The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the (gratuitous) Interesting

I haven’t been doing game wraps this season because, ever since Rubio, Pekovic and Martin went down, the game outcomes took on very little meaning. Very shortly after Ricky’s injury was that horrific weekend on the road where the Wolves lost by (a franchise record) 48 points at New Orleans and then allowed a layup line the next night at Dallas. They won at home against the Knicks — who we now know to be the very worst team in basketball — and then lost by 29, 12, and 17, in the next three games, all at Target Center.

The season changed from an intriguing question mark to a definitive rebuild.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have observations and I don’t mean to let losing get in the way of posting.

With that introduction, here’s an updated scrap of things I’ve been thinking over the past few games. We’ll do this Good, Bad, and Ugly style, but for sake of manufactured balance, I’ll throw in an “Interesting” to close things off.

The Good: If you squint just the right amount, you can kinda see a young core of players beginning to bloom.

Shortly before Christmas I wrote a piece that called for more playing time (together) for the trio of Shabazz Muhammad, Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng. The way I saw it, those three — along with currently-injured Ricky Rubio — are the most likely to be here for the long haul and they should be working together to develop chemistry and improve as a single unit.

Since writing that, all three have played more together, and the results have been pretty good, all things considered.

Over the last 7 games (everything since the game at Cleveland on 12/23) that trio has played 21.3 minutes per game together. In that timeframe they each have posted the following per-game stats:

* Points (followed by FG%)
Shabazz – 16.1 (43.6)
Wiggins – 21.0 (50.0)
Gorgui – 13.9 (51.5)

* Rebounds
Shabazz – 5.3
Wiggins – 4.7
Gorgui – 9.1

* Assists
Shabazz – 1.6
Wiggins – 2.1
Gorgui – 2.1

Gorgui has also averaged 2.7 blocks per game over this stretch.

Those aren’t eye-popping numbers — especially when you consider that Shabazz’s production has probably dipped a little bit compared to how he began the season — but it’s a sign of consistency from very inexperienced players. Each has weaknesses to improve on (Shabazz’s overall defensive awareness and passing, Wiggins’ ball-handling and creation of plays for teammates, Gorgui’s interior man-to-man defense) but the fact is that they are playing well of late and this is important, going forward.

The Wolves need a superstar to emerge from this current roster. The most likely candidate is Wiggins. But if they could get one A1 star and a couple of Robins to that Batman, even better. It will take a while, but flashes should come relatively early and that is exactly what we have seen of late.

The Bad: The environment — at least of what we see during games — does not seem conducive to player development.

Without Ricky Rubio, the Wolves are simply not capable of running a normal NBA offense. Whether by tanking-contingency design, neglect, or what, they only have one guard on the roster capable of breaking down defenses and setting up efficient shots for his team.

And that guard has been hurt for the past 28.5 games.

Before this season I envisioned Andrew Wiggins learning the game from the outside in, receiving countless kick-outs for open threes, and doing his best to blend in a few backdoor cuts or transition dunks.

Instead, the team has spent a crazily-unexpected number of possessions force-feeding Wiggins in the post and all but demanding that he make a play.

By itself, there is probably some benefit there. He’s learning how to operate out of the post, which I’ve already written is a sneaky upside of his, potentially reminiscent of Melo – in a best case scenario. But he’s also not (nearly) ready for that type of isolation role and there are times when it seems more harmful than beneficial. If nothing else, he’s practicing an outdated brand of basketball; one that has less to do with team concepts and motion, and more to do with individual matchups that worked better when Illegal Defense was still a rule.

It isn’t just Wiggins and the offense either. The team defends so unbelievably poorly (dead last in the league as of this writing) that I cannot escape the feeling that some of it is a coaching problem. This could be totally wrong, and I’m hoping to see significant improvement after Rubio comes back. But if the players are defending at a league-worst level because the principles being imparted to them are faulty, well — at best, they’re wasting valuable development time. At worst, they’re learning habits that might not be easily unlearned.

I really don’t know if this “ass-kicking after ass-kicking” experience is helpful or harmful. It’s probably a mix of both. But it’s hard to watch the last six weeks of basketball and feel encouraged.

The Ugly: Zach LaVine and Anthony Bennett should not be playing in the NBA right now.

Playing time is okay for LaVine in some respects. He’s not ready for the NBA, and the on/off numbers make that quite clear when compared to the decidedly-mediocre alternative, Mo Williams. (When Mo plays, the Wolves lose by 7.6 points per 100 possessions. That’s really bad, but not unbelievably so. When LaVine takes the floor it leaps to 18.2, which is just incredible.) But the way that LaVine plays on offense right now — generally careful to dribble away from trouble and make safe passes — probably doesn’t cause him damaging discouragement and if nothing else he’s gaining five-on-five reps that he didn’t even get enough of in his lone NCAA season.

With Bennett, I really wish he were practicing more behind the scenes, or playing at a lower level. He has obvious skills, but his floor game is just not ready. The only things that I think he’s doing sort of well are on defense (individual post D is surprisingly decent, and he’s adept at tipping passes, creating loose-ball opportunities) but his upside is not on that end of the court. On offense, he looks completely lost.

There are quite a few, and a growing number of examples of talented young players who completely removed themselves from the NBA only to resurface later with a mature game. Gerald Green is the obvious Minnesota example. My guess is that AB will go more the way of Derrick Williams and Wes Johnson, floating contract to contract without ever having a “look myself in the mirror” season of true growth.

If he instead went to the D-League for a full season, or a European tour for 2 or 3, my guess is that he’d end up playing a career he’d be much prouder of. (And earn a lot more money.)

The Interesting: Ricky Rubio!

The Wolves were pretty good in the snippet of season that Rubio played. Will that continue when he returns (which should be soon)? Will it require Kevin Martin and Pek to return, too? If so, who gets bumped from the rotation? (Probably Bennett and LaVine, like my “Ugly” called for.)

They’re 5-28 right now. Their next three games are home against the Suns, at Milwaukee, and then home against the Spurs. We could steal one of those three, but given recent trends (like the 12-game losing streak) let’s assume they drop all three and fall to 5-31, and then Rubio comes back.

They’d have 46 games left. Could they go 15-31 and reach the 20-win mark?

To me, that’d be a nice sign of progress from this dreadful start, and also give them a solid crack at a Top 3 or 4 pick in what figures to be a big-man heavy draft lottery.

Anyway, for now we’ll have to do our best to focus on that emerging core trio, and wait ever-patiently for Ricky’s Return.

Suns at Target Center tomorrow night. Late tip-off, at 8:30 CST. Until then.

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