The Midterm Report: Team Superlatives

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In a close race of unexpected candidates, Andrew Wiggins is the season’s first-half MVP.

We’ve hit the season’s halfway mark, so it’s time for a Timberwolves mid-term report. At the quarter mark, I did letter grades for players. For mid-terms, I thought I’d change it up and instead do this with superlatives. Some are good, some are bad, and some are just observations with no serious bearing on wins, losses, or potential.

Here goes…

Most Disappointing: The Power Forwards

Thaddeus Young was acquired in a trade in which the Wolves sent a future first round pick (Miami’s) to the 76ers. The idea was that he would be a quality veteran forward who — along with Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, and Nikola Pekovic — would help the new young players develop in the context of a competitive environment.

In theory, it made some sense, even if it was criticized by more than a few writers at the time the trade went down.

It has not worked out. Thad is playing some of the worst basketball of his career. His field goal percentage is a career low, at just 43.5 percent. He makes just 60 percent of free throw attempts, and pulls down a measly 5.5 rebounds per 36 minutes (4.8 per game). His PER is the second worst of his career, at a below-average 14.2 and his win shares per 48 minutes are at 0.020, which is way below league averages.  He’s often out of position on defense, he’s undersized at power forward but doesn’t shoot well enough from the perimeter to play the small forward effectively, and his decision making with the ball leaves a lot to be desired.

It has not worked out.

Making matters worse is that his backup, Anthony Bennett, has done little to nothing to challenge Young for minutes. Bennett, the top pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, makes too many mistakes to deserve floor time right now. He plays out of necessity and perhaps in the interest of his own development as a potentially-good player, down the road. Bennett shoots a lot of long two-point jumpers, he shows jitters when he tries to do anything off the dribble, he sometimes looks out of shape (though this aspect is much improved from his rookie year in Cleveland) and he has been generally ineffective far more often than not.

Bennett has the excuse of inexperience, having played only one college season and being injured and deconditioned for most of his rookie year, surrounded by dysfunction in Cleveland. Sam Mitchell and others have characterized this as his real rookie year. That’s fair, but it is discouraging to see such a disconnect between ability and execution. He has a beautiful jump shot, a bulky-in-a-good-way forward’s body, and shows flashes of supreme athleticism. Yet he usually plays poorly. I think he’s worth a significant, long-term investment but I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t without risk. He might never “get it.” But in the NBA and much of the modern pro sports world, impatience trumps wisdom and the long view and big picture take a back seat.

Perhaps this is one area where Flip Saunders’ GM-Coach combo status can pay off. He doesn’t really answer to anybody but himself, so if he wants to be patient, he can be patient. That doesn’t mean he likes Bennett (I don’t know, and can’t really tell if he does) but it might at least give him some flexibility that less-secure coaches would not feel like they have.  We’ll see.

In any event, the power forwards have been disappointing. In some ways, I think Robbie Hummel is their best option at the four, which — while I like Hummel more than most — is a damning statement about the other two.

Most Pleasant Surprise: Shabazz Muhammad’s Emergence

Patrick and I have probably been higher on ‘Bazz than most since he was drafted but neither of us would be telling the truth if we said we saw this coming. Muhammad is hurt right now — out with a hip or oblique injury — but when healthy (35 games played) he’s been a pretty awesome scorer. It took Flip a while to trust Shabazz — maybe he was surprised, too — so his playing time is limited right now to just 23 minutes per game. In that time he’s put up 13.7 points on 49 percent field goal shooting, including 41 percent from downtown and a steady supply of aggressive dunks that buck the outdated/alarming trend of mid-range jumpers on this team.

Shabazz knows how to score. It’s that simple. It’s what he likes doing and what he does best. When he comes off a pick and catches a pass, his eyes are either on the rim for a potential shot, or on a lane to shoot as if out of a cannon, to the rim. In the post, he establishes position with physicality and continues to show deft touch on that lefty hook shot. He’s not yet a good passer, but he’s a better one that he was in college or as an NBA rookie. He’s improving. He’s been the team’s most pleasant surprise and we all hope he gets healthy soon.

