Andy G: First off, happy new year to all Punch-Drunk readers. 2014 was an eventful one for Wolves fans. Last January, we were watching the team hover disappointingly around .500 — clearly not good enough for Western Conference Playoffs eligibility — and bracing for what might be next to come; specifically, Rick Adelman’s retirement from coaching, Flip Saunders’ return to coaching, and Kevin Love being traded.
All of those things happened.
Thankfully, the return on the Love trade was surprisingly huge, given the circumstances. The Wolves had very little leverage, with Love making his plans known and having only one year left on his contract. Yet the the Cavs unexpectedly winning the lottery (for the second time in a row and third time in four years) followed by LeBron’s surprising Return — presumably coupled with a wink-wink agreement to trade for Love, was a rare stroke of luck for this franchise. Instead of the usual nickels or dimes on the dollar that a team could expect in this situation, the Wolves landed a player in Andrew Wiggins who some might prefer to Love; at least down the road a few seasons.
But all was not so swell this year.
Far from it.
For one thing, Flip Saunders’ coaching “search” was clumsy at best and disingenuous at worst. The Wolves ostensibly sought out candidates for the job, conducting interviews like a normal basketball operations staff would do with a vacancy to fill. Only, all along we assumed Flip would hire himself, which is of course what happened. Flip is no dummy, and he’s not a bad coach. But his bread-and-butter philosophies seem outdated. At this point, we’re hoping that his expertise and dedication will be mostly geared toward the individual development of young players — especially Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Over time, he’ll either hire a credible, progressive assistant coach whose input is welcomed to help with strategy (read: develop schemes to create open three-point shots and dunks, instead of spending real energy to free up 17-foot jumpers) or just retire from that job and hire a new coach from his GM perch.
But that’s far from a given and gives reason for concern.
Also, the basketball has been atrocious.
Currently the Wolves are 5-26, on pace to win just 13 games. They have lost 10 straight.
Ricky Rubio got hurt in just the season’s fifth game and the team is left with zero capable point guards. Nikola Pekovic got hurt too, leaving the team with zero capable centers. (Gorgui Dieng is good at some things and might have a bright future, but has been physically overwhelmed in the starting center role.) Oh, Kevin Martin got hurt too. And Thad Young, acquired at the expense of a first-round pick in the Love deal, has been a disappointment.
Believe it or not, it turns out that playing without a viable point guard, without a viable center, and without any wing players who can create offense for others off the dribble, is a very difficult thing to do. It’d be like an NFL team playing with a 200-pound wide receiver subbed in a left tackle to protect its quarterback’s blindside. Things that used to be available (pick-and-rolls for the Wolves, passes longer than 5 yards for the hypothetical football team) are removed from the playbook altogether. Winning is nearly impossible.
It’s also difficult to watch. The Wolves offense has relegated to multi-step plays just to feed the post for a difficult isolation play. Again, the hope is that the players posting up (Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad) are improving with these game reps. There is some evidence of that, which is good to see.
But anyway, that’s some of the year’s big events in a nutshell, as I see them.
What did I leave out?
Patrick J: The biggest event to date is the emergence of Shabazz Muhammad. The reason Shabazz is the biggest story is because (1) hardly anyone one saw it coming, and (2) Shabazz has been by far the Wolves’ best player this season. It’s only Bazz’s second season in the League. Youth is still on his side. This makes his emergence even better–the Wolves are building around youth. Flip Saunders acquired a bunch of young assets in Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett, and Gorgui Dieng [Eds. Note: Sort of–Gorgui is 25.]
Trading the #9 draft pick for the right to pick Muhammad at #13 plus the pick that turned in Gorgui was almost universally reviled by Wolves fans–especially analytics-informed ones. Shabazz was supposed to have no NBA talent based on his performance at UCLA. To make matters worse, he was supposed to arrive with hefty amounts of baggage and a poor attitude.
What we’ve seen is the exact opposite of these pessimistic predictions. Last season, Rick Adelman did not give Shabazz much playing time. But in the minutes he played, we got a small taste of what he could do. (Eds. Note: It included playing with more energy than his opponents and a knack for scoring.)
Nonetheless, there were lingering concerns that Shabazz was a tweener and didn’t have the athleticism and explosiveness to hold his own at an NBA position.
So, over the summer, Bazz worked out with private trainer Frank Matrisciano, whose difficult workouts have been used in the training of America’s most elite Special Operations Forces, the Navy SEALs. Shabazz emerged leaner, stronger, and even better at playing with energy and scoring than before.
