Quarterly Timberwolves Report

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Don’t corporations do quarterly reports? I’ve never prepared one or even worked for a corporation, but I think that they do. (Googling) Okay, yeah, quarterly finance reports are a thing. I didn’t dream that up. According to Wiki, they are “required by numbers of stock exchanges around the world to provide information to investors on the state of a company.”

Since the Timberwolves are at roughly the quarter-point of this NBA season, it seems like a good time to reflect on what’s happened; specifically, how everybody is playing. I’ll do this in letter grade format, going through each player, organized by position. The grades are on a curve, based on my expectations for the player heading into the season. So an A doesn’t mean the player is better than someone who earned a D; just that he’s doing great for what could’ve been expected, versus the other player who is underperforming. Hopefully that makes sense.

Guards

Ricky Rubio – Incomplete

Rubio looked good in the 4.5 games he played before severely spraining his ankle against Orlando. In that tiny sample size, he posted what would be career bests for field goal percentage (42.6) and assists per 36 minutes (12.5). Behind his leadership, the Wolves were competitive. They played the Grizzlies to the wire, at Memphis. They should’ve beaten the Bulls at Target Center. They did beat the Pistons and Nets. In those games, Rubio seemed to take more ownership of the team, leading where — before Kevin Love departed — he might’ve deferred in the past.

But the sample size here is too small to give a real grade. The most significant thing Rubio accomplished in the season’s first quarter was signing a contract extension. He’ll be a very rich man, and Minnesota resident for four more years after this one. Ricky continues to work with shooting coach Mike Penberthy and we should have a much better idea of how that is going in April than we do now.

Kevin Martin – B

It’s tempting to give Martin an incomplete as well. He played only 9 games before fracturing his wrist against the Knicks. But before that injury he was playing pretty good basketball. He is hitting 48 percent of three-point attempts. Considering that he’s shooting 6 per game, that’s really impressive, and provides the Wolves with a perimeter threat that is otherwise lacking on the young roster. Martin’s defense is still bad, and that’ll always be the case. On balance, he played better than I expected before his injury.

Mo Williams – C

Mo’s been okay. He can’t really defend, but he’s a capable backup point guard who knocks down shots. If they can ever get healthy at the same time, Mo and Ricky might share the backcourt some. Both are injured right now.

Corey Brewer – B-

Brewer is the same guy he’s always been: Impossibly energetic, sorely lacking fundamentals in anything involving the basketball, and just a blur going after steals and running in transition. In a hilariously sad twist to the season’s early going, Brewer has found himself running the point while Mo Williams and Ricky Rubio nurse their respective injuries. And, functionally, he’s doing an okay job! He looks every bit like “the drunken dribbler” we’ve come to know and love, but because — as with everything else — he does it with so much energy, defenses are forced to at least acknowledge him. He had 8 assists on Friday night versus the Thunder. Before that, he had assist totals of 5, 4, 3, 6, and 4. That’s sort of incredible for someone who you never in a million years would’ve expected to see tasked with point-guard duties.

Brew has a career-high steals average underway (2.3) which is a testament to his non-stop activity. This is not always good, though. He finds himself out of position somewhat frequently and also reaches in to foul more than he should. He’s far from a perfect player (Captain Obvious) but has performed well, given the circumstances.

He’ll probably be traded before the February deadline.

Zach LaVine – B+

My expectations for LaVine involved him sitting on the bench for the Wolves, and spending at least a little bit of time in the D-League. Instead, with both point guards injured, he’s averaging almost 25 minutes per game and has been thrust into a playmaking role that he is simply not ready for.

With that in mind, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. LaVine cannot run an NBA offense when the defensive pressure heats up (like against Portland the other night, when the Blazers got serious and nearly made a 20-point comeback). But he can dribble the ball up the floor well enough for the first three quarters of a game, execute the most basic entry passes, and — at times — has shown off serious potential as an explosive scoring guard. He had 28 points at Staples Center against the Lakers. I don’t care how bad of defense he faced that night, he was making a lot of tough shots and I NEVER could’ve imagined he’d have such a high scoring game this season.

A lot of people are talking about how LaVine is not a point guard, and that may very well be true. But I’m not as interested in that distinction for this player. What I am interested in is his development as an attack-off-the-dribble guard. That’s where his potential lies because he’s 6’5″ with the highest vertical jump in the league. If we’re conceding at his age of 19 that he “can’t be a point guard” that sends the wrong message, in my opinion. He needs to be a player that breaks down defenses off the dribble. He can’t be that if he’s bothered by defensive pressure, as he clearly is now.

But all things considered, he’s been pretty good compared to expectations. Saunders seems most frequently frustrated, and entertained by LaVine. That probably won’t change anytime soon. His career will be interesting to follow.

