Searching for Simple

Grantland’s Zach Lowe, to Pacers Coach Frank Vogel: “Who dribbles the ball into the paint for your team? How are you guys going to create offense this year? That has to be a concern. Your two best off-the-dribble guys are gone, and Rodney Stuckey is on the team, George Hill is talking about taking an increased role, but you’ve gotta… and you can penetrate the defense with the pass, which you guys do with post-ups, and stuff, but you’ve gotta be a little bit concerned about, ‘How are we driving and kicking? How are we getting into the teeth of a defense?'”

Vogel: “If you bring two to the ball, if you screen appropriately, you bring two to the ball, and then you pass it, or you attack the help, I think anybody can get in the lane and we’ve got guys that are more than capable… George Hill, C.J. Watson at the point guard spot, are good penetrators. They can get in there off the bounce… Rodney Stuckey, that’s his specialty, and he’s gonna be a big-minutes guy for us this year. So he’ll be able to get in the lane, and then obviously you can attack with the pass. You know, bring two the ball, attack, draw help, share it, and then when you have a defense in rotation, you have them right where you want them, you can attack the paint at will. So it’s gonna be about bring two to the ball and forcing rotations to get where we want offensively, this year.”

Lowe: “So, pick-and-roll solves all problems. Screening solves all problems. You can generate it even if you don’t have a one-on-one…”

Vogel: “Well, we have to. And obviously for some teams, it’s easier. Some teams have players that can do it on their own. And some teams need to rely on ball movement, player movement, and screening, and that’s what we’re going to have to become.”

I had some scattered thoughts about last night’s preseason win over Philly when I listened to Lowe’s excellent podcast this morning. I thought it might help frame a discussion at a time when there are so many more questions than answers. The quoted back-and-forth gets to the heart of a fundamental challenge in basketball:

The offense trying to get defenders out of place, and the defense trying to stay true to its principles and prevent efficient shot attempts.

Vogel’s answer was upbeat like he has to be, entering a new season after losing Lance Stephenson to free agency and Paul George to catastrophic injury. But he was also honest, particularly if you listen to his tone when explaining the luxury that some teams (not the current-form Pacers) have in a player or two that can scramble a five-man defense all by themselves.

This idea of getting into the lane and causing defenses to rotate is pretty central to success, and it is an area that the Timberwolves have struggled mightily for most of their existence.

We have now seen the new Timberwolves play. Last night, Nikola Pekovic made his preseason debut, and I found it interesting that he was the high screener for Rubio in the game’s first possessions. It is easy to talk about pick-and-roll basketball without regard for the quality of the actual screen. Pek, as everybody knows, is a giant human being. A ball screen set by him is more effective than one set by just about any other player in the world. The Wolves might be wise to initiate offense that way, particularly down the stretch of games, when halfcourt execution is most difficult and the challenge of shaking defenders and causing rotations is greatest. In a very limited sampling, I thought it looked like Rubio had some much-needed space when he came off of the Pekovic screens.

Andrew Wiggins is a player that we hope can fall into Vogel’s category of “players that can do it on their own.” Wiggins played well again, last night. He looks poised on both ends of the floor, and his physical tools are incredible. My favorite play of his (well, besides the alley-oop dunk) was when he curled around a down screen, caught the pass and continued toward the hoop off the dribble, attracted help defense, and instinctively fired to the nearside corner for an open jumper. That play showed aggressiveness, good instincts, unselfishness, and ability. The more effective he can be at getting into the lane and creating positive results, the more it will seem like the Timberwolves have a sustainable and reliable formula for offensive success. And the more Wiggins can get into the lane, the simpler things can be. Simple is good, in a league with so much roster turnover and injuries. Not every team can be last year’s Spurs. Simplicity is a luxury.

Anthony Bennett was the closest thing to a revelation in last night’s game. He had 13 points and 8 rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench. He dished a few nice passes and should’ve had more than 1 assist. His jumper looks almost too smooth for such a muscular young player.

After the game Flip Saunders said that, “A.B. might’ve been the best player on the floor, tonight.” When asked what impressed him specifically, he responded, “Shot the ball pretty well, just his composure and his demeanor. How he went after rebounds, he got his hands on a lot of balls…had a “man rebound” there in the fourth, amongst five guys he came out and dunked it….What impressed me probably the most was that, with his limited time here over the last week, he understood everything that we were trying to do, offensively. He understood our concepts.”

Bennett, like Wiggins, factors into this team’s potential for attacking in the lane. The better he knocks down perimeter jumpers, the further defenders have to close out and floor space for his teammates like Rubio and Wiggins is created accordingly. The more that he can rip the rim down with two-handed dunks, like he did a couple times last night, the more defenders have to sink in and potentially leave shooters open on the perimeter. He is unusually skilled for such a bruising player. His development can also help this team simplify its attack and generate long-term success.

All of this can sound a bit optimistic. It’s preseason and the Wolves have suffered a blowout loss to Vogel’s new-look Pacers, and narrowly beaten the tanking 76ers. On the smaller-but-not-necessarily-small picture note of this upcoming season, it does not seem that the Wolves will be good. They might even be pretty bad, particularly with their conference being so deep with teams vying for title contention. The schedule alone will beat them down at times. If they fail to defend in transition and gamble for steals like they did last night, they’ll get blown off the floor by decent teams.

But what is becoming a little bit clear in following this team is that it is shifting into a building mode, and that auditions for primary-attacker roles will be taking place all season long, at Target Center and the arenas they travel to on the road.

Success, then, might just be identifying the simplest ways that the young Timberwolves can be effective, and then working like hell to develop those tactics into collective greatness.

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