Most Valuable Player: Andrew Wiggins

Before the season we would’ve expected the team MVP to be one of the veterans: Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Thaddeus Young, or maybe even Kevin Martin.

Rubio, Pek, and Martin have played a combined 24 games out of a possible 123, removing each from contention for this fake award.

I already discussed how Young has been a disappointment, so that takes him out, too.

That leaves the young guys: Andrew Wiggins, Muhammad, and Gorgui Dieng.

Shabazz is the best scorer of the three, but also the worst defender and passer. He’s an aggressive rebounder whose style is conducive to success regardless of opponent quality. As one example, Shabazz dominated the fourth quarter of an early-season game at Memphis, where just about everyone in the NBA struggles to get baskets.

Gorgui has been the most consistent of the three, and puts up the best across-the-board stats. In slightly less than 30 minutes per game, he’s posting per-game averages of 9.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.0 steals. Gorgui’s biggest problem, to my eye, is that he is a little bit shorter, and a little bit leaner, than most opposing centers in NBA starting lineups. That relative lack of size and strength is magnified by Gorgui’s eagerness to shove back, up high with his upper body, when he’s backed down, rather than try taking charges, or try out crafty tricks like “pulling the chair” to discourage aggressive back-downs. His individual defense has been an issue in quite a few games, despite full effort. Flip Saunders seems to get frustrated by Gorgui’s position in help defense, suggesting that he might “over-help” sometimes. I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but the coach can presumably be trusted for issues like that.

Wiggins has come on of late, after early struggles in his rookie season. He’s the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year (largely because chief competitors like Jabari Parker are seriously injured) and becoming a consistent volume scorer before he even turns 20 years old. Sometimes Wiggins looks smooth and explosive on offense, and sometimes he looks a little bit awkward. That is to be expected. But his jumpshot form is really, really nice — off the catch, or dribble — and he seems to be learning how to score in different ways, including the efficient ones like dunks, three-pointers, and free throws.

It’s close between these three, but I’d lean toward Wiggins for the simple reason that he does not have a glaring weakness that hurts the team right now, the way Shabazz does (defense, court vision) and Gorgui does (inability to hold ground versus starting centers). Wiggins needs no help in defensive matchups, and he’s usually guarding the best opposing player. He isn’t a great offensive player yet, but he’s being heavily relied on for playmaking and doing a better job over time.

Right now, I think he’s Team MVP.

Least Valuable Player: Zach LaVine

This isn’t a surprise and it’s probably not fair either. Nobody expected a 19-year old rookie who did not start on his college team to be ready to perform in the NBA. In my season preview I predicted that LaVine would be what fans feel most pessimistic about when the season ends. My reasoning was as follows:

I truly think he’s in over his head right now, and that expectations were raised too high by the team’s aggressive PR campaign over the summer and early fall. Some of the more casual fans see that, and the youtube stuff, and expect a good player. And he might become one — just not for a couple of years. He’s like a DeAndre Jordan of guards, if you remember what type of prospect DJ was, and the time it took for him to cash in on his physical tools. So I think the disconnect between LaVine’s readiness as a player and fans’ expectations will naturally cause some disappointment.

In a lot of ways, I think that prediction has come true, though he has had some big highlights, like his 28-point outburst at Staples Center in a surprising win over the Lakers. LaVine has obvious talents that totally justify a serious investment for the next two years. He is tall for a guard, he has the basic framework of a dribble-slashing game and has a decent shooting form; though I like his dribble jumper form more than his catch-and-shoot technique, and his upside on this team is at the 2.

LaVine just doesn’t know how to play team basketball very effectively yet.

On defense, his feet move just fine; left one on one, he can stay in front of people. But he doesn’t read or anticipate well, and he plays a part in a lot of breakdowns. While this number is not entirely his fault, he has the team’s worst defensive rating (points allowed while on the floor, per 100 possession) with an astoundingly-bad 114.6.