Forwards

Thaddeus Young – D+

Thad Young has been a disappointment. It’s hard to argue otherwise, at this point. Before the season, Bradford Doolittle of espn.com projected the league’s best players at each position for the 2014-15 season, using wins above replacement player (WARP) metrics. The projection model had Young pegged as the league’s seventh best power forward, ahead of Serge Ibaka, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Taj Gibson, Zach Randolph, and other very good players. Even if you disagreed with that high estimation of Young’s value (as I was inclined to do) just about everybody would agree that he was a solid veteran player who would help the Wolves be competitive.

So far, that hasn’t been the case. He’s shooting under 44 percent from the field and pulling down just 4.6 rebounds per game (5.1 per 36 minutes) from the power forward position. Those are career-worst marks for Young. On offense, he rarely gets easy shots. He passes up open jumpers, and instead drives into traffic and shoots spinning hook shots. Lately, that has seemed like a best-of-bad-options decision, as his jumper has completely left him. A three-point attempt from the top of the key against the Thunder hit backboard before any rim. On defense, he tries hard and collects steals, but is undersized at the four and too often gets bullied in the paint. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Gorgui Dieng, the starting center, is also undersized.

Young will probably improve, and his numbers will progress to something closer to his career averages. Maybe Rubio’s absence has affected his play. But rather than step up as a veteran leader, his presence has seemed to only reinforce the understandable chaos that results from playing so many inexperienced players.

Andrew Wiggins – B+

Most would agree that Wiggins is the team’s most important player. His development into a two-way foundational star player is paramount. Heading into the season, it was unclear how Flip would handle this project. He talked about giving players as much responsibility as they can handle, and he specifically cited Kevin Garnett’s rookie season, when he did not play starters’ minutes for the first few months. Combined with the decision to acquire Thad Young, and maintain some semblance of a competitive, veteran roster, it seemed possible that Wiggins would be brought along slowly; earning more minutes over the course of the season, and slowly expanding his role on offense. More Kawhi Leonard and Paul George than Kevin Durant, for recent “developing a wing player” success stories.

It has not played out that way.

After the injuries to Rubio, Martin and Pekovic, Flip has gone all in on challenging Wiggins with in-game responsibilities. He defends the best opposing scorer every night, regardless of position. (He’s defended Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, to illustrate the range.) That’s the most promising aspect of Wiggins first quarter of a season: He goes after tough defensive assignments with grit and zeal. This part of the game comes easily to him, as he’s obviously been blessed with elite physical tools: length, speed, and bouncy feet that move backwards and laterally in ways that must seem unfair to his peers. But to his credit, Wiggins doesn’t settle for being gifted. He could coast more than he does on defense and still deserve a ton of playing time, but that isn’t happening. His focus and energy levels on defense have been consistently high. Mistakes like the one he made in fouling Jimmy Butler, costing his team that game, are bound to happen; they do for everybody, but especially young players. But those will become less frequent and his potential as a game-changing defender is clearly very high.

On offense, Wiggins is being challenged too. Probably even more than on D. He’s not as ready for the heavy lifting as a go-to scorer, but he’s trying. Flip has him operating mostly out of the post, which I think is a good idea. Smaller-than-center post action is in vogue, and this role helps hide Wiggins primary weakness: a shaky handle of the ball on the perimeter. His jump-shot is a thing of beauty — he jumps impossibly high to get it off whenever he wants — but he probably relies on it too much. Over time, we’d like him to polish his dribble-drive game and learn how to set teammates up to score. In essence, we’d like him to play more like Durant or Harden, and less like Rudy Gay.

But he’s young, and his potential is far from realized. He hasn’t been great, but the combination of his immediate defensive abilities and flashes of offensive upside warrant a pretty good grade.

Shabazz Muhammad – A

This one is easy. Shabazz entered this season with a completely uncertain role; on this team and in general as an NBA basketball player. It would’ve surprised nobody (other than Shabazz, perhaps) if he racked up the same DNP-CDs that defined the first half of his rookie season.

Instead, he’s been the Timberwolves’ most valuable player. I wrote in depth about Bazz last weekend, so I won’t repeat all the same points here. Suffice it to say, Muhammad consistently plays with more energy than anyone else on the floor, and he has an advanced understanding of how to move without the ball to get good scoring opportunities. When he makes a good cut and catches a pass, the immediate goal then is to the dunk the ball as hard as humanly possible, no matter what might stand in his way of trying to do that.

Shabazz has a formula that breeds consistently positive results and he’s earned the right to be invested in the same way that his young teammates are. He should be viewed as part of the core, going forward. People need to consider how well he’s playing for his age and experience, and open their minds to the possibility that Shabazz is a future star player.