This season, Shabazz leads the NBA in points-per-touch, has a PER of over 20, and appears able to competently play the underappreciated role of go-to scorer. He’s the only Timberwolf who, on any given possession, I’m confident can create or execute an offensive move or play that will result in a basket. That’s a nice skill to have, in addition to his intangible hustle and eagerness to expand his game and learn new techniques to improve his weaknesses.
Shabazz wants to be a star AND a complete player. Before this season, most doubted he could be either. Now, most are at least willing to entertain the notion that he could be both.
That’s the Timberwolves story of the year for Patrick J. (And it isn’t even close.)
Andy G: Let’s talk about fresh issues. Ricky Rubio is (finally) going to return soon; hopefully within two weeks. His ankle sprain has left him out of the lineup for a pretty ridiculous length of time (It’ll end up being a 2 months-plus recovery) and the team has obviously not fared well without him.
There are two clear silver linings to his extended absence:
- First, Flip Saunders had no choice but to go FULL REBUILD. (Well, technically that didn’t happen. Full Rebuild would’ve also meant subbing Anthony Bennett in for Thaddeus Young, but I digress.) Shabazz earned way more playing time for reasons you laid out and Andrew Wiggins is being challenged by the staff to dominate games offensively. Zach LaVine has played 705 minutes this year and shown some signs of potential and improvement. Without Rubio’s injury that would not have happened. I think those are good things.
- Second is the uglier reality: By losing so damn many games the Wolves are inevitably going to draft in the top half of the next lottery, and they should have a decent chance of picking in the top three. Prize recruits like Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns would look nice in the young nucleus forming around the skillsets of Bazz, Wiggins and — soon — Rubio.
When Ricky comes back, what sorts of specific things will you be looking for, aside from the general hope that the team just plays better?
Patrick J: We’ve gotten a big enough sample of non-Ricky games to have an idea of what our team looks like without–and what individual players look like, what capabilities they have and don’t have, etc. So when Ricky comes back, I really want to see how his unique offensive and defensive skills do (or don’t) make guys like Wiggins, Muhammad, and Bennett better. For me, a big question is whether Anthony Bennett is really a bust, as some contend, or if he’s a young player playing in a system that is really unflattering to where he is right now as a player. Rubio helps to fix that system. So when he comes back, I feel like we’ll get a lot clearer picture about whether we should hold out hope for Anthony Bennett as a future upper-level offensive PF in the League. Things look bleak right now, but without much else to look forward to this season apart from ping pong balls, watching Bennett’s progress in Rubio’s offensive laboratory versus what we’re seeing now will be fun.
Andy G: That is a good one. Bennett and Thad Young have both looked really bad without Rubio around to set things up.
I’m just as interested to monitor his effect on defense. The Wolves have been totally abysmal on D this year. Their d-rating of 109.9 points allowed per 100 possessions is 29th in the league; only ahead of the Lakers.
In the 144 minutes that Ricky Rubio was on the floor, that number drops to 98.7. That’s defending like a top-three defense in the entire league. While I don’t think Rubio’s return will mark a drastic change like “worst to first,” it should at least show us the extent to which the defensive struggles are due to scheme or personnel; Mo Williams and LaVine have not looked good on defense and it’s possible that lineups featuring Rubio, Wiggins and Dieng will do quite well on that end of the floor.
How about a couple of 2015 predictions before we sign off? One NBA and one Timberwolves. I’ll start.
NBA: One (and only one) of David Blatt, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James will no longer be with that organization by the end of next summer. The order I listed is in decreasing likelihood of which will be gone.
Wolves: They use their lottery pick on a player at least 6’11” tall. That’s not exactly a bold prediction since the projected high-lotto is filled with bigs and the Wolves are likely to target a big man, but it will send something of a message about how the team feels about Pekovic’s health, Gorgui’s true viability as a center, and Bennett and Thad’s futures in Minnesota, if they go big in the draft. I’m hoping like most are that it’s Okafor, but there are others in the mix that might be great, too.
What do you got?
Patrick J: For the NBA, it’s that the Cavs still make the Finals. Yes, they’re sputtering. But LeBron, Love, Kyrie is still the best Big Three in the League and usually that gets you where you want to be. For the Wolves, it’s that Mo Williams’ tenure as a T-Wolf is almost over. Mo’s body can’t handle many more minutes, and I think he ends up sitting the rest of the season after aggravating one of his many lingering injuries. Hopefully Ricky is back by then.