On offense, LaVine has been mostly playing point guard despite the fact that he doesn’t have, at his tall height, a tight-enough handle to create offense for others when facing off against a solid defender or ball thief. When LaVine is running the point, the Timberwolves get into their offense very slowly, if at all. He ends up turning his back to the hoop, ala Magic Johnson, but without any of Magic’s skills to take advantage of his height. For LaVine, his height seems like more of a burden than a luxury, in many ways. LaVine takes WAY too many long two-point jumpers off the dribble. I joke with others on press row that every time I groan at a LaVine jumper, it seems to go in the hoop. He does make a solid percentage of his bad shots, for whatever that’s worth. But it would be encouraging to see him shoot more from behind the three line, and work hard on his dribbling so that he can blow by his defender and capitalize on his best-in-the-league jumping ability by flying to the rim for dunks, or at least foul draws.

LaVine shouldn’t be eligible for a “least valuable” award, but injuries have mandated his unexpected 892 minutes of playing time. He’s been on the floor and he hasn’t been good.

Most Worrisome Development: Ricky Rubio’s Ankle

Ricky Rubio sprained his ankle on November 7th. It’s now January 22nd, and he’s not yet back in the lineup.

It’s been natural to wonder what, exactly, in the hell, is going on. Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune wrote about this and even called Rubio’s character into question. (“He’s been out for months with a sprained ankle. He does not appear close to returning. It’s time for the young man to act like he cares about playing basketball.”) Personally, I have had my own theories about why his absence has been extended, but none involved Rubio being a malingerer.

I’ve thought that the Wolves were more concerned with Rubio’s shooting training with new specialist-coach Mike Penberthy than they were with wins and losses and they thought playing him at 85 or 90 percent would jeopardize that approach and hinder long-term objectives. I’ve thought that they saw the Pekovic and Martin injuries, realized playoffs were impossible, and thought resting Rubio more than absolutely necessary would have the flip-side (no pun intended) benefit of a higher draft pick.

But Flip sounded off on the issue last night, and the news was worse than anticipated. According to Saunders, Rubio’s absence is not by his own decision-making but the organization’s because his ankle injury is far more serious than “just a sprain.” He says he damaged ligaments and muscles, he has something like a bone bruise, and playing would cause risk of a stress fracture.

Now, we don’t have to be the world’s biggest skeptics to note the timing of these remarks (immediately after Souhan blasted Rubio in the state’s biggest newspaper) and the dynamics involved (protecting the franchise player from the media). It is entirely possible that my original suspicions were largely correct and Flip is exaggerating. Let’s hope so. I can’t fault the team for thinking long-term, even if I want to pull my hair out when watching the Zach & Mo Point Guard Platter for multiple months and continuing.

But taking Flip at his word, Ricky’s injury is really serious and who knows, maybe will require a surgery. My real job deals with injuries and I’ve seen ankles originally thought to be sprains that — with different diagnostic tests — later showed instability and required surgery.

The good news for Rubio’s condition (and my reason for some continued skepticism about Saunders’ remarks) is that he can be seen working before games with Penberthy, moving, catching, jumping, dribbling, and shooting. He looks fine. That doesn’t mean he is healthy — they might be worried about lateral cutting, and things like that — but he’s hardly on crutches either.

Overall, and again — taking Saunders at his word — the Rubio news is cause for concern, and let’s hope he gets better without any permanent disability.

This post is getting long, so I’ll close with some quick hitters:

Weirdest Stat that Makes No Sense: Of high minutes-players, Mo Williams has the best defensive rating on the team. Mo doesn’t move his feet – ever – so this surprises me.

Most Apparent Void on Team: In Rubio’s absence, it’s been the total lack of players who can break down defenses off the dribble.

Smoothest Play that Happens: Andrew Wiggins’ spin move.

Best New Play Added by a Returning Player: Gorgui’s bank shot. It is auto-f’ing-matic.

Most Maddening Thing that Happens: The amount of time and effort it takes just to enter the ball into the post for what will likely be a difficult one-on-one play. Runner-Up: The team defense break-downs.

Thing I’d Most Like to See In Season’s Second Half: A stretch of games with Rubio, Wiggins, Muhammad, and Dieng playing extended minutes together. While there has been obvious development happening with the young players so far, Rubio is where the team’s identity begins and ends. Until he’s out there doing his thing, on both ends, we don’t really know what we have or what we should expect.