Anthony Bennett – C+

We’ve got a piece in the works about Bennett, so I’m going to hold off on a detailed explanation of this grade. Bennett has been a lot better than he was last year, as a disappointing rookie who looked like a total bust. But he’s also floated too much on offense and sometimes plays without enough energy. He’s a work in progress, and remains an intriguing prospect.

Centers

Nikola Pekovic – F

It’s a shame what’s happening with Pek. His foot problems are beginning to seem chronic, and threaten his entire future in basketball. With three years and $36 Million remaining on his contract after this season, he’s untradeable and a burden on the team’s salary cap. His absence from the lineup leaves the Wolves exposed to physical abuse in the paint on a nightly basis.

Here’s hoping the Wolves new Mayo docs can figure out what’s ailing Pek’s feet, and do something about it so he can return to playing good basketball.

Gorgui Dieng – C

Gorgui has quietly put together a decent season. I say “quietly” because he doesn’t shoot much or do anything to get fans excited, and also because so much attention is (justifiably) being paid to Wiggins and the emergence of Muhammad. But, like last year, Gorgui does the dirty work and fills out the stat sheet. He scores here and there, rebounds at a high rate (10.8 per 36 minutes), delivers more assists than you might realize from the high post (2.7 per 36) and also collects his share of blocks and steals. Like most of the team’s young players, Gorgui gives full effort.

He gets an average C grade because he didn’t improve on his primary weakness, which is an inability to defend centers in the post. By all accounts, he worked hard to gain weight and strength in the offseason, but the results (in this specific area, anyway) are not showing. He’s a defensive liability as a starting center, because he gets backed down so deep that all that’s left is a little 2-foot baby hook. He needs to continue to get stronger, but also develop some tactics to deter the aggressive back-downs. Take a charge, or even flop once in a while. Watch tapes of Vlade Divac defending Shaquille O’Neal.

I asked Flip if watching Gorgui in the starting center role has affected the way he views him as a long-term prospect and he said straight up, “He’s a starter in this league.” He looped Gorgui in with all of the other inexperienced Timberwolves who are actually significantly younger than he is (Gorgui turns 25 next month) and explained, “We look at Gorgui, there’s a lot of things he’s gotta keep on working on, but there’s things that he’s improved… His game’s evolved.”

If Dieng can bulk up and become an adequate post defender, I’ll agree with his assertion that he’s a starting-caliber player. But until that happens, I think his ideal role is as a reserve.

End of the Bench

Chase Budinger – F

Unfortunately, Chase doesn’t look like his pre-surgeries self. If it is an injury thing, and he can’t improve, this will be his last NBA contract.

Robbie Hummel – C+

I’m higher on Hummel than most seem to be. I think he’s close to the ideal 10th man who makes open shots, works hard on defense and rebounding, and makes crisp rotation passes to bolster good ball movement. But he isn’t in the Wolves rotation right now, and hasn’t done anything to surprise anybody in the minutes that he has played.

Jeff Adrien – B+

Adrien’s on his second 10-day contract and may not be around much longer. He plays very hard and helped in getting that surprising win over Portland.

Glenn Robinson – Incomplete

GR3 has played 43 total minutes and is hopefully getting a lot of work done in practice.

Ronny Turiaf – Incomplete

Ronny’s been hurt all year.

Well, that about does it. Chime in with your own grades in the comments.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Quarterly Timberwolves Report

  1. Grim reaper

    As always– good insights. Grading inflated based on expectations. As and Bs might suggest an above average team.

  2. Tim o'Bedlam

    Cut Turiaf and sign Adrien for the rest of the year.

  3. Rodman99

    Great stuff Andy.
    Am very curious as to how Ricky’s influence will change things and (hopefully) get some players back on track. Am sticking with the philosophy that there are a lot of blessings in disguise this year in that the kids get to play a lot and grow up faster with all of the injuries. But it’s an ugly disguise.

    • An ugly disguise indeed. I agree on the Rubio curiosity. The most disappointing play on the team has been at power forward (Young and Bennett) and I’m hoping that Ricky’s return will change that for both guys. Ricky’s always been good at setting up 4 men for open shots, so we’ll see what happens.

      I think Brewer needs Ricky the least, which is probably why he’s playing better than usual. A great pass to set up an open jumper does nothing for Brew. He thrives in chaos and — without Ricky — that’s exactly what he’s getting.

  4. One way to hold down a player’s minutes is to not start him. Wiggins 30.6 minutes per game; LaVine 25.5 and Muhammad 18.7. Flip stands there directing traffic as though someone is listening. Give me coaches like Jerry Tarkanian and Guy Lewis who were some of the first major college coaches to recruit black athletes. Give the offense to the players and have the coach focus on defense.

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