–all 82 of them? And if so, how will they reach that point?

The answers are likely to depend in large part on how Flip Saunders manages and teaches his players, and how he views the season from a strategic perspective.

Flip has flipped the team’s franchise player–one of the top-10 players in the NBA–for the number-one overall pick in the NBA Draft. But he’s also acquired veterans like Thad Young and Mo Williams. Flip is sufficiently unpredictable that, as much as it looks like the Wolves are trying to achieve the type of “rebuild with dignity” objective that rarely works in an NBA whose great teams are built around groups of stars brought together via free agency and trades or luck in the NBA Draft, he might actually be expecting to make a playoff run with the guys he has. There’s talent that was misused last year (Ricky Rubio), talent that was underused last year (Gorgui Dieng) and new talent in Wiggins and fellow rookie Zach Lavine, as well as LAST YEAR’S #1 overall draft pick, Anthony Bennett, another reservoir of untapped potential.

As of now, I have no idea how Saunders will treat this season from a strategic or a tactical perspective. It’s a huge black hole. But that’s why we watch the games, right?

Progress

There is a bigger issue than win-loss competitiveness, or even individual player development that will substantially impact how good the Wolves do or don’t become over the next two-to-four years. That question is about progress, and whether the Wolves develop not only a winning attitude and ethos, but whether the young players fit well together and improve over time. Can they develop the kind of chemistry any Wolves team will need to be competitive as a small player in a league of giants?

We haven’t good–even decent–team chemistry in a long time. Maybe not since 2005, when Kevin Garnett was still a Twolf and before the wheels came off of the Cassell-Sprewell. Garnett’s rookie season is instructive. That year, “Da Kid” (Eds. Note: I think that was KG’s first nickname?) did not crack the regular starting lineup until the end of January. But Garnett never looked back after making it that far. His minutes, and especially his production, spiked toward the end of the season. (Check out his game log from that year.) Now, KG was more of a singular (David Kahn voice) franchise pillar than Rubio or even Wiggins figures to be, but the progress point stands. The Timberwolves kinda sorta knew that they had something special by the time the ’95-96 season came to an end.

Andrew Wiggins is excited about being in Minnesota, and that is a good sign. His manner is such that he appears the rare kind of talent who can simultaneously pull off the “aw, shucks” politeness uncommon among alpha-dogs but essential to long-term Minnesota success, while becoming a killer on the floor. Garnett did this, not always through Minnesota Nice but through his determined loyalty to the team, the fans, and the state he kindly referred to as ‘Sota. And it isn’t difficult to remember the effort, intensity, and focus Garnett displayed, even as a rookie. Andrew Wiggins’ manner is different from Garnett’s. But Wiggins is already an outstanding defender, an unselfish teammate, and the owner of elite but raw talent, much like KG as a rookie.

With Rubio flanking Wiggins, this team may grow together around a rising star and a uniquely capable point guard. Those two, aligned with the rim-protecting Gorgui Dieng, can help forge a defensive identity and foundation for future success that has been lacking at Target Center the last few seasons. And hey–if Anthony Bennett slides into the lineup between Wiggins and Dieng, and can eventually command a double team on the block, well… even better. Your shooters get better looks and your offense suddenly doesn’t look like such a liability. You get the idea.

Even if the Wolves don’t win any more games this year than people are predicting, there will be bigger underlying issues that should command our attention, because they matter a lot. Most of us will be disappointed if we see less of the youngstas than we’d like, and yes, it’ll take Wiggins (and to a much greater degree, Lavine) longer to develop into whatever they will eventually be as players if Flip doesn’t go all-in on the youth movement. But how they handle these kinds of situations, and more importantly, how they play together as a group and mature in the minutes that they do spend together on the floor, however frequent or rare, is what I’m going to be paying the most attention to.

‘Til next time.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Measuring Success for the Timberwolves in 2014-15

  1. Raskolnikov

    Intriguing and thoughtful analysis. Enjoyed it.

  2. Nice, I especially enjoyed the beginning part that came off as an introspective on being a Wolves blogger type person. Welcome back to the fold P.J.

    • Thanks! It’s good to be back. (Although I’m not really back at the moment, I’m in Hawaii! It’s rough when duty calls and work sends you to Waikiki. The Philippines is my next port-of-call–I’ll be there all next week and hunting for my Blatche Pinoy jersey among other things.)