Timberwolves This & That

Monday’s game was another blowout against a Western Conference contender and another game I didn’t feel up to recapping. The Wolves had a great first quarter on offense, led by Gorgui Dieng’s 5 assists and all sorts of fun ball movement. In the second quarter, the Clippers got a few breaks from the refs, the Wolves ball movement stopped, and the total inability to play defense prevented Minnesota from keeping it close. The Clips led by over 30 for stretches in the second half.

The following is a random set of thoughts about this team, where it’s at, how it should be viewed and what may be going on behind the scenes.

“You play basketball against yourself; your opponent is your potential.” –Bobby Knight

I read John Feinstein’s classic, “A Season on the Brink,” a few months ago, and had this quote highlighted. I think it applies to how this Timberwolves team — now decidedly in “rebuilding mode” — should be viewed going forward. The Wolves were able to win at Staples Center against the crappy Lakers on Friday night. While the end result was fun, it wasn’t all that important. More important was that Zach LaVine showed off shot-making ability that we hadn’t previously seen. A few nights later, in the same arena, the Wolves were blown off the floor by Chris Paul’s Clippers. Again, the loss doesn’t matter as much as how inept the Wolves looked on defense.

It’s frustrating because it’s a familiar approach and so far from ideal, but the process and progress matter a lot more than the game-to-game results on the scoreboard this year. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t enjoy the wins or lament the losses; just that they lack the importance that they have for most teams, and that they had for this one, last year.

 The Handling of Injuries: A form of tanking?

On November 7, Ricky Rubio sprained his ankle while driving into the lane against the Magic. There were no fractures or torn ligaments. That was almost a month ago, and Rubio is still completely out of action. According to Wolves play-by-play announcer, Dave Benz, Ricky might start shooting practice with Mike Penberthy this week:

Nikola Pekovic has sat out of the past 7 games. I follow this team pretty closely, and I’m not even sure what his injury is. I know he wears a wrist brace under his sport coat at games, but I’m not aware of any serious injury like a fracture. In any event, Pek remains out.

Kevin Martin has missed the last 6 games after undergoing surgery on his wrist. Unlike Pekovic, this injury seems pretty clear.

Darren Wolfson chimed in on when we can expect these veterans to return to action:

Mid January? It’s barely December right now.

If Rubio is out until mid-January for an ankle sprain that occurred on November 7, then something is up.

It could be one (or some combination) of three things:

1) The Timberwolves are tanking. Rubio is a unique player for a lot of reasons, but one thing seems crystal clear:

The Wolves are a better team with him than they are without him.

This season, with Ricky having played just 4.5 games, they are 11.3 points better than opponents per 100 possessions with Ricky on the floor. When he’s off the floor, they are 16.7 points worse. That’s playing like the best team in the league with him and the worst team in the league without him. Last year, Rubio had the best on/off differential on the team, even though Kevin Love had the great individual stats. His rookie season was a similar story (that year, the best differential belonged to Love, but Ricky had the best “on” rating). The only season in which Rubio wasn’t atop the Wolves plus-minus stats was his second year, which was largely devoted to ACL reconstruction and rehabilitation.

So by sitting out Rubio more than necessary, it’s possible that Flip is trying to lose some games on the front end of the season for improved draft position. He knows that his team is out of the playoff picture, and might be thinking ahead for the long term.

2) Flip wants to get Zach LaVine some playing time.

While more and more NBA teams have their own D-League affiliate, the Timberwolves do not. Not yet, anyway. And this affects Zach LaVine, who would normally spend most of his rookie season in the minors, where he can improve his skills without being overwhelmed. LaVine would not crack the regular rotation if Rubio was starting at point guard and Mo Williams was backing him up. By sitting Ricky out for longer than necessary, LaVine is getting an extended taste of what NBA basketball is all about. It hasn’t been pretty, but (hopefully) it’s been educational.

3) They don’t want to jeopardize the shooting lessons by playing Ricky at (even slightly) less than 100 percent.

I personally think this one is the most likely issue, and I understand it. Ricky is a very poor shooter, and the Wolves are doing a very smart thing by hiring Mike Penberthy for individual, rigorous shooting training. They are investing in Rubio for long-term development in hopes that he’ll become a great all-around player. We saw some early evidence that the lessons were working when Ricky hit clutch shots in a win at Brooklyn.

I wonder if they fear that putting him out on the game floor with a sore ankle might cause him to revert back to old shooting habits. Instead, they’ll allow him to work one-on-one with Penberthy for a few extra weeks, which is probably time better spent for him anyway; healthy or not.

David Thorpe: Should Wolves copy the Sixers?

The Philadelphia 76ers — Wednesday night’s opponent — are 0-17, flirting with the worst start in league history. Yet everybody paying attention understands their strategy. They’ve drafted Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, Joel Embiid, and Dario Saric in the past two years. They’ll draft very high again next year. If 2 or 3 of those lottery picks pan out in the next few years, the Sixers will have a core to build around. It’s like a more exaggerated version of the “Thunder Model.”

David Thorpe of espn.com ponders whether the Wolves should employ a similar strategy, and ditch some of their veterans:

It’s tied to the speculation above, regarding the slow injury recoveries. Playing the young guys and losing games might be the best long-term idea. Also, you can expect trade speculation for the rest of the season–especially when Pekovic and Martin return to action.

Looking back: The time young Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook got smoked by Randy Foye and Al Jefferson.

Speaking of the Thunder, I sometimes think back to watching them play at Target Center, when Westbrook was a rookie and Durant was in his second year. They were awful, and got completely destroyed by a really-bad Timberwolves team:

Even when you have the best young players in the league, headed for stardom and deep playoff runs (in just a couple years, in OKC’s case) the first seasons are rough. That Thunder team was horrible. They ended up winning 23 games and losing 59.

The next year, after drafting James Harden and developing Westbrook, Durant, and the others, they won 50.

It doesn’t mean the Wolves will have that kind of success, but it’s a helpful comparison to realize that there’s no way this group of youngins can hope to compete in the modern NBA.

Finding a Core and Investing in it

The primary objective of this season and probably next is identifying — within this roster and the pool of 2015 draft prospects — a nucleus that can be built around for future title contention. The early front runners for that class are Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins. Other candidates include Anthony Bennett, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Zach LaVine.

It’s frustrating when LaVine makes terrible decisions. It’s frustrating when Anthony Bennett looks unfocused and playing at half speed. Those two control their own destinies maybe more than they realize at their young ages. It’ll take their own dedication as well as the coaching staff’s to maximize the likelihood that they pan out as players.

With Shabazz, it seems a little bit different. The motor is there. It runs hot all the time. The questions regarding Muhammad have to do with the coaches’ opinions of him — he still doesn’t play enough — and whether his unorthodox skillset can round itself out into a starting-caliber role. He’s still a post in a wing’s body, but shows flashes of shooting ability, too. He’s doing way too much, at such a young age, to not invest more and see what they have in this player.

It’s a long season.

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