I hope his ankle is better than Flip lets on, and he’s back in the starting lineup within a couple of weeks.  It would be fun to see the Wolves win at a higher rate down the season’s homestretch (they’ll hardly lose draft position, given their starting point in the tank race) and build confidence for next year, when expectations will be much higher.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Midterm Report: Team Superlatives

  1. NoMoMo

    Nice piece. I can agree with a most of this, though I think you overstate Thad’s awfulness and understate the atrociousness that is Anthony Bennett on an NBA court.

    I could imagine that Bennett becomes the first no. 1 overall pick who, while healthy, fades out of the league after his rookie deal is up. He is that bad. He plays without passion, and his athleticism or skills are not enough to make up for his lack of effort. In addition he makes terrible decisions. If we can somehow get out his contract without giving up a first round pick, I’d do it immediately. Though I doubt there is a team willing to take the gamble on his ‘potential’ given the money he makes.

    The thing about Mo’s defensive rating is perhaps less puzzling than it seems at first sight: He is probably the player that logs the fewest minutes together with Zach LaVine, a.k.a. the one player on the Wolves who makes Bennett look outright competent out there, and by far the worst player in the NBA that plays considerable minutes.

    Sure, Zach’s in a much too large role, etc. pp., but according to that logic we should also take it easier on Thad. Now, Thad is not 19 anymore, but he was going through some rough shit in his personal life, and he is asked to do way more offensively than is good for him (especially all those long twos out of the pick and pop), and it is generally tough on bigs to be in good defensive position if their point-guards get stuck on literally EVERY SINGLE SCREEN that is being set against them.

    I’d try to trade Zach prior to the draft for a mid-to-late first rounder (provided that’d be possible), or to get out of Bud’s contract. The coming draft is very, very, deep, and I never liked Zach as a prospect. If we could get a pick for him with which we could draft a guy like Delon Wright, Jerian Grant, or perhaps even Frank Kaminsky, I’d do it in a heartbeat. His play does not really inspire much hope that he will ever be more than a flashy poor man’s Jamal Crawford or something like that. And that is just not a very useful player. Better to cut bait early and maybe get some value for him in return.

    • NoMoMo–

      You make some good points (though I obviously disagree with some of them) but you also misrepresent my piece, suggesting that I took it easy on Bennett’s play, this season.

      On Anthony Bennett, I wrote:

      “Bennett shoots a lot of long two-point jumpers, he shows jitters when he tries to do anything off the dribble, he sometimes looks out of shape (though this aspect is much improved from his rookie year in Cleveland) and he has been generally ineffective far more often than not.”

      In comparison to Thad Young, I said that Bennett has done very little to nothing to challenge him for minutes. Implicit, there, is that Thad has been the much better player.

      I might’ve been too hard on AB, with that comparison.

      Bennett rebounds MUCH better than Young, and they score with close to the exact same efficiency. Young gets more assists and Bennett gets fewer turnovers. Young defends better on perimeter, Bennett better in the post. Young’s excuse for relatively poor player is a serious personal tragedy but I have no way of knowing if that has affected his play, or not. With Bennett, his excuse — a lack of NBA experience — is unquestionably a real one. He has 1,348 minutes of career playing time. Andrew Wiggins has 1,356. Thaddeus Young has 16,659.

      It doesn’t mean Bennett will ever be good, but writing him off completely now is the sort of knee-jerk, small-picture impatience that I alluded to that is par for the course in modern American pro sports and what is to be expected. I’d be interested to see what happens if Flip goes a route rarely traveled and tries to develop talent with a bigger picture, longer-term outlook.

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  3. Forget this season. Flip wants “popcorn” (pop, pop passing), but without true point guards, we get holding the ball too long while guys are cutting and running “plays”. Andy and Pat, your assessments are interesting but not totally meaningful considering the point guard situation. Coaches Flip and Sid Lowe, both former points for the late Bill Musselman, surprise me –unless tanking is the agenda.

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